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 visit the remnants of ancient indigenous cities. 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-Columbian relic of a town and a popular day trip
  • Once a year, often in February, the Kogi indigenous people close the park for a month to perform a spiritual blessing of the area
  • Although there are rustic lodging options at various points inside the park, it's best to overnight in an eco-lodge outside Tayrona

Overview 

Iguana sunning itself on a rock in Cabo San Juan, Parque Nacional Tayrona.

Parque Nacional Tayrona is where the Sierra Nevada mountain range meets the Caribbean Sea. The rugged coastline features secluded 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 avian varieties. You can spot exotic birds such as the keel-billed toucan, the montane solitary eagle, and the military macaw. There are also various species of reptiles and amphibians, 401 types of sea and river fish, and over 100 species of coral, which makes for some great snorkeling and diving. 

The Layout of the Park

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

The park has an area of about 58 sq miles (150 sq km) and stretches 32 miles (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 the El Pueblito archeological site. 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. And while there are other basic lodging options near Cañaveral beach, we recommend staying in eco-lodges just outside the park's boundaries.

When to Visit

The high tourist season begins in December and lasts through January. Both 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

Hiking trail in Tayrona Park

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 aforementioned beaches and trek to the indigenous community of El 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 in Tayrona are, of course, swimming in the sea. The most popular and iconic beach in the park is Cabo San Juan. The image of this secluded cove is featured on many promotional materials for Parque Tayrona. The beach here is easily accessible by boat from the fishing village of Taganga, located just west of the park. 

El Pueblito, a two-hour walk from the coast, is a Pre-Columbian ruin of a town and a popular day trip. The trek into the hills to reach El Pueblito is a rewarding walk, and you are certain to spot reptiles, exotic birds, and other creatures. The walk starts at the Calabaza entrance to the park.

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

Unique Ways to Experience the Park

Pueblito Chairama, an indigenous archeological site in Tayrona

Visit El Pueblito

As mentioned above, Parque Tayrona is under the stewardship of the indigenous Kogi. Know that 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.

The best way to glean insight into the history and culture of the Kogi 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. 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. 

Before embarking, be wary of private guides who may not have the correct permits and consent. 

Hike to Ciudad Perdida

One of the most popular activities in Tayrona is 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 32-acre (13-hectare) archeological site that was once home to some 2,400 Tairona, who lived in round houses on stone-paved terraces. It's a fascinating site, which is precisely why there's been an excess of tourists in recent years. This has had the negative effect of reducing the experience to a kind of novelty attraction. If you are planning on embarking on the hike, know that it can be overcrowded and the local guides might not be the friendliest folks (remember, the Kogi people are reserved by nature and wary of outsiders). 

As for the Ciudad Perdida trek itself, there are different options ranging from 4 to 10 days and covering 27 miles (44 km) total. On the shorter treks, expect to be walking for 7-8 hours each day, stopping in various indigenous villages for meals and to overnight. Sleeping conditions are basic (tents or hammocks) and uncomfortable due to the heat and abundance of mosquitos. Still, the hike to the Lost City is through exotic jungle foliage, amid tropical cacao trees (you can eat its sweet fruit right off the branch), the buzzing of cicadas, and the calls of toucans. On the final day of the trek, you climb 1,200 stone steps to reach the famed archeological site.

Getting There & Away

Motorboats shuttle visitors around the various beaches in Tayrona

Private guided tours from Santa Marta to Tayrona are easy and convenient. The drive from Santa Marta east to the El Zaino entrance of the park takes about 45 minutes. Know that even on a private excursion the park entrance fee is not included; you will have to pay that on your own. 

Public buses leave several times an hour from Santa Marta for the El Zaino entrance and take about an hour to arrive. For Cabo San Juan, you can take a taxi boat from Taganga. These boats typically leave around 10 am and return around 4:30 pm. You pay one set price for both the arrival and return trip. 

Where to Stay

Treat yourself to a four-star resort near Tayrona (photo courtesy of Cayena Beach Villa)

Arrecifes beach and Cabo San Juan offer camping options, and hammocks are also available for rent. There's also the option to 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 eco-habs (thatched-roof bungalows). They accommodate up to four people, have ocean views, room service, wifi, and are the most comfortable lodging option within the park. 

That said, for convenience, comfort, and amenities, the best lodging options are the eco-hotels located just outside Parque Tayrona. There are a number of solid three and four-star options, many situated near the beach and jungle. These include:

  • Cayena Beach Villa. This is one such flawless four-star option, located right on a secluded beach just east of the park. It features multi-story bungalows, an irresistible pool, gourmet restaurant, and open-air yoga/massage studios. 
  • Villa Playa los Naranjos. Located on the shores of the River Piedras at the eastern edge of the park, this four-star option is luxurious and intimate. The hotel offers sizable, modern rooms with sea views and a millennium pool overlooking the river and ocean. 
  • Villa Maria Tayrona. This solid three-star option is also located near the beach just east of the park. Rooms feature canopy beds and terraces with wraparound views of the surrounding 45 acres of pristine jungle property.

Where to Eat

There's an abundance of tasty fish dishes at the beach restaurants in Tayrona

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, there are often locals serving up some version of these fried fish plates. You can also buy snacks and water from vendors at the main beaches.

For more formal meals, the eco-hotels often have restaurants that serve a wide variety of tropical dishes, such as ceviche, coconut shrimp, red snapper, and much more. 

More Expert Tips

  • Plastic bags are not 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