Santa Marta and Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona: Paradise on the Caribbean coast

The importance of chatting to randoms

So, Medellin airport. Ready for the flight, just an hour to wait. And by chance I chose a free seat between a Dutch guy, Kevin, and a Colombian guy, Julio. I only know this since I started chatting to Kevin about his plans. I was keen to meet another traveller before touching down in Santa Marta as the airport is a long way from the city, there’s no airport bus at 10pm and the taxi drivers are renowned scammers. As it turned out, he was booked into the same hostel that I was considering- I’d already decided not to book it, just to see if I could get a colectivo to the city and if not, just to crash in a hostal by the airport.

After a few minutes Julio started chatting to us, too. Born in Colombia but now living in Australia, with perfect English. And, with family around the Santa Marta area he was able to sort us out a lift for really not a lot of money. Jeez, is it really this easy?

So, there we were, heading through the flooded streets with Julio, dropping him off at his house having swapped numbers for a beer later in the week. A really lucky meeting. Further providence came in the fact that Kevin had a reservation for the exact same hostel I had made a note of as my first choice.

No room at the inn

So, my first night in Santa Marta was spent under the stars, since the hostel had no rooms/beds available. A hammock on the veranda’s not a bad second choice. When it’s warm enough, it’s actually pretty lovely to sleep out in the open. I stayed at Dreamer hostel, a really well-recommended place a few KM out of town proper but in an excellent position for getting to Minca and PNN Tayrona, my prime objectives.

Breakfast at Dreamer was a buffet affair, really good value at 9500COP for unlimited trips. Quite rare in the world of hostels, and set us up nicely for an active day.

The perils of the trendy hostel

Dreamer hostel does suffer slightly from Cool Hostel Syndrome, since it has a pool and is mentioned in Lonely Planet. What this means in practice is that whilst nice people go there, there are also a significant number of Wankpuffins. The Wankpuffin is a common breed which has generally lovely plumage but holds itself in high regard. It is disdainful and rude to its fellow travellers and others, and seeks the company of other wankpuffins. Dreamer has a large colony clustered around the pool.

Seriously though, I have really noticed as I’ve gone up Colombia into the easier-to-reach parts that there are some incredibly rude people. Even whilst talking to the nice guy at reception one of the Wankpuffin colony walked up, ignored our conversation and simply said “Fish” at him in an effort to order lunch. Just…wow.

Off to Tayrona

Kevin and I set off far later than planned to get to the National Park entrance, via the monolithic Exito Buenavista supermarket. A shining beacon of cool consumerism within the increasingly hot and dusty day. Lunch and jumbo water bottles purchased, we set off to try to get transport there.

Unfortunately Santa Marta is somewhat like the Wild West in terms of taxis. No meters, just get the best price you can. We were intending to wait for a bus, but two young Colombian guys also waiting at the stop suggested sharing a taxi since all the buses coming by were already full. The price quoted by other taxis pulling up had been 30,000COP, which was reasonable, and which our driver agreed to, but en route it turned out that he had never been to the National Park. We pulled up at a gas station to fill up, he talked to other members of his taxi mafia and suddenly the price became 100,000COP so he was swiftly told to stick it in not less than 2 languages and we all went back to the road to find a bus.

Sure enough, one did pull up and we boarded. I had the immense displeasure to be sat next to a strange sketchy guy who kindly informed me what the fare should be, by showing me his ticket. He then embarked on a strange series of hand gestures illustrating a transfer of funds from me to him, offered me cannabis and was just generally the kind of person I really wouldn’t have chosen to spend 40mins next to unless I had to. “Give me 2000COP for telling you the ticket price, which you kind of knew anyway” Errr, nope.

Kind of awkward but I played him at his own game and gave a strange silent fistbump combo as we departed. No cash.

Zaino is the main entrance of the PNN Tayrona, and where the majority of tourists come in. You pay your fee of 42000COP for Extranajeros and then move on into the park to have your bags searched by the Police, and then to receive an odd video briefing. The checkpoint was a site of distinct hilarity due to the sketchy hippy woman in front of us and her extreme, leg shaking nervousness. DROGAS! You’re not allowed to bring in alcohol either. Just so basically the on-site businesses can flog it to you at extortionate rates. Two Irish people I later met told us that the Police had been very keen to find cigarettes in their bag. Probably because, well, they fancied a fag.

