There is nothing but the heat: heavy heat, drenching you with sweat you didn’t think was left in you. Sweat so thick it covers you with a sheen, a sheet, that stretches your clothes. It explains why, even to church, women wear tight-fit synthetic clothing – cotton is for tourists and the ignorant. The blessing of even a slight breeze that licks the water from your skin like a fan, if just for the briefest of moments.
In the jungle of Parque Tayrona, on the NE coast of Colombia, the heat is the same, but the air fresher. In the shade, noises you don’t know move like large animals lurking in dry leaves, then turn out not to be large animals but little lizards or iguanas or chameleons. Winter is just ending – the choice is mud or muddier, or, after a couple kilometers, the exposure of the hiking on the sand – hot, and glaring, no protection from sun and giving beneath your feet so that every step you take takes back a half. I choose the shade.
If you’re looking for dry ground, follow the red ants. They are larger than any you’ve ever seen, carrying mac trucks of foliage on their backs down the insect super highway, defying gravity and other rules of physics. Watch out for tree roots that spread across the jungle floor and up its rocky walks like giant snakes, reminding you of what you hope not to see. Butterflies the size of your head, in pantones that would make LG engineers cry with envy, wrestle and settle on occasion. In the distance, you can hear the crash of the ocean you hope soon to see.
You can’t help but think about Vietnam. You’re dripping wet with sweat and effort for only a day, with the promise of a picnic and a swim in the near future, but what was it like for those boys? To be 18, 19, from someplace in the middle, someplace like Montana, where heat doesn’t sift through your skin and boil your insides, and be sent to a blanket of weather like this, humping a pack half again your weight, things you can see the least of your terrors. That’s some thing we did. To those boys.
At the entry, where you pay the exorbitant $37.500 COL ($20USD) entrance fee – the price of being an extranjero) – you leave an emergency phone number with the guard. “In case something happens,” he says, and then gives you a ‘tour’ of the park map, carved in wood on the side of an entrance hut, and some admonishments. “Only on a marked path….Only Sendero Arrecifes” he tells me, because that’s where I’ve said I’m going. Only since he tells you you can’t swim there, you’re going to La Piscina, a bit farther down the way. The guard seems doubtful you can do this and make it back in a day.
Wherever the trail leads to the beach, large signs warn you not to swim. More than 100 people have been lost in the surf, they tell you. At Arrecifes, where you can rent a horse for the trip back, or spend the night, buy a drink, or a bag, or an ice-cream pop, the trail dead ends into a soup of mud and there is no choice but to hike along the beach. The path to the sand sports a sign that says 200 people have been lost at this beach. It is not suitable for swimming. And then this:
Your fearometer tells you that this says there have been caimans spotted in the lagoon, and not to swim in it. When the path actually turns to beach, there is another sign: 100 people have been lost here. You start to wonder if the caimans were responsible for 100 between the mud and the sand.
At La Piscina, the water is so warm it barely rinses off the sweat, and yet such sweet relief. First there is no one but you, and then, by twos, by fives, some hikers, a tour group, a family. The tide is coming in; you place your things on a high rock so as not to lose them. The jungle comes right down to the ocean here – the sand is being swallowed by the sea in this cove. Waves are full of bark bits and no one cares – you just want the pretense of cooling off.
On the way home, everyone walks the other way. They are coming to spend the night in a hammock between the jungle and the sea. One night, three nights. Couples looking for a private moment, backpackers on a cheap adventure, families who want to experience this national treasure. You can’t help but wonder if their kids will be whining from heat or boredom before night falls. You walk against this tide, think you could have spent the night with a group – but not alone. Not alerting to every sound – in the jungle, that makes for a long, long night. But to sleep by the sound of the sea, the occasional smell of salt in the air– it sounds sweet, it sounds like home. Next time, you think, already planning the return.
The ants go marching….