The boat ride back from the hike to Macarena was touch and go. We drifted in the fast moving current unable to steer because the engine lost power. We neared the bank covered with vegetation teeming with wildlife, including huge tree climbing iguana with very sharp teeth. Finally, the boat operator got the motor working and we made it safely back to the dock.
Carolina was waiting to greet us after the long day. We immediately asked about our itinerary for the next day. To our surprise Carolina informed us that because we did not pay for a hike by 4:00 pm we could not hike the next day. Why didn’t she mention this earlier? She knew that we would be hiking until five or six pm. Plus, we had offered to pay for all of our hikes up front but she had told us that that would not be necessary.
The Colombian way! We quickly learned that in Macarena information was scarce. Restaurants do not have menus, prices are not listed, hotels do not register guests, and tour agents do not provide an itinerary. We wanted to hike the trail that was supposed to be more beautiful than the one we had just finished but now we were being told that we were not going to be able to hike at all!
Everyone was fluent in Spanish except for Jennifer and I, and the words were flying fast and furious, although I didn’t understand any of them. Jennifer tried to keep up with her google translate app. I didn’t even try. I recognized the pattern. Everything would work out in the end, but according to Colombian custom everyone would have to argue and discuss and state their positions.
It was at that point that I walked to the fruit juice stand and ordered a large pineapple drink. The woman at the fruit stand was pleased to have another paying customer and I was happy to sit and rest away from the commotion. I finished the pineapple drink and the woman gave me a sample of her special concoction. It was a sweet mango drink with generous chunks of banana and other fruits mixed in. She was either a smart businesswoman or she was flirting with me. Either way it worked, I ordered a large cup.
After about a half hour of arguing, Jennifer and the group walked over to let me know that we were meeting at the park office in the morning to speak to the director of parks. It seems that the dispute came down to the fact that we were being told that we would have to pay an entry fee into the park for each day that we hiked in the park, despite being told by Carolina that we would only have to pay the fee one time. The fee amounted to about $75 USD and was not insignificant. Some of the young backpackers could not afford to pay a second time. Again, information in Macarena is scarce and often unreliable. A cynical person might say that they look for ways to bilk tourists for more money at every step.
Nevertheless, I was tired from the long hot day of hiking and was ready for an early bedtime. We went to sleep not knowing what we were doing the next day. Despite having tried to register and pay for a stay in our cabana, the front desk again told us there was no need to register.
"Tranquillo" she replied. "No worries."
We awoke again at 6 am to the sounds of construction at our hotel mixed with the loud crowing of roosters and the braying of livestock just outside our cabana. At 7 am we walked the block or so to the park office and I watched as the discussion again quickly escalated with incomprehensible Spanish phrases flying fast and loud. I sat back and watched, knowing that the discussion would end when we would finally agree to spend additional dollars.
Sure enough Jennifer returned and told me that we were going to hike a longer trail today, but first we needed to pay an additional fee to the park office. We paid the fee and quickly headed to the dock for another day of hiking.
The only thing different would be that we would carry more water as we ran out on the first day. The park office forbids disposable water bottles on the hike but allows refillable hard plastic bottles. I purchased two large disposable bottles knowing that no one checked my backpack the previous day.
Again, we climbed into the long canoe for the quick trip up the fast moving muddy river. Next, we approached the small tent to sign in and let officials know that we were on the trail. To my surprise, there was an entire staff of park officials searching backpacks prior to entering the trail. I opened my pack and watched as a young park official pawed through my pack knowing that my disposable bottles were about to be confiscated and worried that I would be banned for violating clearly stated park rules.
“Que?” The officer asked pulling out my contraband bottles.
“Agua” I replied.
“Problemo?” I asked in my dumbest American accent.
The officer turned and handed a supervisor my water bottles and said something in Spanish.
The supervisor walked over with a concerned look and began speaking to me in rapid Spanish.
“No habla español” I said.
“Americano?” The supervisor asked me.
“Si” I replied.
“Enjoy your visit to our park!” The supervisor said as he handed me my contraband water.
I let out a sigh of relief and laughed as I told my tale of Colombian smuggling to our hiking companions.
We climbed into a jeep for the bumpy 30 minute ride over a washed out dirt and rock road to the hiking trail.
“This road was built by guerrillas during the recent war with the government. It is now used by tourists for hiking.” Our guide told us.
I immediately thought of the dialogue in the old Kurt Russell movie “Captain Ron.”
“Boss, stay on the path. There are guerrillas in these woods.”
“There are no gorillas here.”
“Yes there are.”
“Gorillas are native to equatorial Africa! There are no gorillas here!”
Regardless, I didn’t want to meet any guerrillas or gorillas on this hike. I was happy to have a guide to make certain that didn’t happen. Before our trip we had read that the Colombian jungle is dotted with landmines left over from the recent conflicts. Colombia is second only to Afghanistan in undiscovered landmines. We didn’t want to find any of those either.
We exited the jeep and began the long trek through the dense vegetation. It was overcast and thankfully not as hot as the previous day. That was a welcome relief as the hike would be quite a bit longer than the day before.
Again, the scenery was amazing and the colors of the river were unlike anything I had ever seen. But, we quickly realized that the scenery on this hike was identical to the previous day. Our guide the previous day had said that this hike would be even more dramatic. Maybe this was just another way to get the tourists to spend more money!
The hike was strenuous but pleasant. We stopped several times to swim and rest and eat. All in all it was another amazing hike.
As we returned to the military outpost that doubled as a watering hole for hikers I noticed several of the young armed military men watching over the hikers and tourists. They looked very hot in their camo fatigues in the jungle sun. I approached and asked if I could buy them a cold drink from the tourist shack. They quickly accepted my offer and immediately wanted to learn more about me. They don’t get to talk to many Americans they said.
I pulled out my phone and began showing photos of my hikes in California and pics of my family. When they found out that I was a judge in the United States they looked surprised and said that they were afraid of me. I looked at their automatic weapons and I said that I was the one that was afraid. They laughed and asked if they could take a photo with the American judge.
We returned to the town of Macarena exhausted and hungry. We decided to eat again at the only nice restaurant in town. The one with no menu and no prices.
“Bebidas?” “Drinks” the waiter asked.
“Limonada.” “Lemonade” Jennifer replied.
The waiter returned with two glasses of some light brown warm liquid sugar water that seemed to have been left over from the night before.
“This isn’t Limonada!” Jennifer said to the waiter.
“Yes. Is Limonada. Sugar, water, a little squeezed lime” the waiter replied.
“There isn’t even any lime in this” Jennifer protested.
“Dos coca-colas” I said to the waiter.
As we sat waiting on our food we wondered how the waiter could have mistaken our limonada order for whatever it was that he brought to us. Just as we began to write it off as a mistake in translation, we looked over at the table next to us and saw the waiter bring to them a large cold pitcher of limonada.
We looked at each other and thought “That can’t be limonada.”
When the waiter walked over, Jennifer asked “Que es?” Pointing at the cold sweating pitcher of liquid.
“Limonada” the waiter replied.
“The Colombian way” I said.
We just shook our heads. We had had enough of La Macarena.