Parque Nacional Tayrona (Colombia)

A visit to Parque Nacional Tayrona is a must if you are in Colombia. We had been told this by many people, particularly Colombians, during the last few months and did not wish to disappoint them.
The number one draw card for the Parque is Cuidad Perdido (hidden city) but the 800 mil peso ($400) per person for the minimum 4 day hike through the jungle was more than these 2 travellers were prepared to part with and, as you can’t do that hike without a guide, we decided to do the next best thing, which was a 4 day/3 night walk through the north coast of the park, enabling us to sample a combination of jungle, beaches (unlike Cuidad Perdido) and an additional day trek to the Pueblito…an ancient village, still occupied, tucked away high in the jungle.

Day 1

We caught a local bus from Santa Martha early morning, equipped with 3 days food and 3 litres of water. Unfortunately we could not find gas for our stove in town (we had had to leave our gas canisters prior to flying from Bogota) but as the weather is only ever warm in Parque Tayrona, we figured we could get by with cold meals. We were told (reliably) that overpriced water and food was readily available in the park if needed.

Arriving at the park entrance we paid the 47.5 mil peso entry fee and declined the numerous offers of reserving accommodation at the campsites along the way or the bus ride for the first 5km sealed road. We reasoned, correctly, that there would be plenty of camping space for those with their own tent, and we also felt like we needed the exercise after 36 hours sitting on a bus to Bogota.

Walking along the sealed road, we noticed just how humid it was, we also spotted monkeys, a woodpecker and numerous lizards.

At the end of the sealed road we stopped for a spot of lunch under a tree and were offered a horse ride to our chosen campsite or alternatively the use of a horse for our backpacks.

Whilst tempted slightly by the latter, we declined and set off on the dirt track, for another 4km approx towards Arrecifes beach and the assortment of campsites there. The track and terrain were varied and interesting, passing initially through dense jungle and occasionally opening out to reveal magnificent beach views or shallow river crossings. The occasional horse or pony would pass us on the track (see day 3). We both looked to our left at a noise from the jungle, to see a bright green snake of approx 2m in length, slithering along a branch. All the while, the skies were growing darker and Vanessa was now even keener to get to our campsite before the deluge started.

Reaching Arrecifes, we walked past a small number of campsites and cabanas. We had to ask directions for our chosen campsite “Don Pedro” which was recommended as being the only one with a “kitchen” (very loose description) where we could cook our own food.

We were pointed up a track and advised that the walk was 15 minutes. Approaching the campsite it started to rain heavily. Vanessa skipped over the mud strewn path and sprinted the last few hundred metres to the shelter of the campsite, leaving Jon, who was carrying the bulk of the weight, to plod in slightly damp a minute or two later.

As we sheltered from the rain we paid for a spot to pitch our tent. Fortunately this campsite had the good sense to erect tarps over the tent spots. We found the last available one, with only one small hole in the tarp and set up our tent, next to a mountain of coconuts.

This campsite had an abundance of fruit trees and we helped ourselves to some tasty mangoes.

Thirty minutes later the weather had cleared sufficiently for us to explore a little. We had an hour or so before sunset so we set off, sin bags, to explore the local beach. Unfortunately, the nearest one was unsafe for swimming but this didn’t faze us too much. We walked past a flock of vultures and over the headland to the next (slightly calmer) bay and had a quick dip there. This was Vanessa’s first swim in the Caribbean Sea and our first of this trip. We planned to visit the other nearby swimming beaches the following day/s.

Returning to camp as the sun began to set, we put on long pants (the insects here are insane) and deet, before heading for the rudimentary open-air kitchen, where Jon, assisted by 3 other campers, tried to get a fire going sufficiently to boil a pan of hot water. Eventually he succeeded in getting a splinter, covering himself in smoke and producing the worlds first 43 minute noodles, to accompany the vegetables that were waiting patiently to be eaten.

A quick drink, game of ‘sh*thead’ (we’re looking for new card games now) and we were ready to call it a night.

Day 2- Park Tayrona

We got up feeling a little warm but glad that we had opened the air vents on either side of the tent, as well as a leaving one vestibule open. This meant all was dry and easy to pack away.

Temperatures were still hot with a high humidity of around 80%, but we were raring to go. Using ‘mapsme’ and following the path towards ‘Punta Las Gravietas’ beach we somehow still managed to get a little confused and had to backtrack, as we had already been to this beach for a swim the day before and didn’t recognise the path. We soon were back on the right track. walking through tropical dense jungle, then on to sandy sections along the mouth of the river meeting the ocean. We walked through a tiny village and straight on to the beach. We didn’t stop for a swim as we wanted to get to ‘ Playa La Piscina’, although Vanessa stopped briefly to put her trainers on as the path looked a little more overgrown and narrow, Jon, being Jon, just kept his flip flops on. It took a further 20 minutes to reach ‘ Playa La Piscina’. We were taken aback by the calm, clear water, dropped our belongings and went straight in for a dip.

The ocean temperature was perfect, just right to cool down. La Piscina , is a deep bay partly cut off from the open sea by an underground rocky chain, this makes for great safe swimming. We splashed around for a short while and snapped a few photos, then we were on our merry way towards Cabo San Juan de la Guía , a beautiful cape with fantastic beaches and views.

We climbed over large bolder steps and followed a well defined path along the coast, occasionally dipping into the forest. After 20 minutes we walked into Cabo San Juan campground, which is right next to the beach. We paid for the night’s camping (20,000 pesos per person), then set about locating the best spot (so we thought).

Once organised, we went for a longer dip then walked up the mirrador,opening up an incredible panoramic view.

