The Tayrona National Park is one of the prettiest national parks in Colombia. Located on the Caribbean Coast, Tayrona is pretty much paradise on earth. With palm trees galore, stunning blue water, white sandy beaches and abundant wildlife, it’s everything you might be looking for in a tropical getaway.
It sounds perfect and it sure is! The only problem with Tayrona is that because it’s so perfect, everyone wants to visit it. That can make it extremely crowded, especially on weekends, public holidays and during its peak season (December to February).
El Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona attracts people from all over the country and more recently from all around the world. Although a lot of people visit Tayrona solely for its stunning beaches, it’s not just about the beaches. Tayrona is a fabulous place for nature lovers and it’s a great place to hike. There are several hiking trails to tackle in the park and in fact, to get to the beaches, you’ll have to hike, or pay for a ride there on one of the horses. It’s not possible to drive to the beaches.
We enjoy a good hike, so there was no way we’d pay for a sad horse to carry us all the way there. We thought it would be fun to hike through the jungle and that reaching the beaches would be a great reward. I am glad we did. We had an amazing day, completing a loop from the park’s Calabazo entrance around to its Zaino entrance, via all of the beaches east of Nudist beach.
Why start at the Calabazo entrance?
There are three entrances to the Tayrona National Park.
The Zaino entrance is the main entrance and the one that most people use. It’s the easiest entrance to use if you aren’t a keen hiker. From there, you can take a bus ride to the Cañaveral entrance (4 kilometres away). There, you’ll find the horses and the start of the hiking trails to the beaches. The bus ride costs 3000 COP. If you prefer, you can also walk but it adds another 40 minutes at least.
However, this entrance is always busy. There are often queues, and you have to watch an informational video before entering the park. The Zaino entrance is open from 8 am till 5.00 pm.
The second entrance, the Calabazo entrance is like a secret entrance to the park. It’s not well indicated at all. To reach it, you turn off the main road and head up a dirt road for about 300 metres. There, you’ll find a man sitting next to a small table selling tickets. You don’t need to watch the video at this entrance. You just pay for the tickets and the insurance, get your wrist band and off you go. There are no lines and it’s very quiet, especially first thing in the morning. This entrance is open from 7 am till 2 pm.
The third entrance, the Palanga entrance can only be used if you want to visit Neguanje, Gayraca and Muerto beaches or Cristal beach. You cannot use this entrance to reach Cabo San Juan.
If you enjoy some peace and quiet and a less touristy experience, the Calabazo entrance is for you. We did not encounter any other travellers the whole way from the entrance until we reached Nudist beach. We had the jungle all to ourselves and it was really enjoyable. Of course, this all changes once you arrive at Cabo San Luca but that can’t be avoided!
YES, it is still possible to hike from the Calabazo entrance to Cabo San Juan
We had read online before arriving in Tayrona that you could no longer hike from the Calabazo entrance to Cabo San Juan. This was due to issues with the indigenous community who live halfway between these two places, in a small village called Pueblito.
However, when we mentioned this to the owner of our hostel (Manigua Tayrona Hostel) that was right next to the Calabazo entrance, she said no; it is still possible to reach Cabo San Juan from that entrance. You are simply no longer allowed to visit El Pueblito.
This was great news for us because the entrance was less than 100 metres from our hostel. It saved us a bus or taxi ride to the Zaino entrance first thing in the morning.
I am not sure whether things have changed recently but as off August 2019, we were allowed to hike from the Calabazo entrance to both Cabo San Juan and Playa Brava.
The hike to Nudist Beach
The hard part, going up
The next morning, we headed to the Calabazo entrance at opening time. There was no queue, we paid our entrance and insurance fees and started hiking.
The first hour or so is pretty constant uphill walking and will be quite strenuous if you are not moderately fit. The heat is the main issue; it’s very humid, so expect to sweat – a lot! Simon was dripping with sweat within minutes!
The trail is on a wide dirt track that is easy to follow. A few signposts are pointing the way and letting you know that you are still on the right path. The key point is not to take the path to Playa Brava when you get to the junction. You need to head to the right. However, you will see a sign earlier on in the hike pointing to Playa Brava when the track curves around to the right and you do need to follow that sign! Just don’t follow the second sign to Playa Brava.
