On one side waves crash against volcanic rocks on the beach, the other side jungle resembles the Amazon arises in the midst of the Caribbean. This is Tayrona National Park, Colombia.
My first three weeks in Colombia I spent time in Cartagena admiring the colonial doors and architecture, studying at another Spanish school (my third), and then traveled 140 miles to Santa Marta. All the while planning clients’ custom vacations, researching and cataloging tours, hotels, restaurants, neighborhoods, etc. and, of course, generating travel inspiration for Sapphire & Elm Travel readers.
After three weeks of 14+ hour days working, attending class and studying I was craving a break – a mental and electronic detox. I know a lot of you can relate to this, work too hard and play too little. Yes, I do actually put in 50 to 60 hours of work each week, I’m just lucky enough to work in amazing locations!
I knew the perfect place to go; a place without Wi-Fi nor electricity buried in the heart of the jungle where I could spend my days amongst trees, swimming in the ocean, doing yoga, and lounging in a hammock as if my life depended on it – Tayrona National Park.
TRAVELRS TIP: In Tayrona National Park I found accommodations with Wi-Fi, I just chose to stay at a location without Wi-Fi to encourage an electronic detox. Dare I say two days without email or social media is a good thing?!
Tayrona National Park is so diverse, each place offering something a little different. Some locations are quieter; while others are better for swimming. Some require more extensive hiking to reach, while other areas of the park are very near the entrance. Additionally, all locations are accessibly by boat and/or horse as an alternative to hiking.
Getting to Tayrona National Park
Before visiting or staying in the park, most people come from the near by town of Santa Marta.
I had a late start getting to Tayrona National Park as I had work to do in the early morning - it's quite common for people to leave Santa Marta at roughly 7am for Tayrona to avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day and to ensure they have a place to spend the night as most accommodations are first come first serve.
After a few hours of work, I headed to the bus station around 9am and per usual, there was a bus ready to take off. The bus to Tayrona from Santa Marta costs 7,000 COP (as of November 2017) and takes roughly one hour.
TRAVELERS TIP: From Santa Marta there is only one road going east so it’s easy to get on the right bus.
The main entrance to the park is called El Zaino. You shouldn't miss the entrance, especially if you're following along on Maps.Me, however when you get on the bus tell the driver you're getting off at El Zaino for Tayrona and they'll let you know when you're there.
The El Zaino entrance has a few last minute restaurants and market type goods selling water, fruit and other snacks. Here you'll also find a restroom which costs 1,000 COP to use.
At the entrance, park staff provides you with information about different parts of the park, but I couldn’t shake the feeling they were selling one part of the park. At the main entrance, there was the option to reserve a hammock in advance for an extra fee of 2,000 COP (less than $1 USD). Since I was late, I decided this was a good option. I’m glad I did because when I arrived at the entrance of Cabo San Juan around 2pm all of the hammocks were sold out.
IMPORTANT: Bring your passport! The cashier to the park requires it when you buy your entrance ticket.
The cost to enter the park for foreigners is 44,000 COP during low season, and 48,500 COP during high season. Although I visited it low season, I was there on a holiday weekend and therefore paid the high season price. Once inside you can opt to take a bus right from the entrance to the parking lot of the park for 3,000 COP. This saves you about a 1 hour walk.
FUN FACT: Colombia has more national holidays than any other country. They have 23 national holidays, which almost always fall on a Monday. Meaning almost every other weekend of the year is a holiday weekend!
If you stay overnight, find a place to leave your luggage in Santa Marta or wherever you are staying. You will only need, and want to carry, a small day pack of maybe 15-25L depending on how long you want to stay in the park, if you bring water, etc.
Main Areas of Tayrona National Park
Tayrona is located on the north coast of Colombia between the towns of Santa Marta and Palomino. The park is roughly 150 square kilometers (58 square miles) of land and 30 square kilometers (12 square mi) of maritime area.
There are three main areas to spend the night in Tayrona; Cañaveral, Arrecifes, and Cabo San Juan.
Cañaveral is the first option for accommodation after arriving at the main entrance of El Zaino at just a 15-30 minute walk. Here you can stay at Ecohabs for roughly $400 USD/night. It's the least visited part of the park, has easy access to Nueve Piedras hike, and WiFi available at the accomodations. Additionally you cannot swim at the Cañaveral or Castilletes beaches.
