February 23, 2020

Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park is a beautiful place with sandy beaches, rainforests and lots of wildlife. It’s a must-visit in Colombia. I think it deserves at least 2 whole days to fully explore everything the park has to offer but we were only there for one and a half days. If you are a nature lover and enjoy hiking, this is a great place. If you just want to chill on the beach, Tayrona has you covered.

Santa Marta – Dreamer Hostel

We didn’t spend too much time in Santa Marta but from what little we saw, it looked like a cute town. Our flight from Medellin landed in Santa Marta around 9:20 pm. The airport is right next to the beach. There are people selling fresh fish and other fruits/snacks on the beach. During the daytime, there are lots of families hanging out and relaxing on the beach.

Howler monkeys at Tayrona

We stayed at the Dreamer Hostel. By the time we checked in, the hostel kitchen had closed. Luckily, La Plaza de San Pedro food truck market was a short walk from the hostel so we had food and drinks there. Most of the food options there were burgers, sandwiches, and other fast food. The pizza at Romez Pizza was delicious.

I haven’t seen a drink this big since undergrad

Dreamer hostel offered a shuttle to Tayrona every morning but you have to sign up early. By the time we checked in to the hostel, the first shuttle going to Tayrona was already full. The next shuttle leaving the hostel was around 9 am and we wanted to leave earlier. Since the first shuttle of the morning was booked, we asked the receptionist for other options to get to the park earlier in the morning.

They said we could take a bus or a private taxi. Obviously, the bus will be a cheaper option. He said a private taxi costs 135,000 pesos. We asked if we can think about it over dinner before we confirm a taxi. The receptionist said we have until 11 pm to decide if we wanted a taxi. By 10:30 pm we called to confirm a taxi and the receptionist said the price was now 150,000 pesos.

With this fluctuating price, we said didn’t want a taxi anymore. After a while the price suddenly dropped to 110,000 pesos for the same taxi. At this point we felt like he was trying to scam us so we just said we’ll find a taxi ourselves. We didn’t trust him and the staff. We googled and found a taxi willing to take us from Dreamer Hostel to El Zaino entrance of Tayrona NP for 100,000 pesos.

We also didn’t have any water in the room. We had booked a private room with a private bathroom so when we didn’t have water, the staff initially just told us to use the common bathroom. When we said that’s not what we paid for, they reluctantly went to investigate the problem. After almost 2 hours of back and forth, we had water in our bathroom for about an hour and it was brown and murky. By this time it was well past midnight so we just gave up and went to bed.

hike can get muddy

If you are looking for a place to stay in Santa Marta, do not pick Dreamer Hostel. The service was terrible and the staff was not only unhelpful but at times it felt like they were trying to scam us. This was the only place in Colombia where we felt like we were being scammed. I’m sure there are plenty of other, better options in Santa Marta.

Before going to the park

There are a few things you must do before going to the park. Most important is buy the park entrance tickets online. Trust me! It’ll save you so much time. If there’s only one thing you can do, let it be this. It saved us so much time and we still waited in line for about half an hour. The line to buy tickets was VERY long and it moved VERY slowly. I think people probably stayed in line for a few hours to buy park entrance tickets.

so much diversity

Get your Yellow Fever Vaccine 10 days before your visit. It’s strongly recommended and given how many mosquitoes there are in the park, it’s definitely worth it. It’s not required by National Parks of Colombia so there’s no one actually checking your yellow fever card. You can try to avoid getting mosquito bites by using bug spray, wearing pants, and long sleeve shirts but when we visited in November 2019, it was extremely hot and humid. I couldn’t imagine wearing pants or long sleeve shirt in that heat and humidity. If you forget to reapply the bug spray, you’ll definitely get bit.

Getting to Tayrona National Park

We took an evening flight from Medellin to Santa Marta. There are buses that go to Tayrona National Park from Santa Marta and the cost is around 7,000 pesos but it can get packed. You can also take a taxi which costs around 100,000 pesos to El Zaino entrance. You can also take a boat from Taganga to Cabo San Juan beach inside Tayrona National Park. The boat ride can get choppy so be prepared for a bumpy ride.

random guy in the back photo-bombed us

We took a taxi from Santa Marta to El Zaino entrance which cost us 100,000 pesos. The ride was a bit scary only because the driver took many unnecessary risks. It was more expensive than taking a bus and the ride was scary but in the end, it turned out to be a good option. The first shuttle from our hostel left at 7:30 am and got to the park around 8:50 am. We took a taxi from the hostel at around 8 am and got to the park around 8:45 am. We got a few extra minutes of sleep.

