Colombia’s most unspoilt tropical area, PARQUE NACIONAL TAYRONA, a 45-minute drive east of Santa Marta, is a wilderness of beaches, with lush jungle running right down to the sand. Silhouettes of swaying palm trees set against sunsets complete the cinematic image. The laidback attitude of the place makes it feel like a paradisiacal summer camp, though it does get overcrowded during the holidays.
The park gets its name from the Tayrona Indians, one of South America’s greatest pre-Columbian civilizations. This area was a major trading centre for the Tayrona, whose population once exceeded a million. With the arrival of the Spanish, however, their peaceful existence came to an end. The Spanish governor ordered their annihilation in 1599 on the trumped-up charge that the Tayrona men practised sodomy; the brutal massacre that followed forced the remaining Tayronas to seek refuge high in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, whose foothills flank the park to the south. Rising from sea level, these snowcapped sierras reach their apex just 42km from the coast, at the 5775m-high Cristóbal Colón, Colombia’s tallest peak. Tayrona stretches over 120 square kilometres on land, with an additional 30 square kilometres of marine reserve, but since much of the park isn’t easily accessible, visitors find themselves sticking largely to the string of beaches that stretch for around 8km from the entrance of the park, bounded by Cañaveral to the east and ending with Cabo San Juan to the west.