Walking El Tayrona

Last July, during our trip to Colombia, three friends and I left the touristy streets of Cartagena in the early hours of the morning, in search of a different side of the Colombian Caribbean. So far we had seen pretty, colourful streets and tasted delicious food, but everything we had read about Tayrona seemed to set it apart as an idyllic, away-from-civilisation part of the country. Pictures of Tayrona generally depict its empty beaches and wide extensions of sand, rocks and palm trees. Something like this:

And a big part of Tayrona is actually like this, but the natural park is really much more interesting. Tayrona National Natural Park is 34 kilometres away from the city of Santa Marta; it is around 150 square kilometres big, plus some 30 square kilometres of maritime area. So, it is quite big.

To get there, we booked places in a van from a company called Juan Ballena. This was supposed to be both faster and more comfortable than a bus, but it was neither. Although they picked us up at 7.00 am as agreed, we had to wait at some parking lot for other people, then they made us change to another van, and then we drove straight to Tayrona at 8.00 or 8.30. I don’t think it would have made any difference to take a normal bus, and it would have been cheaper.

Anyway, we were all carrying a backpack with our things for the night and a bathing suit and other stuff for the hike, as we’d be arriving directly there and going to Santa Marta in the afternoon. Once in the park, we did not queue for very long to get the tickets. Entrance is a bit more expensive for non-Colombians (around 40,000 COP or 14 dollars), but it is definitely worth it, specially if you think of the huge amount of land they have to take care of. Tayrona is home to 300 species of birds and around 100 species of mammals, among which there are monkeys and deer. Its marine fauna is also very rich.

We entered at El Zaíno, the main but not the only entrance, where the bus dropped us, and then took another bus to Naranjos, where the ticket booths and information centre are. You can walk there too, but it takes around an hour. Once we had our tickets we started the hike towards the beach (at noon or so, which is quite late to start).

Croquis parque Tayrona
Map of the park

There are different trails and starting points in the park. The one we took was supposed to take 2 hours from Naranjos to Cabo San Juan de Guía, but we could not finish it because of the time. If you’re not staying in the ecohabs or camping areas inside the park, you should be back by 6.00 pm because that’s when the last buses to Santa Marta leave. So we ended our hike at La Piscina, not before enjoying a delicious lunch somewhere near Arrecifes. I was expecting the same kind of food we had had so far in Cartagena and the islands, but it was a bit different here. We had some chicken rice or shrimp rice with patacones, which also tasted different here. One thing I did enjoy in Tayrona and the Santa Marta area was the variety of fruits. There’s all kinds of fruits and many juice places everywhere. If you can, try maracuyá everything.

The coast belonging to Tayrona goes from Bahía de Taganga (which, alas, we also visited) to Río Piedras. Although the sea is a bit too rough for swimming, the views are incredible. The sea has a beautiful turquoise colour only matched by some beaches in the Mexican Mayan Riviera, the sand is so white and there are not only palm trees but all kinds of tropical vegetation bringing colour to these vast extensions of beach. Huge boulders appear every now and then along the shore too, giving Tayrona a unique aesthetic.

Being July, the weather was just too hot and humid. I don’t believe I have sweated more in my life. We were all drenched in sweat just a few minutes into the hike. Water is perhaps one of the most important things to carry with you, because at the few spots where it is available, you’ll have to buy it in plastic bottles. Also, there are no places to refill your bottles, and most things you can buy inside the park come in plastic packaging. Really, Tayrona is not that remote. You’re never too far away from businesses or some kind of habitable area. Despite this, when you get to the beaches you really feel like you’re in some corner of the world; there’s nothing but sea and the rocks it crashes against in the distance. Nothing but more beach to the sides.

The trail to San Juan goes through all possible landscapes: wooden stairs, jungly corridors, extensions of sand and rock, paths through low bushes. You’ll be exposed to the sounds of many kinds of birds, and later you might even see monkeys jumping from one palm tree to another. I remember almost every other hiker we met along the way greeted us with “hola” or “buenas tardes”. Tayrona is also cool because most people there seemed to be interested in nature, it was an international crowd of hikers and explorers. It truly has a good vibe around it.

