Everything you need to know about hiking & camping in Tayrona National Park
The crown jewel of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, few places in the entire country are as beloved and highly sought after as the richly diverse Tayrona National Park (Parque Tayrona, en español). Surrounded by vibrant coconut palm jungle, flanked by the world’s highest coastal mountain range, the lush Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and home to a spectacular assortment of crescent-shaped beaches, Tayrona features on just about every travel itinerary (and if it’s not on yours, it 110% should be).
The good news: it’s possible to explore Tayrona National Park completely on your own— hiking through thick vegetation to swim at sheltered beaches and falling asleep in a hammock to the sound of gentle waves will be among your favourite memories in a country already overflowing with natural beauty. With so many options, though, it can be a little overwhelming to figure out the best way to get here, where to stay within the park, what to pack with you, and how much a DIY overnight trip to Tayrona will actually cost… Thankfully, this guide covers absolutely everything you need to know about hiking, camping, and falling in love with Tayrona National Park!
About Tayrona National Park
Located on the Caribbean shores of northern Colombia, just to the east of Cartagena and not far from the Venezuelan border, Tayrona National Park occupies a staggering 150 square km of jungle and 30 square km of protected marine reserve.
Its sheer size, not to mention the rugged and often overgrown landscape, make navigating through much of the park a real challenge. Most travellers therefore focus on the eastern end of Tayrona (specifically around Cabo San Juan), which is a bit more developed and therefore easier to access for a short adventure.
So named for the Tairona people who inhabited this land as far back as 2,000 years ago, Tayrona National Park is still an incredibly sacred place to many of the local indigenous cultures. Carry this with you as you explore, remembering to be respectful of the land at all times.
Unfortunately, not everyone takes this message to heart— packing out some assorted litter with your own rubbish is a small but impactful way to maintain the beauty of Parque Tayrona and ensure that the native tribes continue to grant tourist access (which is a privilege, not a right!).
Essential things to know
- The most popular access point for Tayrona National Park is the Zaino entrance, and this is where you’ll be dropped off if traveling from Santa Marta or other nearby towns like Palomino. However, it’s worth noting that there is another entrance at Calabazo and some routes will bring you here instead— so make sure you know which you’re going to (and I’d recommend Zaino as the easier option)! Read more about getting to Parque Tayrona below.
- In theory, you can visit Tayrona National Park as a day trip (and I know some travellers do), but I would strongly recommend setting aside 2+ days in your itinerary to explore this beautiful place! Read more about what to expect in Parque Tayrona below.
- You can stay just outside the park entrance (there are a number of hostels and hotels with great reviews), but I’d highly recommend staying inside the park instead. It will be a much more rugged experience, sure, but it is truly the best way to maximise your time in nature! Read more about where to stay in Parque Tayrona below.
When to visit Tayrona National Park
Tayrona National Park closures
In order to allow the park to recover from all of its daily foot traffic and provide native tribes the opportunity to conduct traditional healing ceremonies, the park is closed for several periods throughout the year. The dates change slightly from year to year, but even if you’re travelling in 2021 and beyond, current closures should give you a general idea.
In 2020, Tayrona National Park will be closed:
* 1-29 February
* 1-15 June
* 19 October – 2 November
Weather in Tayrona National Park
In terms of weather, this part of Colombia is hot and incredibly humid pretty much year-round (consistently 35C during the day and 25C at night), with a wet season from May to November. Don’t let that put you off visiting during these months, though— I enjoyed spectacular blue skies and clear weather in September!
Busy season in Tayrona National Park
Rather than planning around the weather, it is definitely worth considering peak tourist season, as crowds in the park can seriously detract from the experience. December and January are generally considered to be the busiest times to visit Tayrona National Park, while September through November is much quieter and therefore ideal for exploring the park.
That was certainly my experience when visiting in September, as there were never an irritating number of tourists around and we had no issue securing our first choice accommodation the morning-of.
Getting to Tayrona National Park
Getting to Santa Marta
The easiest and most popular way to get to Tayrona National Park is from Santa Marta, a modest-sized town on the Caribbean coast (whose claim to fame is being the OLDEST city on the South American continent!) with an airport and a bus terminal connecting out to the rest of Colombia.