Arrecifes is the second option for accommodation after arriving at the main entrance of El Zaino. It is roughly a 1-2 hour walk into the park. Here is actually two different sites to stay the night - Don Pedro and Bukaru. Both places offer jungle camping, with choices of hammocks, tents, and cabins as well. There is a restaurant/bar here as well as lockers and showers. The beach is another 10-15 minute walk from the campsite, and you cannot swim at this beach! If you continue another 15-30 minutes you'll come across La Piscina beach where you can swim.
Cabo San Juan
Cabo San Juan is the third option for accommodation after arriving at the main entrance of El Zaino. It's roughly a 2-3 hour hike; three hours if you're a leisurely hiker that takes lots of picture breaks like I am. Here you camp on the beach and you can swim at the beach immediately in front - the main reason I chose to stay here! Hammocks, tents and cabins are offered. Cabo San Juan is rightfully famous for it's Mirror Beach.
Costs at Cabo San Juan
- Hammock (normal) - 25,000
- Hammock at El Mirador - 30,000
- Rent a tent (up to 2 people) - 50,000 COP
- Small bottle of water - 3,000 COP
- Fresh juice - 5,000 COP
- Beer - 5,000 COP
- Vegetarian Rice - 13,000 COP (other main dishes cost between 15,000 COP - 25,000 COP)
- Homemade coconut bar/dessert - 2,000 COP
- Tiny cup of instant coffee - 2,000 COP
Prices are from November 2017.
The main beaches of Tayrona accessible from the main entrance of El Zaino include Los Naranjos, Castilletes, Cañaveral, Arrecifes, La Piscina, Playa del Puerto, Playa Caiman, Mirror Beach, and the Nudist Beach.
IMPORTANT: You can only swim at La Piscina, Mirror Beach and the Nudist Beach.
Hiking in Tayrona National Park
So I decided to hike the two hours to Cabo San Juan. The two hours I was told was kind of a severe underestimate as it took me three hours. I don’t think anyone accounted for those “holy shit this is beautiful I have to stop and take a dozen pictures” moments. And there’s a lot of those moments. Truly, a lot.
I’ve hiked a lot in my lifetime. I’ve hiked in the stunning Glacier National Park in Montana, bamboo forests of Maui and the fjords of Norway. While each place is extraordinary and memorable in their own way, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that this was perhaps the most beautiful hike I’ve ever done. In fact, I rated this experience as my top travel experience from 2017!
Immediately upon entering Tayrona National Park you’re welcomed with dense vegetation, the abundant plant life giving off vital energy. Within minutes I felt like I could truly take a breath of fresh air.
At times I felt like I was walking through an Indiana Jones movie; vines hanging from twisted trees, boulders the size of an SUV, rickety wooden bridges.
Tayrona actually reminded me of some of the National Parks in Costa Rica including Manuel Antonio and Cahuita National Park, both of which offer jungle hikes on the ocean and wildlife viewing, but Tayrona is on a larger and more diverse scale.
Around every corner was a lovely surprise; you’d peek through a gap in the trees to find a secluded beach. Or stairs through boulders on either side and nothing but the Caribbean ocean in sight. Or once on the beach sweeping views of mountains covered in dense vegetation. Or horses grazing in the grass with the ocean in the background.
When I arrived at Cabo San Juan I don’t think I could have been more impressed. The water was an enticing shade of blue, and the beaches were clean, albeit crowded.
I went for a swim, had a very late lunch/early dinner at the restaurant on-site, then for another swim before showering and lounging in a hammock the rest of the evening. Each location or camp in the park has an on-site restaurant. However, it’s possible to bring your own food or buy from the locals selling out of portable containers.
The next day was more of the brilliant same; yoga on the beach, swimming in the crystalline waters, reading in a hammock and enjoying the spectacular views provided in the park.
Locals were selling sandwiches and baked goods out of coolers they carried, so I opted for that for lunch over the restaurant.
5 Ways Tayrona National Park is (one of) The Most Beautiful National Park in the World
After spending two nights and three days, here is what I believe to be the 5 major ways that Tayrona National Park is (one of) the most beautiful national parks in the world.
1. Mountainous Jungle
I’m from California and spent the majority of my life in San Diego. We do NOT have mountains like this anywhere around, especially not next to the beach. There’s something absolutely magical about lush green mountains adjacent to the ocean!
Reaching an altitude of 5,700 m (18,700 ft) just 42 km (26 mi) from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is one of the world's highest coastal ranges, being 250m shorter than the Saint Elias Mountains in Canada.
2. Beautiful Beaches & Turquoise Caribbean Ocean
I find that where you go, you either have beach or you have jungle. Colombia is unique in that in one line of view you have both. And not just your average beach, but white sandy beach and clear turquoise water.
