Tayrona National Park: A Quick Guide and Trip Report
Tayrona National Natural Park, in the north of Colombia, is a large protected area covering the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The park is well known by locals and foreigners for its great beaches, rainforest, and rich biodiversity. This place is a gem.
We arrived from Santa Marta in Calabazo and stayed in a nice, nature oriented hostel next to the river and relatively close to the park’s second and less popular entrance. The original plan though, was to take a bus to the main entrance, pay the expensive entrance fee, and make our way through the Park. But this is just a part of what goes into getting in through the main entrance. I’ll explain shortly…
For us, part of the change of plans had to do with it being Easter time. As you might imagine, during the holidays, the park doesn't just receive the usual flow of tourists but it’s also swarmed with local tourists. And that day, Easter of 2019, wasn’t an exception.
Tayrona Main Entrance (Zaino)
Let me tell you how that went and what it takes to get from the main entrance to Cabo San Juan.
We took a 10 minute bus ride from in front our hostel to the National Park’s Zaino main entrance. As we arrived at around 8:30 am, we could already tell it wasn’t going to work for us. There were so many people lined up and countless more arriving every minute. Zaino entrance p/p: 65,000 COP (normally 50,000 but the price was extra high because of the holidays).
While we assessed the horrifying situation, we became aware of an other fee, a mandatory insurance (just in case you’re irresponsible and something happens?). Insurance p/p: 3,000 COP.
For a while we stayed in the surroundings planning our next move but the long line barely moved. It was because they make everyone watch a 20 minute video about the park (which you could try to sneak out of), check bags for restricted or forbidden alcohol, plastics, and glass bottles and then make them wait in turns to take a minibus to the ‘real’ entrance separated by 4 km of a paved, boring road. Minibus p/p: 3,000 COP.
So, after you’re at the ‘real’ park entrance, you still have to walk 1,5 hours to get to the main beach, Cabo San Juan. The other option at this point, is to hire a horse to take you or/and your luggage through a fairly steep and dusty road (if you’re camping, this might be a smart option for your gear). Horse ride p/horse: around 50,000 COP.
There you go, a fairly easy but tedious and expensive process to visit Tayrona National Park. Definitely not recommended to visit in high season or weekends.
And yet there we were.
Like I said, the crowds gave us a chance to re-think our plan even if at the time we didn’t exactly know what to expect if we would’ve taken this path. Either way, the sight of a long line of people followed by another long line of arriving cars, was enough for us to stay back.
The Calabazo entrance
Instead, plan B was on the making. We had heard and read about a different way to get into Tayrona National Natural Park. Entrance number two, the less popular road that starts in Calabazo. Here, you wouldn’t have to stop to watch the video but most importantly, you wouldn’t have to stand in line.
This road takes you up and down the mountain through the beautiful tropical jungle and it’s a great opportunity to experience some wildlife while walking pretty much on your own. But yes, there’s a catch: it’s a long, sweaty journey. It takes around three and a half hours to reach Cabo San Juan plus two more hours to finish the whole journey back to the main entrance.
That day, standing near the main entrance to the Park, we decided to go in the next day through the second path and really really early.
Now, let me tell you about plan B and how it actually went for us:
We bought bread and oatmeal drinks for the next day’s breakfast, fruit, snacks and water for along the way (we only took 0.5 liter of water for each and ran out before we reached the beach, so take at least one liter). Food supplies p/p: around 20,000 COP
Yes, you can visit Tayrona for free
The next day, we woke up early and left our hostel at 5:00 am with our headlights on. We had to walk 1 km along the main road to reach the Calabazo entrance. And here’s the trick: because the Park entrances open at 6:00 am, there was nobody at the ticket booth! Calabazo entrance before 6:00 am: FREE!
And there we went.
I have to say it wasn’t an easy peasy journey, especially for me, not being in the greatest physical condition. And even though the ups and downs were challenging, I very much enjoyed the walk.