Cartagena to Santa Marta
There are near-constant buses operating between Cartagena and Santa Marta; tickets are typically 28,000COP / $11AUD and the journey takes 5-6hrs, plus a taxi out to the distant bus terminal (15-20,000COP / $6-8AUD). Instead, I’d recommend the Berlinastur shuttle, which can get you there in about 4hrs and for the same total price (40,000COP / $16AUD ticket + 5,000COP / $2 taxi).
Read this super detailed guide for step-by-step instructions on getting from Cartagena to Santa Marta: HOW TO GET FROM CARTAGENA TO SANTA MARTA (BUS OR SHUTTLE): COLOMBIA TRANSPORT GUIDE
Medellín to Santa Marta
Medellín is one of the few journeys in Colombia where taking the 18hrs+ bus (195,000COP / $76AUD) is actually more expensive than flying (80,000COP / $32AUD), even when you add in the 45,000COP for checking a bag. I’d recommend getting a cheap flight with Viva Air if you’re coming from Medellín.
Want all the details on taking the bus or flying between Medellín and Santa Marta? HOW TO GET FROM MEDELLÍN TO SANTA MARTA (BUS OR FLIGHT): COLOMBIA TRANSPORT GUIDE
Santa Marta to Tayrona National Park
Colectivo from Santa Marta
The most economical option for getting from Santa Marta to Tayrona National Park is to grab a bus from the centre of town for about 7,000COP ($3AUD), departing every 30min (starting at 6am) from the corner of Calle 11 & Carrera 11. Typically, someone will be shouting “Tayrona” or the bus will be signed “Tayrona/Palomino”, but just ask the driver as you’re boarding if unsure.
If you’re staying at Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta, the staff actually organise shared colectivo departures right out front, which you can sign up for at the reception desk. We paid 15,000COP ($6AUD) for our 7.30am departure, but with a little bit of advance notice and a small group, you can also organise any other departure time you want!
Private taxi from Santa Marta
Private taxis can drive you out to the National Park for 50-70,000COP ($19-27AUD), which is definitely the quickest (but most expensive) option.
Since I was travelling in a group of 4, we took a taxi on our way back from the internal carpark (skipping the 3,000COP shuttle bus to the main entrance) all the way to Dreamer Hostel for 80,000COP ($30AUD, or $7.50AUD each), and felt like it was worth the few extra dollars for the direct, air-conditioned ride. There are plenty of drivers hanging around the carpark when you hike out in case you don’t want to hassle with a shuttle, bus, and taxi back to your hostel.
Other routes to Tayrona National Park
The vast majority of travellers to Tayrona National Park will come from Santa Marta, as described above— but it’s worth noting that a bus from Santa Marta isn’t the only possible route to reach the park.
From Palomino or Riohacha
In all likelihood, you’ll have to travel through Santa Marta to reach Palomino or Riohacha in the first place, but if you want to make a beeline straight to Tayrona National Park from one of these smaller towns, then you can easily catch a bus bound for Santa Marta (7,000COP / $2.70AUD from Palomino or 10,000COP / $4AUD from Riohacha) and ask to be dropped at the park entrance.
This little fishing town on the Caribbean coast, just 20min down the road from Santa Marta, is becoming increasingly popular with travellers and has a direct (and very exciting) connection to Tayrona National Park by speedboat. The ride is usually around 45min, but I’ve been warned that it can get really choppy, so be prepared to get wet.
Speedboats depart the beach in Taganga sometime between 9-11am and will deliver you directly to the beach in Cabo San Juan for 50,000COP ($20AUD). Boats return to Taganga from Cabo San Juan around 3-4pm.
The downside is that, by the time you arrive at the beach, a lot of the “good” accommodation options may already have been snatched up by those who arrived to the park entrance at/before 8am and reserved their hammocks. Therefore, this is probably only a better option for the low season OR for a day trip, since it also cuts out the shuttles and hiking time needed to reach the beaches (see below).
Entering Tayrona National Park
When you arrive at the park entrance, there are a number of things you need to do before you set off on into Tayrona:
1 | Reserve a hammock or tent in Tayrona National Park
Rather than waiting until you arrive at the campsite and getting stuck with whatever accomodation options are left, I’d strongly recommend reserving your hammock or tent before you start walking at one of the desks just outside the park entrance (off to the left of the entrance gate, there is a shop with several desks set up to make bookings).
