Tayrona National Park is one of Colombia’s crown jewels. It’s a huge park, just outside Santa Marta, that hugs the Caribbean coast. It’s really popular for camping too. My experience here started off as being a comedy of errors though!
Having endured an overnight bus trip from San Gil to Santa Marta, I can’t say I arrived in the best of spirits. No matter how many overnight buses I catch, I just can’t see myself getting used to that sort of discomfort. The air-conditioning is always too cold, the seat is always uncomfortable and the driver is always an asshole.
Having arrived in Santa Marta, we checked into our hostel which was so basic, it made a prison cell seem appealing. Santa Marta is HOT too – maybe the heat of Asia is now a distant memory but I can’t recall Asia being this warm. The hostel didn’t have aircon too, but that’s fine – I paid close to nothing for a night’s accommodation so I could live with this.
Santa Marta is a huge city and serves as a great base from which to prepare yourself for hiking in Tayrona, which is exactly what we did. Our plan was to catch the bus to the park the next morning and spend a few days camping there. If you’re keen on doing something similar, leave early as the buses were supposedly very crowded which led to us catching a taxi to the park for COP 15,000 each (about USD 5).
Upon arrival and buying our entrance tickets (COP48,000), we caught the shuttle bus to the start of the trek (will cost you COP3,000) but I reckon it’s a good idea to do this – you will be hiking so much and if you were to walk to the start of the hike, all you’d be doing is following a tar road for an hour odd).
Our plan was to hike from where the shuttle dropped us off, right through to a camp site called Cabo San Juan (Cabo). It’s meant to be the popular camp site. What we didn’t count on, however, was that it was a long weekend in Colombia so everyone and their granny was planning on doing the same thing. After getting to Cabo, which entailed a 2.5 hour hike, we were greeted with a mass of unorganised queuing to secure a tent and campsite. When we eventually arrived at the front of the booth, we were informed there was no more camping space available. No alternatives provided, nada. Just – no space.
Now I’m not going to sugar coat this: it’s hot as fuck and at that point, the thought of backtracking and hiking another hour to another campsite destroyed my soul. As it was, we were both carrying backpacks and 6 litres of water each (water is crazily expensive in the park so we opted to bring our own), I had sweated out my body weight on the hike to Cabo and had nothing more to give. To add insult to injury, mosquitos were attacking us in a fashion similar to a pack of hyenas targeting a wounded Impala (as I write this, I look like I have chicken pox and am feeling fluey, so naturally I’ve diagnosed myself with Dengue Fever).
After a swim at Cabo, a rather pretty, albeit extremely crowded beach thanks to the long weekend, we walked back to a camp we prayed had available space. We were in luck, and spent the night camping at a site called Arrecifes. It’s the more up-market camping site but all that means is the tents have ventilation, a privilege you pay heavily for, but beggars can’t be choosers. Faced with cashing in my pension or walking back to the start of the hike, I’d have chosen the former any day.
Beers are also double the price in Tayrona, but the authorities prohibit you bringing your own alcohol into the park, so you have no choice. But refer to the paragraph above – I wouldn’t have cared if they cost R100 a can at that point.
All jokes aside, the Arrecifes camp site is really pleasant. There is a restaurant on site but it’s also really expensive. In anticipation of the extortionate prices, we brought our own food and settled down for a delicious dinner of peanut butter sandwiches, with added peanuts and raisins – a splurge every now and then is good for the soul.
Our plan for the next day was to hike back to Cabo and try to secure a camping spot. When we got there, we had a think about it and decided there wasn’t much point spending another expensive day in the park, so opted to do a day hike to Pueblito, an ancient village once inhabited by the Tayrona tribe. Thereafter, we’d hike back to the entrance of the park and make our way back to Santa Marta.
At the beginning of the hike up to Pueblito, there is this delightful tourist sign full of motivational bullshit about only leaving footprints, blah blah blah. Next to this was a small amount of information about the hike we were about to undertake. The take-away information from this was that the hike was classified as being of ‘medium’ difficulty. As the hikes in Tayrona thus far weren’t very challenging, we were happy to do it in flip flops.
Let me tell you something – it was not of effing ‘medium’ difficulty! Oh, it starts off pleasantly enough, a quaint little trail through a forest and then you encounter a few boulders which made me think that this was the ‘medium’ bit. But after that, I’m pretty much required to be a mountain goat, scurrying over boulders, wedged into crevasses. It was a steep climb right to the top! I thought I’d sweated a lot the previous day but I had no idea what my body could do now. I had a waterfall steaming from my forehead down my nose. Hell, anyone walking behind me stood better chance swimming to the top of that mountain!
Eventually at the top, you can see the ruins of the Tayrona village, which is impressive, given its location and what must have been an extremely difficult task to construct. It’s also pleasant as not many tourists make their way up here (can’t say I’m surprised). I think there must have been a maximum of 10 people up there when we summited).
The descent was something I wasn’t looking forward to, but thankfully it went ok. When we got back to Cabo (where the start of the Pueblito hike is), we chilled for a while before starting the 2,5 hour walk back to the entrance of the park. I’ve never craved a shower that badly in my life.
To summarise this, I think you should definitely head to Tayrona and camp there. I also think you should hike to Pueblito. What I’d strongly recommend is that you make sure you know what you’re getting yourselves into. Bring loads of water and loads of insect repellant. If you think one bottle of DEET is enough, you’re wrong, bring another. The mozzies are relentless bastards. Also, don’t hike Pueblito in flip flops (I ended up putting my hiking shoes on half way up). Finally, if you’re on a budget, as most backpackers are, be warned that Tayrona isn’t the cheapest place around. If the hike isn’t for you, you can catch one of the numerous donkeys to the camp sites, but the poor things don’t look like they have the best lives. As a hiker, there are parts of the trail that double up as donkey trails so beware of donkey traffic jams!
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to continue reading the full list of Dengue symptoms on WebMD.