Last year was the year for chilling out in hammocks.
These hanging beds are the traditional remedy for a good night’s sleep in Mexico, especially in the Yucatan Peninsula, which we explored for over a month at the end of last year.
Every place we stayed, be it a hotel, guest house or someone’s spare bedroom or flat through AirBnB, there has been a hammock (or two) swinging from a hook in the bedroom.
We drove past truck drivers having a siesta in a hammock strung between the cab and the trailer, saw police officers at the endless checkpoints laying back with their rifles resting across their chests, and found out that the best hammocks in the region are weaved by the male prisoners of Valladolid’s jail!
The Yucatan is hot and the traditional and colonial houses are small, so hanging a hammock solves two big problems – their loose fibres let the cool night breeze lull you to sleep while saving you space as they can be rolled away every morning.
I’ve come to love them – yet every time I slipped into the very generous proportions of a Mexican hammock I had a momentary shudder as I remember the worst hammock ever – one I was promised by every guidebook in the land would be utterly amazing…
…the hammocks of Tayrona, Colombia’s jewel of a national park on the sultry Caribbean coast.
The natural beauty of Tayrona National Park in Colombia
Imagine this – white sandy beaches, green jungle and piercing mountains all inside an unspoiled biosphere where the only way in is to hike a jungle path or hire a horse. And waiting for you at the end is a hammock strung up a primitive campsite beside the ocean where you can go to sleep with the roar of waves as your lullaby.
Sound good? Wait till you try the hammock!
Carmen, our travel buddy Kristin and I caught a four hour long bus ride from Cartagena to the port city of Santa Marta, the gateway to the Tayrona National Park and the place where the South American hero Simon Bolivar died.
We spent the night there eating seafood, drinking beer and fiddling with the thermostat on the clapped our air conditioner in our hotel room.
The next morning, we yomped into town and tried to find a bus that would take us to the park. Unfortunately, we got utterly lost in the markets and spent a good hour taking every wrong turn through fruit stands, vegetable selling scrums and meat sections that looked like ’80s heavy metal album covers.
Getting to Tayrona National Park
Finally, we made our way back to where we had started – the corner of Calle 11 and 11 – and found a bus that would take us to Tayrona for 6k Colombian pesos – around US$3 each – for a one-hour trip.
The outskirts of Santa Marta are incredibly dry and dusty. There has been a drought in the north of Colombia for a long time and its effects have been a source of ongoing tension between the government and the people.
But the further we got from civilisation the greener the landscape became but it was still a long way from lush.
The clapped out old bus dropped us off at the entrance to Tayrona, where as foreigners, we were charged 38k each for entrance – about US$18. We then paid an additional 2k per person – US$0.95c – for a five-minute bus ride to the trail head.
There, you can hire a horse to haul you in for 32k each – around US$15 – or just take the free coastal path. We were a bit short on Colombian pesos so we decided to save our cash for beer and wine at the beach and took the path.
The trail is well marked and maintained and has regular signage giving local information and maps. The estimated time for the hike to the end beach is between thee and four hours.
Tips for visiting Tayrona National Park:
Now, a quick aside before we go deeper into the jungle. When we were in Tayrona, August, it was bloody hot. Really hot.
Skin crawlingly hot.
We each carried two litres of water so we wouldn’t get dehydrated. But that was just for the walk. The only water available to drink in Tayrona is that which you bring with you, or that you buy at a higher price than usual at the camp sites.
We decided to bring as much water as we could comfortably carry on the hike and just pay the premium to get more when we needed it.
And when we say premium, think like an extra dollar or two, nothing too onerous, but if you’re on a budget it might be worth the pain to haul a big bottle in. Or three.
The hike is fantastic.
Check out a video I shot on the trail:
Sights to see in Tayrona National Park
There are long, winding sections through the jungle, dry and arid bits up boulder-strewn hills and then down again into shallow valleys with dense groves of ferns and trees. You might even be lucky to see some capuchin monkeys playing around in the treetops.
The heat below the still canopy gets very oppressive but your spirits will soar when you hear the rushing, churning roar of the ocean on the unseen horizon.
It’s like something from the Jurassic period; crashing seas, mighty boulders and palm trees all watched over by Frigate birds that look like pterodactyls.
