The street in Santa Marta is bubbling over with the clamour of early morning life. Open-front shops spill out onto a dirt road, their keepers hawking fresh fruit and fake Colombia football shirts.
Rusty mini-vans and cars bump past us on the uneven road, honking incessantly at whatever they pass. Faded by years of fierce heat, the brightly painted walls of the low-rise buildings look dull in the sun. The air smells like gasoline and dry earth.
Two youths are swinging wide laps around us on a motorbike. It seems a little odd until they screech to a stop. The one on the back hops off and walks over to us. His friend parks the bike, the engine still idling.
“Gringo, gringo, dinero!”
The boy is brandishing a knife at me. “Dinero, Gringo”, he shouts again. After six trouble-free months in South America, over confidence seems to have led us astray.
Strangely though, we do nothing. No one panics. No one immediately grabs for their wallet. We all just look at each other, blankly.
Our attacker does the same. After a few minutes of shouting at us, he looks perplexed, like he’s deciding what to do next; we’ve been held up by the most inexperienced bandito in Colombia.
I’m not scared. More uneasy. One thing is for certain: I do not want to give this boy all of my money. We are on our way to Tayrona National Park and I need it for beer, food and hammock rent.
Finally, after a few seconds of our standoff, the boy with the knife regains some composure and shouts again for our money, this time waving the knife with all the menace he can muster. The blade catches the morning sun, an ugly light glints off it as he stabs the air.
My stomach lurches into a small back flip. Now, i’m scared: the grace period is over. It’s time to take the sage advice that every travel guide ever seems to offer; “always give the mugger what they want.”
But just as we start to get out our wallets, a commotion begins to happen. The youth with the knife starts to look worried, almost concerned. An old man has come out of his shop and he’s dressing down the boy, gesticulating wildly as he walks towards the scene of the almost-crime.
Our mugger, who can’t be much older than 15, half-heartedly tries to argue back, but to no avail. His elder is angry and the boy, despite holding us up at knife point, obviously has enough common sense not to mess with the bellowing shopkeeper.
Slowly, the wannabe robber admits defeat and lowers his knife, his friend and getaway driver on the motorbike looking on. I almost feel sorry for him, so humiliating is his failure. The old man motions for us to get out of here and we hurriedly offer him our thanks in Spanish.
The boy looks on helpless as we walk away.
Peering over my shoulder, we make it to a main street and I spy a police officer. Wanting to avoid any more attempted hold ups, I ask directions to Santa Marta’s station. Thankfully, it’s not too far and at the terminal we pile onto an old sun-scorched single-decker that says “TAYRONA” in big yellow letters on the front.
After a short ride, the breaks of the bus hiss and we bump to a halt. The driver looks back and nods to a track off the main road: this is our stop.
Once we’ve paid our entrance fee, we look around for some idea of what to do. Sign posting does not seem to be Colombia’s strong point. Tayrona National Park covers 150 km² of dense forest, coastline and mountain foothills – wandering off with no idea where to go isn’t really the best idea.
We have two options, hike for three hours or pay for a horse ride. We opt for horses. Skinny and hot, they are the kind of horses that make you feel a twinge of sorrow but our lack or preparation leaves us without choice. It’s saddle up for the world’s saddest pony ride or find your own way.
An hour’s trek through dense jungle later, our guides drop us off in a clearing and usher us away from the tired animals. They don’t speak English, but it’s clear what they mean: you’re on your own now.
Which way? I ask, in basic Spanish. A knowing point through the trees to an opening a few metres away shows us the way. I shrug, pick up my bag, and troop on.
Brushing past lush foliage, we head towards a sandy path that our now departed guides gestured towards in haste. Breaking out of the tree line we discover why we made to journey to Tayrona.
Hills covered in trees back straight out onto the deserted beach. Blue-gray clouds tumble over their tops: a lone jet ski rests on the shore as pre-storm waves take turns crashing onto the soft sand.
It looks like a scene out of Jurassic Park. Safe in the knowledge that there are no dinosaurs in Colombia, we just stare.