An age before others first found out about the natural and cultural treasures at their disposal, the National Park now named after them was home to the Tayrona people. They knew a thing or two about how best to live in lush, mountainous tropical jungle fringed by brilliantly blue ocean and exquisite beaches – as horrible as all that sounds. It has taken the rest of the world significantly longer to catch on, but now people are starting to get the idea. So much so, in fact, that in the high season (December to February), the more sought-after spots in Tayrona National Park are generally jam-packed. What these prospective beach-bums are after is what the Tayrona people always knew; this area’s intoxicating blend of sand, mountain, sea and rainforest.
Being just a click over thirty k’s from Santa Marta, the most economical and potentially amusing way to get to Tayrona’s official entry-point is by one of the funky old buses that start their journey from the intersection of Calle 11 and Carrera 11 in that aforementioned bustling port. From there, one of the smart-mouthed but generally good-hearted conductors will guide you to the gates of the national park at El Zaino in less than an hour and for a couple of bucks. After having your stuff checked and the 36,000 peso fee taken from you (17,000 for Colombian nationals, and 7,000 for card-carrying students), wait for one of the little vans at the entrance to fill up (with you in it, of course) to save you the hour and a bit of a trudge to what is the first port of call at Canaveral.
Canaveral is where Tayrona beaches really start happening. You can either check yourself into one of the fancypants Ecohabs cabanas with ocean views and all the trimmings; or if you’re not up for such a splurge, you can take a 45-minute forest trail to Arrecifes, where there are a few less extravagant options – either camping out or swinging in a hammock – to choose from. If you don’t decide to take a less strenuous horse-ride from Canaveral, make sure you’ve got a good, sturdy pair of shoes, so that your feet don’t have to get too intimate with the waste products of said steeds which are distributed down the path in fairly liberal quantities. The path is only sparsely marked with signs, so make sure you ask one of the friendly locals or fellow travellers if you’re not sure of the way.
Another trail to the west from Arrecifes will pass through a nice little strip of sand called La Piscina; the safest of the more accessible beaches at which to have a paddle. Further along will finally get you to El Cabo, a larger complex of cabanas and hammock spaces, which offers a pretty good bang for your buck. This last aspect of this spot is taken full advantage of by the swarm of backpackers that can descend on this spot come the high season. Along with a sweet little beach and the backpacker buzz, El Cabo also marks the start of the more arduous, uphill, but also majestically leafy track to the old Tayrona National Park haunt which is now dubbed El Pueblito. Although not as big as the more famed Ciudad Perdita, the remains of this town are worth the hike to get a feel of how these first people lived their lives in days past – you should probably enjoy hiking, though, as it is a bit of one.
Wherever you are in eastern Tayrona, or further west in the beautiful but less tourist-orientated west of the park, coconut and plantain trees abound. The little restaurants at the camping and cabana spots take full advantage of this, as well as the schools of fish that make this part of the ocean home. The food is a little more costly than most places around Colombia, but it would be hard to find fresher fish prepared so simply yet deliciously. If you have an eye on the wallet, it’s a good idea to bring along your own food from Santa Marta to ease the strain a bit.
All in all, Tayrona National Park is an enchanting place blessed with stunning natural beauty and haunted with the aura of its distant past. It’s not hard to fall in love with its lush trees, sparkling beaches, and easy-going pace. Take your time to take it all in, do nothing, and relax. It won’t be that hard to do, after all.