Colombia’s second most popular national park, Tayrona, is set on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and is named after one of the indigenous groups who used to live within it. Its distinctive beaches are lined with natural boulders and lush vegetation. The park is popular with tourists and locals alike for its views, wildlife, swimming and beaches where you are able to stay overnight.
In our heads, it was going to be idyllic. An easy walk through the jungle to an expanse of beach and blue seas. We’d seen the photos, we’d read the blog posts, we knew what was in store! We were going to get there nice and early and relax on the beach.
Not quite. Life isn’t always quite like the blog posts!
Our visit to Tayrona National Park
The rain had come down heavily just a few days before, and despite the heat of the following days, a big part of the track was in the shade and was still wet. Add to this already sodden route hundreds of pairs of feet and the weight of the many working horses, and you’ve a recipe for a pretty muddy soup.
We were totally unaware of this when we paid our 48,500 COP entrance fee to the park. By Colombian standards this is incredibly expensive, and there is a much cheaper rate for nationals. As many tourists do, we decided to fork out for the amazing experience and the knowledge that our money would, as promised by the many signs, be helping towards the park’s conservation.
Everything was calm and dry as we handed over our fee at the entrance. The large, well cared for registration gate masked the storm that was to come.
Because we were running late after a long bus journey from Riohacha, we decided to cut the walk a little shorter and get the shuttle bus the first 5km, which takes you to the final point where cars can go. From here, our final destination, was Cabo San Juan. A beautiful swimming beach with accommodation.
Walking to Cabo San Juan
It took us almost four hours to mud wade our way to Cabo San Juan. By the end, one pair of shoes had been sacrificed and the other pair was in hand. At points, we were in above our ankles, so concentrated on not falling over that we missed the natural beauty around us.
Tayrona really is beautiful in many ways. It looks like something straight out of Jurassic Park, and you half expect a dinosaur’s roar to rumble through the trees. Unfortunately however, we were victims of the wet season. We tried our luck and it failed us.
Arriving at Cabo San Juan
By the time we had made it to Cabo San Juan we were both disgruntled and muddy. After joining the queue for accommodation, we were informed that all of the hammocks were occupied and only a small number of tents were remaining. There was little choice really, we would have rather have slept by the kitchen than take on the mud again so soon. We forked out the 30,000 COP per person for the tent option (hammocks are slightly cheaper at 25,000 COP per person) and were given wristbands with our tent number written on. Hello number 48!
We made use of the lockers for our valuables, and made our way to our home for the night. When we found it, suddenly the walk back didn’t seem so bad after all. The tent was a very sorry site; the mosquito mesh at the front had huge holes in it, and the mattresses inside were damp and mouldy. After the day that we’d had, and the price that we had paid, we were really hoping for something basic but clean and dry.
We decided to ignore the tent until we had to deal with it, and make the most of the beach. Unfortunately the clouds were brewing, and we decided not to go swimming but sat and enjoyed the views whilst trying to relax.
Staying the night
That night, during dinner, the heavens opened. The sheltered canteen, where everyone took refuge, wasn’t really up to the challenge and before long rain was seeping through the ceiling. Luckily, we were positioned quite well at our table, but we saw others desperately trying to stop their dinner plates from flooding.
We decided to call it a day quite early, and made a break for our tent as soon as the rain eased a little. The campsite was in chaos. Several tents were swimming, and the trek to the toilets was flooded so the only route was to go through the hammock area, which must have been very disruptive for anyone trying to sleep.
Back to civilisation
The next day, we were awake and off very early, relieved to get away from the musty, overheated tent. After mentally preparing ourselves, we took off our shoes and began to walk barefoot.
We arrived back at the entrance three and a half hours later and waited by the road for a public bus to Santa Marta. It didn’t take long as the route is very popular and the journey cost us 10,000 COP each to the city’s Terminal de Transporte.
Would we recommend going to Tayrona National Park?
I really wish our experience had been more positive. I would have loved to have written a rave review here instead of all this moaning. It’s true, our stay was hardly typical. In good weather our experience would’ve been completely different, but honestly we would still have to say no, we wouldn’t recommend a visit. Here’s why:
- We have rarely felt like we were getting ripped of in any way during our two month stay in Colombia. At every turn though it felt like the park was trying to get more and more money out of us (the large entrance fee, the cost of the shuttle bus, the huge premiums on accomodation and food) . We wouldn’t have minded this, in many ways it’s to be expected, but the quality of all of these facilities was poor. We were particularly disappointed by the accomodation, our tent was mouldy and had long since lost its waterproofing (we were kept from being too soggy by the plastic sheet they had draped over the tent, which in turn covered the ventilation holes). While we know camping is rarely luxurious, a basic standard should be aspired to, especially for the cost.
- At Cabo San Juan, they must have over three hundred people at full capacity (which it was when we were there, even in the wet season). Despite this, they only had two toilets per gender, a handful of showers and one sink. As you can imagine, the queues were always huge and we gave up on the idea of taking a shower. There were particular peak times, such as sunset when everyone had just got out of the sea and queues must have been 20 people long for each shower. In the morning, around 6am, we waited over 15 minutes to use the toilet. In addition, the site was poorly equipped for the wet season, everything was wet and muddy.
- The most important reason we would strongly suggest not making a visit, is that despite their strong claims to care for the environment, we saw several worrying signs.
- We were absolutely appalled to see the very unhealthy state of the working horses. Part of me wishes we had taken a photo to share with the world, but at the time it felt too insensitive. Their health was so bad, that as we were wading through the mud we often came across horse diarrhea on the track. In such poor condition these animals should not be forced to work. The staff working with the horses were all wearing Tayrona National Park branded clothing, it didn’t look like they were a third party provider. Please, if you do decide to go to the park, use two legs and not four. I can’t stress enough how crucial it is that you don’t fund this animal cruelty.
- As well as the poor state of the horses, the paths were badly maintained. Parts of the track had wooden platforms, but mostly it was just left for the mud to take over. As a result, hikers were wandering away, trying to find drier routes to walk. This has a terrible impact on the surrounding wildlife.
- Plastic cups were regularly given out by the shops and restaurants within the park, and the bins are poorly labeled for recycling.
- There was a list at the the entrance of restrictions on items that you could take into the park. For example, plastic bags and alcohol were banned. No one at any point checked this.
Not really a fault of the park, but we were really sad to see Arrecifes beach the following day, on our walk back to the entrance. The strong tides had washed in an array debris over night, just demonstrating how polluted our oceans are with human rubbish. It’s a stark reminder that we all have a role to play in looking after our planet.
In summary, Colombia has such a wealth of natural beauty and cultural heritage, and there are so many things we would suggest making time to see, long before you plan a visit to Tayrona National Park. We can’t deny it’s a beautiful place, but poor management ruined it for us. Take a look at all the amazing things we had the privilege of doing during our two month stay in Colombia.
Proud to be linking up with other travel bloggers: