IN 1499, THE FIRST EUROPEANS to reach, the South American mainland came in sight of Colombia’s Caribbean coast They would have spied snow-crested mountains rising ahead of the bow made of Spanish timber. Sailing closer, they saw a spine of green hills and a strip of white-sand beaches. Finally, standing on the cusp of the new world, they encountered indigenous tribes, thatched villages and a rainforest that stretched into the heart of the continent.
In the five centuries since then, rainforests have been felled, cities built and many indigenous cultures lost across Colombia and South America. Yet Tayrona National Park is a pocket of Caribbean shore preserved: a slice of land appearing much as it would have long ago to a Spanish sailor’s eyes. Well, more or less. Wandering along the beach, it’s unclear what the conquistadors of Castile would have thought of beachfront bars blaring out reggae, or corrugated shacks serving up plates of red snapper and coconut rice to peckish sunbathers. It’s doubtful whether they would have taken a siesta in the hammocks that line the seafront, the fabric stretched and deepened by years of post-lunch naps.
But this is only one side of the park. From the beach, a few little paths wander vaguely through mangrove swamps and climb up into the hills. The sounds of crashing waves and human voices retreat, the buzz of hummingbirds and the hoots of howler monkeys grow louder. Iguanas scamper among the leaf litter and on all sides is dense jungle, sometimes visited by jaguars on their night-time prowls. The trail becomes wilder too: knotted ropes are on hand for scaling boulders, rickety bridges span mountain streams.
The reward for a two-hour climb from the beach is arriving at Pueblito -translating into English as ‘little village’. This is something of an overstatement, with just two or three thatched huts belonging to the indigenous Kogi tribe set in a forest clearing. The huts rest on foundations laid long before Columbus stood on the sands of the New World, It offers a small insight into pre-conquest life across the Americas: chickens clucking about the terraces, smoke rising from a hearth, sacred places hidden in the ravines around the village where ceremonies are performed and no outsider may step.
The silence is total but for the cooing of doves in the cashew trees, and the swish of the Caribbean wind swaying the high canopy. ‘I could never live outside this forest,’ says Manuel Sauna Digala, an elder of the tribe, sitting in the sunshine outside one hut and sporting a flowing white robe, ‘Pueblito is the inheritance from my ancestors and they chose well, I want to live forever in this forest. And when I die I want to be buried here, too.