Colombia’s most unspoilt tropical area, PARQUE NACIONAL TAYRONA (Tayrona National Park), 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.
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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.
Tayrona’s beaches and the jungle that edges them are the irrefutable stars of the park. If arriving by boat, you’ll get dropped off at Cabo San Juan, an attractive palm-fringed beach where many budget visitors stay; further west into the park from here are two more beaches, the second being a nudist beach (30min). Twenty minutes’ walk east of Cabo San Juan brings you to La Piscina, a beach good for swimming and snorkelling, with calm, deep water. From there, it’s another twenty-minute stroll east to La Aranilla, a narrow strip of sand framed by huge boulders, fine for swimming, followed almost immediately by the long, beautiful, wave-lashed stretch of Arrecifes where signs warn you that over two hundred tourists have drowned here; swimming is extremely dangerous due to rip tides and strong currents. Another forty minutes or so east along a wooded, muddy trail takes you to Cañaveral and the entrance to the park, where the beach is good for sunbathing but the rip tides make it unsuitable for swimming.
A clear and physically demanding uphill path leading from Cabo San Juan brings you to the archeological site of Pueblito, a former Tayrona village with a large number of terrace dwellings, sometimes called a mini Ciudad Perdida. Although it’s possible to complete an Arrecifes–Cabo San Juan–Pueblito circuit in one long, strenuous day, the trip is better made as part of a multi-day stay on the beaches in the park. From Pueblito, you can also hike two hours through the jungle back down to the road and catch a bus back to Santa Marta from that park exit point, instead of traversing your original route back to Cabo San Juan. That said, you may be better off hiring a guide for this hike out, which has no signs and is quite taxing.