Now, I would definitely say Tayrona was my favourite part of Colombia. Once we stopped hiking and were all sweaty and tired, we got to swim a bit in the ocean, and the water was considerably colder than the water in places like Cartagena and Playa Blanca. It was just perfect. The hike back was a bit more difficult, or perhaps we were just tired. All in all, we walked around 3 hours.

Santa Marta and Taganga

Catching a bus from Tayrona to Santa Marta is pretty easy and cheap. You just have to stand in front of the entrance and wait for it. There’s no stop sign but it is righ in front of the El Zaíno entrance; there will probably be a group of people gathered there or you can ask at the restaurants. The bus was crowded and we had to stand most of the way, but there were nice views of the sunset from the windows. The bus ride also gives you an idea of how big the park is.

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Juice stand in Taganga

We booked four beds at a hostel called Fatima and it was a lovely place. The staff were really friendly, it was clean in hostel standards, there was a rooftop bar and some jacuzzis there too. And it was incredibly cheap. Unfortunately, the hostel was the best part of Santa Marta. Despite the recommendations I had been given to visit this city, I did not enjoy my stay there. We mostly walked around it at night, but there was none of the welcoming charm we had seen in Cartagena. Although there was plenty of music and people, the atmosphere was a bit hostile. The saddest part was the state in which the beach was. There was litter everywhere. I’m sure there are many charming things about Santa Marta, but we didn’t have the chance or the time to see them.

Next day we took a bus to what some websites called “the backpackers paradise” in Colombia, the small town of Taganga. This was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the trip, because it was definitely not a place I would ever describe as a paradise, and there were not many backpackers. There were barely any people there, really, and not many places to eat, sit or have coffee, which is always sad being in Colombia.

The way back to Cartagena did not go smoothly either. This time we just went to the bus station and got in the first bus that was leaving. The bus was okay, but one hour before arriving in Cartagena, the traffic stopped for like two hours. No one could explain anything and the driver just said “they had closed the road”. He was not very talkative so I did not ask again. It took us six hours to get to the Airbnb. But everything was worth it because of Tayrona. It truly is a special place. The next step for me is to visit more national parks, this time in North America.

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Made it. Sweaty and disgusting, but happy.

Have you visited Tayrona Natural National Park?

Do you have any favourite national parks? I’d love some recommendations!

Cancún & Playa del Carmen

This Summer some friends and I visited the area known as the Mayan Riviera, which comprehends some 140 kilometers along the coast in the state of Quintana Roo, México. We made base in Playa del Carmen and drove to different towns and beaches along the Riviera from there. Although Cancún is a very popular and touristy place, it is also one of the most beautiful spots of the south of Mexico in terms of nature: sand as white as snow, the clearest, bluest water and lots of vegetation. Also, not everything is big chain hotels and luxury resorts, recently there has been a boom in ecotourism in the area, so apart from finding ecological, little hotels along the coast in Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancún, you can also enjoy nature in many of the natural reserves (like Sian Ka’an) and see some of the native animal species (like sea turtles, jaguars and monkeys) without harming their environment.

Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is 50 minutes away by car from Cancún International Airport. We stayed there because it is a bit cheaper than Cancún and is right in between Cancún and Tulum. There’s a lot going on in Playa, as well as many beaches that are worth visiting, although in my opinion they’re not as beautiful as Cancún’s. This season I got to see the problem that has been haunting the Mayan Riviera for the last couple of years: sargasso. While we parked out battered rented car some 600 meters away from the beach, we could already smell the decomposing seaweed. Even when it is a real environmental threat possibly caused by global warming and the authorities are doing everything they can to take it away from the beaches, it is not really harmful in any way. Every beach we visited in the Riviera had the same problem, except for the islands.

In Playa del Carmen we went to Playa Paraíso (although many people recommended us to go to Mamitas), and we had a nice, quiet time once we walked away from the hubbub around the parking area. Most public beaches are busy during the Summer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a quiet spot if you walk far enough. As it happens in many places in México, vendors of all kinds of food and drinks (specially coconut water and fresh mangoes), so a towel, sunscreen, a book and some cash will be all you need to spend a morning in the beach. There are some hammocks and umbrellas for rent, too.

