The time had come to leave Thailand and while it was sad to leave this beautiful friendly country, it was time to move onto another. This time, Malaysia!
I had decided to take the real traveller option and head south via an overnight train. The flights weren't much more expensive but I had time to kill and it would be interesting to see more of the country by rail. I'd done a couple of overnight trains before so I knew what to expect and after the awful buses in Nepal, it would seem like luxury!
My train was to leave at 3:30pm and not get into Padar Besar until 9:30am the next morning! I found my train compartment and dragged my huge backpack through the tiny aisle. There was a large Malay family sitting right where my seat was but after some confusion I realised only three of the ten people were actually catching the train, the rest were just there to say goodbye. Thankfully the rest of the train wasn't that busy so I actually had plenty of space to spread about my (many) belongings!
The train slowly made its way out of Bangkok, stopping at smaller stations along the way. Hawkers came on at every stop with baskets of snacks and drinks. As I watched the countryside whizz by, I decided that I quite liked train travel. It was nice to not have to deal with the busy Thai traffic! As the sun began to set, the stewards came through the cabin changing our seats into beds and I realised I'd made the rookie error of choosing a top bunk. Thinking I was being clever by choosing the higher bunk, I was rudely mistaken as the bottom bunk was not only wider but completely blocked out the light. My narrow top bunk had a sliver of bright light shining through the curtain which ended up staying on all night. I managed to block out most of the light but next time I'll know to choose the more spacious bottom bunk! I didn't fall asleep until around midnight but it was definitely less interrupted than sleeping on an overnight bus!
Before I knew it, the night had come and gone and we were at the border in Padar Besar by mid-morning. A quick walk through the very casual immigration office and I was officially in Malaysia. From here I had to catch another train to Butterworth, which took about two hours. This was more like a subway than a train and every stop people filed in an out, squeezing into the busy compartments. I made friends with an Irish girl who was doing the same journey as me, which was good because it made be sure that I was actually going the right way!
Finally we reached Butterworth station and there was one more bit of transit before I reached Penang. A ferry ride across the Penang Strait where the cool sea air was very welcome and I was finally in Penang! The Irish girl and I shared a taxi to Georgetown and by 4pm I was in my hostel, thankful to not have to lug my huge backpack around anymore! 24 hours later I'd finally reached my destination! While it certainly was an experience to travel via the overnight train, I don't think I'll be doing that journey again for awhile!
Now to explore Penang! Famous for being the foodie capital of South East Asia, I am so ready to explore!
It was time to leave the chaotic country of Nepal to somewhere more laidback and calm. I hadn’t organised anything past my Everest Base Camp hike so I had a thousand options to choose from before settling on North Thailand. I’d been to Thailand twice before but both times were in the south so I was excited to see the difference between the north and south.
I flew from Kathmandu to Bangkok, where I had a 3 hour layover before jumping back on a plane to Chiang Mai. I got in at around 11pm and even at this time, the humidity was rifling through the city. By the time I got to my hostel I was sweating profusely! My hostel – the Chiang Mai Gate Capsule Hostel – was a tiny hole in the wall hostel tucked away into a small street just outside the Old Town. It was quiet and the streets were desolate at this hour. It didnt take long before I was fast asleep in the lovely air-conditioned room.
The following morning I set out to explore. I’ve found the best way to get to know an area is to get yourself completely lost and then try and work out how to get back to where you started. This started off accidentally as I would always end up walking in circles before finding my destination but now I just wander and see where I end up. I’m famous in my family for not knowing my north from my south, but have gotten really good at remembering landmarks which usually save me. I figure you are never lost, just a few wrong turns from being in the right place! Besides I could cheat a little with my Maps.Me app which worked without wifi, but I was trying hard not to use it!
I wandered through the Old Town, past undercover markets selling everything from mangos to chicken carcasses, past beautiful gold temples and tourist stores before reaching Walking street, the Main Street in the Old Town. Here was filled with restaurants, travel agents and artsy shops. I found somewhere for breakfast and coffee to refuel before wandering on towards the Nimman area. I’d heard this area was famous for its cafe culture and being a coffee fiend, I was eager to suss it out!
It was about a 25 minute walk from the Old Town to the Nimman area, which wasn’t ideal to do in the middle of the day but I got there eventually. At the end of the main road was the brand new MAYA shopping centre so I ducked in there to cool down in the air-con. Picking up a new SIM card so I could finally have a phone number, I had a wander around the shopping centre wishing I had a bigger bag (and budget) to do some serious shopping! I headed back out into the heat and walked down Nimmanhaemin Road to find some of these cafes I’d been reading about. The Nimman area is basically one main road with lots of lanes branching off it. Down these lanes are cafes, hotels, art galleries and shops. You could go a down these lanes a hundred times and see something new everytime. As I was on foot I only ventured down the main road, saving the rest of the exploring for another day. It was about 3pm so I started to head back towards to my hostel.
After resting in the aircon for an hour or so, I headed back out again to check out the night market that was happening just outside my hostel. Since I’d been in the hostel, hundreds of stalls had been set up down the entire street and spilling out onto the intersection. There were food stalls, arts and crafts, souvenirs – basically everything you could possibly want! The street stalls were lined up about 1km long and I walked back and forth between stalls, admiring the locally made products and umm-ing and ahh-ing over what to eat.
Settling on pad Thai (so predictable Jess) and a fresh juice, I people watched as I sat and ate. After dinner I followed a market stall trail down a side street which led me to the Silver Temple. Under lights, this temple made of real silver glowed brightly! It was a lovely discovery to finish the day off with!
The markets didn’t finish until about 11pm but I was exhausted from the amount of kilometres I’d walked today so ducked into the cool of my hostel much earlier that than. I’ll be in Chiang Mai for the next two weeks, so was in no rush to see everything quickly. I just wanted somewhere to relax and wind down after a chaotic few weeks in Nepal. I was glad I chose Chiang Mai, it fits the bill perfectly!
After a day in Kathmandu, I said goodbye to C and made my way to Chitwan National Park. After another deeeelightful bus journey that was supposed to take five hours but took nine, I finally made it to my destination. It was hot, humid and nowhere as busy as Kathmandu! I liked it already.
Chitwan National Park is a World Heritage Site that covers about 900 square kilometres. This massive space of land is home to many wild animals such as leopards, tigers, rhinoceros and elephants. Years ago it was the stomping ground of poachers and animal numbers diminished rapidly, however the Nepalese government stepped in to stop the poachers and rehabilitate animal population. They’ve had much success, with nearly three years of zero poaching, population of animals re-establishing and animal conservation becoming the most important priority.
I was only spending about two days in Chitwan but had a jam-packed program to see as much as I could! Once I arrived to accommodation – The Safari Club – and dropped off my belongings, I was taken on a river walk with my guide for the trip. The humidity was insane and outside my cool room, the sweat covered my skin instantly. We walked through the small town of Sauraha, which is one of the main tourist towns in Chitwan and made it to the riverbanks of the National Park. Beyond the river, grassy plains stretched out until the eye could see. My guide pointed out crocodiles in the river and explained by the different breeds here in Nepal. They weren’t the massive chompers that we have in Australia but they would still happily take a snap at you, given the opportunity!
We walked further down the river when my guide ran into one of his friends, they chattered in Nepalese and then told me there’s a rhino bathing just down the river. We quickly walked down the path until we saw the huge animal submerged in the river, looking a lot cooler than we felt! This was the first time I’d seen a rhino in the wild and I was just a tad excited. It had been less than an hour in Chitwan and I’d already spotted a rhino, I couldn’t imagine what else was to come!
We walked further down the river to see if there were any more animals about but unfortunately the rhino was the only one out to play today. Heading back to the where the town meets the river, we stopped for a drink to watch the sunset. Unfortunately it was a little cloudy so the sunset wasn’t in full swing but it was still lovely to be surrounded by nature instead of the smoggy city. After sunset we headed back to the Safari Club where I had dinner and a quick shower before going to a cultural dance. It was a bit touristy, full of loud Chinese tourists and their flashing cameras but still nice to watch. It was about 9:30pm by the time that finished so I headed straight to bed after that Because i had an early start in the morning!
