The Caribbean coast called and said it was time for another adventure.
So with a curious heart and a frugal budget, I left behind my rainy Bogotá home to spend 11 days on the sunny northern coast of Colombia.
First destination: Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona – where we spent two days swaying in hammocks and exploring palm-shaded forest trails.
Tayrona National Natural Park, popular for it’s rich biodiversity, rainforest, palm-trees, and diverse wildlife, is quite the tourists hub. But after seeing it in person, there’s no wonder why this place is so sought after. If you enjoy hiking, nature, sweating, swimming, beaches, mountains, and yummy coconut ice cream, then you should consider a trip to Tayrona.
Hot, salty air greeted us as we stepped out of the air conditioning at Cartagena’s international airport. It was just past 11pm and we still had a 5+ hour overnight drive to make. So the 7 of us, tired yet excited, squeezed in a van and took off.
It was still dark when we arrived but within several minutes the sun quickly lit up the sky. The entrance to the park was marked in big letters across a yellow gate, but it wouldn’t be open for another 3 hours.
So there we sat, observing the shop owners sweep away leaves and trash from outside their shop, meanwhile spraying mosquito repellent and watching the dogs gnaw at their flea bites.
Traveler’s tip: There’s an entrance fee, which is quite pricey if you’re not a Colombian resident (I got by as a “resident” from my student visa stamp). Book your hammock in advance at the gate from one of the representatives that will come around. It is 28,000 pesos to secure a hammock in picturesque Cabo San Juan de Guia, but once you’re there you can book another night for 25K pesos. Once you have your park wristbands and are inside, there are bus/vans that take you to the start of the hiking point, for 3,000 pesos per person.
Hiking to El Cabo San Juan de Guia on foot
While there are two other beaches you can stay at, El Cabo San Juan is the most popular – and prettiest. It takes quite a bit of effort to get there though.
The hike will drench your clothes, especially in the tropical climate so come (lightly) prepared. We hiked through shaded palm-tree coves, on sandy beaches under the scorching sun, over bridges, down horse trails, past pueblitos, fincas, and more. You may get lucky and see monkeys or exotic birds!
As usual, I often trail behind the group so I can take photos of the scenery. It’s the perfect opportunity to take in the landscape with the lush Sierra Nevada mountains in the background and the sandy white beaches with hues of blue and green water up close.
Sleeping in hammocks
With achy muscles and sweat-stained shirts, we finally made it. Tents sprinkled the green ground, past which stood a single restaurant and little shop. Our sleeping quarters was essentially an over-sized open bungalow lined with colorful hammocks on both sides. We happily threw our stuff down and just lied there, slowly swaying with the warm sea breeze.
It would be my first time sleeping in a hammock on the beach. I didn’t know what to expect, but there’s always a little sense of adventure in trying out new things. Just don’t forget your sweater at home, because at night the hot wind turns glacial when it’s blowing right over you.
The beach itself is emblematic of everything you could want from a beach, minus the people. Golden sand, teal waters, and towering palm trees. El Cabo San Juan is most popular for it’s picturesque little thatched-roof bungalow that sits proudly atop of a cluster of rocks at the beach’s corner.
Traveler’s tip: For a few extra bucks you can sleep up in the private bungalow in a hammock. While it offers beautiful 360-degree views of the area, it’s less convenient. You have to climb up and down the rocks – with a torch light or cell phone – every time you’d like to use the restroom.
The shear effort of arriving at El Cabo San Juan makes it seem that much better. With no service or wifi, you’re just that much further away from cities and civilization. However, while it still feels remote compared to some other places, you can definitely tell this place has been under Lonely Planet’s spotlight.
Eating & exploring
It’s not the most budget-friendly of places, neither. As there is only one restaurant belonging to the hostel, they take advantage of the fact that you’re hungry and far from other food. Dinner or lunch will cost between 15-30,000 pesos. The cheapest was 13,000 for vegetable rice with fries.
Traveler’s tip: Around lunchtime/in the afternoon, there will be a person on the beach selling hot sandwich-like bread for around 7,000 pesos. There are lots of choices and the portion is just right for one moderately-hungry person. Treat yourself afterwards to the most creamy and delicious natural coconut ice cream for just 3,000 pesos. Make sure to find the ice cream man before he goes home around 4pm though! It was so good I went back for another. 🙂
Other than swimming, eating, and playing card games, there is not a whole lot going on in Cabo San Juan.
Definitely take the morning (before it gets too hot) and go explore the nearby beaches (one is said to be a nude beach). However, these beaches are just for looks as the tides are very strong and have taken many travelers lives. “Don’t become a statistic,” the sign read.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can take the back forest trails up to the indigenous pueblo (village) that sits atop the mountain. Take proper shoes, clothes and drinking water. These trails are much less frequented and so you will probably see more wildlife. We came across several lizards (small and big) and snakes, a little wild pig, and we heard some monkeys!
Final thoughts: Tayrona National Park
Seeing the sunrise and sunset in Cabo San Juan (from the little bungalow atop the rocks) is a must. The sunset was a dusty, vivid orange and the sunrise early the next morning was a dark, stormy purple. The beach is abandoned at sunrise which makes it the perfect time to sit and watch the world wake up while breathing in the fresh, salty air.
On your journey back to civilization you can either rent a horse, hike, or take the speed boat to Taganga.
Traveler’s tip: If you walk, skip all the detours and gain 30 minutes by hiking the horse trail. It saves a bit of time, but it’s also less scenic as you join the road and walk another 2km.
We arrived back at the entrance around 8am, just the time that newcomers were lining up to enter the park. I was thinking how strange that that was me just 48 hours earlier.
We ate a delicious breakfast with fried plantains, scrambled eggs, and soup just before waving down the bus to head to our next leg of the trip. Up next: Cabo de la Vela in La Guijara desert (pictures & post coming soon!)