A Weekend at Tayrona National Park
With Bridgette laid up with an unfortunate pool-related foot injury in Santa Marta, I was flying solo on our planned trip to Tayrona National Park, located 45 minutes or so outside of the city. Still a bit leery of the public transportation options, I took the direct shuttle from our hostel for 12,000 pesos, which dropped me and eight fellow hostel-dwellers right at the park’s entrance. There is a cornucopia of vendors camped just outside, offering visitors last-minute supplies; there are a few restaurants within the park but nothing along the lines of a general store, so you’d do well to pick up anything you’re forgetting before entering. At the very least, you’ll want water. A lot of it; I went through an entire five liter jug and ended up having to purchase more inside. Bug spray and sunscreen are also must-haves, the sun is unforgiving and the bugs even less so. I brought in some camping food as well to avoid having to purchase the overpriced meals that you can expect anywhere restaurants have a captive audience.
The entry fee to the park is a steep 42,000 pesos, but if you have a student card you get a hefty discount, costing you only 9,000 pesos, so be sure to bring that if you have one. Once inside, you’ll need to take either a taxi ($$$), a collectivo, or an hour walk to the main trailhead. I opted for the collectivo, which cost 3,000 pesos. Collectivos are essentially small buses that only run when they fill up, so depending on the time of day you might wait one minute or one hour to depart. Luckily, mine only took about 15 minutes, and we were off.
I naively assumed that would take us to the main campsite, where I was looking forward to unloading my gear and supplies, but unfortunately that was just the beginning. From there, it’s about an 80-minute hike across a variety of terrain and up and down numerous flights of steps, both man-made and natural. The flora and fauna, a mixture of coastal and rainforest varieties, was quite stunning, although the fact that I was melting and burning from the mid-day heat distracted me a bit from the experience.
Eventually, I made it to the campsite, where I secured a hammock for two nights at a cost of 15,000 pesos per night. The site was rudimentary but serviceable, with hammocks and tents, a shower that ran twice per day, bathrooms, and a small restaurant offering simple foods and drinks throughout the day, including a few hours at night when the generator was active.
At one point a toad jumped out of the toilet at me. Given that I already had to go, it quite nearly made me wet my pants.
From the campsite, it was another 45-minute hike to one of the most popular spots in the park, Cabo San Juan. It’s a picturesque tropical beach, with ample coastline offering spots to claim, vendors selling cold drinks and ice cream, and a large restaurant that offered the most variety of any I saw in the park. The real star is the view; no matter which way you look you’re guaranteed to be thinking “This could be on a postcard”.
Most of my first day was spent whiling away on the beach, so on my second day I wanted to do something a bit more active. I took some of the map’s advice and decided to hike up to El Pueblito, an ancient meeting place for the pre-Hispanic tribes of the area. What was advertised as a nice 90-minute hike turned out to be a 90-minute gauntlet testing the limits of my endurance, strength, and willpower. The majority of the path involves clambering up giant boulders and stone steps. The path is often indiscernible from the rest of the forest, so I got lost a number of times, and between the beating sun and the fact that two liters of water wasn’t nearly enough, I was a sweaty, stumbling mess by the time I reached the top.
Your reward at the summit is a set of stone ruins, as well as a small actively lived-in settlement of indigenous people. While the ruins themselves aren’t too much to look at, the history behind it and the vistas, wildlife, and plant life you pass through make the trek worthwhile. From the top, I had heard there was an easier path downwards, passing by a river or two and finally winding down to the beaches below where I’d started the journey. Unfortunately, after another 45 minutes of wandering, I was unable to locate this alternate route, and begrudgingly turned around and descended the path I had taken to the top.
Tayrona is home to numerous species of plants and animals. I saw a family of small monkeys scampering fearlessly across the treetops, lizards in a vast array of colors, a little furry pig thing that I couldn’t identify, and numerous cats and horses that had been brought in or attracted by the human presence. Beneath the crystal-clear water near the beaches, brightly colored fish swam darted every which way. Insects abounded as well, from your best friend the mosquito to more exotic varieties similar to dragonflies. A few times, I nearly stepped on highways of ants carrying leaves to and fro in a chaotic but somehow choreographed network.
Tayrona crams a whole smorgasbord of biospheres into one small area. You have tropical beaches, arid desert forests, wet rainforests, and more within an hour’s hike, and the variety of plants and animals you’ll see in their natural habitats is easily worth the entry fee. It’s an easy ride away from Santa Marta, which you should use as your base if you’re planning to visit the park; you’ll want somewhere nearby to retreat to once your trip is over to get a proper shower and do some laundry. The views are the epitome of picturesque, and even if difficult hikes aren’t your thing, you can pass the time sipping fruity drinks on some of the prettiest beaches you’ll ever see.