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Playa Paraíso and sargasso.

Playa del Carmen’s most famous street is called the Quinta Avenida, a long street that goes parallel to the beach and where you can find all kinds of shops, restaurants, cafés, malls, bars and nightclubs. During the day it is nice to take a stroll there as you can find many places where they sell handcrafts and traditional food. During the night, this is definitely the place to go for dinner and drinks. We had really nice cocktails at a place called Patio 8, and would have gone partying to Mandala, but went home instead (*sigh*).

The Quinta Avenida is a really interesting place to be at night, full of street performers, mexican pop culture everywhere and in many bizarre shapes and more foreigners than locals (as I think happens in all of the Mayan Riviera’s touristic places). The atmosphere from the bars and nightclubs seemed to reach the streets, people would walk along singing, sit on some bench to talk or eat ice-cream, boisterous laughter came from everywhere. All in all, I think Playa del Carmen is a perfect place to have one of those relax-during-the-day-party-at-night holidays. Not being our type of holiday, it was good to only spend the nights there and two or three full days.

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Cancún

Cancún is perhaps the place in Quintana Roo I am most familiar with and my favourite time to go there is definitely October. The weather is good all year round, altough Summers can be rainy and too hot, so the “colder” months are the best option, but bear in mind that December and January are the busiest, so everything from flights to accommodation will be more expensive. This year we went in July and it was perhaps too hot, but not too crowded. Cancún’s hotel zone is in the furtherst end of the Riviera, a street with hotels and seaviews on both sides, and also some of the prettiest public beaches.

 

On this trip we did not spend much time in Cancún itself, but we had a lot of fun in Playa Delfines. Parking there is free and renting some chairs was cheaper than in other beaches (300 mxn for the whole day). It is a nice beach to practice surfing and other aquatic sports, but if you want to do it you should arrive really early; when were there, arounf 12.00 pm, the waves were already too strong. The beach is a typical Caribbean beach, with white sand, clear blue water and many palm trees and vegetation. It is a good sport for a run too (the beach is 30 km long), or just to relax. We found that around 4pm many people started coming with beer and loud music, so perhaps the mornings are better if you’re not carrying beer and a speaker yourself.  

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Playa Delfines

Cancún, just like Playa del Carmen, is a great place for partying, but not being big on parties myself, I recommend you leave Cancún to find more exciting day activities and less crowded natural spots. You can visit any of the beaches along the hotel zone, or you can just visit one the nature parks along the Playa del Carmen-Cancún road, like Xel-Há, Xplor or Xcaret. Xcaret is definitely my favourite, because even if the admission is a bit more expensive (around $1,800 mxn), it has a bit of everything: you can be there from 8am until 10pm, swim in cenotes and underground rivers with all equipment included, have food in many different restaurants, see the wildlife (monkeys, jaguars, flamingoes), while being sure you’re not damaging them in any way, snorkeling in the sea, doing some more extreme things like ziplining and scuba diving, and finally enjoy some dinner or drinks while watching traditional mexican dances. If you’re only into adventure and extreme sports, however, the best option would be Xplor. Of course you can also find other cenotes on your own, as well as water activities in public beaches, but I really recommend any of the parks as a one-day activity.

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Xcaret
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Xcaret

Finally, when it comes to food, both Playa and Cancún offer great food from every place in the world, as well as wonderful mexican food and mouth-watering seafood. I believe, however, that both cities offer a kind of travel experience that is becoming less and less interesting for me: luxury resorts, fancy restaurants and giang nightclubs. But I am also happy to notice that ecotourism is making a big arrival in the area, as well as in some other areas of my country (Yucatán and other parts in Quintana Roo like Tulum and Holbox being ahead in that respect). Few things beat the beauty of the Mexican Caribbean, but it saddens me to see that what has made these cities famous around the world is also very damaging for both the environment and the local people. If you’re interested in reading about harming tourism in Quintana Roo, this article might be helpful (athough the author mistook Quintana Roo for Yucatán).