Once inside the park, you still have a bit of way to go before the start of the Cabo San Juan beach hike. There’s an option to take a shuttle from the entrance to the start of the hike which only costs 3,000 pesos per person and I strongly recommend taking it. They really pack people in the shuttle, like sardines, but the trip is short. You can walk to the start of the hike but it’ll take about an hour, maybe more, to get there and the views aren’t that great. Save energy and time by taking the shuttle.

Where to stay in Tayrona

There are very few options to stay inside the park. Your options are basically to sleep in a hammock (cheapest option), rent a tent, get a cabin at Arrecife, or stay at Ecohabs Tayrona (most expensive option). Renting a hammock is the cheapest option and, theoretically, it sounds magical. Sleeping under the stars, wind swinging your hammock gently, and waking up in the morning to the sound of the waves. It sounds perfect and magical. And they only cost around $10 USD.

view from the “best” hammocks at Cabo

But practically speaking, it’s my least favorite option. Just think about it… The hammocks are in an open area. There are no walls to protect you from the heavy wind, rain, and most importantly, mosquitoes. Tayrona National Park is in the yellow fever zone so spending a night outside just doesn’t sound romantic or magical to me. Also, the hammocks are all in a common space so everyone who rented a hammock is sleeping in the same general area. There’s no privacy. All this sounds great if you are in your 20s but I’m in my late 30s and none of this is appealing to me anymore.

the most popular hammocks

You also can’t make a reservation ahead of time for hammocks. It’s first-come, first serve basis only so if you want a hammock on the top of a hill overlooking the ocean at Cabo beach, you need to get there early. It becomes even more important to purchase park entrance tickets online so you can avoid standing in long lines. There are also other options for hammocks at Cabo beach if you don’t get the ones at the “best” location.

the famous hammocks on the hill

Renting a tent is another way to spend the night in the park and if traveling on a budget, it’s a great option. At least you can have protection against the rain and mosquitoes. You can rent a tent and everything necessary at the park and it’s all reasonably priced. I just wasn’t too crazy about sleeping on the ground, especially if it started to rain at night. Renting a tent cost around $20 USD.

view on the other side of the hammocks

I considered getting a cabin at Arrecife which costs around $250 USD but you have to check in by 4:30 pm, before it gets dark. It’s a bit of a hike to get there. I didn’t want to restrict myself to that time limit. I wanted the option to explore the park for longer and stay at the Cabo San Juan beach. It seemed like a nice option but since we were only spending one night in Tayrona, I chose the last option.

alligator was in the stream between two beaches

We stayed at Ecohab Tayrona which is the most expensive option ($365 USD per night for 4 people) but the views and service were worth it. Breakfast is included. There are 14 huts, each with a view of the ocean and the beautiful mountains. On one side you see the beach and the ocean and on the other side is a dense, green, rainforest, and mountains. The bottom floor of the hut has an open space with two clean hammocks, a dining table, and the bathroom. Upstairs had two comfortable beds and windows all around.

Ecohab

The service was great and there’s a restaurant on-site with delicious food. They have smaller 2 people huts that are cheaper but you have to reserve those in advance. The huts were clean, comfortable and just a perfect place to enjoy the views. The data and internet service is patchy so you really get to disconnect from the outside world and relax. Ecohabs Tayrona was pricey but personally, I thought it’s worth it for one night.

Ecohab

What to do in Tayrona National Park

We took the shuttle from the El Zaino park entrance to the start of the Cabo San Juan beach hike. As I mentioned earlier, you could walk the distance but it’ll take about an hour or more. The walk is also not spectacular so it’s worth paying 3,000 pesos to get there in a few minutes. Once at the start of the hike we could either take the horses or hike to the beach. It had rained the night before and the path was muddy so we decided to take horses to the beach.

ready for the horse ride

The horses cost 40,000 pesos per person, around $12 USD. There was one person leading the way for the horses and one person in the back making sure all 4 of us stayed on track so no one was left behind. It took about 2 hours for us to get to the beach and it was such a beautiful ride. The first half an hour or so was a little scary since we don’t exactly know how to ride horses. We’ve only done it once before in South Dakota.

horse ride through the rainforest

But these horses are used to having different people ride them and are familiar with the path to Cabo San Juan beach. After a while, most of us started to enjoy the horse ride. We enjoyed being in the forest. Horses take a different path through the thick, dense, rainforest. Sometimes there’s a valley on one side and mountain on the other. Some parts are narrow and rugged so you have to be careful not to hit your head on a tree branch.

this tree is so cool

Overall it was a great experience but keep in mind you are on horses and sometimes they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. My horse kept trying to get a little too close to other horses and sometimes that made the other horse move suddenly startling the person riding that horse. Gaurav’s horse at one point just decided he didn’t want to go slow so he just galloped away. He got to the beach about 20 minutes before the rest of us.

we saw an alligator in these waters

Once we got to the beach, we walked around for a bit, got a few beers and just enjoyed the view. Only beer is available at the restaurant on the beach. There was one place very close to the beach where we saw an alligator so be aware. We saw some of the popular hammocks and the view is beautiful during day time. The lockers are small so don’t bring a lot of important things with you if you plan on spending the night on a hammock.

