Go here if you like: Beaches, nature, hiking and hammocks (but be warned, it can get quite busy and may not the deserted paradise you may be craving)
A bit of context: Respecting the indigenous presence in the area, Tayrona National Park is a concession managed by the Tayrona people. Tourists are allowed into the park though they do shut the park every now and again for indigenous ceremonies so check ahead.
Tayrona is beautiful and as a result popular for both national and international tourists. By no means is it crowded but I would advise aiming for mid-week to avoid weekend trippers. There are awesome beaches in other areas of Tayrona (Playa Cristal and Bahía Concha), as well as outside of Tayrona (Playa del Ritmo, Playa Los Angeles and Costeño Beach) but here I focus on the Cabo San Juan area.
- How to get to Cabo San Juan (transport options, the two entrances & associated hikes)
- What to take to Tayrona
How long to spend in Tayrona?
To get the most out of the journey, the entrance fee and the park, I would recommend at least a night, ideally two in the park. It is possible to get to Cabo San Juan and back in a day by boat or very quick hiking but can't imagine it's that relaxing - more of a tick box excursion.
I spent two nights, 3 days in the park – perfect to unwind and explore the coastline, walking in via Calabazo-Pueblito and out of the A Zaino-Cañaveral exit.
HOW TO GET TO CABO SAN JUAN?
The entrances to Tayrona National Park are on the road between Santa Marta and Palomino/ Rioacha. To get to Cabo San Juan you can either get to one of the two entrances and walk a few hours or boat it:
Public bus/ tour/ taxi transport then hike
a. Public buses run frequently. The meeting point for this moves around but most recently (January 2017), they are leaving from Carrera 9 #11 (used to be Carrera 13 #11-126 and before that Calle 11 #11 but has changed). The buses say Tayrona on the front. As you’re walking up through the Mercado central area, go ahead and ask though maybe get a second opinion as not everyone is up to date with whatever the latest location is!
b. Shared direct tour transport can be organized through any of the agencies or your hostel.
c. Taxi – probably quite expensive but could work if you have enough people to fill a taxi.
Boat from Taganga straight to Cabo San Juan
a. 1h boat (lancha) from Taganga for COP 45k each way. Can be quite choppy so depends on water conditions and relies on filling the boat. Best to ask someone about this once you're there as wasn't an option I explored that much.
I did the public bus and hike option - an easy bus and a beautiful hike with monkeys, iguanas and awesome jungle trails.
There are two entrances to the park with access to Cabo San Juan. The bus driver will likely assume you are going to A Zaino as that is the more popular one so let him know if you want the Calabazo/ Pueblito entrance instead.
Entrance fee is COP 46k for non-Colombians, COP 16k for Colombians, which you pay on entering the park. For those arriving on boat you pay when you disembark on the beach at Cabo San Juan. Take a photocopy of your passport as you need to show that, or at a minimum know your passport number.
Entrance: A ZAINO – CANAVERAL (30km out of Santa Marta)
The more popular entrance. The shorter (2h) and flatter (gently undulating) option to Cabo San Juan.
Once off the bus, you’ll be channeled to an information video, before queuing up to pay the entry fee. Once in the park, you have the choice to walk or take a minibus shuttle for 5km to get to the trail. I recommend you pay the COP 3k for the minibus shuttle service; skipping an extra 5km on tarmac is a smart idea.
The shuttle drops you off at a place called Cañaveral. From there, it’s a scenic 1h/ 1h15 walk on boardwalk and through the forest to Arrecifes, the first of the big beaches. From Arrecifes it’s another hour to Cabo San Juan. The walk is family friendly but has steps and can get sweaty. It's possible with big backpacks (but as said earlier, if you can, leave excess gear in your hostel in Santa Marta to lighten your load).
You can pay COP 20k for a horse to take you and your bag should you prefer that option – this takes you on a horse trail rather on the walking path.
Entrance: CALABAZO (25km out of Santa Marta)
Beautiful but tougher (3.5h) hike, via the Pueblito ruins
This route adds a bit more adventure to your Tayrona trip.
The Calabazo/ Pueblito option is a hike rather than a walk, taking 3-4 hours to reach Cabo San Juan, on sometimes tricky terrain. It's a fun hike but not so fun if you were to try it with a big backpack as the stretch from Pueblito to Cabo San Juan involves shimmying down boulders and quite a bit of nimble footwork. You can always hike back up to Pueblito from Cabo San Juan and back again in a half-day trip if you choose the A Zaino/ Cañaveral entrance.
First stage from Calabazo to Pueblito (2h): Calabazo is a quieter entrance. There is minimal signage to show you the way when you get off the bus but head up the lane behind the shop and at the fork stay right (ask if you're not sure). Soon you’ll reach a non-descript building on the left where you will pay your entry fee and register your details – there is no information video.
The first couple of hours, from the entrance to Pueblito, has some steep ups and downs and is mainly on dirt track through the forest.
PUEBLITO is an ancient indigenous ruin dating back a long long way. If you aren’t able to do the 4-5 day hike to Ciudad Perdida, Pueblito is a good alternative as there are similar style plots. There are a couple of juice and snack vendors near Pueblito should you want a top up.
