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Some destinations loom large in the collective imagination. Leading up to my trip to El Parque de Tayrona, everyone who I mentioned it to had the same reaction: It’s gorgeous, it’s amazing, can we come too? I admit to going into it rather blindly, excited by everybody else’s excitement, but other than that pretty clueless as to what exactly made Tayrona so special.
Tayrona is 21 miles from the city of Santa Marta, a small city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It’s one of Colombia’s most popular national parks, spanning 15,000 hectares, 3,000 of them water. Santa Marta’s airport is open and airy, looking over the water, in size more like a municipal bus terminal than a fully operating airport. There are several different strategies to get to the park, I can tell you firsthand about two of them. I took an afternoon flight from Cali that got me into Santa Marta late in the evening and stayed overnight at a lovely hotel in the city’s center, leaving early the next morning in a van for the park. This was both a very low stress and necessary strategy to get to there, as Tayrona closes its gates for the night at 5 pm.
My boyfriend Felipe and I were on separate flights, and he missed his, ending up on one that left at 5 in the morning the next day. After delays in Bogota, he got into Santa Marta around 2 pm. Local buses run out of the airport to points in the city (ask to be dropped off at the Centro Comercial Buena Vista) where you can grab a bus that drops you off in front of the park on its way to the Guajira desert. Because he was rushing to get in before the park closed, Felipe took a mototaxi to catch the bus that would bring him to the park. The Caribbean coast is filled with mototaxis that zip in and out of traffic, and the best way to take them is probably with your eyes closed (make sure you negotiate the price beforehand). I find them terrifying, but they are certainly the fastest way to get around when you’re in a pinch.
The drive out is green, green, vivid green of plantain trees and palms, small houses and dusty roads trickling out off the main route. After entering the park, you have two options: brave the 3 kilometer walk to the beach and campsites, or get on one of the horses available for rent to take you there. I can’t vouch for the horse route, but the footpath is beautiful, passing through endless green and then opening up every now and then to the beach and surf. There are several entrances to the park; we entered through the main one and took the trail to Arrecifes, where we were staying. Tayrona’s trails are well marked and well maintained, but it is the sort of place that is for able-bodied people. You don’t see a lot of senior citizens or young children—this is not a cruise type of vacation. What it is is hot, and beautiful, with all the beaches you could want waiting for you at the end of a trail to dive into.
In reality, not all of the beaches are swimmable because some have notoriously rough waves and undertow—the dangerous ones are well marked, with exceedingly subtle signs saying “More Than 100 People Have Drowned Here”. Luckily, right next to Arrecifes are a series of lovely swimmable beaches including one known as La Piscina, “The Pool” due to natural rocks that surround it and break up the waves; though I didn’t bring my (non existent) snorkel gear, I’m told the snorkeling is great. The water was cold and clear (it gets much warmer in the April and so on), degrees of blue and green, and the sand is white and clean. Being a national park has allowed Tayrona to remain free of trash and pollution, and the backdrop of the lush, tropical vegetation is gorgeous indeed. Further along are nude beaches, which I would have loved to go to had I not wanted to seriously freak out our poor guide. They can’t have been bad, either, given the combination of pristine sand and tanned, active young people exploring the park.
Come nighttime most people set up at the well-equipped campsites. For something like $10/night per person, you get clean bathrooms and showers, tidy surroundings, and beachfront views, the kind Caribbean vacation fantasies are made of. We stayed in one of the cabins, which are another level of comfort (and price point, of course) and a charming mix of soft sheets, flat screen TVs, intricately thatched roofs and hammocks on the balcony. The cabins actually were used by park rangers in the past and then were retrofitted for tourism, making them comfortable but not at all ostentatious, blending into the park’s natural landscape.
On another level altogether are cabins called Ecohabs that are off in Cañaveral, a more isolated part of the park. The trail to Cañaveral is more forest-y and less beach-oriented than the one to Arrecifes. Tayrona boasts a huge variety of flora and fauna including caimans and jaguars, though our guide told us he’d never seen either as they tend to stay away from people. Much less threateningly and infinitely cuter, tiny monkeys, lizards and water birds abound. If our cabin at Arrecifes reminded me of Uncle Wiggily’s house, the Ecohabs 100% reminded me of ewok villages—except, you know, beachfront, the deluxe spa version. The Ecohabs are part of the ecotourism movement that has grown popular internationally in recent years, using sustainable building materials and biodegradable products.
Though not my typical scene, the Ecohabs are beautiful in a dream honeymoon kind of way (the Star Wars Caribbean version, obviously), an escape from all responsibility and the hoi polloi, though to be fair the rest of Tayrona is a pretty great escape in itself. I don’t think there’s a wrong way of doing it, really-- if beaches, greenery and mountains are your jam (and it they aren’t, who are you, anyway?), I have the place for you.