There were a few signs posted around Arrecife beach:
“No swimming here: over 100 have drowned” in Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, German and Hebrew (lots of Israelis come here.)
“Do not enter the lagoon, there are caimans present.” (A caiman is either the Spanish word for alligator or crocodile, or a unique species that looks like an alligator or crocodile. It just crossed my mind: are the Cayman Islands of banking notoriety named after caimans?)
There’s a freshwater lagoon at the behind the sandy strip of the beach, parallel to the sea. The first afternoon we were there, we saw birds around the lagoon, and pack horses hanging out there for happy hour, after a hard day’s work lugging all those 1.5 liters of bottled water, and sacks of oranges. I peered at the edge of the lagoon, hoping to spot pairs of beady eyes on the water’s surface. No luck. “Maybe they don’t exist here, after all those horses are quite nonchalant,” I thought.
The next afternoon, as we were walking back from La Piscina beach (two beaches away) we saw a caiman parked right where the waves washed onshore. It was quite alive. “Look, look” I said to Joe excitedly. There were a few other people around looking at it, including a guy in a park-employee uniform. He told us there were 4 caimans living in the lagoon, 2 of which were about the length of his arm, and one bigger than this one. They ate fish, birds, but not horses. Although he did warn people to move further away, when they got too close in trying to take pictures.
I was quite thrilled to see a caiman in the wild, in its habitat, especially since I hadn’t expected to see one. (That made my hammock fee worthwhile!) (Unlike Danbury, northern Queensland, when I had hoped to see cassowary, but didn’t. Especially when there are signs all over the roads warning you to drive slower, to avoid hitting them, I was disappointed not to spot any!)
This caiman mostly stayed in place, and opened and closed its jaw a few times slowly as if it was yawning. Then when the waves become more jaccuzi-frothy, the caiman would lift its head as if savoring itself in a spa treatment. (It kind of reminded me of elephants in Thailand when they hose themselves with water from their trunks, spraying water all over themselves when they’re playing/cooling off in water. Who knew a caiman would enjoy the same type of playfulness, even if it didn’t need a salt-scrub?
When you think of beaches, the fauna is not really the first thing that comes to mind. But there’s lots of them at Tayrona, which could be a good or a bad thing. For the most part, I find them interesting to spot. In order of least to most icky/creepy:
Sea turtles: I saw three of them, while snorkeling off La Piscina beach. Again, it was a pleasant, unexpected encounter. Unfortunately, when I swam back to take Joe to see them, I couldn’t find them again. (Later I noticed the signs that said please don’t throw plastic bags as litter, as turtles will eat them and die of indigestion. At the park entrance, sometimes they will search you and confiscate the plastic bags you bring with you, apparently. In most places, sea turtles are endangered species.)
Fish: The snorkeling at La Piscina isn’t anything worth writing home about. There’s not really any coral. The seabed is sandy, or has patches of sea lawn, of short seaweed, almost like they’ve been mowed which is nice, because longer seaweeds like kelp or even algae can be a little intimidating: who knows what lurks within their heights/depths. But there’s also not that many types of fish. I spotted 3 types. One was the size of a sardine, but with a needle nose in black with bright blue and yellow. The other was like a small flounder, but folded over like an upside-down hard shell taco with white-spotted on black/brown. The fins ran alongside its bottom part, rather like a street-sweeper truck.
Crabs: There’s two types of crabs, each exemplifying the adaptation of species, I guess. The sand crabs were the same color as their home environment of the beach sand (duh!), but distinguished by grape-seed/pip black eyes on the top of their head, which gave them an expression of perpetual startled alertness. The front claws are white tough, with the right claw bigger than the left. While we were lying on the beach, a black raven(?) spotted a crab and was circling it for an afternoon snack. The crab darted here and there, and into the overhang of my backpack, additionally walled off by the fortification of my Nalgene bottle on the sand. The raven took off. This was more entertaining than Oprah on afternoon TV.
The other crabs are reddish black, with white speckles. They live in the rocks of the tidal shore, in the nooks and crannies, closer to the plant vegetation/mud. (These gave me another reminder of northern Queensland, where we saw tons of reddish crabs in the mangroves.)
Butterflies: In the jungle portion of the park, there’s a large (size of my palm) butterfly (or moth) that’s got black/brown wings on its underside, so that when it’s resting, and the wings are up, it looks rather dull. But then when they fly off, there’s flashes of a brilliant blue fluttering around and they’re beautiful. There’s other smaller colorful ones too.
Birds: Large seabirds with big beaks and wings (pelicans), would fly in small flocks of single file line just over the surface of the water, as if skimming the surface in a tease. Sometimes, they’d disappear behind a tall row of a wave, and you’d think they’d be drenched by the water, but of course they’re savvier than that. Still I would watch, in faint hope of seeing one get soaked, a bit like rubber necking for a potential car crash.
Lizards: Growing up in Thailand, I’ve gotten used to lizards on walls, and lizards in general. Most Californians out there are freaked out by them (hello Joe, Terence and April). [ The last time we saw lizards was in Arches National Park (Utah), where there are brown/black variations with patterns, to camouflage with the dry/desert/rock environment, that was less than a month ago, believe it or not.]
