The Tayrona Park is a tricky subject.
On one hand, it is a mesmerizing place that definitely worth a visit. The park stretches from the green foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain in the world, through lush mangroves to white sand beaches and the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. Hiking, swimming, snorkeling, climbing to the archeological site of an ancient town of the Tayrona people: everything for your enjoyment. Sounds fantastic, isn’t it?
On the other hand, as one of the most popular attractions in Colombia, the park is disgustingly overcrowded. In the past, Tayrona was getting quieter by the end of January (the end of the high season). Between February and April, the magnificent beaches stayed deserted and could be explored in all their natural glory. Unfortunately, those days are long gone. As an unfailing cash cow of Colombian tourism, Tayrona is heavily advertised and promoted in every travel guide or brochure. Even fairly steep entrance fees can not deter eager visitors.
My advice for those who want to go there: find a time machine, go back 15 years then go to Tayrona. Otherwise, forget about pristine white sand beaches. True, the beaches are still there, but it would be you and a couple hundred of your fellow tourists looking for a piece of an unoccupied sand. Sounds awful, right?
If you’ve got to this point, I bet you think that you should take this story with a grain of salt. What popular tourist destination is not crowded these days, and, after all, what is “crowded”? We were skeptical too. Thus, despite all warnings, one sunny morning we went to the Tayrona National Park.
Before going any further, let’s make it clear that this is our personal encounter with realities of Tayrona. I read a fair amount of contradictory reviews and opinions about it where even a number of entrances to the park ranged from two to four. Your mileage may vary.
Here is the story of our visit.
The park has two entrances accessible by car. By far, the most popular and well-known is the Cañaveral entrance.
At first sight, it looked pretty optimistic. There were just a few cars waiting in line. So far so good. However, 20 minutes later the picture hadn’t changed and we got a little restless. A bus arrived and brought a bunch of backpackers eager to get into the park. A local guy appeared from nowhere offering his wink-wink services: for an err… a substantial amount of money to get us through the line into the park and guide us for the rest of the day. His offer sounded more like an extortion than a fair deal. We politely declined. Another 10 minutes passed, but the car line hadn’t changed. Knowing that there was another entrance, we decided to try our luck there.
Unless you are very familiar with the area, the second entrance is easy to miss. It is located much closer to Santa Marta and to get there you have to turn almost across from the gas station on the Troncal del Caribe highway. The first time we missed it and had to turn around. The second time we guessed it right and turn off the highway just in time.
The ride was rough. It looked like the road was paved last time when Ford T was still in production. Finally, we got to the park entrance. After the mandatory lecture about the park, paying the entrance fee and getting wristbands, and been assaulted by street vendors offering snorkeling supplies and sweets, the guard open the gate and let us in.
The road connecting the Troncal del Caribe and Neguanje, the place where the parking is, arguably is one of the worst I ever experienced. However, it is totally irrelevant because looking out the window makes you forget about everything else.
After the longest 14 km in my life, we paid a ransom to be able to park, and immediately got ambushed by a local entrepreneur who showered us with information about the best place to spend the rest of the day (and the rest of our money) which was a mere boat ride away from the point where we were standing.
After a failure at Cañaveral entrance and a heartwrenching drive, we were the easy prey. Hence, after 20 minutes boat ride along with another handsome payment, we were on the beach that was supposedly the hidden paradise of Tayrona. The white sand, the crystal clear water…, even the reef was there. As for the rest, it was far less impressive.
The beach was peppered with visitors, there was a line waiting for snorkeling around the poor reef, the charismatic beach vendors were offering sweets and avocados. The place looked like any other beach in some more or less exotic location.
Frankly, after 15 minutes of walking around we were ready to go back, but our fearless captain was nowhere in sight. We had almost 3 hours to kill.
AT braved the line and went snorkeling. According to him, it was fun: an unbelievable amount of fish and clear water. The bottom line: better than Thailand, but less impressive than Adriatic. 10 minutes walk awarded us with the less crowded stretch of sand.
It was time for a swim, which for me was the highlight of the day. With the light breeze and lazy waves, it felt so good just rocking on the water with occasional dive to check some strangely shaped creature at the bottom.
When we just arrived at the beach, we were greeted by an older lady who asked us what kind of fish we would like to eat later. She led us to a small building that happened to be the restaurant and showed a selection of freshly caught fish. The way it works there is that you choose the fish on arrival and come back a couple hours later to eat. We chose what, I think, was the red snapper. Two hours later, it was waiting for us on a table. It was delicious. The only regret we had was that we should’ve ordered two.
Colombians, especially from the Caribbean coast, are not known for their punctuality. It seemed that been almost an hour late hadn’t bothered our captain. As for us – we got some suntan while waiting for him.
Finally, back on the beach next to the parking lot we had a good laugh: it looked as good as the one that we came from but was almost entirely empty. We could just walk 100 yards from the car and enjoyed the pristine white beach totally devoid of any tourists.
Tayrona Park info:
- Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona (in Spanish)
- Tayrona National Park (Wikitravel)
- The Ultimate Guide to Tayrona National Natural Park, Colombia (by Discovering Ice)
- Tayrona Park Map provided by OpenStreetMap – more detailed and correct map than on Google Maps
Tayrona Park on Google Maps: