Planning a trip to Tayrona can be exciting and intimidating! Use this guide to help you plan out the perfect trip catered to your ideal hiking, beach, and camping interests.
Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona known in English as Tayrona National Natural Park is a protected area in the Santa Marta jurisdiction of Colombia that spans the Caribbean Sea’s coastline for 12 miles.
The park is known for its biodiversity and beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range blending with the coastal tropical climate.
There is a lot to explore in Tayrona with visitor’s favorite activities including beach hopping, hiking, and camping.
Planning a first-time visit can feel intimidating and you may have heard other travelers telling you to outright skip Tayrona but with proper planning and knowing what you’re getting into, Tayrona can be an awesome experience.
This guide will help explain what your different options are for hiking, beach hopping, and accommodations within the park.
If your main interests are to find serene experiences with hiking, nature, and private beaches and laid-back camping then this guide is best suited for you.
The Two Entrances
If you have yet to read about the two entrances into the park then this should be a foremost item for planning your trip.
It will set your trip up in two completely different ways and cater to separate interests.
The Main Entrance – El Zaino
This is the main gate and by main we’re talking about 95% or more of all visitors use this gate. It’s located at the eastern end of the park along Route 90 and has closest access to the main beaches and Playa Del Cabo.
Visitors who are going for a day visit or camping at beaches on that end of the park should use that entrance and is the reason it’s so popular.
Arriving at this entrance will typically include waiting in a line, supposedly watching a wildlife educational video, and waiting in line for a bus to drive you a few miles closer to the beaches.
The Secondary Entrance – Calabazo
This secondary entrance is well-known but is much more primitive which is typically not the experience people arriving to the park are looking for.
This entrance will include few to no other visitors and will have a private talk with park officials before you can enter. There are no lines, no video screenings, and no bus transportation.
This entrance is for those who enjoy hiking and nature and mostly looking to get to Playa Brava as a starting point.
Entrance Costs as of October 2021
Park Entrance Fee: 64,000 COP ($16 USD)
Insurance: 5,000 COP per person, per day
Calabazo Info Fee: 2,000 COP
Insurance is provided by MetLife and is mandatory for all visitors even those with personal insurance or travel insurance.
The Calabazo Info Fee is charged before the Tayrona gate for information prior to the official entrance gate (could be a gringo tax). At this stage you’re instructed on the different trails and distances to travel from this entrance.
Here you are also provided with the option to purchase a moto taxi ride for 20,000 COP or a horse back ride for 80,000 COP to take you the first few miles into the park on a dirt road.
Getting to the Park
Tayrona is the second most visited national park in Colombia so getting to either park entrance is quite easy. The central hub for buses and transportation to and from the park is the Santa Marta Public Market.
At this location buses leave frequently and you can usually tell how soon based on the size of the crowd. It is recommended to go as early as possible in the day so that you are able to catch a bus easily.
Buses later morning and midday are disorganized with crowds and you will find yourself fighting to get a spot on the bus and if you aren’t able to, you’ll have to fight for a spot on the next one that comes by.
The bus costs 6,000 COP to the Calabazo entrance and 8,000 COP to the El Zaino entrance ($2 USD).
The travel time to each entrance from the market is about 45 minutes and one hour respectively.
If you plan to use the Calabazo entrance, be sure to tell and remind your driver otherwise it is assumed everyone on the bus will be going to El Zaino. This should come up when paying your fare on board.
The Hard Tayrona Truth
Many travelers view Tayrona as a bit of a dump and superficially propagated by influencers and bloggers which is why you may have heard people telling you to stay away from here.
They may even have said spend that extra time in nearby Minca (see Minca post here).
The fact is they’re correct – Tayrona is a mess and can feel more similar to an amusement park with crowds, lines, and garbage piles than it does to this pristine natural park that they say it is.
The trails you see on the map are some of the worst conditioned trails I’ve ever hiked. The idea of nice remote hiking between pristine beaches is mostly a fantasy.