There are loads of spots to choose to camp the night at but we had heard about a really great place right at the end of the walking track. There we were told you could rent hammocks strung up next to the beach, the very idea of paradise itself. So we kept on hiking through the heat to get to this promised land.
Half an hour of trekking later we find the campsite – it’s sparse and simple with a large lawn covered in tents either hauled in by intrepid travellers or rented from the local owners. There’s a basic shower and toilet block, a locker room for your stuff and a bar/restaurant/shop that sells cheap food and expensive beer and wine.
A local fellow leads us to where we will spend the night and our hearts sink faster than the stock market in 2008.
‘Is this it?’ I say, inspecting the grubby hammocks that are being reserved for us. ‘I’m six feet tall. This one looks like a child would struggle to fit!’
Our hammocks are small, look as though they have never been washed in their likely fifty years of service, and are strung so close together later that night I will accidentally rub Kristin’s leg thinking it’s Carmen!
There’s only one thing to do. Go to the beach and drink.
So we do, and it’s bliss.
We are right on a beautiful double bay split by a spit of land that has a really cool looking cabin at its peak. Inside this place are the lucky few who got in early and get to spend the night in hammocks over the ocean.
I’m struck by jealously, but in a few hours that will fade!
We watch the sun set over the mountains by the sea and the golden light plays on the churning ocean.
These are perfect moments, ones I can still feel; the rough sand between my toes, the roar of the sea, the smell of the seaweed and the fading warmth of the day.
Once the sun goes down though, there’s not much else to do but eat dinner, have a few beers and go to bed, er, I mean, go to our hammocks.
We’re dreading it, but we’re all so knackered from our arduous mad dogs and Englishmen hike that even a filthy, tiny hammock looks like a feather bed.
In we go, and the ordeal begins.
I can’t get comfortable. My neck falls out. My legs go to sleep because they’re up higher than a bride’s nightie.
I follow the local advice and spread myself out diagonally but that’s no good either. Eventually fatigue sets in and I’m almost asleep when two men saunter in the hut and lie down in the two hammocks right next to me. I’m almost spooning one of them!
They’re two blokes that work at the camp, and they think it’s a good idea to talk at the top of their lungs on their lighthouse bright smart phones at midnight.
Murder crosses my mind, doubles back, brings some moody friends and throws a dinner party serving witches brew. Luckily for them (or so I tell myself) they get up after about ten minutes and nick a nearby tent. Good riddance.
Silence falls. Unfortunately. We can hear scurrying. Little feet. Talons? Paws? Nails? Whatever it is, the pitter-patter of mysterious animals keeps us up till the wee hours when I manage to doze off for a while.
Not before long morning breaks, and so do we. My body feels as crooked as a question mark and the girls say they didn’t sleep a wink. The romance of sleeping in a hammock by the ocean has been thoroughly discredited for all of us.
One last dip in the ocean
We go down to the beach and dive into the waves to wash away the exhausting night and as we frolic in the water I look up at the glamorous cabin on the spit of land where the lucky few got the best hammock spots.
But I see something that restores me a little more; a whole load of shuffling, aching, bleary-eyed travellers getting out of their hammocks, coughing and cursing and bitching just the same as we did.
Then I turn and face the churning waves on the sun of the Caribbean Sea and feel the bright sun on my face.
Who cares how we slept. We’re here.
Have you ever been to Tayrona National Park? What did you think of the experience?
Dave voiceover: There are two ways to get around in Colombia’s Tayrona National Park – on a horse – or your own two feet.
The big attraction in the park is the hiking trail which takes you through a long strip of monkey-filled jungle and then along the wave battered coast where you can camp for the night.
Tayrona is in one of Colombia’s hottest and driest regions and the going can get very tough on the hike – though the path itself is very well maintained there are some steep and challenging sections.
The walk took us around three hours – make sure you bring plenty of water.
By the time we reached the coastline we were knackered and when we reached the final campsite on the trail we were greeted with this majestic bay – perfect for swimming and relaxing.
The lucky few who get in early get to sleep in this seaside hut – but we were content just to be there and soak in Colombia’s abundant natural beauty.