If you get hungry, there’s a restaurant on the beach but it can get crowded. Once you order your food keep an eye out for an empty table. If you see people about to leave a table, snag it before someone else does. The arroz con pollo was really good. There’s also a station for fresh fruit juices. There are showers and bathrooms near the restaurant but you have to pay a small fee to use them. I think it cost around 5,000 pesos, about $1.50 USD.

leafcutter ants

We saw lots and lots of leafcutter ants near the showers and the bathrooms. It was so cool to see these ants go up the tree, actually watch them cut pieces of leaves, and bring them back down. I could have observed them for hours but our Ecohab was a 3 hour hike away and we had to get there before dark. We forgot to take flashlights with us. Here’s a short video of these ants at work.

The hike back took about 3 hours and it’s not exactly easy. I’ll rate this hike as moderate and long. It’s a beautiful hike and definitely worth doing. You go through different beaches, rainforest, mountains, and we came across a few howler monkeys on the way. On the hike we could hear a loud sound that we’d never heard before. We initially thought it was the sound of someone chopping trees.

howler monkeys

We were wondering why and how someone could chop trees in a protected area. After about 45 minutes of hearing this sound, we came upon a group of people stopped on the trail, looking into the forest and taking pictures. That’s when we realized the noise we were hearing was these howler monkeys. No one was chopping down trees in a protected area. We stopped and watched them for a good 10 minutes before continuing our hike to Ecohabs.

another beach along the hike

The hike back is tiring so we were VERY glad we took horses to the beach. It turned out to be a great decision. The three hour hike back was doable but by the end of it, we were all EXHAUSTED and ready for some good food and Aguardiente. I’m not sure I could have done the hike both ways. Taking the horses to the beach also showed us a different part of the park. I highly recommend taking the horses to the beach and hiking back.

hiking in Tayrona

Once we checked into Ecohab, we had dinner and a few drinks at the restaurant. We went back to our hut, relaxed on the hammocks, and watched the stars. The next morning after breakfast we wanted to see Nueve Piedras but it was just so hot and humid that we decided to relax at the Ecohabs instead. There were times when I felt like I couldn’t breathe and was about to pass out from the heat and humidity.

hike is tiring, need a break

I actually had to go to the bathroom and splash some water on my face and head to cool off. Going on a hike while feeling like I could hardly breathe didn’t seem like a smart idea. Calling for help would be very difficult since we had no data in the park. Besides, the view from Ecohab was fantastic. Canaveral beach was beautiful and no one was around. It was like having our own private beach.

We asked the staff at Ecohab to call us a taxi to take us back to Dreamer Hostel. The cab we got from Ecohab cost 150,000 pesos but the driver was A LOT safer and we didn’t feel like we just might die on this trip. I was perfectly happy paying the extra 50,000 pesos (about $15 USD) to get a safe driver. The taxi was also able to come all the way to Ecohab. We didn’t have to go from Ecohab to the Zaino entrance. So if you need to bring luggage, it might be possible to do so at Ecohab. You just have to ask the hotel to call a taxi for you.

sunset from Ecohab

If we had one more day at Tayrona, I would go on Nueve Piedras hike and just walk around the park looking at different trees, flowers, lizards, and all kinds of wildlife. I would love to visit a small local village inside the park called Pueblito but it’s no longer open to the public. Tayrona is a beautiful place and has something to offer for everyone. Wildlife and bird watching, beaches, hiking, horses, camping, and luxury Ecohabs. It deserves at least 2 full days.

Things to pack for Tayrona

  • Passport
  • Copy of park entrance ticket purchased online
  • Bug spray. LOTS and LOTS of it!
  • Swim suite, sun block, sunglasses and other beach accessories
  • Beach towels (we almost forgot these)
  • Yellow fever vaccine card
  • Flashlight
  • Lock (only if you plan on spending a night on the hammock)

One last tip about Tayrona

Technically alcohol isn’t allowed inside the park. We didn’t take any bottles with us thinking they might check our bags before entering the park. Turns out, we definitely could have taken one bottle of Aguardiente with us because no one checked our backpacks. Obviously, drink responsibly inside the park. We purchased a bottle of Aguardiente from Ecohabs restaurant which cost 100,000 pesos (about $30 USD) and everywhere else it was between 38,000 to 42,000 pesos which is between $11-$13 USD. If they do check your backpacks before entering the park, the loss isn’t that great.

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