Entering the jungle

Ignore all route time estimations bandied around regarding Tayrona. Received wisdom would indicate that it’s an easy 2hr walk to San Juan Guía El Cabo, the most popular camping spot. This is nonsense. As soon as you get into the park proper the humidity increases noticeably and I felt every kilo of my pretty light pack. Neither of us had much in the way of spare clothing and kit, although I was carrying my tent and mat. The 6kg of water didn’t help much. But yeah, the walk gets pretty serious pretty quickly, through the jungle and up and down various rock outcrops.

Breaking out of the trees

After a while though the trail starts to flatten out, which is a welcome break. There are plenty of opportunities to walk along the sandy beaches giving a change from the sweaty jungle. Still not the easiest in big boots and with a pack. We passed Arrecifes, the first campsite, about 2 and a half hours after entering the park, going at a decent pace and with minimal breaks. See, the suggested timings are nonsense. 

Where most of the climbing stops, the mud starts. The lower-lying parts of the trail are seriously squelchy. Sometimes there’s a side route, sometimes not. I didn’t mind too much, in my soon-to-be-retired boots, but Kevin wasn’t faring too well in his only pair of flat shoes. Oops.

We arrived at our first night’s camping spot way behind schedule. At the campsites in the park you’ve got the choice between sleeping in hammocks within open thatched barns, hiring a tent or pitching your own. Tents are about 30,000COP per person, hammocks 20,000 and camping 15,000.

I ‘cunningly’ decided to pitch my tent between the back hedge and a roofed shelter for the rubbish bins. This would later prove to be a very bad choice.

Sure enough, as we relaxed in the thatched restaurant with the first of many beers on the go, the heavens opened. Like, really opened. I’ve got used to the pattern of rainfall around here, generally nothing in the morning and then hours of torrential rain between about 3/4pm and possibly overnight. Never quite like this though. 

My logic for putting the tent where I did was sound. It would protect my little cocoon from the worst of the deluge. Sure enough, the first time I braved the rain to check and my tent was dry and toasty inside. Perfect. 

But then, the evening wore on, and the rain still hadn’t stopped. If anything it was getting worse. Really hammering down. Rivers were forming down to the beach, and the campsite was becoming more of a lake. I again went to check my tent. This time the omens were not good. Sure enough, about 3 inches of water had filled it. My poor little tent- It hadn’t leaked from above at all, my lack of faith had condemned it to drowning from below. Along with the entire contents of my pack. Luckily my lack of faith had led to me putting my camera in a dry sack, so at least one thing was saved. My faithful battery pack succumbed to the elements though.

Emptied of everything, I re-pitched the tent on slightly higher ground- or at least an island, and headed back to the restaurant in anticipation of a long, cold night. At least beer would dull the pain.

The rain didn’t stop until the early hours of the morning, and a huge thunderstorm crashed above us, but I enjoyed a surprisingly good night’s sleep. Pulling on a completely waterlogged pack in the morning wasn’t the most fun of activities however.

The morning emerged bright and clear, showing us the true beauty of the beach and surroundings. San Juan is a truly incredible corner of the park, undimmed by the large number of visitors. The night had given the beach a real pounding though- Palm trees washed up and lots of the connecting sand spit to the bunkhouse completely gone. We walked southwards for a while to see the other beaches down from San Juan, and en route made some new animal friends…

Whilst there are established trails around the park, you don’t need to go far off them to be completely in nature. These crabs were living in a thick muddy mangrove just past the main beach. But, once you’ve crawled through the mud you are rewarded with a stunning deserted bay.

There are other beaches indicated on the maps, but it’s a bit of a climb to get to them, with no obvious route. We stuck with the first one for convenience sake. If I had my time in the park again though I’d definitely have entered by the other gate and walked to the Pueblito above San Juan, effectively doing our route in reverse. 