At the beginning of the path, we got to hear the distant howls and growls of the howling monkeys. During the whole walk we heard and saw birds, lizards, ants, and butterflies. We got to see a bunch of poison-dart frogs and even had a glimpse of two capybaras.
We were hoping / not hoping to see a jaguar but weren’t lucky / unlucky.
After three to three and a half hours of sweating, I mean, walking, we arrived at Playa Nudista. Not fully a nudist beach, maybe because of the high season but nevertheless a beautiful beach, with dangerous waves where it is advised not to swim. Here, we picked a spot in one of the few shades around for a well deserved rest.
Cabo San Juan
Next up, the popular Cabo San Juan beach. Where most people come together. Yes, it was crowded, but honestly, I found people were pretty well scattered considering the amount of visitors. This is probably because the Tayrona National Park is so darn big.
We could totally see the appeal of Cabo San Juan. The beach is shaped oddly, surrounded and divided by boulders forming two distinct beaches, one next to the other. It’s truly beautiful. The site also features a lagoon, were apparently you can spot crocodiles.
Cabo is also where the main camping grounds are and where you can find the most places to buy food and drinks including a large overpriced restaurant. We ended up buying drinks in a smaller shop and got a hot bun filled with chocolate from an street vendor which was new for us and turned out to be surprisingly delicious.
Hunger averted, we decided to walk past Cabo San Juan and head to the next beach, only 10-15 minutes away, La Piscina.
While we walked, we passed by tons of people, most of them going our opposite way, which was nice. It was around 12:30 pm when we arrived and luckily found a good, safe spot to put down our things. Again, it was crowded but we had enough space around us in the sea to swim (finally) and relax.
Wow, what a sea. Beautiful clear, turquoise water like the other beaches and nice sandy bottom, just slightly wavy and a nice depth for swimming. We heard a snorkeling guy yell “Pulpo!”, telling his friends he saw an octopus.
While we dried up in the sun, we tried another new thing, hot chicken-filled bread. I’m telling you, these hot buns at the beach are a revelation. They come nicely wrapped with all sorts of sweet and savory fillings and are kept warm in a cooler!
At around 2:00 pm, we walked further to our exit through the Zaino main entrance without going to Arrecifes which is another beach too rough to bathe in. We were also too tired to go off road, hehe.
On the way, we came across more people by foot and on horses that had just entered the Park. And we walked for an hour and a half through ups and downs and narrow dusty paths, rocks and bridges (same ones the horses use) until we reached Cañaveral.
This stinky, wet square is the place where they keep most horses that take you all the way to Cabo San Juan. We made it to the ‘real’ main entrance. From there, we decided to spend a few bucks (3,000 COP p/p) to get in a minivan that drove us through 4 km of a boring paved road and out to the town. A 2,000 COP p/p bus to our hostel in Calabazo and we were done!
What a day.
We were super tired but felt a big satisfaction after such a long but beautiful walk. Even though we only made a day trip to Tayrona National Natural Park, we felt that by walking the long way, we made the most of it.
The Park is just so beautiful and big, that my suggestion would be to stay at least a night camping. There’s tons to see and do, so plan your trip well. Do some research and find out how long you want to stay.
Tayrona National Park information and checklist
Here are a few important things to keep in mind before entering the Park:
It’s closed in February.
You have to have a Yellow Fever vaccine to enter.
Bringing certain plastics and alcohol into the Park is restricted and could be taken away from you after the bag check.
Avoid going if it’s rainy because there’s no shelter and the roads get muddy.
If going in through the main Zaino entrance, avoid going in high season.
Bring at least 1 liter of water per person and power snacks if taking the long Calabazo entrance road.
Bring bug spray and more importantly sun screen because once you’re at the coast, there isn’t much shade.
Wear good walking shoes for comfort.
Download a map of the area on your phone to help you stay on the right track.
Stay on the trail. It’s a freaking jungle, people. We met one girl who lost her friends on the trail…