When people come to the Caribbean Coast of Colombia they normally choose one of two destinations: Cartagena or Santa Marta. Most would say Cartagena is the more popular option; however, Santa Marta has its own set of marvels to offer any traveler willing to venture that way. Santa Marta is located further north on the Caribbean Coast than Cartagena and is the capital of the department of Magdalena. Santa Marta is one of the oldest cities in Colombia (and South American for that matter) and is the city where the famous South American liberator, Simon Bolívar died in 1830.
The actual city of Santa Marta has some historical places worth visiting such as la Catedral (Cathedral) de Santa Marta and Quinta de San Pedro, the farm where Simon Bolívar died that has now been converted into an impressive museum and events space that most definitely deserves a visit. And, although Santa Marta boasts the well-known bay area called Rodadero, the real gems of Santa Marta are the beaches right outside the city like those in el Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona (Tayrona National Natural Park) and Bahía Concha (Shell Bay). Most people that travel to Santa Marta actually bypass the city and head straight for Parque Tayrona—once you’ve been, you’ll understand why!
To get to Parque Tayrona, you can take cheap but slow colectivos from Santa Marta near the mercado (market) in downtown Santa Marta. These buses cost about $1.50 USD/£1 and are a nice way to see more scenary and rub shoulders with locals. However, if you are pushed for time, you can catch a taxi to a gas station in Mamatoco (any taxi driver will know where you are talking about) where there will be several larger, more comfortable buses waiting to take you to the entrance of Parque Tayrona. These buses can cost anywhere from 10.000 COP to 25.000 COP (~$5USD/£2-$12/£10)—you’ll have to do some good bargaining to get a good price. Prepare to haggle.
Once you get to the entrance of Parque Tayrona, you’ll need to show an official form of ID (passport or cédula) to get into the park. They will also charge you based on your nationality/student status. A lot of people prefer to camp in Parque Tayrona, as the walk to the actual beach areas can be long and tiring, and the area is much too big to take in with a one day visit. If camping, you’ll get a special arm band at the park entrance. Once inside, you can choose to walk or take a short bus ride to the beginning of the hiking path that will lead you to the incredible beaches the park hosts. Be prepared to walk A LOT. Take comfortable shoes (not flip flops) and comfortable hiking clothes.
As you hike, you’ll see amazing plants and animals like howler monkeys, all sorts of lizards, skinks, insects, and reptiles as well as curious mammals. You’ll walk through a “coconut forest” and pass boulder like formations resembling whales as you approach the beaches. The first beaches you come to are a no-swimming zone as the undertows are deathly. Please, head the advice of park rangers and don’t swim in this area.
After another 30 minutes or so, you’ll reach the beginning of a low string of beaches suitable for swimming. One of the first beaches you reach is called la piscina (the pool) because of its incredibly calm water. In addition to being calm, though, this water is also filled with “gold” flakes. You truly feel you are swimming in luxury on this beach. Further past la piscina, you’ll reach Cabo San Juan, perhaps the most popular beach in the park. It is here where most campers stay and where you can rent a hammock, should not want to sleep in a tent.
If you’re looking for options other than enjoying the amazing beaches, you can also book a hike up to la Ciudad Perdida, sometimes called the Machu Picchu of Colombia. La Ciudad Perdida is believed to be older than Machu Picchu and was constructed by the Tayrona indigenous group that still lives within Parque Tayrona. If you’re not up for a multi-day hike to la Ciudad Perdida, you can take a shorter hike to a small indigenous community called el Pueblito that is about a ~3 hour hike.
Regardless of what you decide to do, Parque Tayrona is a must see on any visit to the Colombian Caribbean Coast. It is a true Colombian treasure that offers a unique glimpse of nature and indigenous life in this region of Colombia.
Paige M. Poole
About the author:
“Paige M. Poole is an Alabamian and traveler at heart who has settled, for now, in Barranquilla, Colombia, and earns her living as an English professor at the Instituto de Idiomas (Language Institute) at la Universidad del Norte (University of the North). When not teaching English, she enjoys blogging, traveling, relaxing on the beach, and spending time with her partner and two cats, Milo and Sophie. You can see more of Paige’s traveling experiences in her personal blog www.trotamunda.wordpress.com
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