What to Expect at Tayrona National Park, Colombia
Dense, verdant jungle hills cascade to the water’s edge. Pristine, yellow sands and perfectly shaped boulders meet the crashing waves of the sea. Birds chirp enthusiastically while howler monkeys hoot and holler across jungle canyons. Then you look down and can’t see your feet because they disappeared into the muddy ground. But it doesn’t matter because you’re in a mesmerizing landscape surrounded by wildlife. However, it took effort, and lots of it to get here and you aren’t even in camp yet. Here’s a glimpse of what to expect at Tayrona National Park.
Where is Tayrona National Park?
Tayrona National Park is located in Northern Colombia where the jungle meets the Carribean. The main park entrance is about an hour drive east of Santa Marta, a small local vacation spot. The park itself boasts stunning scenery. The jungle-lined beaches are everything you could possible picture in your head. Palm trees grow straight out of the sand and the brilliant blue water contrasts nicely against the warm orange sand.
In essence, this place is paradise, but don’t be fooled, it takes a fair amount of effort to get here. The trails are not for the squeamish, the accommodation is basic at its best, and you cannot swim at a majority of the beaches due to the rough currents.
Be Able to Speak Basic Spanish at Tayrona National Park
Colombia has recently popped onto the tourism scene. Violent drug activity and gorilla military groups ravaged this country for decades. It wasn’t until 2016 that the government and the FARC came to a peace agreement. In many ways, Colombia is still a very raw and rough place. However, with that being said I never felt unsafe here. Granted, I did not spend any time in the cities.
Violent past aside, the lack of tourism here means a lack of English. Don’t get me wrong, I have been a great many places where there is a lack of English, but I found this to be a surprising element. It was difficult to find, even in Santa Marta. People would hawk at you in Spanish, negotiate with you in Spanish, and pretty much solely interact with you in Spanish.
Squirrel, my brother Bentley, and I spoke just barely enough to get by and at times communication was frustrating. We would be able to say something, but understanding the response was a different animal. They speak exceptionally fast here, even when you ask them to slow down. I would advise understanding how to say basic phrases, food, directions, numbers into the thousands, and how to negotiate lodging.
Come Prepared to Get Muddy, Very Muddy
Every other blog we had read mentioned that the trail was a gentle walk along elevated platforms. What they failed to mention is that the elevated platforms end about a third of the way down the main trail. The lovely platform walk simply vanishes and you are suddenly thrown into what I can only describe as a mud pit. This shouldn’t come as a surprise in a jungle, but the trail continues on like this until it ends.
The worst part is when the footpath meets the horse trail. Horses seem to enjoy creating deep mud pools with no other way around except to roll up your pant legs and dive right in. We ended up trekking through mud that was nearly knee-deep at points. Shoes became utterly pointless and we plunged through the mud, shit, sticks, and lines of red ants barefoot by the end. It wasn’t a fun experience at first, but once the initial shock wore off, we enjoyed plunging through the sloppy mess.
Tayrona National Park is Crowded During the Low Season
By visiting in November, we skirted the edge of the busy season. Needless to say, camps were still pretty full. We opted to stay in the furthest camp, Cabo San Juan, because you can swim there. I was genuinely surprised by the large number of people, both locals, and tourists alike.
Essentially, most people opt to trek from the park entrance to Cabo San Juan. This trail sees an excessive amount of traffic and is dotted with various vendors and campsites along the way (it is illegal to camp outside of these spots, due to exciting wildlife, such as jaguars). However, there are a few other quiet hikes worth the effort.
If solitude is what you seek, I would not join the throngs of people who day trip the park either on foot or by boat. Instead, spend some time here and endure the rough campsites. It’s well worth it in the end.
The Campsites are Horrible at Best
After reading about the rudimentary accommodations at the park, I was somewhat prepared for the basic outfits that host people here. I didn’t mind the sandy hammocks sandwiched together under a grass roof. The mediocre, overpriced food wasn’t an issue either. Since I’ve traveled through many parts of Asia, the bathrooms weren’t a total shocker (warning: they don’t have toilet seats).
What really bothered me about the camping situation was the lockers. There are far too few for the number of people here and most of them are large enough to only fit a small daypack. They are also located nowhere near the hammocks, bathrooms, or the best swimming beach. This means that transitioning from beach to camp or getting ready for bed is a total logistical nightmare.
Furthermore, I’m unsure who in their right mind would stay in a tent here. For starters, they aren’t well ventilated. In the stifling heat of the jungle, you want to take every and any breeze you can get. Secondly, their idea of cleaning the mattresses is to simply set them on top of the tents to air out. Lastly, if it rains, the tent area becomes a lake, soaking you and your belongings. Opt for the hammocks. We did and found them to actually be quite comfortable, despite the close proximity to your neighbors.
Areas of Interest Around Tayrona National Park
After you’ve had your fill of jungle fun, head just east of the park and stay at one of the many beach hostels down the road. We opted to stay at Costeno Beach Hostel and we were so glad we did. For around $48US a night you can have your own private room, balcony, hammock, fan, and bathroom. Not bad if you split that cost with another person. This place was a true slice of heaven. We enjoyed relaxing by the water, attempting to surf, and lazing around in a hammock. So go ahead and treat yourself after your jungle adventure.
Despite the surprises, Tayrona National Park and it’s surrounding areas are well worth a visit. Be prepared for the many roadblocks. The beauty wouldn’t be worth it without a little effort and adventure.