The Tayrona National Park, in the Caribbean coast of Colombia, is worth a visit, especially if you find yourself in Cartagena looking for other things to do beyond the beautiful colonial city. But it’s not particularly easy to get to, nor to visit, and it gets packed, so planning ahead is highly recommended (and visiting off-season even more ;)). The main entrance to the park is El Zaino, about 1 hour east of Santa Marta, which in turn is about 4 hours north east of Cartagena. You can either take a public bus to Santa Marta, and then another public bus to the park, and might need to spend a night in Santa Marta in between, or spend $20 to get a shared shuttle straight from your hotel in Cartagena to the park.
Given the time investment to get there and back, and the amount of stuff to enjoy in the park, you’ll likely want to stay at least 2 days/1 night in Tayrona (we actually did 2 days/2 nights to avoid the very early start and took the shuttle from Cartagena in the afternoon). There are few accommodation options inside the part: a handful of cool-looking but pricey Ecohabs, which you can book in advance, and some really basic campsites where you can either rent a hammock or a tent, but seem to operate on a first-come first-serve basis. Alternatively, you can stay at one of the many options right outside of the El Zaino entrance, like the charming Eco Hostal Yuluka we picked. To get to and you’re your hostel to the entrance, you can use their shuttle (if they offer one and it matches your schedule), walk on the road, or jump on one of the bikes that operate as cheap taxis.
As if these logistics didn’t feel like a bit too much already, there is the whole ticket issue. The official park website allows you to book in advance for the same price (~$20 plus some mandatory insurance), , so you don’t risk missing out because of the daily cap (which apparently is a real issue in peak season), and also so you don’t have to wait in the very inefficient ticket booth line in the morning… but it didn’t really work for us, and from the looks of it neither did it for many others, so we ended up paying at the booth… and then at that other stand on the side for the insurance, and then over to some other guy who put our bracelets on, and then we were in. Oh, wait, then we had to wait and pay again (~$1) for a 10 min shuttle ride to Canaveral to skip an uneventful 1.5 hours walk on a paved road.
Rather than hiking straight down to the beaches, we tried to avoid the crowds by taking the 9 Piedras loop first, where we enjoyed some quiet, nice jungle views. Then it was a hot and sweaty 1 hour up-and-down hike to the Arrecifes beach, and a further 20 min to La Piscina, where we took our first dip. The beach was nothing special, and it was quite packed, so we picked our stuff back up and made the final 30 min to Cabo San Lucas. By then it was the peak of the day’s heat and we were starving, but this spot didn’t disappoint. Rather than waiting our turn in the packed restaurant, we grabbed some sandwiches from the local vendors and hang out at the hut at the water’s edge. The views were stunning, with the turquoise water framed by the wild, lush jungle, and the golden beach and granite boulders popping up in between. We walked 15 min further to the so-called nudist beach, which was way less busy, and enjoyed a fantastic swim there.
On our second day, given that the Pueblito archaeological site is not open to visitors anymore, we pretty much retraced our footsteps, going straight to Cabo this time, and unfortunately hitting a ton of traffic. We swam on that very beach, which was less rough that day (sometimes it’s not possible to swim), but was way too crowded for my taste. Then we sprinted back up to make sure we would get the shuttle from Canaveral, the bike back to our hostel, and the transfer back to Cartagena in time. The hike back was actually very enjoyable, since the trails were almost empty at that time, and we crossed paths with some Kogui indigenous people and spotted some moneys. Maybe in our next visit to the area we’ll make time for the Lost City trek to get a more authentic experience…