Before we left for Base Camp, our lead guide Dawa had said that reaching Base Camp would change your life. He hadn’t elaborated much on it, but his words lingered on my mind as we hiked back to Gorak Shep from Base Camp. Had it changed my life? Not yet I didn’t think. I was half expecting Ghandi or Buddha or even the Dalai Lama – some sort of spiritual presence to appear to tell me how to live this new existence I had hiked toward. For me, Base Camp was a bit of a bore after the incredible hike we had completed over the 8 days, that I think the only thing that had changed about me was my tolerance level towards body odour. However I was unaware from tomorrow was bringing me and that, my friends, definitely changed me..
After my dinner of tomato soup it wasn’t long before the five of us hiking to Kala Patthar headed for bed. I’d had a strange feeling in my tummy pretty much straight after dinner but put it down as altitude and tried to ignore it. I fell asleep at 7:30pm while it was still light outside, ready to be woken at 3:50am. However about two hours later I woke up to searing pains in my stomach. Either I was having a very late case of altitude sickness or something I ate didn’t agree with me. I won’t go into vast detail here, no-one wants to hear about trying to negotiate stomach issues with a hole-in-the-ground toilet BUT it wasn’t my finest moment, I’ll tell you that much. I had about an hours sleep that night and went back on forth about my decision to hike Kala Patthar or not.
3:50am rolled around and my alarm started going off. I’d popped an Imodium a few hours earlier and felt the tiniest bit better albeit very empty! I lay there for a moment, thinking I could just stay in bed and sleep but I didn’t want to miss out on this last chance to see Everest. Base Camp had been such an anti-climax, I needed something else to feel like this hike was definitely worth it. My stubbornness got the best of me and I slowly got out of bed and tied up my hiking boots for the last time in this altitude.
I met the rest of the group in the hallway and by 4:05am we were outside, ready to tackle this last viewpoint. The five of us plus two of our guides Krishna & Dipak (Lead guide Dawa had the privilege of sleeping in!) all looked worn out and un-enthusiastic. I said to C & B, the two other Aussie girls that I’d had a dreadful night sleep and C said she’d gone through the same drama. We must of been playing tag with the bathroom and she looked like how I felt. Pale, drained and not wanting to be there.
Nonetheless, we set off behind Dipak with our feet dragging and bodies wrapped in many layers of clothes. It was the coldest it had been on the trek, but the chilly morning air was a nice change from the stuffy lodge. Being up this high, we were breathing in probably the cleanest air in the world so even though my stomach hated me, my lungs should be happy at least. The hike to Kala Patthar was about 400m higher in altitude and pretty much uphill the whole way. It was still dark so led by our head torches, we slowly made our way up step by step.
I was moving at glacial pace (pun intended) Between gasping for air every two steps and unsure whether I was going projectile my insides everywhere, I was not in good shape. Dropping behind the group I shuffled forward slowly. Poor Krishna who had to remain at the back of the group just stood still for awhile to let me get ahead a bit. The upside to this whole experience was the view. Dawn was starting to wash away the night sky and expose us to our surroundings. We couldn’t have picked a clearer day and as the mountains came into the light, Krishna pointed out which one was which. Including Mt Everest, who finally, FINALLY showed her face! This was the best view of Everest we’d get in Nepal. I’d have to bounce over to Tibet for a more grand view.
I sat down and set up my cameras as the sunrise brought on an epic light show. I felt so crook that I didn’t even care about going to the top of Kala Patthar. I’d gone about halfway, seen Everest in clear view and I was done. My stomach wanted to punish me for eating white rice and white potatoes for a week and I was willing to accept what it was going to throw at me. I told the group to keep going and that i wanted to shoot a time-lapse of the sunrise, when actually I just wanted to curl up in the dirt and nurse my aching stomach. Krishna was hesitant to leave one of the group behind but I said I’d sit there and wait until they came back done. This little black duck was staying put.
The sunrise was fabulous, the sky shone colours I didnt think it could and again I was swept away with mountain madness. These snowy peaks could stare down at me alllllllllll day. As daylight seeped in past the mountain and the sky faded to blue, the sunrise was over and I was suddenly sitting alone as everyone else had hiked on. I had a sudden urge to keep walking. The little voice inside my head who tells me to harden up whenever I get tired or out of breath was back and she was in a right proper mood. Before I could protest, she was pulling out all stops – I’d come so far, I’d paid all this money, there was a 50 year man who was ahead of me – this little voice was downright pushy! She finally talked me into going to the top so I pulled my backpack on and started the slow trek to the top of Kala Patthar.
