Tayrona National Park, located along Colombia’s north, Caribbean coast is one of the countries gems. It’s where pristine white sand beaches and turquoise, warm water meet lush, tropical jungle. Birds sing overhead in the early morning light, the waves break at your feet and palms sway in the gentle breeze.
An adventure awaits on every turn in this jungle oasis and it is Colombia’s most visited national park for good reason. It’s a playground for those who love trekking, nature and wildlife and beaches. The Sierra Nevada mountains and Tayrona National Park are also home to a handful of indigenous tribes who still have a very traditional way of life which can be observed in some places.
In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the park and how to visit for the best experience possible. I’ve now visited Tayrona National Park twice, each time visiting completely different parts and this guide should give you all the answers you need when planning your trip. Let’s get into it…
HOW TO GET TO TAYRONA NATIONAL PARK
Most visitors come to Tayrona National Park from Santa Marta, Taganga or Palomino.
By bus – From Santa Marta, Transport Terminal take any bus towards Palomino or Riohacha and get off at Tayrona/El Zaino. You can also get a local bus too from the ‘Mamatoco’ roundabout which traverses the Caribbean coastal road every 15 minutes.
Get off at Tayrona or get dropped off at your hostel. Many hostels in Santa Marta can also arrange private transfers and tours to Tayrona so ask at your accommodation. From Barranquilla take a bus to Santa Marta first. From Palomino simply flag down a local bus on the main highway going towards Santa Marta and get off at Tayrona.
By boat – it’s possible to get into the heart of Tayrona National Park by boat from Taganga. Boats leave Taganga beach between 10-11 am every morning and drop you off right in the heart of the park, at Cabo San Juan beach. For the return ride, make sure to be at Cabo San Juan between 4-5 pm and look out for the guys shouting out for passengers back to Taganga. If you’re not interested in staying in Taganga as it does have a pretty grimy reputation nowadays, it’s only a 20-minute bus or taxi ride back to Santa Marta.
By moto-taxi – If you’re staying relatively close to Tayrona National Park, moto-taxi is also a great and cheap option to get to the park entrance. Simply ask your accommodation to call one for you. I would highly recommend you stay in one of the many hostels or lodges close to the entrance of the park before visiting. This will ensure you get in early, which is crucial for a tranquil experience, especially during the high season.
ESSENTIAL NEED TO KNOWS
↠ The park is open every day from 8am-5 pm.
↠ The entrance ticket is COP$63,000 ($20) for foreigners in the high season (Mid December- End of January and from mid-June to Mid-July plus Holy week and public holidays) and $53,500 in low season. Colombians pay less. DO NOT forget to bring your passport or a copy of it. You will not be able to enter the park without a form of photo ID. You will also be charged COP$4,000 extra for ‘insurance’ for each day you are in the park. Nobody really seems to know what this insurance is for- when I asked I got a very vague answer.
↠ High season is December-February and on weekends where the park is extremely full. Expect long queues and many many people, mainly Colombians. If you can try to visit the park outside of these times or get to the entrance for 8 am to beat the tours.
↠ For the last two years, the park has been completely closed throughout February and this is likely to continue. This is to allow the flora and fauna to recover and rebuild after high season and to allow the indigenous tribes who live in the park, to perform ceremonies and cleansing rituals.
↠ Due to the park being a protected area you are not allowed to fly drones in the park.
↠ There are two main entrances; El Zaino and Calabazo. Choose El Zaino (the main, busy entrance) for most beaches and less walking and Calabazo for Playa Brava and a longer more challenging trek to Cabo San Juan.
↠ Tayrona National Park is also home to Pueblito, ancient pre-Columbian ruins. These were a popular place to visit but due to the heavy toll of tourism on the site, the ruins are closed until further notice.
↠ DO buy from the indigenous locals. Many rely on tourists to make a decent living and you’ll see them selling souvenirs, handmade bags they use themselves and bracelets or fresh orange juice or coconuts. Everything they make goes directly to the local communities and village.
↠ DON’T ride horses. There are many horses in the park that transport people and goods due to the long distances between the parking lot and the beaches. They are underfed, severely malnourished, ill-treated and exhausted from hauling tourists and heavy goods. Some were too skinny and I never saw them eating or drinking when they weren’t working. Honestly, it was a difficult sight to see. Just don’t contribute to the misery of these animals and walk- you’ll benefit them and yourself.
↠ Watch where you tread. Even though the chances are quite slim, the biggest danger in the park is snakes, especially on the quieter paths. Be careful not to step on one that might be on the path.
↠ Not all beaches are equal, or in the case of Tayrona, made for swimming. In fact, there are just two or three where you can comfortably swim/snorkel at, which are Cabo San Juan and La Piscinita. Some others are out of bounds completely and others are good for a little dip very close to the shore. Currents change fast so ask at your accommodation if you’re not sure or pay attention to the red flags or signs.
