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If you visit the Caribbean area of Colombia, an absolutely mandatory side trip from Santa Marta is the Tayrona National park (Parque Nacional Tayrona). This is a protected coastal tropical forest, most of which you can only access by foot, donkey, or boat, thus guaranteeing an adventure away from civilization.
The park is renown for its savage beauty, and is populated by monkeys, marmosets, iguanas, jaguars, wild boars, as well as scads of colorful birds in a lush jungle setting. The typical trek is to hike through the forest from the main park entrance to either Arrecifes (1.5 hours) or Cabo San Juan (2.5 hours), where the camping is located. Food can be limited and rather pricey once inside the park, so load your backpack with lots of munchies! Remember, there is only one temperature day or night in this part Colombia: hot and heavy -- so be sure to bring as much bottled water as you can possibly carry, as well as plenty of cotton T-shirts. The trails are often challenging thanks to the mountainous terrain, and every inch is heavily cratered due to many noble burros (donkeys) ferrying people and virtually every kind of merchandise into the park, so if you thought of making the journey in your flip flops, think again! Despite the searing heat, a solid pair of hiking shoes or boots will keep you moving. If you are doing this during the rainy season, the trail will certainly be very muddy, further complicating your progress.
At the Cabo San Juan camping, you can rent a hammock fairly cheaply, or a tent, though the latter is not such a good deal -- you would do much better to bring in your own tent, though any tent will feel like a tomb due to the heat and humidity unless it has lots of ventilation, but then again, a hammock offers no protection from the mosquitos (pack a good repellent, by the way!) Another option is to rent a cabin at Arrecifes, some of which are luxurious, but all are too expensive for the typical backpacking adventurer! The camping fee is not such a sweet deal either, but it is a steal compared to other lodging options. Both the park entrance fee and camping site fee are much higher for foreigners than Colombians. You cannot escape the former, unless you come via a long boat ride on very rough seas from Santa Marta or Taganga, which will cost you something anyway, while the latter you can avoid by doing the trek with someone who is Colombian.
Some travel agencies will tell you that you must get inoculated against yellow fever or they will turn you back at the park gates if you cannot produce the document, but I now know that they could care less! That said, there truly is a risk, and it is not a bad idea to get the shot as well as others against tropical diseases. Again, be forewarned, there are lots of mosquitos in Tayrona, though if it was not for the bats who swoop around your head at night, eating the miserable pests as they go, it would be a lot worse (don't be afraid of the bats, they will not bite you!)
The adventure begins in the dusty streets of the old Santa Marta market (el mercado), where you catch a rickety old bus (though dirt cheap!) that will drop you off at the road that leads to the main park entrance, about a hour away. Peasants load up on goods in the city so the entire floor of the bus will likely be piled high with crates and sacks, among other things! Make sure the bus driver knows you are going to the Tayrona, lest he just blows by your stop!
There is several kilometers from the bus stop to the park entrance, but if you are not up for the walk, you can hitch a ride from one of the jeeps waiting there, for two thousand pesos per person. Then the long, arduous sweaty walk begins... and glorious it is! We saw scores of "titis", the furry marmosets high up in the palm trees, just before reaching the coastline, where you find the grandest white sand beaches between huge rounded boulders that look like they belong on a movie set, and behind the beaches, deep green mountains covered with thick jungle interspersed with tall palms.
The bathtub-warm Caribbean is quite choppy around here, so swimming is no picnic! Be very weary of the undertow. Also, do not forget to bring plenty of sunscreen and a hat. It gets so hot that we burned even in the shade of a tree! There are Indian tribes living within the park, and you can follow the trails to their villages. Lastly, try to avoid going to Tayrona during the major Colombian holidays, such as Easter week and December-January. It gets too crowded and noisy, and you will probably get angry seeing all the rubbish some leave behind!