Our Guide to Tayrona National Park Colombia, Santa Marta, and a Hidden Beach Destination
While traveling SE Asia, we got pretty used to heading to the nearest street corner, renting a scooter for a few bucks, and then rolling up to a beautiful white sand beach within twenty minutes or so. Traveling South America generally has a little bit different story-line. We've found that the more challenging the journey, the more rewarding the site. Journeying to Tayrona National Park was no exception, but our adventurous hearts were definitely fulfilled.
The tough journey rewarded us with a stunning, secluded, Caribbean beach backed up to a wild jungle. The kind of place that usually only comes to life in a storybook.
Exploring this area of Colombia offers endless adventure along the Caribbean sea. We often get the question: if we are only in Colombia for a short period of time is this a must? Our answer is yes, Colombia is an extremely diverse country and if you want a well-rounded experience you should definitely make it to this area. The contrast between this section of the Caribbean sea and Medellin couldn't be more striking. The gorgeous beaches along this part of the Caribbean Sea are worth in itself but culturally this part of Colombia is very different from the mountain regions. From the cuisine to indigenous populations to a jungle like you have never before seen -- this is a must!
Our first stop on the journey to Tayrona is a classic and colorful Caribbean beach town called Santa Marta, Colombia.
how to get there
We choose to fly from Medellín (we would have done the same from Bogota or Cali) as the tickets were a very cheap $40 USD/person. Not only this, but our travel time was cut down significantly. If you are coming from Cartagena, there is a bus company called Berlinas that runs frequent service between the two cities.
where to stay
Calle 11 Hostel - We couldn't have found a better place to call home on this adventurous Caribbean coast. From Santa Marta, travelers frequently visit Tayrona National Park, the town of Minca nestled into the hills, hike for four days to see the Lost City, and explore the coastlines many beaches. Most travelers check the boxes of several of these adventures and return to Calle 11 Hostel to recharge their batteries in between excursions. One of our favorite perks about Calle 11 is their baggage storage system. While gone for a few days hiking in the area, it's likely that you'll carry only a small daypack with you. Storing your larger backpack in a safe place is essential.
The hostel itself is centrally located, has a pool that resembles the cliffsides of Santorini, a bar with fresh fruit cocktails, and a delicious breakfast. Calle 11 is filled with volunteers from around the world with extensive knowledge of all of the big adventures this area offers. With several events per week and a daily sunset hike, we found ourselves meeting and connecting with travelers from all over the world.
Unsure of where to head next, we chose to head to nearby Costeño Beach after doing five minutes of research. We intended on staying only one night but ended up extending for another night because we loved the vibe so much.
how to get there
From Santa Marta, we took a taxi to the Mercado Publico de Santa Marta where we were able to hop on a bus headed for Palamino (a city east of Tayrona and Costeno). Once on the bus, the ride will take just over an hour before you need to tell the driver to stop at Costeño Beach. As always, we recommend downloading offline maps so that you can track the location of the bus and know when you're close to your stop. Once off the bus, we walked down the dirt road until you get to the beach (15 min), but you can opt to hop on one of the motorbike taxis for a dollar or two.
where to stay
Costeño Beach Hostel - adorned with a private beach that offers volleyball games, surfing, beach chairs to lounge in, a bar with daily happy hour deals, and all meals included, we couldn't get ourselves to leave this place after one night. It is the perfect place to check out, read that book you've been trying to get to and socialize with other travelers. We slept in our own private glamping tent and absolutely loved it. We even woke up to the sound of the rumble of a howler monkey.
tayrona national park
This destination comes highly recommended by everyone who has traveled to Colombia. The protected national park is known for its rich biodiversity in plants and animals and its beautiful beaches and lagoons. Its most famous spot, Cabo San Juan is home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We enjoyed a night sleeping in hammocks right on the beach. Well, maybe our backs didn't enjoy that adventure too much! The only thing we didn't plan for was the wild trek we'd take just to access Cabo San Juan.
how to get there
From Costeño Beach Hostel, we hopped on two motorbike taxis that dropped us at the park entrance. We don't remember the exact price, but the ride wasn't more than a few dollars each. This saved quite a bit of time since we didn't have to wait for the bus.
Since we were coming from the east-side we chose to enter via the Zaino entrance. El Zaino entrance will lead you on a much more adventurous journey through the park. The other entrance to the national park is the Calabazo entrance which is closer to Santa Marta and the west. The Calabazo entrance will give you more of a straight shot to the San Juan Beach and some of the best beaches that Tayrona National Park has to offer. In our opinion, if you want to truly experience the park we recommend the Zaino entrance over the Calabazo entrance.
