With miles of white sand beaches, dense jungle and waves crashing into enormous boulders, Parque Nacional Tayrona is one of the most visually stunning natural reserves in Colombia. Days can be spent swimming in the sea and exploring the jungle, and there are opportunities to meet the indigenous Kogi people who call this place their home. Use this expert guide to help you get the most from one of Colombia's true natural wonders.

Local Insights

  • June and July are ideal months to avoid the crowds and enjoy good weather
  • El Pueblito, a two-hour walk from the coast, is a pre-Hispanic ruined town and a popular day trip
  • Once a year, often in February, the Kogi people close the park for a month to perform a spiritual blessing of the area
  • Camping and hammocks are available if you want to stay overnight, more formal accommodation can be found in ecohabs. 

Overview 

Iguana sunning itself on a rock in Parque Nacional Tayrona.

Parque Nacional Tayrona is where the Sierra Nevada mountain range meets the Caribbean Sea. The rugged coastline features idyllic bays and coves, where white sand beaches front crystalline lagoons and giant boulders jut from the blue waters. 

Tayrona is named after the ancient 'Tairona' people who settled here thousands of years ago. While the park is managed by the Colombian government, it is still under the purview of the Kogi people, direct descendants of the Tairona. Many indigenous Kogi still live in traditional thatched-roof huts nestled deep in the Sierra Nevadas, subsisting off the land and trading with outsiders when necessary. 

Tayrona is also well-known among bird watchers and is home to 300 different birds. You can spot exotic birds such as the keel-billed toucan, the montane solitary eagle, and the military macaw. There are also a number of species of reptiles and amphibians, 401 types of sea and river fish, and over a 100 species of coral, which makes for some great snorkeling and diving. 

Layout of the Park

View of Cabo San Juan, one of the most popular beaches in the park.

The park has an area of 150 sq km and stretches 85 km eastward from the small fishing village of Taganga, near Santa Marta.

On land, there are two official entrances to Tayrona. Entrada Calabaza is close to the center of the park and is the starting point for the multi-hour trek to El Pueblito and Cabo San Juan. The other entrance, El Zaino, is located at the east end of the park and is the entrance point to El Cañaveral and Arrecifes beaches, which are great for camping. Ecohabs, the best places to stay in the park, are located near Cañaveral beach.

When to Visit

The high tourist season begins in December and lasts through January. Colombians and foreigners flock to the area during this time and the park can feel even more populated than usual. January sees the start of the dry season, which lasts for three months. The rivers are lower during this time period, and the weather is often sunny and pleasant. For this reason, these months (especially January) are more popular with local vacationers. June and July are ideal months to visit Tayrona, as there are fewer tourists and the weather and precipitation are more moderate. 

Weather

It's hot all year round on the Colombian coast, with average high temperatures in the 86°F (30º C) range. There is a wet and dry season here, however, with October and November receiving most of the precipitation (over 200 inches). At 70 inches, June and July receive moderate amounts of rain, which makes these months ideal to visit. 

Festivals and Special Events

Once a year, often in February, the Kogi people shut down Parque Tayrona for an entire month to perform a spiritual blessing of the area. The ancient Tairona worshipped the God of the earth, as their descendants, the Kogi, still do today.

How Many Days Do You Need

If you have more than 5 days, consider making the trek to the Lost City.

Even if you only have one free day, that is enough time to see some highlights of Tayrona. You can book a tour to the sites located a short distance from Santa Marta, such as Villa Concha and Playa Cristal. These are easily accessible by road.

With two days you could visit the beaches and trek to the indigenous community of Pueblito. The trek is about four hours each way from the park entrance of Calabaza. If you have many days to explore the park, you should consider embarking on the multi-day trek to Ciudad Perdida

Things to Do Around Tayrona

Cabo San Juan is a popular place for swimming in the park. 

The main activities are, of course, swimming in the sea and exploring the jungle and beaches on foot. Guided walks can be helpful if you want to spot wildlife or learn more about the flora and fauna of the park. Plenty of scuba operators can be found in Taganga and Santa Marta, and cater to all levels of experience.

El Pueblito, a two-hour walk from the coast, is a pre-Hispanic ruined town and a popular day trip. The steep trek into the hills to reach Pueblito is a rewarding walk, and you are certain to spot reptiles, land crabs and other creatures. The walk starts from Cabo San Juan beach, which is beautiful but does get crowded on weekends.  

Many people enjoy spending a day in Taganga, the jumping off point to Tayrona. There are some decent beachfront cafes, as well as a number of dive shops that run reputable excursions in and around Tayrona. Past the eastern end of the park is Palomino, where you can explore some stunning rivers and windswept beaches. 

Unique Ways to Experience the Park

The indigenous Kogi people continue to live according to traditional ways in Tayrona.  

Visit a Kogi Community

The park can be explored independently or on a guided tour. Visiting an indigenous community is also a very rewarding experience. However, it is also a delicate process. They are a proud people, with their own culture and customs, and aren't typically eager to interact with outsiders. Some may allow photographs but many others will turn down your request.

One way to meet members of the Kogi community is on an official tour to El Pueblito. These tours are organized with the Kogi's consent, and everything is pre-approved. Tours include an official guide and usually set off from the Calabazo entrance to the park. Be wary of private guides who may not have the correct permits and consent. 

From Calabazo it's a three-hour hike to the archeological site of Pueblito Chairama, an ancient settlement where you can see the remains of homes, bridges and a drainage system. Along the way, you'll hear the calls of howler monkeys and exotic birds, and be treated to the sight of blue butterflies fluttering in the wind. Once at the site, you can meet Kogi villagers, who will share their culture and traditions with you. 

Hike to Ciudad Perdida

One of the most memorable things you can do here is to make the trek to Ciudad Perdida (Lost City). The ruins of this ancient stone community pre-date those of Peru's Machu Picchu by 650 years. It's a 13-hectare archeological site that was once home to some 2400 Tairona, who lived in round houses on stone-paved terraces.

There are multi-day trekking options for the Ciudad Perdida expedition, ranging from 4 to 10 days. On the shorter treks, expect to be walking for 7-8 hours each day, stopping in various indigenous villages for meals and overnight rest. The treks typically include a translator, who can help you communicate with the indigenous peoples. 

The hike to the Lost City is through lush jungle foliage, which includes the tropical cacao tree (its sweet fruit is available to eat right off the branch). The buzzing sounds of cicadas and the calls of toucans are ever present. You'll continue the hike up steep hills and across crystalline running rivers. On the last day of the four-day trek, you climb 1200 stone steps to reach the famed archeological site.

Getting There & Away

Small boats like this one are used to shuttle visitors around the coast. Photo by: Chris Wallace. 

Buses leave serval times an hour from Santa Marta for the El Zaino entrance of Parque Tayrona. For Cabo San Juan, you can take a boat from Taganga. Boats typically leave around 10 am and return around 4:30 pm. You pay one set price for both the arrival and return trip. Guided trips to the park typically set off from Santa Marta. 

Where to Stay

Hammocks are available for overnight stays in the park.

Arrecifes beach and Cabo San Juan are great for camping. Hammocks are also available for rent. Also, you can rent horses to carry your bags while you explore the park on foot. 

One of the best places to stay in the park is Cañaveral beach, which has several ecohabs – (thatched-roof bungalows). They accommodate up to four people, have ocean views, and are the most luxurious lodging option in the park. 

The ecohabs offer spa treatments, including aromatherapy, indigenous stress-relief rituals, hydration facials, bamboo skin treatments, ritual foot massages and more. They can arrange a romantic dinner in a beach jacuzzi (complete with a bottle of good wine), and will even sprinkle rose petals on your bed upon request. It's also one of the few areas in the park with Wi-Fi. 

Where to Eat

Meals of fish and chicken are available at simple restaurants around the park. Photo by: Chris Wallace. 

The major tourist destinations in the park, such as Cabo San Juan, have the most food options. Here you'll find open-air restaurants serving mostly seafood dishes with some chicken and beef options. Plates here are typically enormous and feature locally caught fried fish, such as mojarra, often served with coconut rice and patacones (smashed, fried plantains).

Even on the more remote beaches, you'll often find locals serving up some version of these fried fish plates. You can also buy snacks and water from vendors at the main beaches.

Ecohabs are the best places to go for a gourmet meal. You can enjoy a candlelit dinner at a romantic terrace restaurant surrounded by jungle as the sounds of the waves provide the soundtrack to your meal. Rich snapper ceviche, cassava shrimp with coconut and cheese, sugary shrimp tossed in sweet chiles and garnished with avocado, thick sirloin steak grilled to perfection – these are just some of the items available.

More Expert Tips

  • Plastic bags are now allowed in the park. You also won't be able to bring in alcohol, however, beer is served at most restaurants and kiosks within the park.
  • Always keep a close watch on your belongings and be conscious of riptides around the beaches on the eastern end of the park, such as Arrecifes.
  • Items to pack include mosquito repellant, sunscreen, flashlight, swim mask, and snorkel. Also, consider taking a water filter to avoid having to buy bottled water. 
  • Food can be expensive in the park, so load up on snacks before coming here. 
 
 
 
 

Map

Map of Ultimate Guide to Tayrona Park: Natural Wonders and Ancient Culture
Map of Ultimate Guide to Tayrona Park: Natural Wonders and Ancient Culture