The trail that runs the coastline between the beaches at the entrance of El Zaino up to Playa Del Cabo (Cabo Beach) is a crowded highway of people trying to avoid deep sections of mud. It doesn’t help that horses are paraded back and forth on this route ripping up the ground and creating a mud and horse poop mixture that is as nasty and smelly as you can imagine.
These beaches always stay crowded and camping here looks like a military operation with hundreds of tents sprawled across the open fields.
There is still beauty to be found within the park and Cabo Beach is an incredible must-see sight if entering the park in my opinion but be prepared for a dysfunctional disconnected from nature experience.
The great thing is that not the entire park is like this and there are ways to balance your visit between the two!
Playa Brava and What You Should Know
Playa Brava is a beach popular by name but the remote location from the El Zaino main gate entrance keeps Playa Brava under the radar from much of the madness of Tayrona.
It’s the least accessible beach because of a few miles of hiking on steep terrain but the trails surrounding the beach are by far the best in the entire park and provides a true hiking experience.
The beach itself is an untouched beauty and hosts only a handful of visitors keeping the area calm and peaceful.
There are several camping options at Playa Brava – the most expensive are beach side huts elevated on stilts that are quite glamorous. Other camping options include non-beach side huts, hammocks, and self-camping.
Like most other camping places in the park, they allow you to bring your own tent which is the most economical option.
Accommodation Options and Prices for Playa Brava
Cabana Private with Breakfast: 200k for 2 people
Cabana Familiar for up to six people: 225k for 2-3 people, 75k per extra person
Hammock with Mosquito Net: 35k per person
Bring Your Own Tent/Hammock: 20k per person
Restaurant: Breakfast 20k, Lunch and Dinner 25k-35k
In addition to the restaurant there is also a snack bar selling items such as water, beer, chips, cookies, etc. These prices are inflated in comparison to cities but not terrible. A domestic beer like Aguila was 7,000 COP which might be 3,000-5,000 COP at a cheap bar in a city.
Important – If you plan on staying at Playa Brava and you are not bringing your own camping equipment it is highly recommended to reserve a spot before showing up.
This can be done by sending an email to email@example.com. Everything is in limited capacity at this beach especially the private cabanas so don’t delay when planning. It would be tough to make the hike to this beach and then not be able to stay.
Getting to Playa Brava
To get to Playa Brava you should ideally use the Calabazo entrance. This is the most direct and you avoid the mess that comes with the El Zaino main gate entrance.
The hike is just shy of 5 miles; however, the first two miles are uphill on dirt and gravel roads which you can arrange the transportation mentioned before for a fee to get you up.
This could be a good option if you’re looking to shave off time or have a heavy pack filled with snacks and drinks from Santa Marta.
After the dirt road ends, it’s about 2.5 miles downhill on trails leading through the jungle. The terrain is uneven from erosion so don’t expect a ‘walk in the park’ type of trail.
Hiking Routes in Tayrona
There are not as many trails through Tayrona as an avid hiker may like but there are some great options (and some lousy ones), this list should help clarify the available options.
Camino a Playa Brava
This is the trail used to reach Playa Brava when coming in from Calabazo.
When the dirt road approaches a split there will be a sign that says Playa Brava and points left. This trail will pass by eco hostel accommodations and indigenous villages while the road will turn to trail through the jungle that descends to Playa Brava.
Playa Brava a Playa Nudista
This stretch of trail is the best the park has to offer in terms of hiking and wildlife spotting. It’s the most remote and least travelled in the park and will give you a true feeling of jungle ambience.
From Playa Brava take the trail that isn’t Camino a Playa Brava with signs that point towards Pueblito and Cabo San Juan. The trail navigates up the jungle mountains before leveling off at the split to Pueblito before descending back to the coast with Playa Nudista and Playa Cabo San Juan.
This stretch of trail passes by massive jungle trees filled with howling monkeys and creeps along native villages hidden in the jungle. While hiking this section in the morning I was passed quietly by a father and daughter from the native village wielding machetes presumably on their way to collect jungle fruits.