Cursing the little voice in my head as I hiked uphill, I knew she would be right, she always bloody was! It was here I discovered an awful habit that I have. I hate going slow. I should have realised this earlier in life but as Dawa said, Base Camp will change your life – even if this means discovering things about yourself. I’m one of those people that watch what level the person next to me on the treadmill is on so I can run faster. When I swim laps I race the person in the lane beside me. Slow walkers are a pet hate and I’ve never stuck with yoga because everything about it is so slow! This habit had subsided for most of the trek, I’d bounce ahead at times but wanting to stay with my group, I would steady my pace by falling in behind someone. It’s not to say that sometimes I physically cannot go any pace but slow, I’m not super fit. But being beaten by someone is what drives me to go faster and I do it without even realising. Here I was standing about 5,300m above sea level, with minimal air and I was still trying to race. Without someone in front of me steadying my pace, I would take 10 steps really quickly before having to stop, hunch over panting like an unfit racehorse for a minute before starting the vicious cycle again. With my group well ahead of me, I was on a time restraint to get to the top. A time restraint that only I had inflicted upon myself.
It wasn’t long before I’d caught up to Krishna (I think he’d just sat down for awhile) and about forty minutes later I could see the tip of Kala Patthar and my group staggering towards the top. Two of the group had already made it but there were still two not far from me now. With my pattern of taking five quick steps and then stopping for air for a minute, I was only fifty or so metres from the top of Kala Patthar but I seemed to be getting nowhere. To get to the top wouldn’t just require walking though. It was pretty much a precariously stacked pile of rocks, covered in prayer flags and early morning frost. If I thought the view was good before, I was shook by the landscape now.
As I climbed higher on the rocks (yes actually climb, this was far more intense than I had bargained for) I was welcome by 360 degrees of spectacular views. From the Everest mountain range, to glacial pools glowing below, to an extremely sharp drop down a glacier on one side – I now understood why Kala Patthar was such a highlight. The view was ridiculous! I negotiated myself to the very top that stood at 5612m above sea level and felt like I was on top of the world! This was the highest I’d ever been (probably the highest I’ll ever be!) and the sick feeling I was feeling early was like a distant memory. I carefully took my photos – we’ve all been warned about people dying trying to take selfies on mountain edges – and breathed in the cleanest air I ever have. The adrenaline was running through my veins and this endorphin rush had blown away my sickness and replaced it with absolute euphoria. Life was good!
As I had taken a billion years to reach the top, I was only at the top of Kala Patthar for 15 minutes for so before it was time to head back to Gorak Shep. This was the only downfall of going with an organised tour – deadlines are everything. I slowly made my way off the lookout point by gracefully (not!) sliding down the icy rocks until I was in a safer place. The clouds had rolled in and created a layer between us and Gorak Shep – yep, we were so high that we were above the clouds!. The hike back down took about an hour and we were in Gorak Shep before 8am.We were in dining room before the others and they couldn’t believe we’d already been and gone to Kala Patthar. We showed them pictures and I felt slightly superior that I’d been tough enough to be one of the few to make it all the way. Plus all three of us Aussie girls made it, proving that girl power is really a thing!
After breakfast – which I gingerly ate, I felt better but still worried about what my stomach might do – we began the hike home. It was going to take four days to reach Lukla and now that we’d done what we’d come to do, I had no motivation left. I was in good company too, everyone struggled to find the will to hike. We tried to justify lashing out on a helicopter ride back but in the end put our headphones in and hiked silently back down. There’s a lot to be said about willpower on this trek. It’s absolutely essential to be strong on the way to Base Camp but I think it’s more important on the way back down. With nothing to hike towards except a hot shower and a good meal, every step hurt just a little bit more.
The four days dragged on a bit but we finally made it back to Lukla for one last scary ride to Kathmandu. Base Camp had been an amazing experience and I’m so happy I got to share it with these fantastic group of people. When the random thought of hiking to Base Camp crossed my mind at the start of the year, I thought it would be pushed back into the ‘too hard’ pile in my head. However every other plan I made or trip I researched just didnt sound as appealing so I stuck with visiting Nepal and here I am, having just climbed to the base of the highest mountain in the world. That little voice in my head was right again and even though I’m smelly with greasy hair and sore feet, I couldnt be happier!