Once you arrive at the main entrance, it's quite an overwhelming process to get into the park. Men will confront you immediately asking how long you're staying in the park and direct you to buy a wristband. Once you have a wristband, you must wait in line to purchase your ticket into the park. Tip: make sure you have your passport because you'll need it to buy your ticket. Also, a lot of the people who approach you in this area seemed like legit park employees but we were quite unsure, so we definitely kept our guard up in case they were just trying to sell us something extra or scam us.
Once you're all set, pay for the $1 USD/person bus ride that'll take you a few kilometers to the start of the hike. You can walk this route if you're feeling ambitious, but the hike to follow is exhausting enough.
In terms of hiking, we would rate the trail as pretty easy and accessible, weather depending. For us, the intense rains the few days before made the hike a bit more challenging. We began the hike in the dense humid jungle with a slight ascent up into the treetops, which left us very sweaty and longing for the ocean breeze. At this moment, we were incredibly thankful we only had one small backpack and left most of our belongings back at Calle 11 Hostel. Once we reached the oceanfront, we said a quick hallelujah at the slight breeze on our skin. We hiked along the coastline and followed signs pointing towards Cabo San Juan. Due to heavy rains, we slipped and slid our way along deep muddy paths before finally reaching the beachfront we would call home for a night. It took us a little over four hours from the start of the hike to the finish point. Once we reached the glorious white sand beach, we ran straight into the water to soak our cuts and bug bites in the salty sea.
The first beach you will spot is called Playa Canaveral and swimming here is permitted but only in a very small portion of it because the current is very dangerous in this area. Right near Playa Canaveral, there is also a hotel called Ecohabs Tayrona which offers quaint cabin accommodations. A lot of people stop at Playa Canaveral but we recommend continuing further into the park as it only gets more interesting.
The next beach you will encounter is called Playa Arrecife. This beach is beautiful but it is not a swimming beach due to the danger of the current. Over 200 people have died while trying to swim at Playa Arrecife. Keep moving, better beaches are ahead!
Next, after trudging through the jungle and mud you will find yourself at Playa La Piscina. This is one of the first beaches you can swim. Somewhere in there is also Playa Cristal which is a really nice beach to relax at and enjoy the Caribbean waters.
We came for one reason, Cabo San Juan. So, we hiked along the coastline and followed signs pointing towards Cabo San Juan. Due to heavy rains, we slipped and slid our way along deep muddy paths before finally reaching the beachfront we would call home for a night. It took us a little over four hours from the start of the hike to the finish point. Once we reached the glorious white sand beach, we ran straight into the water to soak our cuts and bug bites in the salty sea.
the sleeping situation
The day we entered the park, we showed up right at 8:00 AM to begin our hike. This was mostly due to the horror stories other travelers had told us regarding camping at Cabo San Juan. As of right now, there is no way to book any of the sleeping spots in advance and it is solely a first come first serve system. We'd heard some travelers say that they arrived at 12 PM to lines wrapping around the reception. After waiting for hours, the campsite ended up being full and they had to hike back out of the park. Nervous this would happen to us, we made sure to get there as early as possible.
There are 3 types of sleeping accommodations on the beach: rent a hammock in the hammock hut, rent a tent for camping, or bring your own tent to set up. There are roughly 60 hammocks and 20 tents for camping. We opted for the hammocks (we heard the tents are really smelly) and, by the time we arrived just after noon, we had no problems securing our hammock. In fact, I think we were the first people there reserving hammocks for the night. There are a handful of hammocks available up on a cliffside spot with views over the ocean that are very hard to get access to, but we did not mind sleeping under the main shelter.
Lockers are provided just a few feet away from each hammock. It did rain a good portion of the day and night we were there, but the hammocks are under a waterproof open-air structure which helped us stay dry. As for the comfort of sleeping in the hammock... well we did not exactly experience our finest night of sleep. We definitely recommend bringing a blanket or some warmer clothes as it can get a little chilly in the night.
where to eat and what to do
There are many other beaches that are available to hike to in the park. Due to the long hike and beautiful beach at Cabo, we opted to stay in our hammocks reading books instead. We swam all day and enjoyed the nearby coral reef.
There is a restaurant right near the hammocks and the beach which has decent food. They seem to have a schedule of service at the restaurant so do not expect to show up at whatever hour to enjoy a meal. Meals are served at 8 AM, noon, and 8 PM. Head up to the desk to put your order in and then they will bring the food out to you. There is also a mini-market next to the restaurant with beer, water, and snack food items.
Overall, Tayrona National Park is somewhere that every traveler should visit in Colombia. It's quite the journey, but floating in the ocean at the end of a long hike makes all the sweat and bug bites worth it!
Until next time,
d & b