Stage 2 from Pueblito to Cabo San Juan (1.5h): you walk along a 1,500 year old route built by the Tayronans. Follow your nose to leave Pueblito, it’s out and up the back left side from the way you come in. The path is a bit overgrown, with fallen trees and boulders of all shapes and sizes but trust your instinct. You won’t see many people on this route but the odd encounter will give you reassurance.
The ancient path is made of rocks placed to allow the Tayronans to move amongst the huge boulders that litter the valley down to the sea – I loved it. As you come through the jungle, you are gradually able to see and hear the sea and eventually the Cabo San Juan huts.
You come out of the jungle, through a cave, and into a sandy palm tree clearing. Walking into the busy-ish Cabo San Juan campsite was strange after so many hours of peace and quiet.
Arrecifes: a huge wind-swept beach, no swimming allowed. Great for walking along. Not great for sunbathing nor swimming.
Arenillas: a nice swimmable beach cove with silky smooth water. Great for sunbathing and relaxing - smaller than the Cabo beach.
Piscina: A huge expanse of swimmable shallow water protected by a reef. No beach to sit on as the water comes right up to the fence (which you can hang your stuff on).
Cabo San Juan: Two swimmable and sunbathable beaches joined together – the ultimate destination for most people.
Playa Nudista: A long beach 5 minutes walk beyond Cabo San Juan (look out for all the blue crabs in the forest!). No swimming but is good for relaxing on as is normally much quieter.
Playa Brava: As you walk from Pueblito to Cabo San Juan there is a lefthand fork to Playa Brava. Playa Brava is a more secluded beach, as it is even more remote than the rest of the beaches. To get there from Cabo San Juan, you follow the route back towards Pueblito before forking right. I think it takes 2/3 hours.
Between Arrecifes and Cañaveral there are a couple of beaches, one called Los Naranjos, the other called Piscinita, where Ecohabs luxury cabins and a few other hotels are.
The Cabo San Juan campsite offers 4 options for sleeping. Check-in opens at 1.15pm, by which time there is a queue. To ensure you get what you want, probably best to get there and start queueing by 1pm (I got there for 2.30pm in off season and got the 8th last normal hammock):
- Hammock in the seafront cabaña – a cool option to sleep in a thatched roof hut on the rocks overlooking the sea. First come first served - costs slightly more but I think COP 5,000 more at COP 25,000.
- Normal hammocks – there is a covered hut set back in the campsite where the majority of hammocks are. Cost COP 20,000
- Tents – from what I heard, not a pleasant option due to the heat and damp smell.
- Cabins – didn’t hear these were like but sure ok
The campsite has lockers, showers, sinks, loos and a restaurant with a juice bar. Snorkeling tour on offer too.
Behind Arrecifes Beach there are several options:
- Yuruca at Arrecifes: My choice. New clean hammocks with mosquito nets and good bathrooms for COP 32k (vs the park norm of COP 20k). Also has an upmarket cabin offering in the Decameron hotel group. I had a particularly good fish and rice meal and the best mango juice I’ve had in Colombia at Restaurante Arrecifes for COP 40,000 (£10.50).
- San Pedro: Basic - back up from Arrecifes up the horse trail
- Paraiso: Basic - closest to the beach…but didn’t look like paradise to me…
Playa Brava Hammock campsite
Between Arrecifes and Cabo San Juan there is a campsite but didn’t look particularly special
Between Cañaveral and Arrecifes there are several up market options but you’ll probably want to head further in to find the hammock options, and be closer to Cabo San Juan
WHAT TO TAKE TO TAYRONA:
Ideally leave as much of you stuff in Santa Marta or Palomino as possible to save you lugging everything into the park and back out again.
- Water - as much as you’re happy carrying. 500ml bottles cost COP 3k –more expensive than normal as justified by the fact they have to haul all that water into the park on horses. You can save money by bringing your own (I got through a 5l bottle in 2 and a half days). No need to go overboard though – paying for a horse due to a super heavy bag doesn’t help!
- Food – worth bringing some picnic food with you, although there are basic restaurants in the park for proper meals.
o Ideally buy some food the day before you go so you can set off nice and early. Supermarket Olímpica (Calle 11 #8) and Rapimercado (Cl 12 #8-100) are the supermarkets closest to where the public bus goes from to buy snacks and big bottle of water.
o The food in the park is fine – basic and in the COP 25-35k region at the campsite restaurants. There are also vendors selling empanadas, ceviche and coconuts. Breakfast is dry but works for COP 7,000. There are no cooking facilities and no fires are allowed in the park. I took a loaf of bread, some peanut butter, an avocado and a tin of tuna and was happy for a day and a bit.
- Beach stuff
- Sun cream
- Mosquito repellent – no mosquito nets at Cabo San Juan campsite
- Good trainers to walk in
- Book/ cards – or however you like to while away the time
- You might like long sleeves to protect from bugs/ and provide a layer at night though unlikely to be cold
- Toothbrush etc.
TRAVELLING TO OTHER PARTS OF COLOMBIA TOO?
For the full collection of notes I collected while exploring Colombia, head to Over to you: Tips for Travel in Colombia
(Includes Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park, Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) Trek, Cartagena, Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Isla Providencia, The Coffee Region, La Guajira and great Colombian music, books and festivals to aim for)
Hope you enjoy!! Please do share with anyone you think might find them useful.
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