A dreamlike scenario began to unfold. The young Chilean boy guided me out of the dark and humid bowels of this ancient fortress, and now stared into the light. I felt my pupils painfully contract as intense brightness flooded my vision. My mind's eye took over, and a familiar sight swept over me. A grassy esplanade dominated by gleaming white monuments. An immense Egyptian obelisk and a hulking Capitol Dome. A city of trees and parks, of stone and brick...the place that I had last called home. But when I stepped forward and adjusted my eyes, Washington, D.C. did not lay before me. The Colombian city of Cartagena had taken its place.
Fortress of San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia
With only two weeks remaining on my nine month journey, I wasn't surprised to be thinking more and more of returning home. But I reminded myself that there was still plenty to see and experience with the time I had left. After all, Cartagena is renowned for having one of the most beautiful "old" cities in all of Latin America. After doing my best to adapt to the suffocating humidity of this coastal city, I took off on foot to explore.
The ancient walls which once protected Cartagena from gold-hungry invaders still stand as a testament to the city's rich history. Today they have become a place for socializing, sunset watching and trysts. While Old Cartagena is undoubtedly a romantic city, a few hours' journey up the coast took me to a place situated in an even more picturesque backdrop.
The tiny fisherman's village of Taganga is nestled between mountains on three sides and fronted by a golden sandy beach. It has boomed of late as a popular getaway spot for Colombians and foreigners alike. But while the sight of tourist throngs has become commonplace, I found it equally likely to observe a pack of goats roaming the dusty streets.
With less than a week left before my flight home, I resolved to visit one more place. I packed my daybag with enough supplies to last for several days and set off for Tayrona National Park. What better way to wind down a long trip than to visit Paradise?
Parque Nacional Tayrona, Colombia
Lush green forests. Spectacular mountains. Tropical beaches. Those three things are enough to make you overlook the sweltering climate and the omnipresent mosquitoes. There is little development in Tayrona apart from a few campgrounds. During the day I explored the jungle or relaxed on the near-deserted beaches, and after dark I feasted and socialized with other backpackers. I spent two nights in the park at breathtaking Cabo San Juan, sleeping in a hammock perched on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. And while sound slumber was elusive due to the biting wind which rustled my hammock throughout the night, how many people can say that they've slept out in the open with a view of crystal blue waters to one side, and jungle-covered mountains on the other?
The Hammock House
I gazed out over the ocean and reflected on my good fortune. Over the last nine months, I'd had enough unforgettable experiences to fill a lifetime. The decision to undertake this Latin American journey alone had seemed very bold at first, but everything had worked out wonderfully. In fact, I had rarely felt alone. I'd befriended more people on this trip than in the previous five years combined, while crossing paths with travelers who hailed from over fifty different countries. I'd met people who challenged my preconceptions and inspired me to view the world differently. I'd snapped thousands of pictures while making many more memories. Most importantly, I'd successfully turned a long-held dream into reality.
Stepping out into the cool sea, it suddenly seemed as if this reality was nothing more than a dream. The darkening horizon signaled that the sun was setting over Colombia. I closed my eyes and envisioned where I'd be when the light returned...