As you hike, the therapeutic sound of waves crashing is never far away. If you choose to spend the night in the park, it will sooth you all night as well.
TRAVELERS TIP: Since the entrance fee is the same no matter how long you’re in the park, I highly recommend staying at least 1 night. Plus, it would be difficult to see the park and enjoy its’ benefits in only one day.
Hiking through the national park I saw many different types of wildlife – monkeys, lizards, leaf cutter ants (love these!) and many fish in the coral reefs. A few people I met had said they saw a crocodile! So there’s that!
Tayrona is home to over 108 species of mammals (including 3 species of monkey – Red Howler, Capuchin Monkey and the Cotton-top Tamarin), 300+ species of birds, 70 species of bat, 31 species of reptile, 110 different types of coral, 401 sea or river fish and over 770 plant species.
4. No Wi-Fi
Disconnect from the external network to connect to your internal one. I think in our daily lives we are so wrapped up in the internet, email, social media, news outlets, texting, etc. that we forget to be truly present in the moment. And I believe that the present moment is where the magic happens. In Tayrona National Park, the unavailability of Wi-Fi encourages you to be present to truly tune into the experience and your true self.
5. Meeting the Kogi, the Indigenous Peoples
Along the way you will most likely see several groups of Kogis, the indigenous peoples of this region. They might be alone walking, selling fresh squeezed orange juice or coconuts with machete in hand.
The Kogi are an indigenous ethnic group that live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia. It’s a region that spans # area from the north coast to central Colombia and includes parts of Tayrona National Park and The Lost City.
The Kogi believe in "Aluna" or "The Great Mother," and that all of humanity are her children. They wear white, the men with rubber boots and the women without shoes so she can better connect to the feminine energy of the Earth.
It truly is an astonishing experience to be walking in the woods and come across people with such an uncommon cultural background. They are living ancient peoples.
TRAVELERS TIP: Do not take pictures of the Kogi tribespeople. If you really would like a picture, ask them first. I found that most of them do speak Spanish.
DISCLAIMER: I do not believe that one national park is the most beautiful in all of the world. Every national park offers something spectacular and different from each other. You cannot compare the beauty of the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, USA to that of Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. They are very different, and both very beautiful. My only goal with this post is to show that Tayrona National Park should be considered one of the world’s most beautiful. I read more than a dozen articles which list 10, 12, 20, 30+ of the world’s most beautiful parks and this park doesn’t make the list! That is a shame, and I believe it to be wrong. I think because of Colombia’s turbulent history and political situation that people rule out the country, but that is also a shame.
What to Do in Tayrona
There are many things you can do in Tayrona National Park. Most people spend only one night here, although I was very glad to stay two nights, and if you hike both in and out of the park I highly recommend staying two nights to fully enjoy the park's beauty.
- Swim - please read signs carefully as you cannot swim at every beach!
- Hike - yes even though you hike 2-3 hours to get into the park. There are two main hikes once inside the park; one to Nueve Piedras (nine rocks) and the other to El Pueblito. It's roughly a 4 hour round trip hike from Cabo San Juan to El Pueblito.
- Swim and relax on the beach
- Read, play cards and enjoy a mental and digital detox!
What to Bring To Tayrona
- Small daypack
- Hiking shoes or boots
- Water for the hike in - you can buy more water at the campsite, yet it's expensive
- Jacket or sweater and long pants for the evenings especially if you're sleeping in a hammock
- Towel - beach and/or for showering
- Flip flops for the beach and community showers
- Cash - for food, water, beer, fresh juices, etc.
- Passport - you must have this upon entry
- Book, cards, frisbee, etc. to keep you entertained
- A lock - lockers are provided for those staying in hammocks
- Headlamp - always a good idea when camping or sleeping outside! A phone torch light would do the trick, but sometimes you need hands free.
- Tent, sleeping bags, a sheet, etc. if you have them and want to camp. A mattress is provided with the tent but you'll want a sheet or sleeping bag to lay on over the mattress.
- Snorkel gear - you can rent at the campsites, at the entry of the park, or in town
- External battery pack
Tayrona National Park is a haven for people who are looking to recharge their batteries.
With beautiful turquoise waters, thick jungle rich with life, limited access to the internet, ample wildlife and unique interactions with the indigenous people make Tayrona National Park in Colombia one of the most beautiful in the world.
Contact us to plan your one-of-a-kind vacation to Colombia.
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