Now for a couple of weeks to explore the rest of Nepal!
Our time in Dingboche was mainly to acclimatise so we had an extra day here relax and find some extra red blood cells to keep us oxgenated up higher! There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Dingboche so we spent most of our time reading, washing clothes or playing UNO. The morning after we first arrived however we had to go on an acclimatisation hike, which was definitely a highlight of they stay.
We left about 8am and pretty much walked out the front door of the lodge and up the huge hill that stood outside. It took about an hour to reach the view point and we climbed up to about 4,700m in altitude. It wasn’t a super hard hike, just hard to breathe from the thin air. Every couple of steps required a break and gasping for air was becoming the norm. But slowly and steadily we made it up. The view point was definitely worth the walk! As it was still quite early in the morning, the sky was clear and the mountain range around us stood magnificently in front of us. Lhotse and Nuptse were the show-offs yet again, their dramatic peaks stood boldly against the blue sky. Everest sat behind in their shadow, leaving us wanting more. I guessed she thought we had to work harder for a proper view, not just hike up a hill. We still had two days until Base Camp so perhaps she was holding out until then.
Behind us stood Ama Dablam, Taweche, Cholatste and Island Peak were just some of the peaks that stood around us. With 360 degrees of mountains around us, it wasn’t hard to believe that some of these peaks haven’t been named yet – there were just so many! We stayed at the view point for about two hours, taking in the thin air and letting our bodies adjust to the higher altitude. It was already starting to affect some of the others in the group who reported lethargy, headaches and dizziness. Thankfully I wasn’t feeling too bad, but I felt for the others who were feeling sick. 4,700m high and in the middle of nowhere wasn’t the ideal place to not be feeling 100%.
We hiked down around 10:30am and had lunch not long after. I even treated myself to a hot shower for $6AUD because it had been six days without one. While it wasn’t the greatest shower, it felt incredible to have clean hair! Especially after using talcum powder for six days to dry out the greasiness! Ahhhh the hikers life! The rest of the day was spent relaxing and basically waiting for tomorrow to come. We only had 18km until Base Camp and anticipation was starting to building!
Tomorrow we leave for Lobuche and climb about 600m higher! Joy!
After a pleasant “rest day” yesterday it was time to get back into hiking higher towards Base Camp. This morning brought another magical view from my windows. The mornings were so crisp and clear that all the mountain peaks surrounding Namche were in full view. Whilst my sleep routine was so out of whack, I was thankful that I was waking up early to witness this amazig sight. Usually by mid-morning the clouds settle in and cover up most of the mountains.
Today’s destination was Tengboche, a small village of the top of a huge mountain at 3875m. In the village there is a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery which is the major money maker for the small village. In 1989 this monastery was destroyed by a fire so thanks to financial aid for volunteers all around the world, the monastery was rebuilt and a ‘Master Plan’ was made. this included building a water supply system for clean drinking water, an Eco-tourism centre to promote more sustainstable tourism, improving school and education systems for the local people, establishment of sacred land for high altitude medicinal herb plantation, a hydropower station for assured electricity in the village and better facilities for the porters. Without the help of this financial aid, the Tengboche Monastary might not be here today.
Our hike began the same way as yesterday and feeling slightly more energetic from the influx of red blood cells I bounced up the steep track. The path flattened out after half hour and it was a beautiful stroll along the edge of the mountain. We were walking towards the same view as yesterday but as usual Everest was hidden by cloud and Lhotse was claiming all the glory! . I was starting to think that Mt Everest was just a very clever marketing ploy by Nepal Tourism – or its the world’s best mountain at hiding! It was still surreal to think that I was walking along the Everest Base Camp trail in Nepal. Just a week or two ago I was working in a office, now I was here!
The path was built into the side of the mountain and with no guard rail to keep us in, one wrong step could mean a very long fall into the valley below us. Our group had formed its own little mini-groups, measured by walking pace. Three guys zooming ahead at the front, our group of six with us three Aussie girls, two Scots and one of the Germans. Behind us were the trailing Germans and the Americans taking it nice and easy. We mostly walked in silence enjoying the scenery, leaving conversation for break times where we spent most of the time discussing the scenery! One may say we were a little one-track minded!