We were keen to do more exercise and to take a look at the archeological site that was occupied by 2,000 Indigenous Tayrona people between 450 and 1600 AD. We followed the scenic path which goes inland uphill to Pueblito, a 1½-hour walk away from Cabo. The start of the path was overgrown, therefore Vanessa put her gaters on, whilst Jon stuck to just flip flops. The path was impressively built with huge boulders balancing on top each other as makeshift steps, whilst other areas provided splendid tropical forest scenery. We walked along, hopping over/under fallen trees, crouching through paths between large rocks making them look like small caves and helping each other get over large boulders. Jon had to pull Vanessa up several times to enable her to get over. Vanessa spotted a small snake climbing a low branch and thanked her lucky stars that she was wearing her gaters. The path is fairly well signed with percentages, letting you know how far you’ve walked/climbed, which was reassuring, as we didn’t see anyone for the first 30 minutes and overall we only saw three other couples. The path was 75% uphill and the humidity being so high meant that we were both sweating profusely, all our clothing was soaked. We stopped briefly to dip our bandanas in a small babbling brook, before heading up the last section.

Reaching the Pueblito settlement, we were both taken aback by the historical past and the current day living. The settlement is still currently being used/lived in by locals. We walked around snapping photos and checking out all the huts and open spaces. It was amazing and definitely worth the 1.5 hour sweaty hike up. The way back down took only 1hr. When back in Cabo, we decided to go for a quick swim, showered, ate and relaxed, chatting for a while, hoping that the loud music coming from one of the tents would stop.

In summary, the hike up to Pueblito is well worth a visit, especially for those not planning to hike to Ciudad Perdida due to extortionate prices. However, Cabo campground has its plus points with an idyllic beach and mirador but a few down points (festival like atmosphere with music pumping most of the night and a disappointing kiosk, where they only sell 650ml bottled water, meaning they make more money, whilst the environment suffers around them).

Day 3

After a restless night due to intoxicating heat and loud music, we got up reasonably early and with good spirits. Had breakfast overlooking the Cabo Playa and planned our day. We decided to first walk to ‘Playa nudista’ then head back along the same path to another campsite called ‘Camping Castilletes’ (little were we to know how long this would take!).

We set off without our packs along the beach hoping to locate the path, which goes inland towards ‘Playa nudista’.

Cabo beach was already filling up with sun worshipers, but the sun was shining and the iridescently turquoise water gave a majestical feel to the beach. Once at the end, we saw two others walking inland via a track, we promptly followed suit. The track was easy to follow and led us directly to an unnamed beach, where some people were camping (if only we’d known beforehand, we would have happily beach camped, saving 40,000 pesos). We strolled along to the end, skipping over the occasional wave and walked up the next track to ‘Playa Nudista’. After only a 20 minutes walk we had arrived. Unfortunately, a sign stated that over 100 people had drowned and the ocean was not safe to swim in. Whilst contemplating what we wanted to do, a nude couple walked past. This reconfirmed that ‘Playa Nudista’ is infact a nudist beach. We decided to embrace the moment and take a quick photo before heading back along the same route to our tent.

We had ‘ummed’ and ‘aghhed’ about which of 2 campsites to stay at and eventually agreed to just have a look at both before deciding. We set off (after a quick shower to cool us both down) walking back towards ‘Playa Piscina’, via the same track. Once at ‘Playa Piscine’ we couldn’t resist jumping in for another refreshing swim. The water this time around was even calmer and clearer than the previous day; suiting Vanessa perfectly. We snapped a photo of a pelican walking along the beach, then headed back towards our first night’s campsite at ‘Arrecifes’. We reached this area after only another 20mins walk and decided to soldier on towards the start of the track (just before the road starts).

Something that should have taken us a maximum of 30 minutes, ended up more like an hour and 30 minutes. We had already been walking for 30 minutes, commenting on how wide the path had got, before we started to notice the amount of horses. As time went by the number of horses and riders increased and the path got narrower, almost gutter-like. We met another lost sole on the path, an American fellow from Colorado. As a team, we walked ever so carefully, through narrow paths, dodging horses trotting past and eventually coming out at the entrance of the trails. We could see clearly at this point, where we should have gone but decided to call the trek an experience.

Jon and I were getting hungry, we therefore said our goodbyes to our American friend and carried on walking a further 10 minutes towards ‘Punta Carnaval’ where we had a cool refreshing drink and ate our peanut butter and jam wraps (desperate times calls for desperate measures). We also thought a campsite was located near the beach, but after a quick scan around the beach front, we decided that ‘mapsme’ hadn’t quite updated itself.

The last 30 minutes walk (3K) was pretty simple, we just followed the road around until we reached ‘Camping Castilletes’. We did have a little dog friend follow us for a while but he soon got bored. We paid 10,000 pescos each for a camp spot, set up our tent (avoiding the coconuts), checked out the beach, ate a well deserved ‘purchased’ dinner, showered and had an early night’s kip.

Day 4

After another hot, but infinitely quieter night we awoke at around 6am to discover that it had rained and our fly sheet was wet.

We ate our staple granola breakfast, packed up our bags and the wet tent (we decided we could dry it out when we got to Santa Martha) and walked the remaining 4km from the campsite to the road.

The walk itself was relatively uneventful other than spotting several monkeys in the trees above us and noticing that the walk back to the entrance was mainly uphill (the 100m descent had not been as obvious on day 1).

From there we jumped on a local bus (7mil peso pp) and we’re back in Santa Marta by 11am.
Summing up Parque Tayrona; this is a beautiful area and although the entry is a little pricey, it’s well worth the admission if you stay for more than a day or two. The place is well organised and there is plenty of hiking and swimming to be had.
Be sure to cover up your legs as the sand flies are persistent, avoid the over-loud Cabo San Juan de la Guia campsite if you are able, or at least pitch your tent away from the busy area and try to avoid having to use an infinite amount of small plastic bottles by stocking up on water before you go.