Your best bet is to use the maps.me app and download the map for north Colombia. Then you will have the trail clearly visible and be able to see where the junction is. The app’s maps are accessible offline which is very helpful.
Before you reach the turn off for Pueblito (the track now heads around the outskirts of the village), there are various homes and camping grounds. If you are thirsty, you can buy fresh water or soft drinks from the locals selling them. However, you should take plenty of water with you. We went through about four litres of water between us before we reached the beach.
Then the slippery part…
After a while, the track switches to a narrow path and then eventually you start heading downhill through the forest for the remainder of the trek. You need to take care on the downhill track as it is quite narrow and can be slippery. Make sure you wear walking shoes with good grip.
Don’t do this hike in flip-flops, even though you are on your way to the beach. Just bring them along and switch shoes later. I would recommend wearing closed shoes because you will come across colonies of ants that like to bite toes!
It is pretty easy to follow the track because unless it has been raining, there are footsteps from previous hikers and also plenty of horse dung from when people have taken horses.
It took us 2 hours and 45 minutes to reach the nudist beach which was pretty much empty when we arrived.
Once you arrive at the nudist beach you can take a dip there and believe me you will want one! We pretty much ran in! But be extremely careful not to go in more than waist-deep as there is a lot of undertows pulling you out and the waves are very strong. You shouldn’t swim there, just take a small dip in the shallows to refresh yourself.
Note: It’s ok to keep your clothes on. We certainly did!
To reach the next beach along, Punta Piedra, head back up the path you came from and take the path off to the left straight afterwards. That path takes you behind the rocks and onto the next beach. This beach also seems to be treated by some as a nudist beach!
By this point, you may start to see hordes of locals arriving at the far end of the beach by boat and preparing to walk along to Cabo San Juan.
You can take a dip at this beach as well. There is not as strong current but again, we wouldn’t advise swimming – just take a dip in the shallows.
Cabo San Juan
Follow the path at the end of the second beach. It will take you to Cabo San Juan.
Cabo San Juan is the most popular beach in the Tayrona National Park. That’s for good reasons; it’s picture-perfect. It has crystal clear water, a beautiful sandy beach and a mirador to view it all from above. The view of the mirador is the most common picture of the park you’ll see online.
People can spend the night at Cabo San Juan (see below), so you’ll also find a restaurant, bar and toilets there.
Unfortunately, Cabo San Juan is not the quiet beach you might be hoping for. Compared to the first two beaches, it is very crowded. We still managed to find a spot to lie down but it wasn’t the peaceful beach we wanted.
Cabo San Juan is safe to swim in so feel free to jump in. You will want to.
The next beach along is La Piscina which is the best one for swimming because it is the calmest beach. It’s only a fifteen-minute walk from Cabo San Juan. It’s also really nice and although not quite as busy as Cabo San Juan, it is still pretty busy. However, it is a longer beach so the crowds seem thinner.
In La Piscina you can hire snorkelling masks to explore the local reef.
Arrecife and Carnaveral
The two beaches further along heading towards the Zaino entrance are Arrecife and Carnaveral . Although beautiful, these two beaches are very wild and aren’t swimmable. The currents there are way too strong so don’t even try; several people have died there.
In Arrecife, you will find the best chocolate bread in the park, in a small bakery just back from the beach on the trail to Carnaveral. They are made fresh and still warm when you buy them. Yum!
Look out for monkeys on the way to Carnaveral. We saw many cheeky monkeys hanging in the trees and playing with coconuts!
Making your way to exit at Zaino
Leave yourself at least a couple of hours to walk back from La Piscina or Cabo San Juan to Carnaveral, where the buses are waiting to take you to the Zaino exit. The buses cost 3000 COP per person. Expect a queue at the end of the day.
At the Zaino entrance, there are taxis and local buses to take you back to your hostel nearby or to Santa Marta. The buses will likely be very crowded and sweaty but you probably will be too anyway!