We walked along the path for an hour or so before we started to descend into the valley. It appeared we had to walk down to the river to cross it before making our way back up again to reach Tengboche. Undoing all our hard work from yesterday we dodged donkeys and yaks as we stepped our way down to the river. I could feel the pressure in my knees already from walking down steps. If they could last the whole trip, it would be a miracle!
Stopping for a lunch break (at 10:30am) we sat in the sun at a little cafe by the flowing river and waited for the last of the group to arrive. This little break turned into a massive two hour one and by the time our guide Krishna told us to ‘Jam jam’ (Let’s go) we were all drowsy from the sun and not in the mood to hike up to Tengboche. Nonetheless we put our backpacks back on and walked across the suspension bridge that would start our hike uphill.
This hike uphill wasn’t fun to say the least. The constant steps, thinning air and moody weather made the hike uncomfortable and it was slightly frustrating that we were higher only just a bit higher than we were yesterday. If only we didnt have to go down to the river to cross it! As the heavy clouds set in for the afternoon, there wasn’t even the stunning mountainous views to look out to. Pink wildflowers dotted the path but apart from that we were still in quite a forestry, green area. The temperature dropped dramatically with the clouds and it was getting chilly, especially in our sweaty clothes. Thankfully there was the six of us hiking together so we all were in the same boat, happy to stop regularly and dream about a warm cup of tea and clean socks!
Finally we reached Tengboche and as per usual, the last two hours were erased from my memory. It seems I was suffered from short term memory loss when it came it hiking. Once I reached the destination and become enthralled in it, the pain of hiking uphill disappeared. I wont lie, its quite a good problem to have!
We walked into our lodge, thankful to be out of the cold and starving hungry. Thankfully the lodge knew we were coming and were quick to get food and drink out to us. After lunch we had a little rest before visiting the monastery to watch the monks perform one of their sermons. Our guide Dawa warned us it would be long and loud and to feel free to leave at any time but I was intrigued to see what goes on behind monastery walls, it seems like such a sacred and secretive place.
The monastery had a strong Chinese influence to its architecture. We walked through the huge ornate gate, elaborately designed with gold painted ornaments and walked up the stairs to the entrance. We had to wait for the monks to enter before we could go in and the whole thing felt a like cult like. As we walked in I was gobsmacked by the interior of the room. For a building that sort of looks like a large dormitory on the outside, it was so beautifully decorated on the inside. The Chinese influence (I guess its Chinese? Could be Buddhist?) flowed through the room, with more ornate carvings on the walls and roof. Incense burned and candles were lit, creating a very zen-like atmosphere. There were four rows of long raised wooden boxes that the monks sat cross-legged on top of. Long, gold instruments sat at the two front corners of the room and several monks sat behind them, ready to play when told to. At the front of the room sat a statue of very large gold Buddha, the siza of the whole wall! I felt sorry for the poor sucker who had to lug this massive statue up the mountain, it was bigger than an elephant! His huge presence loomed over us and we sat on the hard wooden floor, pretending to not be there. I wish I could have taken a photo but were were forbidden to bring cameras inside.
We sat waiting to see how the sermon unfolded but didn’t have to wait long as the monks opened their scripts and began to chant. There was a lead monk who ran the chants and the others followed. His voice was raspy and at times he seemed to just be making noise, but the others followed suit so I can only imagine it was part of the mantra. They added the musical instruments to their chants and the large horns scared the crap out of us sitting close to them, as the monks blew them without warning. I stifled a laugh, our dirty, tired, smelly group couldn’t be more out of place in this sacred building.
The chanting went on and on. They stopped at times and then began up with a different chant or a new blow of the horn. It was mesmerising to watch in a way that you could almost fall into a trance, but after an hour the hard wooden floor was making my backside numb and some of us in the group were giving each other side eyes to see who would get up and leave first.
Thankfully the Germans left first, making way for the rest of us to slowly file out and head back to the lodge. It was almost dark by this time and dinner wasn’t far away. They had lit the fire in the dining room of the lodge so it was toasty warm for our return. After dinner we had another UNO competition go down. I have to say, not having access to technology has been pretty great. I feel like we’re closer as a group because we haven’t spent all our times in front of our mobiles. It was another early bedtime as we were knackered from today’s efforts and knew tomorrow was going to be another big one.
