Tayrona National Park

Colombia's backpacker Mecca
Tayrona National Park

Tayrona is located just over 20 miles from Santa Marta and is one of the country’s most important and beautiful national parks. The area is predominately comprised up of tropical jungle, punctuated by a series of deserted white sand beaches. The crystal clear waters, wide biodiversity and the accommodation – in secluded spots woven into the park – all serve to make Tayrona one of the most attractive destinations on the north coast.

The park has an area of around 15,000 hectares, and is home to over 300 types of birds and a whole host of exotic animals including jaguars, howler monkeys, iguanas, red woodpeckers and lizards. The 3,000 hectares of protected marine reserve offer similar levels of biodiversity and include some impressive corral formations. It is possible to visit some of these underwater sites via diving excursion arranged in Taganga or Santa Marta.

What to see and do in Tayrona Park

As you traverse through the jungle habitat, periodic openings reveal world class white sand beaches

It is the natural environment in Tayrona which constitute the area’s main attraction. Several of the most popular areas are connected by a path running from the entrance, and through the park. As you traverse through the jungle habitat down the marked trails, periodic openings reveal world class white sand beaches and some impressive accommodation options.

The first two stops along the path are Cañaveral and Arrecife, which lie approximately 30-45 minutes’ walk from the main entrance. The beach here is picturesque, but strong currents and rip tides mean that swimming is not advised. Camping facilities are available, as well as small eco-lodges, which are a more luxurious imitation of the area’s traditional accommodations. These sleep between four and six people, but can be very pricey, costing as much as 650,000 COP per night. Camping facilities at both sites are large; there are some 100 spots available in each, with several sets of shower and bathroom facilities for those staying there. The spectacular setting and tranquil atmosphere makes this one of the park’s most enjoyable swimming spots

About 15 minutes’ walk down the trail is La Piscina, a beach and natural lagoon created by an offshore corral formation. The spectacular setting and tranquil atmosphere, created by the shelter from the corral, makes this one of the park’s most enjoyable and, in terms of rip currents, safest swimming spots. Accommodation is available at a nearby guesthouse which overlooks the lagoon.

Walk for a further 10 minutes and you will arrive at the highly impressive, El Cabo (de San Juan de Guía). This is the furthest set of beaches from the entrance, lying about 90 minutes’ walk or so from the central guards post, but is well worth the effort to get here. The rustic accommodation – hammocks on the beach and one beautifully positioned wooden bungalow – faces right out onto two white sand beaches separated by a dramatic rocky outcrop.

Rustic accommodation faces right out onto two white sand beaches separated by a dramatic rocky outcrop

Facilities here are basic (there are, for example, only a few hours of electricity per day), but this adds to the charm of the surroundings. El Cabo is a highly attractive spot in itself and many choose to spend several days here enjoying the scenery, eating at the on-site restaurant and snorkeling in the sea. A number of other impressive beaches, including one which is unofficially nudist, are within a short walk from El Cabo through small stretches of jungle.

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If wishing to take a break from lying on the beach to do something a little more strenuous, you can visit the archaeological site of the Chairama village. These small ruins are the remnants of a larger settlement of the Tayrona indigenous group that occupied the territory until Spanish colonization. Today, the village remains the home of one family of fishermen which are descended from the Tayrona people. Access to the village is via a 3 hour walk from the furthest beaches in the park along the marked paths.

Getting to, from and around Tayrona Park

The best options for getting to the park are to first travel to Santa Marta, from where you can take the one hour bus journey to reach the park entrance. If travelling with a few others a shared taxi from the city might be a more convenient, if marginally more expensive, option. Visitors to the park must pay an entrance fee (approximately 40,000 COP for foreigners, slightly less for Colombian nationals) which goes towards conservation efforts and maintenance of the park and surrounding environment.

Bear in mind that you can only gain entrance to the park during opening hours: 5am to 5pm via the most popular Zaino, Palangana and Bahia Concha routes, and from 5am to 3pm via the Calabazo route. Park rules are that alcoholic beverages cannot be taken into Tayrona; you may be searched and have any such drinks confiscated at the entrance.

As a protected area, infrastructure within the park itself is fairly limited. After passing the entrance then, visitors will need to make their own way to the various beach-based accommodation options available. Most go on foot. For those able to do so, walking here is a rewarding activity as it is an excellent way to experience some of the sights and sounds of the park. It may also offer the opportunity to come into direct contact with some of Tayrona’s famously diverse wildlife.

For those that don’t wish to walk, another option is to go on horseback, or to hire a donkey to carry you and your luggage at least part of the way. This service is widely available within the park.

The increasing popularity of El Cabo with backpacker travelers has meant that there is now an unofficial boat shuttle running the one and a half hour journey from Taganga directly to these beaches. This may be more convenient, in that it allows you to skip the walk from the entrance, but visitors should be warned that the temperamental sea in this area can make for a rough ride. Some boats also travel directly through the protected marine reserve, and their presence almost undoubtedly has an adverse impact on the natural environment.

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