From the high altitude plains of the Andes, through lush tropical rainforests and down to the secluded beaches of the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Colombia is naturally blessed with a wealth of habitats and unrivalled biodiversity. Over a tenth of Colombia’s territory is currently protected for its scenic landscape, diverse wildlife and cultural heritage under the National System of Protected Areas (Sistema Nacional de Áreas Protegidas – SINAP) and as of 2013, there were 58 nationally protected areas in Colombia including 42 National Natural Parks (Parque Natural Nacional – PNN) covering more than 12 million hectares!
Here we examine our top 3 unmissable National Parks to visit on a tour of Colombia in 2015.
PNN Tayrona – best for beaches and rainforest!
Just 21 miles (34kms) from the northern coastal city of Santa Marta is Tayrona National Natural Park. Formed in 1969, the park covers 12,000 hectares of steamy jungle in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range and encompasses 3,000 hectares, which safeguard vital coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea. PNN Tayrona is perhaps the most iconic National Park in Colombia attracting over 250,000 visitors a year. The most well known hotspots within the park are unquestionably the small fishing village of Taganga, the beautifully preserved beach at Cabo San Juan. You’ll find soft, white sand beaches, sweeping bays and tropical rainforest where rich biodiversity and wildlife abounds. The pre-Hispanic ruins of Chairama, or ‘Pueblito’ as they are commonly known are easily reached on a day hike from Cabo San Juan and provide added interest within the National Park. By far the best time to go to avoid the crowds is during low season (February to November).
Did you know? PNN Tayrona is named after the Tairona, a pre-Columbian civilization that dates back to the 1st century AD and showed documented growth until around the 11th century AD. The Kogi indigenous people who live in the area today are direct descendants of the Tairona.
PNN Los Nevados – best for trekking and mountain vistas!
Los Nevados National Natural Park is located in the Cordillera Central of the Colombian Andes. Established in 1973, PNN Los Nevados offers stunning mountain scenery, volcanoes, lakes, thermal springs and hiking routes to suit various levels of ability. The imperious 5,389 metre (17,400 ft) snowcapped Nevado del Ruiz is an active volcano which dominates the national park. Its name, Nevado, means “snow-capped” but the effects of recent climate change mean only the final 500 metres are currently covered in snow. Ongoing snowmelt has resulted in Nevado del Ruiz becoming a relatively easy and non-technical peak to summit. In fact there is a road that takes you up to 4,800 metres for spectacular views of the area. With a special permit and suitable equipment it is possible to climb to the top. The park’s northern sector is easily accessible from the city of Manizales and the best months to visit are December to February. Visitors have a chance to catch a glimpse of rare wildlife such as the Spectacled Bear and the Andean Condor. Parque Nacional Los Nevados is sometimes off-limits to travellers due to sporadic volcanic activity. Contact a tour operator nearer the time of your visit to check for updates.
Did you know? On 13th November 1985, a devastating eruption from Nevado del Ruiz triggered a mudflow that wiped out the now defunct town of Armero and killed 23,000 people, three-quarters of the town’s population. It was the second most deadly volcanic eruption of the twentieth century.
PNN Serania de La Macarena – best for waterfalls and rivers!
The status of National Natural Park was designated to Serania de La Macarena in 1971 and the protected area encompasses 622,000 hectares. The park is the ecologically unique convergence point for the flora and fauna of the Amazon, Orinoco and Andes geographic ecosystems. This national natural park is still not that well known outside of Colombia and its remoteness means very few people venture within it. The La Macarena National and Ecological Reserve Park, remains one of nature’s strongholds so very few travellers make the effort to see the natural wonder waiting within. The incomparable Caño Cristales River is celebrated as “The River of Five Colours” or “Colombia’s Liquid Rainbow”, and is considered one of the most beautiful rivers in the world due to its striking array of colourful blooming algae. The riverbed and boulders are covered with Macarenia clavigera moss and algae, which for much of the year appear as dull green and brown water plants. The water level regulates the amount of sunlight reaching the plants, so there is a short period between the dry and rainy seasons where the sunlight and water’s translucence is just right. The mosses bloom in deep reds and glowing pink and are offset by patches of yellowy green sand and blue water. The best time to visit is late July through early December and especially in August to appreciate the variety of colours. Though remote, the spectacle has attracted a few adventurous travel agencies who have started to offer ecotours from the town of La Macarena. There are also a host of awe-inspiring waterfalls in the area as well as amazing hikes and geological sites to explore.
Did you know? Until the mid-2000s, nearby guerrilla activity rendered Caño Cristales almost completely inaccessible but today, the Colombian military controls a 30km area around La Macarena making the region open and very safe for tourists. To preserve the river there are limits on the number of tourists who can visit per day. It is strongly recommended you book a tour before going there.
The Uncover Colombia Team