We were back in Santa Marta and ready to tick off another one of Colombia’s must-do things. The Tayrona National Park was about a two hour bus ride from Santa Marta and super cheap, thanks to the local buses. Tayrona National Park not only has an immense natural importance on the region, but also it is a cultural treasure as it was once inhabited but the famous Tayrona tribe. Their culture is still present today with their direct descendants, the Koguis tribe still living and maintaining many of the original traditions.
We reached the park entrance and paid our entry fee (note – bring a student card if you have one, chops off 45% of the price!) and took a colectivo to the start of the hiking trail. We planned to stay in Arrecifes for the first night, mainly because it was the first stop on the trail! We hiked for about an hour through the Tayrona jungle, dodging long hanging branches and spotting monkeys. After being in busy Santa Marta it was nice to be back to nature, with hardly anyone in sight. Reaching the campsite dripping in sweat, we paid for our hammocks and dropped our bags off before heading to find some water to cool off in.
However the beach at Arrecifes isn’t suitable for swimming due to its dangerous currents. Judging the currents and our swimming abilities, we decided to ignore the sign and paddle in the huge swell. This didn’t last long though as a security guard swiftly came over to tell us off. At least we got to cool down a little!
Food was next on the agenda so we headed off down the trail in search of comida. There were a couple more campsites and small restaurants as we walked along the trail. The park had a very ‘Lost’ feel about it, I was expecting to see a crashed plane and a tribe of people to come running out at any second! We gushed over the beautiful scenery and the amazing light of the setting sun before stumbling across a life-saver of a lady who sold the most delicious bread in the world! Freshly baked, still warm pan was just what we needed for an entree for dinner. We sampled the ham and cheese, the guava jam and cheese and the chocolate bread before telling the lady we would be back first thing in the morning to have it again for breakfast.
We found some dinner at a small restaurant at the next camp to ours. Full from the bread, we just had a small dinner before attempting to brave the walk home in the jungle alone. We were all set to go until some fellow travellers told us how they had just seen the alligators by the beach. Slightly freaking out, we ruled out walking back by the beach and decided to go via the way we came. However the topic of snakes popped up and suddenly we were too scared and stranded to walk back alone! Luckily a couple of locals were heading the same way we were so they guided us back through the jungle and we made it back to our hammocks snake-free. Sleep came easy that night, which was surprising because it was the first time I’d slept overnight in a hammock. But the clean hammock and solid mosquito net made for the perfect slumber, especially with the sound of the ocean lulling us to sleep.
The following day we packed our bags up and hiked towards El Cabo San Juan. Despite it still being early, the sun was beating down on us hard. We dodged some monkeys and made a pit stop at La Piscina (‘the pool’ for those non-Spanish speakers) for a quick dip and to admire the amazing view. Finally the white sand, turquoise blue water dream I had been envisioning was starting to come to life.
We walked onto El Cabo San Juan, which took about half an hour and jumped straight into the blue water. This place was way busier than where we had been previously, mainly because it was the most advertised area. We spent our day sun baking, swimming and generally enjoying life. L and I braved swimming out to a huge rock with some boys we met and managed to scar ourselves climbing up the rocks to jump into the ocean. Luckily there were no sharks nearby to smell the blood!
We dined on garlic prawns and rice for dinner and played cards until it was an acceptable time for bed. This sun-baking business was tiring! Unfortunately I didn’t sleep so well in the hammocks here, they just weren’t as comfy as the night before.
After a fitful night of tossing and turning I was happy to get up and start the day. We had freshly cooked ‘caprese pan‘, which was warm bread filled with cheese, tomato and pesto sauce, washed down with a fresh maracuya juice. It wasn’t quite as sunny as yesterday but we still managed to get in some solid sun baking time. We considered staying another night but the thought of sleeping in those hammocks again put us off and we decided to head back to civilisation that day.
In the late afternoon we had a final meal at the only restaurant on Cabo San Juan and caught the boat back to Taganga and returned to our hostel in Santa Marta for a proper shower and a bed! Tomorrow we planned to go to Minca, the tiny village in the mountains about 40 minutes away from Santa Marta. I couldn’t wait!