One of the most beautiful natural areas in Colombia is Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. It sits just outside of Santa Marta, covering 150 km² of land and coastline with trails, incredible beaches, coral reefs, and several species of plants and animals.
It’s a little time consuming to do Tayrona by public transport from Santa Marta, but there are tours that are offered. Some tours offer beach days, others offer a couple hours of hiking to a beach, and others yet offer only nature hikes. The beach tours available were Playa Cristal (no hiking), and La Piscina and Cabo San Juan del Guía (hiking). I’ve done both tours. It’s also possible to go by boat from Santa Marta or Taganga directly to some of the beaches for the day. The ride is very choppy and takes about 90 minutes.
If you aren’t on a guided tour, foreigners pay COP$44,000 to enter during low season and COP$48,500 during high season (as of June 2017).
On my second visit to Tayrona with Marisol, we decided to do the hiking tour to La Piscina and Cabo San Juan. We went with Magic Tour Colombia. The price included admission to the park, a guide, and transportation. We were told to bring swimwear, sunscreen, and water. The total price of the tour for us was COP$70,000 each (as of December 2014) because we have Colombian IDs, but it’s a bit more for foreigners.
For our guided tour, we were picked up at our hotel at 8:30am and driven to the park. When we arrived, we signed in and went through security. We were then shown a short video about the park.
We jumped back on the bus and the guide gave us the rundown for the day as we headed for the starting point at Cañaveral. Basically, we were free to go at our own pace but had to be back at the starting point by 4:30 to head back to Santa Marta. He advised us that it would probably take about an hour and a half from the furthest beach on the trail, Cabo San Juan, so it would be good to start walking back by 3pm.
We started our hike at about 10am. The trail was very well marked and it was easy to walk through it. I recommend good walking shoes but at a slow pace it’s possible to do the hike in flip-flops.
Our first stop after hiking through the rain forest for 20 minutes was a viewpoint overlooking the coast.
As we continued along the path, the first beach we were able to walk on was Arrecifes. It’s a long stretch of powdery white sand but unsafe for swimming. There is a coral reef just offshore and the undertow is very strong.
Just past Arrecifes is the first swimmable beach on the trail, Arenillas. It’s surrounded by large boulders and bordered by a reef that breaks the waves.
15 minutes further down the path was La Piscina (The Pool). The beach got its name because of a natural swimming pool formed by the reef offshore, softening the waves and making it an easy place to swim. It’s a nice long stretch of beach but in some parts the waves reach right up to the forest, giving very little room to lay out. It’s probably the best beach to swim at on this trail.
Cabo San Juan del Guía
About a half hour down a very muddy and sometimes slippery trail (it’s better without shoes!) is Cabo San Juan del Guía. This is by far the most scenic beach on the trail and quite possibly the entire park. Waves are a little strong but it’s a beautiful place to relax.
There are two parts to the beach separated by a sandbar and a hill of rocks. On the hill is a cabana with hammocks and a great view of both sections of the beach.
At the entrance to the beach is a restaurant and a campground for those who wish to stay overnight. It’s recommended to bring plenty of water if staying overnight.
At about 2pm we left Cabo San Juan and headed back to Arenillas for lunch. We had fried fish and fresh juice. It cost about COP$52,000 for the two of us. Another restaurant is located at Cabo San Juan, but it gets overcrowded and to be honest, the food isn’t that great.
Getting Back to Santa Marta
After the lunch, we hiked back to the starting point to gather with the rest of the group. Our ride back to Santa Marta started at 4:30pm but was held up by terrible traffic. We finally arrived around 6pm.
If you do the hike at a decent pace, it should take about two hours to get to Cabo San Juan (including stops for photos and rest). The fastest I’ve been able to do the hike is 72 minutes, and that’s walking at a quick pace and without stopping.
If you don’t want to hike, you can go on horseback. You’ll miss all the great scenery along the way, but it should only take about 80 minutes to get to Cabo San Juan. Horses can be hired for COP$40,000 one way at the parking lot or at the entrance to the park (as of June 2017).
If you’d like to stay close to the park entrance and do the park on your own, rather than all the way in Santa Marta, I can recommend Ecohostal Yuluka. This eco-friendly hotel is located right in the jungle and just 10 minutes from the park entrance. It only has a handful of small bungalows, each with a fantastic bathroom. Beds are equipped with mosquito nets and some rooms have air conditioning.
The hosts, Wilmar and Nellys, do their best to make sure you’re comfortable. They can also help book tours for the many activities in the area. The staff is laid back and friendly. There’s a swimming pool to cool off after your visit to the park.
A shuttle leaves every morning at around 8am to take visitors to the entrance of Tayrona National Park. For a little bit extra, the driver will take you all the way to the parking lot where the trail begins and even agree to pick you up at a set time in the afternoon. You can organize this with the hotel.
The only drawbacks: wifi is spotty or nonexistent, and the only restaurant in the area is at the hotel. For two nights, we paid between COP$120,000 to $160,000 per night (as of June 2017).