Tayrona National Park, or Parque Nacional Tayrona as its called in Spanish, should be on any Colombian itinerary. The protected area on Colombia’s northern coast spans 150 km2 of land, and 30km2 of ocean, providing lush forest, glorious coastline and pre-Hispanic history to explore. Obviously, the beaches are stunning, but there is more to Tayrona than just the beaches, and I’d recommend at least a two-night stay to make the most of your time here. And definitely stay overnight, to see a sunrise like the one above!
More than Just Beaches: The Hike Through Tayrona Park
Any trip to Tayrona begins with a rather sweaty, but interesting hike. I am not a fast walker, and we took our time, enjoying the changing scenery and occasional glimpses of the shimmering blue sea!
The first part of the hike is up and down, sometimes walking along wooden footpaths, and sometimes clambering over rocks, as you make your way through the forest. The path then levels out and is mostly shaded through the forests of palms and mysterious tunnels through mangroves. Be sure to set out early though, as the heat and humidity remains, despite the shade!
One of the highlights of the hike for me was just before the Arrecifes camp, when we came across a Kogi man selling freshly squeezed orange juice which was one of the best juices I have ever had!! Tart, but cold and much needed after our hike.
Tayrona National Park: Explore the Beaches
I know I said Tayrona Park is more than beaches, but the beaches really are incredible! Most people (myself included) tend to head straight to Cabo San Juan, and stay there. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but variety is the spice of life as they say, so take time to explore the other beaches and coves too. Take heed of the signs, as some beaches aren’t suitable for swimming, but La Piscina is perfect for bathing, and you can join a tour for snorkelling here too. It is also worth walking further along the coast from Cabo San Juan to enjoy quieter beaches, just watch for coconuts dropping from the palms above!
Parque Nacional Tayrona: Get Back to Nature
There is still a special kind of magic in Tayrona, when you can find a quiet spot away from the other people, and re-connect with nature. Gaze out to sea and watch the seagulls floating on the warm air, or a pelican diving for a meal amid the waves. Or venture into the forest to hear the rustle of leaves as lizards scurry for cover, or the distant ghoulish cries of howler monkeys.
Close to the camp at Cabo San Juan you may also spot endangered cotton-top tamarins if you’re lucky, which sometimes can be seen from the path heading to El Pueblito. During my time in the park, my friend & I saw a frog, a giant millipede, butterflies and a bat, as well as plenty of birds. Watch the ocean long enough and you will catch a glimpse of fishes leaping out of the water; if you look hard enough there is plenty to see here!
The Spiritual Side of Parque Tayrona
The Kogi people are descendants of the Tayrona, the indigenous inhabitants of this area. The Kogi own the Park land, and tolerate the tourists, some offering orange juice, fresh coconuts or woven bags for sale. We saw several Kogis during our stay in Tayrona, although they avoid the beaches you will often see them on the paths in the park. They have their distinctive traditional dress of a white tunic and trousers, wellies, and a hand-woven satchel. All of them have long hair, usually tied back in a ponytail, and beautiful brown skin.
Tayrona park is often closed for a month every year, to allow the land to recover and to cleanse the park of the tourists’ negative spirits. Unfortunately, as Parque Tayrona has gained in popularity over the last few years, the constant flow of tourists has left its mark on the land, and the sea. It was less built up than I had expected, after witnessing the carnage at Playa Blanca with rows of restaurants and plastic seating and the inevitable build-up of rubbish. I was pleasantly surprised here, and I hope it stays this way, although there was still interference of humans visible everywhere – little bits of rubbish, and empty coconuts, but seemingly relatively low impact. Although I don’t like to think of where the sewage goes! Be careful to take all your rubbish with you, and leave the park as you would hope to find it.
Culture & History in Tayrona Park: El Pueblito
El Pueblito is a Kogi settlement in the middle of the forest in Tayrona National Park. It isn’t an easy hike, and although the trail is signed I still managed to get lost – if you feel like you may have strayed off the path you probably have, so go back and try again! The trail starts off from the campsite at Cabo, along a flat path where plenty of colourful lizards play on the path.
The trail then enters the jungle, climbing upwards on stone ‘steps’ forming the path. Soon you will be clambering over rocks, which is not the best idea to attempt alone unless you are suitably nimble – there were two of us and we needed to push each other up in places! There is plenty of flora and fauna to be found along the path, and the screeches of howler monkeys could also be heard deeper in the forest, especially when we accidentally strayed off the path.
Unfortunately, our little detour added an extra hour onto our journey, and we were exhausted when we finally arrived in Pueblito. I admit I was a little underwhelmed – do not expect Machu Picchu style ruins. Instead you will find some terraces, and remains of circular houses, and steps leading to more of the same. There are still houses where the Kogi people live, although they ask that you don’t take photographs.
For those who don’t have time in their itinerary for the Ciudad Perdida Trek from Santa Marta, this hike is a taster of what you can expect there. It would have been more enjoyable for us had we not got lost, but if you have already been to Ciudad Perdida I wouldn’t recommend hiking to Pueblito unless you love walking in the jungle.
I spent 2 days and 2 nights in Parque Tayrona, and it really wasn’t enough – I would have loved an extra day! The great news is that once you have paid for entry in the park you can stay as long as you like; just pay for your hammock, and enjoy! Don’t forget to explore the rest of the park, not just the beaches.
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