Tayrona is pitched as a beautiful, pristine camping ground with the perfect mix of jungle and white sand beaches and turquoise oceans. Considering it’s location on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, this isn’t too far fetched. However, like many popular tourist spots, it’s not quite what you’d expect. In all fairness, we definitely had bad weather when we visited, as we were there at the end of the rainy season in late November, but the condition of the campsite and the trails was abysmal. About an hour into the hike to the Cabo San Juan campground you’re forced to walk through knee deep mud (no that is not an exaggeration) caused partly by the rainy season, but mostly by horses destroying the trail using it as their personal bathroom. The horses are there to transport hikers unwilling to trek it through the mud, and conveniently make the trails worse, causing more hikers to pay for horse rides (vicious circle, clever system…). On top of that, if you don’t manage to snag a hammock upon arriving at the campsite you get stuck in a tent with an old moldy mattress and a makeshift tarp fly that isn’t all that effective. Our trip was capped off with a crazy tropical storm trapping us in the main dining area for about 5 hours, soaking our tent, and littering the beach with debris.
Now we pride ourselves on staying positive and making the best of every situation, and still enjoyed our trip, but it was definitely not what was expected. The biggest kicker was that you pay the park fee of 44,000 COP at then entrance and often people pre-book their tents and hammocks before entering, and no one warns you about the state of the trails. We saw many disappointed and angry elderly tourists and parents with small children turn back, as they just couldn’t traverse the mud and were not told beforehand.
We’re not telling you not to go. We just want to be up front and honest about the experience. If we’d known all of this going in we would’ve had a much better time, even though the weather wasn’t ideal. The first part of the jungle hike is awesome, and the views of the white rocks smoothed by wind and waves, and the turquoise water lapping at the white sand beaches is amazing. Just be aware that it might not be the paradise that most people say it is.
How to Get There
The largest city nearby is Santa Marta. The buses leave from the main market (mercado) at the corner of Calle 11 and Carrera 9, the bus stop is marked on MapsMe. Our bus took just over an hour to the entrance of the park, and cost 7000 COP. If you’re coming from Minca, you can ask your bus driver to drop you at the Mamatoco roundabout, and catch a bus heading to Tayrona from there. This might be a bit riskier however, as buses might be full and there’s no official bus stop here.
Once you’re at the entrance of the park you’ll be approached by workers who will direct you to an info desk where they’ll explain the different beaches and campgrounds in the park and try to sell you a place to sleep for the night. As a rule of thumb, the prices they offer are about 3000-4000 COP more expensive than they are once you get to the campground, but if you’re running a little late and can reserve a hammock it’s worth the extra money. Then you head over to the right to collect your entry number, and wait for it to be called while watching the park rules video which is entirely in Spanish. You’ll need your passport to enter the park, and you have to pay the 44,000 COP entry fee. Then there’s a police officer (or someone dressed like one…)that checks your bag before you go in, as you’re not allowed to bring in alcohol or drugs. They were very thorough when they checked us, so we’re glad we didn’t try to sneak anything in, but friends we met said they just walked by the guy and didn’t get checked at all, so it all depends on who’s working the shift when you enter we guess. Walk a little ways up the road and then you have the option of taking a shuttle 5km into the park for 3000 COP, or walking that distance instead along a boring road. We recommend taking the shuttle! The whole process of getting to the start of the actual trail from the arrival of our bus took about 1 hour. ***If you’re going to Castilletes beach you’re stop is before the main trail, as it’s very close to the entrance.
From there you simply follow the path! It took us about 1 hour, 20 minutes to get to Arrecifes camping area, and the path up to that point was relatively mud free, consisting mostly of boardwalks and stairs over boulders through the jungle. This also means you’re more than halfway to Cabo San Juan (3.3 km of 5.9 km). If you want to avoid some of the mud, head down to the beach at Arrecifes and walk along the beach. No matter which route you take from Arrecifes you’ll have to cross a shallow river and you WILL get your feet wet. Once you leave the beach at La Piscina and head back to the trail you’ll encounter the lovely knee deep mud. The rest of the trip took about 1 hour, 30 minutes.
If you’re not as tight on budget, and want to avoid the mud entirely you can take a boat from the small beach town of Taganga to Cabo San Juan for 40,000 COP one way. You’ll still have to pay the park entry fee. This is also a good way to visit Cabo San Juan if you want to only come for the day, as the boat trip takes about 1-1.5 hours as opposed to the bus/hike taking almost 5 hours.
Where to Stay
- Cabo San Juan – This is the main destination for most backpackers entering the park. The famous hammocks located in the elevated gazebo over the ocean is a hippy backpackers dream. It’s also the farthest campground from the entrance, and takes 2.5-3 hours to hike there depending on the state of the trails. Viewpoint hammocks and tents are 30,000 COP/person, and regular hammocks are 25,000 COP/person if you buy at the campground, however they’re about 3000-4000 COP more if you buy at the entrance. The tents were 30,000 COP/person. We’d recommend a regular hammock, as we heard that the viewpoint hammocks get very windy and cold, and we learned first hand that the tents are really gross, moldy and hot. There is one restaurant that serves pretty good food at prices that aren’t outrageous. A big plate of rice and vegetables with fries is 13,000 COP, same meal with chicken is 25,000 COP, seafood meals are 27-35,000 COP, spaghetti meals range from 16-20,000 COP and breakfasts will run you 13-18,000 COP. A can of Aguila is 5000 COP and 600 mL of water is 3000 COP. Both beaches that form the land bridge to the viewpoint are open for swimming. We would recommend bringing in as much water as you can, and lots of snacks (we saved money by just eating our granola for breakfast instead of a full meal from the restaurant!).
- Arrecifes – This campground is a shorter hike from where the shuttle drops you, just over an hour hike into the park. Arrecifes is less popular than Cabo San Juan as the beachfront isn’t as nice, and the currents here prevent you from swimming near the campsite. You can however walk about 20 minutes down the beach to La Piscina to swim. We don’t have the exact prices on accommodation, but we know that it costs slightly less to stay here.
- Castilletes – This campsite is a very short hike from the main entrance, the shuttle lets you out before reaching the start of the main trail. There are lots of cabins here for 40,000 COP, but also hammocks and tents for cheaper than the previous two locations.
What to Do
- Swimming – Swimming off the white sand beach at Cabo San Juan is an awesome way to cool off and relax. Unfortunately we were only able to swim on our first day as debris clogged the swimming area on the second day due to the torrential downpour the night before.
- Hiking – There are lots of great hikes in the area, and most are up to higher ground (less mud!). The best part of Tayrona Park is that it offers both beautiful ocean and lush jungle views. We did not get to do a hike because of the weather, but would recommend checking our the Pueblito hike as it looked interesting!