There are 3 main campsites within Tayrona National Park, but the most popular (and by far the most scenic) is at Cabo San Juan. This is the quintessential Caribbean paradise you’ve seen in nearly every photo of Parque Tayrona, so I’d highly recommend staying here.
Accommodation at Cabo San Juan
Current as of September 2019, here are the accommodation options and prices for staying inside Tayrona National Park at Cabo San Juan:
- Private cabins | 200,000COP / $80AUD for 2 people
- Camping (incl. tent hire) | 40,000COP / $15AUD for 1 person OR 60,000COP / $23AUD for 2 people
- Camping (BYO tent) | 20,000COP / $8AUD per person
- Standard hammocks | 40,000COP / $15AUD
- El Mirador hammocks | 50,000COP / $19AUD ** MY PICK!
There are two different hammock sites at Cabo San Juan, one on a large field next to the tents and one perched above the beach in a breezy hut (pictured below), so just make sure you specifically ask for “El Mirador” if you want the better, more scenic spot.
There are 16 hammocks at El Mirador and they are 50,000COP ($19AUD) per night rather than the 40,000COP ($15AUD) you’ll pay for the lower hammocks at Cabo San Juan— but it’ll be the best $4 you ever spend! Read more about the El Mirador hammocks below.
Be sure to save the receipt from your hammocks, as you’ll need it when you check-in at Cabo San Juan.
Accommodation at Castilletes & Arrecife
The other 2 campsites in Tayrona National Park are at Castilletes (the shuttle can drop you here before reaching Cañaveral) and Arrecife, which you’ll pass on the hiking trail to Cabo San Juan.
Tent camping and cabins at Castilletes or Arrecife are cheaper than at Cabo San Juan, but neither campsite is very close to a good beach, which means they aren’t really your best bet as a traveller hoping to enjoy Tayrona’s highlights!
2 | Buy Tayrona National Park insurance
Medical emergency and evacuation insurance is a requirement for entry into Tayrona National Park, and you can purchase this at the park entrance. The insurance is 3,000COP ($1AUD) for a day visit or 7,000COP ($3AUD) if you’re staying overnight, and you’ll be issued a wristband to indicate that you’ve paid.
You will either purchase this park insurance at the same time as your hammock/accommodation (the desk we went to charged us for everything all at once) OR you will need to queue up again after reserving your hammock to pay for the insurance at a separate desk. There are heaps of people directing you through the process, so it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out where to go.
3 | Pay the Tayrona National Park entrance fee
After reserving your accommodation and paying for the mandatory insurance, you are finally ready to pay for entry into the national park. There is a very obvious queue under the main archway— entry is a staggering 53,500COP ($21AUD) per person and you’ll be required to show your passport and proof of insurance (the one you just bought).
Entry to Tayrona National Park also increases during peak season, which is 15 June – 15 July, 15 December – 31 January, the 10 days beginning on the Friday before Easter, and on long weekends. During these peak times, you’ll pay a whopping 63,5000COP ($23AUD) for entry, so I’d suggest planning around these dates if at all possible.
If you’re travelling in a group, they’ll likely just issue one entry ticket for everyone (and write the number of people on the ticket). Make sure you hang onto this ticket, as you will need to show it at various points throughout the journey, including after the shuttle bus trip and check-in at Cabo San Juan.
4 | Take the shuttle bus into Tayrona National Park
Finally, you need to take a shuttle bus into the National Park! It’s also possible to walk this 5km stretch of road, but it certainly isn’t anything special and the shuttle ticket is only 3,000COP ($1AUD), so I don’t think anyone really opts for this unless they really love sweating (because that is what you will be doing the whole time).
Drivers will flag you down after you purchase your park entry and every van is more or less the exact same. The drive is 5-10min and then you’ll be booted out into the National Park!
Note: If you are camping at Castilletes, let the driver know and you will be let out at a slightly different spot.
General tips for entering Tayrona National Park
- Make sure you remember your passport— they’ll ask for it when you pay the Tayrona Park entrance fee!