Boardwalk through the mangroves

Top wildlife spot of the day, albeit a seriously badly photographed one, was this frog. An insanely poisonous one that gets used to tip poisoned spears by native tribes. I won’t be giving that a cuddle then. 

I didn’t want to leave the park after one night, so we decided to walk back to Arrecifes campsite, set up shop and then maybe walk from there to some of the other northerly beaches. This didn’t go entirely to plan, mainly due to intense laziness and a late lunch. This of course meant early beers though, so not a complete loss.

The restaurant at Arrecifes

Arrecifes was a pleasant campsite. Doing the park at a leisurely pace rather than a stomp is definitely the way to go. Time in the sun with an inappropriately large but good book is the way forward. And obviously a dog. There are always random dogs around the place.

I was slightly miffed that it didn’t rain AT ALL that night, particularly after I had selected an amazing camping spot with due regard to elevation, run-off, general comfort etc. But hey, it was a great night’s sleep.

The next morning we grabbed a (relatively) early start, after an amazing coffee from the kiosk and an even more amazing stone-baked bread from the local woman who’d been selling them both at Arrecifes and on the previous night. Cheese, basil, tomato, really very posh for a small rural outpost in Colombia. Suitably refreshed we decided to find the beaches to the North of the park- Canaveral and others. A leap of faith since they aren’t particularly well signed. This was definitely worth it. Soon enough we were on the beach at Canaveral (Above) and heading North, past the over-priced but nonetheless seriously appealing Ecohabs perched high above the beach.

The trail passes an apparently caiman-infested river (There’s even a sign!) and then emerges onto a stunning viewpoint above the beach from which you can see right the way up the coast. I did have plans to hike the long route North however Kevin helpfully pointed out that we had stuff all water and no food, so instead we stuck to the shorter loop. This was nonetheless seriously jungley and pretty interesting, with mysterious stone eggs dotted liberally along the way.

Clambering through

One thing I really liked about our walk out of the park was the number of volunteers we saw. The first was a line of schoolchildren and teacher in the pristine white traditional dress of the indigenous Tayrona people, on a litter pick through the park. The second a guy clearing litter on the beach whom I talked to- He was actually an ice cream vendor there but also helped out in free time. And lastly a really keen guy we met on the jungle trail shortly after crossing the downed tree. Sure enough, as we walked into the distance the happy ringing of machete thwacking vegetation sang out.

Back to the park entrance, and eschewing the offer of a taxi (If you get 4 people this is great value for 10,000COP each but with 2 it didn’t make sense), we soon hopped on a bus back into Santa Marta (7000COP) A really slow, stop-everywhere local one but at least they had the decency to charge the correct fare without mucking around!

No room at the inn again

Once more, we hadn’t booked, and as it turned out Dreamer was full. Another night on the hammocks, then. To be honest I didn’t really mind by this point, at least there was the promise of a shower and food in the offing.

We later headed out to meet Julio for dinner and drinks. The former at an excellent local place he’d suggested, 1000 Carnes, for great barbecued meat and accompaniments. The latter by the lovely Parque De Los Novios in the centre of Santa Marta. This is an oasis of civilisation in the otherwise dusty and businesslike concrete hell of the outskirts and had a real Mediterranean feel with pavement bars, plenty of locals taking the air and a somewhat incongruous nativity scene.

Chicken and plantain combo

Manly cocktails on the Park

After dinner we headed to a Jamaican-themed bar right on the waterfront. Santa Marta really does have many faces, from the dirty inner city to the upscale waterfront eateries and bars which have sprung up in recent years. 

Tres amigos

Grabbing a cab, we bid farewell to Julio and his friend. It’s great meeting nice people along the way, particularly when it’s unexpected. Back to the dubious comforts of a hammock, albeit thankfully with a decent skinful of beer to assist the resting process.

The next day did not dawn happily. Both Keith and I shared what appeared to be a somewhat virulent gut rot. A process of elimination brought it down to the coconut lemonades the night before. Dammit! Still, no time for rest. On to the next destination, Minca. Up into the cloud forest…

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