Tayrona National Park, located on the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia, is any adventurer's dream escape as an ocean-rainforest combination. But its remote location and lack of a nearby airport can leave travelers scratching their heads on how to get there without breaking the bank. The good news is that it’s easier than you think to do it on the cheap. Here's a complete guide on seeing the magnificent park.
Cartagena is the main hub of the northern region, so most likely, you’ll arrive there directly from Cartagena or even Bogota. Getting to Tayrona from Cartagena on a budget requires several steps, but all of them are pretty painless and give you the chance to see more of the country.
First, you’ll want to arrange a shuttle transfer between Cartagena and Santa Marta. We used Marsol, which costs around $20, or 50,000 COP, one way. This price is obviously going to fluctuate between the high and low season, but that’s the ballpark you’re looking at. Depending on where your hotel is, they will pick you up -- they won’t enter the walled city, but they will meet you outside of it -- and they'll drop you wherever you want in Santa Marta. The ride is about four hours, and besides renting a car, this is the most direct way to go.
Consider spending the night in Santa Marta, so you can arrive at Tayrona early the next day and hike in with daylight on your side. From Santa Marta, you’ll be taking a local bus to the entrance of Tayrona, which picks up at the corner of Calle 11 and Carrera 11. It's extremely cheap, just over $2 (6,000 COP). The buses are constantly running, so just show up and look for a sign in the bus window that says “Tayrona.” If you do have a few minutes to wait, there's plenty of people-watching at this edge of a daily market. The ride from there to the park entrance is about an hour, and it'll be very obvious when to get off -- almost all the tourists on the bus will be going there, and you can let the driver know it's your destination.
Once at the park entrance, you’ll pay the entrance fee ($16 or 38,000 COP) and watch a short introductory video. Once inside the official gate, you're free to roam -- but you’ll most likely want to jump in one of the transfer vans that will deliver you directly to the trailhead. Again, it's only around $2 or 4,000/5,000 COP, depending on the driver. We absolutely recommend this, as it cuts several miles and lots of time off the trip. The vans drop you off at the farthest place cars can go in the park, close to Canaveral Beach. From there, you can rent a mule to carry your pack, or you can hop on the trail. The mule trail and the hiker’s trail are separate, but they overlap throughout the park. (We went on foot.) The trail works its way over rolling hills before joining the coastline. Much of the first mile or two of the trail is via man-made boardwalk and steps to help the non-athletic traverse the often-slippery, steep hillsides.
Spending the Night
There are several options for spending the night in Tayrona, all of varying price ranges and experiences. Here’s the brief breakdown:
Canaveral Beach: This beach offers four-person bungalows called Ecohabs. They are the most expensive accommodation in the park, but also the closest to the park entrance and even reachable by car. They typically cost over $300 per night.
Cabo San Jaun: This is where we stayed. It is the most popular campsite by far thanks to its swimmable beaches and abundance of hammock and tent rentals, $8 (20,000 COP) for a hammock and $21 (50,000 COP) for a tent. The draw of this area is that it’s a backpackers hangout, a place where you can meet people from all over the world, and that it is centrally located in the park and a good launching pad for day treks and excursions to lesser-visited beaches. The drawback is that it can get crowded, reducing the amount of peace and quiet to be had in the campground. It is also the most built-up part of the park with a restaurant, pavilion, and restrooms. From the trailhead, it’s a two- to three-hour hike to get to Cabo San Juan.
Bukaru: Bukaru is the second campsite you will come across on the trail, and it might be the most balanced of the three in that it is cheap and often overlooked. The main reason for the latter is that it is not located on a swimmable beach. For those that don’t mind making a day trip for swimming, it’s definitely a more kick-back and quiet atmosphere than Cabo. From the trailhead, it is a one- to two-hour hike to get to Bukaru (you pass right through it going to Cabo).
What to Do
Being in Tayrona is all about experiencing the natural environment. Monkeys are a regular sighting along the trails, and you can find beaches fit for all different purposes -- whether it’s sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, or serenity. Many of the large boulders make great hangouts for the sunset. The park is a respectable size, about 60 square miles in total, with manly trails weaving their way along the coast and inland. Spend your days exploring the rainforest canopy, finding “private beaches,” and visiting the ruins of El Pueblito.