- I read previously that proof of a yellow fever vaccine is required to enter the park, but no one ever asked to see our vaccine cards. STILL, this doesn’t mean that you won’t be asked, so it’s probably best to come prepared just in case!
- There are food and drinks available for sale inside the park, but expect to pay heaps for the convenience. The best option is to buy snacks and water in Santa Marta before you head towards Tayrona, but you can also buy snacks/drinks at the park entrance (the price will be a little higher than usual, but still cheaper than inside the park).
- I’ll talk more about what to pack below, but I’d strongly recommend bringing only a day bag into the park (i.e. leaving your big backpack or suitcase at a hostel in Santa Marta). It won’t be fun to walk with a heavy pack through the national park and you also don’t need heaps of stuff! Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta will happily store bags for you while you’re exploring Tayrona!
Getting to Cabo San Juan in Tayrona National Park
Once you hop out of the shuttle in Tayrona National Park, you’ve still got a ways to go before you can relax seaside with a cold cerveza. There are actually 2 ways to get from this entry point to Cabo San Juan: a sweaty hike or a sweaty horse ride.
Hiking to Cabo San Juan
In my opinion, the best way to get to Cabo San Juan is simply to hike through the jungle! The trail is incredibly easy to follow, relatively flat, and very well maintained— plus, the scenery is fantastic, winding through dense verdant forest and across pristine sandy beaches.
The hike should only take around an hour, including photo stops, but be warned that it will probably be the sweatiest hour of your entire life. The heat and humidity on the Caribbean coast are staggering, so wear something that you’re happy to completely saturate, because you really will be soaking wet.
Better yet, just hike in swimmers to you can hop right into the ocean on one of the little beaches (you’ll pass at least one that’s safe for swimming).
Riding a horse to Cabo San Juan
After hiking into Tayrona National Park, we decided to ride horses on our way out, which was incredibly fun and a great way to experience the scenery a little bit differently. The ride took about 45min and was just 40,000COP ($15AUD) per person, including a guide that led us out of the park and made sure our horses knew what was going on.
It doesn’t save a great deal of time to ride a horse rather than hiking, and obviously it’s not any cheaper, so the real reason to choose this is because it is just. so. FUN.
Although I am VERY wary when it comes to animal tourism (and have said some pretty scathing things on this blog about the people who ride donkeys up to Rainbow Mountain or down Salkantay Pass), these horses appeared very well cared for and seemed to enjoy happy living conditions. Please make your own appraisal when you visit, though, and if things don’t seem entirely above board, do NOT support the unethical treatment of animals just because it looks fun!!
What to expect in Tayrona National Park
Food at Cabo San Juan
At Cabo San Juan, as with all the campgrounds in Tayrona National Park, there is an on-site restaurant cooking up a few simple breakfast, lunch, and dinner options for around 20-30,000COP ($8-12AUD). It’s expensive and far from the best food you’ll have in Colombia, but it’s still decent— and frankly, it’s really the only option unless you want to haul food into the park!
There’s also a little stall selling some basic snacks and cold drinks, including chips, crackers, Oreos, Coke, and beer (!!), for just a few thousand COP ($1-2AUD). For a point of reference, a cold can of Aguila was 4,000COP ($1.50AUD) as of September 2019.
Facilities at Cabo San Juan
Unsurprisingly (it is a National Park, after all), the facilities at Cabo San Juan are very basic. There are about 4 toilets and the same number of showers located near the main campsite (behind the restaurant, a little bit of a walk from El Mirador), but there’s no guarantee they will be super clean. It’s camping, deal with it.
In all likelihood, the showers will be cold and the toilet paper will be long gone, so plan accordingly and BYO toilet paper!
El Mirador hammocks
The absolute BEST place to spend the night at Cabo San Juan is in the El Mirador hammocks! Now, others have complained about having a bad night’s sleep, but I actually loved the hammocks, falling asleep to the sound of gentle waves lapping the beach below, swinging lightly in the Caribbean breeze… It was an absolute dream!
If you’re worried about having a comfortable sleep in the hammocks, my best advice is to, firstly, bring a small inflatable camp pillow and, secondly, bring some warmer layers and/or a blanket.
