Following our day trip to Taganga beach near Santa Marta, last Friday Sam and I continued our search for the perfect beaches along Colombia’s Carribean coast by heading to Tayrona National Park (lots of info about Tayrona at the end of this post). Around midday, we hopped on a bus in Santa Marta’s centre and pretty soon we were rumbling along through countryside that rapidly changed from fairly arid to lush green. In about an hour we arrived at the entrance to Parque Tayrona. A second minibus took us from the entrance to the centre of the park, from where we began our hike to the coast.
The walk was a fairly easy one, but Sam and I are slightly unfit and neither of us do well in the heat, so we did struggle. About half the walk is through thick, jungle-like forest which was as humid as a green house and filled with big, leafy trees. We saw lots of small lizards and several monkeys, although I really struggled to get a good photo of any of them – for wild animals they were surprisingly anti-social! After a few fairly steep hills, we arrived panting and sweating at the edge of the forest and looked out at the gorgeous blue Carribean sea. There was still quite a way to go, but the wind coming off the ocean took a little of the pain out of the last part of the walk along a sandy path at the very edge of the forest.
Finally, exhausted and very much overheated, we arrived at Arricifes where the first campsites can be found. Not wanting to walk any further, we settled on a campsite directly on the edge of Arricifes beach – a large stretch of rough, white sand lapped by huge and very strong waves – and rented a tent there for two nights. As soon as we’d ditched our backpacks and changed our clothes, we headed out to the beach. It’s not safe to swim at Arricifes, so we walked on a little further – about 15 or 20 minutes – to La Piscina, a gorgeous, long bay with a skinny strip of white sand dotted with palm trees, where a natural strip of large rocks at the entrance to the bay act as breakers, keeping the water relatively calm. It was nearly 5pm when we finally reached the beach, so there wasn’t much time left for a swim – the water was pretty cold – but we enjoyed lingering in the water until the sun was almost down, before heading back to a restaurant at El Paraiso near our campsite for dinner.
The next day we both woke up pretty early after a very bad night’s sleep. It’s been a while since I camped, and the many noises – wind and waves, cockerels, a very angry stray cat, other campers – along with a few nerves, kept us both awake. Not wanting to tax ourselves with too much walking or exploration, we headed straight back to La Piscina beach (after a filling breakfast with freshly blended juices) to spend the day there. The beach is so picturesque – exactly the kind of white sand, clear seas, tropical forested, postcard-perfect stretch of coast we’d been hoping for – so we were really happy to spend the day lazing there with our books. The day before, someone on the beach had told us that the bay was perfect for snorkelling, so we rented a snorkel for 5,000 COP an hour and had a look. Within ten minutes, I’d stumbled upon a sea turtle! The sight was so completely unexpected that I jumped, and had a quick struggle with the snorkel which filled with water when I gasped. The turtle was huge, dappled green and brown, and was lazily gliding along the bottom of the bay taking very little notice of me. I followed him for a while, but eventually lost him: turtles are surprisingly quick, even when they’re making very lazy movements and barely seem to be swimming at all. Elated, I raced back to the beach to tell Sam, and he took a turn with the snorkel himself – managing to spot two more turtles (or possibly the same one twice!).
As well as the sea turtles, there was loads of life in the bay at La Piscina which made snorkelling there a fantastic experience. Colourful parrot fish, huge long grey fish which I first mistook for barracuda, angel fish, and dozens of species I didn’t recognise, all swimming amongst gently floating, pinkish sea weed which looked like flowers.
Close to our campsite was another, pricier camping location, Aviatur, which had a gorgeous looking restaurant – wooden decking with a palm frond roof and no walls. Wanting something a bit tastier than pasta or chips, we headed there for a slightly more expensive meal as a bit of a treat. The food was gorgeous – especially Sam’s: white fish wrapped in banana leaf with coconut rice – and after a long day with lots of swimming, we both ate with gusto and couldn’t resist dessert, too. The caramel flan was delicious!
On our last morning in Tayrona, we bumped into two German girls we’d met in Bucaramanga (where we tried paragliding) and walked to El Cabo beach with them. El Cabo is about a 40 minute walk from Arricifes, and is probably the more popular beach in the park. The campsite there was very crowded – and a huge queue at reception showed it was about to get even more so – and the beach was much busier than La Piscina, which had been lovely and quiet. However, the beach at Cabo was even more picturesque than La Piscina; two small bays divided by a little, grassy hill topped with a palm frond hut. The water was vivid blue, the sand was white, and a small, warm stream filled with tiny brown fish cut in from the jungle. It’s the classic postcard image that you’ll see whenever you search Tayrona, and it really was a stunning beach – although for me the highlight was La Piscina, where the snorkelling was far better.
After spending a morning on the beach enjoying the deliciously cool waters, we had to head back to the real world, so we collected our things from the campsite and took on the almost two hour walk back through the forest in horrendous heat. Confess time, I was a bit of a baby on the walk back; the hills nearly killed me and my head caught a bit too much sun, so I had a slight strop – thank goodness Sam was there to look after me and keep me going! Times like this are when I know I couldn’t travel alone; when I get scared or stressed or overtired, I need Sam there to encourage me and tell me it’ll all be ok.
We rode back to Santa Marta on a bumpy, overcrowded bus and headed straight to the Drop Bear hostel – an ex-cartel house in the beautiful El Jardin district (more to come on that, hopefully) – having had an amazing few days camping in Parque Tayrona, surrounded by jungle and lazing on pristine white beaches. The park, although a little pricey to a backpacker’s budget, is a must-visit for anyone headed to Colombia!
Update: My info is a couple of years out of date, so you can also check out this awesome Guide to Tayrona National Park from the lovely Two Scots Abroad for more. Don’t miss it!
Get the bus to Tayrona from Santa Marta on the corner of Calle 11 and and Carrera 11. The journey takes about an hour and costs 6,000 COP.
Entry to the park is 37,500 COP and you need to have ID with you – according to some girls we met they are happy to accept a copy of your passport, but we had originals. Inside the park is another bus costing 2,000 COP which will drive you into the middle of the park, knocking at least half an hour off the walk time. The walk from where the bus drops you is about one hour to an hour and a half, in strong heat with a couple of steep hills, so I recommend taking the bus for the first part. The walk is tough if you’re unfit, like we are, but not too challenging – there are steps and wooden walkways and the hills, though steep, are not particularly high.
Take plenty of suncream and insect repellent, and have a lot of water with you for the initial walk – you can buy more inside the park.
Food and drinks are generally priced a little more than they are outside Tayrona, so prepare to spend a little extra – or take your own food in.
The campsite at Arricifes charged 50,000 COP per night (not per person) for a tent which included mattresses. Alternatively, you can rent a hammock inside a mosquito net for much less – or there are cabins which charge about 200,000 COP per night. The campsite at Cabo is much more popular and as a result is very overcrowded – get there early or stick at Arricifes which is far quieter.
Many of the beaches are unsafe for swimming due to strong rip tides – wherever you see a red ‘no swimming’ flag avoid the water (you can generally tell by the extremely rough waves, anyway). The best beaches are La Piscina and the two smaller bays before it, and El Cabo.