Note: Although the Zaino entrance closes at 5 pm (2 pm at Calabazo) you can still exit until 6.30 pm. The last bus from Carnaveral leaves at 6.00 pm to take you back to the entrance. You can also choose to walk but it will take you 40 minutes to an hour and it’s not all flat. We were too exhausted to even consider that option!
How much is the entrance to the Tayrona National Park?
For foreigners, entrance to the park costs 53,500 COP per adult in low season and 63,500 COP in high season (December 15 to January 30 and from June 15 to July 15 plus holy week and public holidays).
For nationals it is 20,000 COP during high season and 18,000 COP during low season.
In addition to the entrance fee, you are required to buy insurance which costs $3,000 COP per person. You will be given wristbands for both the entrance fee and the insurance.
Where to stay when visiting Tayrona National Park?
You can either decide to stay inside the park or alternatively, there is plenty of accommodation outside the park, close by. We decided to stay outside the park.
In the Park
If you want to make your trip to the park a two or three-day affair, you can choose to sleep inside the park. Arrecife and Cabo San Juan offer double tents for $60,000 COP for two people or $40,000 COP for one person.
Basic private cabins have the crazy price of $200,000 COP for two people or $250,000 COP for three. The cheapest option is the hammocks at $40,000 COP.
There is also a very expensive hotel, the Ecohabs Tayrona, that you can splurge on if you have the means. It looks fabulous!
Outside the park
Manigua Tayrona Hostel
We stayed at the Manigua Tayrona Hostel and it was the best location to enter the park, just 100 metres from the Calabazo entrance. It is set amongst the jungle and very quiet. The staff were also very helpful with organising anything you might need. See their latest prices here.
Other accommodation near the park
Best on booking.com :
If none of these take your fancy, try using HotelsCombined to search across all of the major accommodation sites. We use it all the time.
Is one day enough?
Although you can see most of the main beaches in one day, if you want to truly relax and enjoy the park, you are better off staying at least one night. It’s so beautiful and you will obviously find the place so much quieter once all the day-trippers have gone. We only stayed for the day because I hate camping and we couldn’t justify the cost of the cabins or hotels inside the park. But we could easily have stayed an extra day.
How to get to the Tayrona National Park?
First, you’ll have to get to Santa Marta. Santa Marta has an airport and it is a lot easier to fly there from Bogota or Medellin than taking a bus. The bus ride from both cities will likely be over 20 hours long and the bus tickets are not that cheap at all. If you are coming from Cartagena, you can take a bus or organise a shared transfer through your hostel. From Cartagena, it’s around 4 hours drive.
From Santa Marta, you can catch a bus to the Tayrona National Park. It will take approximately 1 hour and it costs 8,000 COP per person. To catch the bus, head to the Transportation Terminal in the Public Market on Calle 11 with Carrera 11.
What do you need to bring for your time in the Tayrona National Park?
- Bring a lot of water, at least 2 litres each. They do sell water in the park but of course, it’s not cheap.
- Bring sunscreen lotion and don’t forget to reapply often. We both got very burnt in Tayrona even though we used sunscreen!
- You need a hat and sunglasses.
- There are a lot of mosquitoes around and also sand flies, so don’t forget insect repellent.
- Speaking of mosquitoes, you may or may not require your Yellow Fever vaccination certificate to enter the park. You should get this vaccination for your trip to South America anyway, so make sure you have it with you on the day or at least a photo of it.
- You will also need your passport as they will ask for it at the entrance. We simply showed a picture of ours on our phone and it was sufficient.
- Bring snacks because food in the park is expensive and pretty average, especially if you are staying overnight.
- Of course, your swimming suit and towel are a must!
- If you are staying overnight, bring some layers or a blanket as it can get quite cold in the evenings.
- Bring enough cash with you because there are no ATMs in the park.
- As mentioned above, bring good walking shoes for the hike.
What not to do in Tayrona National Park?
Please, please, please don’t leave your rubbish lying around. Take it back with you or dispose of it in one of the bins inside the park. Believe it or not, we found empty cans of beers and soft drinks on the beaches. It made us so angry that people could be so filthy and disrespectful.
Also if you come across an alligator, don’t try and touch them. I know that’s a stupid thing to say but as you can see from the signs around the park, some people lack common sense!