Even though it is boiling during the day, there is definitely a chill in this little hut at night— you’ll be thankful for it, since the wind keeps the mosquitos away and ensures good airflow, but it can also make you uncomfortably cold if you aren’t prepared.
Some additional things to note about the El Mirador hammocks:
- You’ll have to walk about 5min across the beach and back towards the main campsite to get to the toilets and showers— it’s really not the end of the world, but I suppose some might find it irritating
- There are small lockers right next to the hammocks— BYO lock to securely store your passport, camera, phone, etc while you’re swimming
- Pack light because there really isn’t a lot of room to manoeuvre up here with all the hammocks
- A good set of bluetooth speakers certainly wouldn’t go astray!
Packing list for Tayrona National Park
What to wear
Sport clothing | hiking into Tayrona, you will sweat from places you didn’t even know existed, so wear quick-dry athletic clothing instead of cotton (and absolutely don’t wear denim)
Swimsuit | if it’s comfortable, wear your swimsuit under your hiking clothes so you can take advantage of the many lovely swimming beaches along the walk!
Runners/sport sandals | I really think hiking boots are overkill for this easy walk; Nikes or converse are definitely sufficient, and I actually did the walk in sport sandals (Tevas) and was totally fine.
Day pack | My best advice is to leave your big backpack and the majority of your stuff at a hostel in Santa Marta and only bring a small daypack into the park. A 20-30L backpack will be more than enough to hold everything you need for an overnighter.
What to pack
Spare clothes for the evening/next day | I actually just wore the same clothes the next day, but I brought tights for the evening and was glad to have something clean and dry after I finished swimming!
Jumper | if you are sleeping in the hammocks at El Mirador, it will get windy and a little chilly at night; if you are someone who is always cold, I’d also recommend tights and socks for sleeping!
Rain jacket | it can rain at pretty much any moment in the Caribbean
Toiletries | toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo/soap if you want to shower
Toilet paper | there are toilets in the park, but no toilet paper provided
Sunscreen | if you’re sensitive to the sun, be warned that you’ll need to re-apply sunscreen about 10x during the hike because of the excessive sweating, so keep this handy
Bug spray | Tayrona is know to have heaps of mozzies, so invest in a good tropical strength, high-DEET repellent; the good news is that there are far fewer bugs around El Mirador thanks to the breeze!
Towel | bring a good microfibre travel towel
Water bottle | instead of bringing a bunch of plastic into the National Park (even though they do have recycling bins here!), get a water bottle like this one with an in-built filter so you can re-fill straight from the tap. And you’ll definitely need water on the hike, so make sure the bottle is full before you set off.
Headlamp | the toilet is quite a trek from the hammocks, so you’ll want a light to help navigate after sunset
Camp pillow | be the envy of everyone in El Mirador with a comfortable travel pillow; I seriously slept so well!
Book/music | after several hours of swimming or snorkelling, kick back in a hammock and relax!
Camera | Tayrona is seriously beautiful and you will definitely want to get some photos! If you do bring a good camera, just be sure to bring a good dry bag to go with it.
Passport | you MUST have this to enter the National Park! I read online that a colour photocopy will sometimes suffice, but I certainly wouldn’t be risking it. There are also lockers (BYO lock) at El Mirador where you can securely store your passport while you’re in the hammocks or on the beach.
Combination lock | for the lockers at Cabo San Juan; I’d recommend a combo lock of some sort over an actual lock and key, just so you don’t have to worry about where to keep the key when you’re in the water.
Cash | I’d recommend around 200,000COP per person for an overnight trip into Tayrona National Park. Here is a good idea of expenses to help you plan your own budget:
- Bus from Santa Marta to Tayrona: 7-15,000COP
- Taxi from Santa Marta to Tayrona: 50-70,000COP
- Hammock at El Mirador: 50,000COP per night
- Hammock at lower camp: 40,000COP per night
- Mandatory insurance for overnighter: 7,000COP
- Park entrance: 53,500COP
- Shuttle into park: 3,000COP each way
- Horse ride to Cabo San Juan: 40,000COP each way
- Restaurant meal at Cabo San Juan: 18-35,000COP
- Beer at Cabo San Juan: 5,000COP
- Chips/crackers/cookies at Cabo San Juan: 1-4,000COP