↠ If you’re staying overnight in the park and you’re plant-based do bring snacks. Restaurants attached to various accommodations in the park serve limited plant-based food so prepare to eat just rice and salad unless you bring in your own snacks.
↠ It’s difficult to visit Tayrona without doing any walking so be prepared for walking, even if for the most part it’s flat. It takes two hours of non-stop walking to get from the car park (not the entrance) to Cabo San Juan. If you don’t feel like doing much walking I’d consider leisure time on Cañaveral or Castilletes beach. That being said the more you give this park the more it will give back to you. If you’re prepared to walk long distances you’ll see more beautiful and varied landscapes and beaches along the way.
CAN YOU DO IT IN ONE DAY?
Yes, but not recommended. Leaving your hostel/hotel early and entering the park at 8 am you could see the main beaches in the park but you wouldn’t have too much time to relax. Bear in mind that it takes 2 hours to walk from the car park to the most popular beach Cabo San Juan.
Staying in the park right on the beach and falling asleep to the roar of the waves is what it’s all about- not to mention catching the beautiful sunrise and sunset. That being said accommodation in the park fills up fast and during high season you’ll have to book several months in advance. If you’d like a peaceful relaxing experience avoid staying in Cabo San Juan as it can get loud, especially during high season.
WHERE TO STAY
Ultimately you can choose whether to stay in or outside the park. Most accommodation is located outside, however the handful of accommodation right by the beach make for a much more authentic and perhaps more convenient place to stay, albeit more expensive. The most popular place to stay inside the park is at postcard-perfect Cabo San Juan. Accommodation options vary from private cabanas, tents or for the cash-strapped backpacker, a simple hammock on the beach which will set you back $40,000 ($12).
Cabo San Juan – Choose between a cabana, tent or hammock at Tayrona’s most popular beach. The most peaceful time to see Cabo San Juan is early in the morning before the masses arrive and later in the afternoon after they have gone. The campsite here does get crowded though so if you’re after total peace and serenity, opt for somewhere else. They have a restaurant and snack bar on-site and it can be booked through booking.com
Camping Castilletes – A campsite located on one of Tayrona’s Eastern quieter beaches, Castilletes has a handful of rooms to rent as well as hammocks. It’s also a great place to stay if you have your own tent.
Playa Brava Teyumakke – Highly recommended and the only option on Playa Brava, the most remote beach in Tayrona. This option rarely fills-up and you’ll have most of the beach to yourself. They have the option of private wooden cabins on the beach with amazing ocean vibes and a private bathroom (COP$170,000/ USD$52) as well as hammocks. You can also pitch your own tent. They have an on-site restaurant and snack bar and even wifi for an hour in the evening. Note that there is no mains electricity here and no phone signal, so bring a reliable torch and forget your phone. Can be booked through booking.com.
Camping Arrecifes – Another nice but basic option on Arrecifes beach. They also have cabins, hammocks and tent space to rent and a decent restaurant on site.
HOW TO GET TO THE BEACHES?
Walking and more walking! A visit to Tayrona National Park is a great chance to catch up on some missed exercise and most of the walking to and from the beaches is straightforward and flat. Give the horses a break!
From the main entrance at El Zaino, save your legs and take a mini-bus shuttle to the Cañaveral parking lot for $3,000. From there you simply follow the path and beach hop west until you get to Cabo San Juan and beyond.
R&T Top Tip: If you have the energy don’t just stop at Cabo San Juan, keep going and you’ll get to some lovely smaller and uncrowded beaches as well as Playa Nudista, Tayrona’s only nudist beach.
WHICH TAYRONA NATIONAL PARK BEACHES TO VISIT
Cabo San Juan– if you Google Tayrona National Park you’ll probably see a picture of this beach and no doubt its the most beautiful in the park. It’s actually made up of two small curved beaches which meet in the middle at a rocky outcrop on which rests a dreamy wooden hut full of hammocks ready to rent. Goldeny, white sand, turquoise water all fringed by lush green jungle and palms. You’ll rarely be able to have this beach all to yourself but you can try by arriving as early as possible.
Playa Brava – My favourite beach in the park. Playa Brava is the complete opposite of Cabo San Juan- it’s large, isolated, quiet and wild. That’s because it requires quite a bit of trekking to get here, we’re talking about 2.5-3 hours through the steamy and humid jungle, however, if you choose to do the trek, which I highly recommend, you’ll reap the rewards. Choose your own part of the beach, relax and take a quick dip close to the shoreline and enjoy the peace and serenity.
La Piscinita – If you’re up from some serious water-time this is one of the best beaches for it. Piscinita is protected from the riptides and ferocious currents by a rock wall, forming a large, natural pool, perfect from swimming and snorkelling.