No trip to Colombia is complete without exploring – from a few free hours to a lazy week in a hammock – the sandy coves and beaches of Tayrona national park. From day outings with fellow scuba divers to planning a snorkeling trip, take the plunge in the exquisite natural surroundings of Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona (PNNT), a “must see” on the sea.
Surrounded by the oblique arms of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, this sanctuary was created in 1964 to ensure the protection of the fauna and flora and sacred archaeological terraces and footpaths of the Tayrona peoples.
Covering an area of 12,000 land, as well as 3,000 marine hectares, there are four official entrances to the National Park, each one allowing visitors access to very specific beaches. On the western edges of the PNNT, a mountainous ecosystem shrouds every bay with dry and thorny deserts which blossom when it rains and turn ochre hills into brilliant shades of green.
Once you have explored colonial Santa Marta, there’s a beautiful, tranquil, white sand beach just 40 minutes from town and a perfect escape for a chilled day at the beach. Bahía Concha is a favourite amongst locals due to its easy accessibility and inexpensive entrance fee; just $5,000 COP (for both locals and foreigners). You can get there by taxi ($35,000) or attempt the bus from the neighbourhood Bastidas until it groans to a halt at the last stop – Chimila. Then you can hop in a shared jeep for the remaining 15 minutes. And for sports addicts: ride your bicycle. Snorkeling here is fantastic as after 4 meters of shallow water and a sandy floor, the sea drops off into its deep abyss. Bring a book, a hammock and a picnic lunch and leave all your troubles at the gate. Camping is also possible.
Bahía Neguanje is accessible by car (preferably a 4×4) at the Palagana entrance, and located off the main Troncal Caribe road. Residing in this wide bay is the ever-popular Playa Brava, with its dry scrub and mangrove forest. Around the corner, separated by an outcropping of rock, is one of the most stunning beaches of the Tayrona; luscious green forests lead down to the sandy red beach of Playa Cristal. Visitors can appreciate beautiful coral reefs and marine life near both beaches while snorkeling in exquisitely clear waters. If you are in sudden need of some extra beers, don’t worry, as you can find amenities and refreshments from the locals.
Just a 20 minute walk over the hills from Bahía Neguanje is the idyllic Playa Gayraca. This infrequently visited beach takes your breath away with its crystal waters, and beautiful backdrop of green mountains. Here, refreshments are few and far between.
Towards the eastern parts of the park are two other entrances, Calabaza and the well-known El Zaíno, where the buses heading to Riohacha stop. El Zaino is the main entrance to five star Ecohabs which loom over Canaveral and Arrecifes beaches. This part of the park is not easily done in a day, as most of it will be spent trying to get to the beach from El Zaino’s pit stop and back to Santa Marta.
If you are a hiker, enter at Calabaza and head to Pueblito, crossing through untouched rainforest, while hearing shrieking birds and howling monkeys above. Arrive at the wonderfully preserved ruins of Chairama and bask in cool air which gusts in from the Sierra.
Continue towards Cabo San Juan and/or La Piscina. Cabo San Juan is extremely popular (and loud) during high season, and understandably due to its gorgeous scenery. Huge boulders protrude out from the sea, giving way to a moderately wide beach dotted with cool palm trees surrounded by the all mighty arms of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Add a motely crew of hippies and city dwellers, and a rather interesting night may unfold.
Accommodation and food can be quite pricey at these hammock havens, so be prepared. At La Piscina huge boulders surround a narrow, sandy beach with clear, calm waters. A reef protects this beach, so it is perfect for snorkeling (bring your own) and enjoying precious down time from beneath the shade of a coconut tree. If you are going to stay a few days, it is recommended to arrive well supplied with cash, insect repellent and as much food and water as you can carry. Entrance tickets for Palagana, Calabaza and El Zaíno are $35,000 COP for foreigners and $15,000 COP for Colombians.
Each beach in this scenic park offers visitors the unique chance to be acquainted with the marvels and magic of a paradise where land meets sea in the most picturesque way. The money and effort required to reach most of the sites in Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona are absolutely worth it, as the experience will make you fall in love once again with Colombia and her breathtaking splendor.