As we were hiking through the Tayrona jungle/forest to get to the beach (more on that later), you’d frequently hear the rustling of leaves on ground either side of the trail. It seemed rather loud, as if it could have been caused by a large rodent, but the volume was amplified by the dryness of the leaves. They were actually lizards, in various sporty shades and patterns of fluorescent blue and green. They looked like racing cars, darting around sleekly. Adidas and Nike could make some running shoes based on those color schemes! There were also some pedestrian brown/black lizards, wallflowers in comparison!
Algae/seaweed: So this is not an animal, but I couldn’t resist thinking that not even Donald Trump has a toupee as splendid as this.
Insects: Leaf cutter ants. There were trails of them scurrying around carrying bits of leaves. They must be quite picky, since they would carry them a long way. There were so many trees around; couldn’ t they have used leaves closer to their home? Maybe it’s like picking raspberries, there’s a sweet spot of a ripeness, without being overly ripe.
The C battery with wings: There was a BIG bug, black/brown. This would provoke an ‘ugh’ reaction from all of us. It was just my luck that I went to switch off the light for the hammock area for lights-out sleeping time, and right next to the switch was (a) a small lizard with a moth clenched in its jaws AND (b) one of those C battery bugs with wings. For this, I should have been awarded a medal of valor in the face of squeamishness. Or a winning lottery ticket.
Innumerable stars . . . and mosquito bites
Because there wasn’t much to do after dinner, Joe and I went and sat on Arrecife beach for a bit. Since we were so far removed from urbanization and night lights, the stars were liberally sprinkled in the sky. I craned my neck up and tried to count them . . . “38, 39, 40 . . .” I gave up after that.
The next morning, after sleeping in hammocks over night for the first time ever, Joe was covered with mosquito bites. (They have a special affinity for him: poor him and lucky me!) Even though these hammocks had mosquito nets, they’re still touching you so that mosquitoes still have access to you. His kneecap must have been easiest pickings, as he counted “. . . 29, 30, 31 . . .” some of them had merged and become indistinguishable.
From here on out, maybe we’ll stick mostly to places that are higher altitude, cooler, with less mosquitoes.
Sleeping in hammocks
Hammocks are a common form of sleeps here in South America: lightweight, maximum circulation for cooling under you, and portable. Getting used to sleeping in them is another thing: harder if you’re side sleeper. Also a bit challenging if you are prone to motion sickness; I learned to lie very still. It wasn’t too uncomfortable, somehow the back and neck support was OK. It was the cheapest option where we were staying at Arrecife beach at Tayrona National Park. One could camp, but renting the equipment would have cost extra. The hammocks came with a mosquito net. They were quite pricey (27,500 pesos per person) since this was run by the park’s monopolistic concessionaire, but the bathrooms and showers were very clean and nice. (Next door was a smaller hammock/tent/juice bar place “El Paraiso”, where the price for hammocks was listed for 14,000 or 16,000 pesos, but the bathrooms probably weren’t as nice.) There were lockers in the hammock area (each with their own lock/key.) You didn’t need to bring your own padlock (we could have saved some weight from our backpacks!) The lockers are spacious, and require a 10,000 peso deposit. And even without internet/wifi access, there are banks of electric sockets by the bathrooms, so people could charge up their phones, cameras and other electronic devices that we are all tethered to.
The front desk staff was pretty lax about tracking hammock occupancy: there were quite a few mix ups, where you got a certain hammock assigned to you, only to find someone’s possessions in it . . .
The check-in area was pretty far from the hammock area; I would think that you could get away with staying a few nights without paying, and the management wouldn’t be any wiser. (Or even if you came in and used the showers and electric sockets, no one would know or care.)
I’m in no way condoning such potential acts; however things are relatively expensive in Tayrona Park, which travellers have complained about all over the internet: especially bottled water at 5,000 pesos for 1.5 liters, when the supermarkets in town sell them for less than 2,000 pesos. Tap water in the park is not potable. Part of it is justifiable: there isn’t road access to the beaches, so everything is brought in by horse (or humans). It’s rather like buying M&Ms at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They are transported by mule, which is built into the $2 price.
On the other hand, the concession has a monopoly so they can charge higher prices, since they have almost no competition. (The food is mediocre/slightly overpriced at any National Park in the US where the concessionaire is big corporation, like Xanterra or DNC. At Great Basin NP in Nevada, which gets almost no visitors, the concession was local-based, and the menu seemed decent.)
Again to be fair, the Tayrona Park concessionaire do provide decent service; the bathrooms were clean, and the restaurant food/service was very high standard, but expensive, compared to what you’d pay outside. It was not outrageous by American standards. So we were OK with it.
The beaches: before I got there, I was looking forward to this trip as a beach vacation. The beaches (we only went to a handful out of dozens!) at Tayrona were nice, but having been spoiled by having visited beaches in Hawaii, Thailand, Australia and even California, I wasn’t particularly impressed. If I had only a standard two-week vacation, I wouldn’t bother coming to Tayrona just for the beaches. But since we’re on a very long trip through South America, it was good to mix it up, and do some sultry beach time after Cartagena (on the coast, but not a beach) and Bogota (in the mountains, and rather cool.)
I’m writing this from a placid river town called Mompos (Mompox). And since the midday bake is yielding to the afternoon cooling, it is time to give my eyes a break, stop hogging the netbook, and go search for a jugo naturales (fresh fruit juice.)