Shortly after, I found myself walking through a banana plantation under the canopy and a native village hidden behind stalks of banana plants surrounded by jungle.
I didn’t see any other hikers or visitors and from the looks of it the trail is much less travelled than any of the others but it’s actually in the best shape because of that.
A Cabo de San Juan de Guía Cape
This is the trail that people hate and hate Tayrona because of it. It’s the main highway used by visitors arriving from where the bus drops you off after entering the main gate until you reach Playa Cabo San Juan.
The trail gets soaked when it rains, there are tons of water crossings, and the erosion and mud sections are terrible. It’s also the route all of the horses used for carrying people and supplies takes creating a farm like smell.
It’s hard to avoid this path if you have interest in visiting the main beaches. The only positive I have to say is that it’s flat.
Pro Tip: Don’t remove your shoes in hopes of keeping them dry just to put back on after a water crossing. If it’s wet there will be too many places that will be unavoidable and you’ll spend all your time taking off and putting back on your shoes.
This was standard to see from visitors entering into Tayrona and while everyone leaving was trouncing through the muck.
El Pueblito Hike – CLOSED
El Pueblito is an indigenous village located a couple miles inland from Playa Cabo San Juan. The village in years back used to be open to visitors and has since closed leaving the hike to the village still open.
To my experience as of 2021 the hike itself is now also closed. The trail that is shown on some maps from Cabo San Juan is fenced off and closed signs are posted at the old trailhead making it impassable.
El Pueblito was also accessible from the Playa Brava a Playa Nudista route however, at the split off there is a wooden gate closing off the trail to Pueblito.
9 Piedras Hike
This is a loop hike that begins where the buses drop you off after entering Tayrona from the main gate.
Half of the loop uses the only good section of the A Cabo de San Juan de Guía Cape trail along the coast which uses sets of wooden stairs to climb between the rocky outcroppings between beaches.
The other half of the loop is more inland and takes you to stones that were carved with holes by the indigenous tribes for observing the changing astronomy throughout the year.
Teyumakke Waterfall Hike
This is a secret hike that you likely won’t read about online and there are no maps that I’ve seen showing a trail to this waterfall.
It’s well known if you’re at Playa Brava but otherwise this hike isn’t popularized much.
The trail follows a dried stream bed up from the Playa Brava central area until it turns into a stream and continues for about a half a mile until you reach a 50-foot waterfall completely surrounded by untouched jungle.
It’s one of the best activities to do at Playa Brava and another great reason why it’s worth making the trek over to that beach!
The Beaches of Tayrona
Playa Cabo San Juan
Easily the most popular beach in Tayrona and is what many visitors come to the park to experience. This beach has the iconic hillside hammock hut in between two semi-circle beaches enclosed by the iconic soft rounded rocks.
The largest tenting accommodations can be found here and the hammock hut can be slept in however is quite crowded and I’ve heard negative things about it…nonetheless could be a cool experience.
There is safe swimming at this beach and restaurants in the tenting area. The only downside is the large crowds can make it feel more like a music festival than a natural park.
As touched on before this is the secluded beach that has a small selection of camping. It stays away from the large crowds and has a quiet feel comparatively.
The beach is about a half mile long, perfect for short walks from coast to coast. The beach has signs that say no swimming which might be only during non-lifeguard hours, however these were ignored by guests when I was there.
This beach has some waves but at the time was only moderate and swimming posed no danger.
Hopefully you’ve figured out this is a nude beach before arriving. It’s definitely true to that name and actually a pretty solid beach to explore if you’re looking to get away from the more hectic beaches to the east including Playa Cabo San Juan.
As the name suggest (pool) this is a calm beach suitable for relaxed bathing and swimming as there won’t be much in terms of waves.
Another popular beach because of its beautiful rock formations and proximity to beach restaurants. This is located the most east of all beaches and has a large beach area that people lay out on.
It looked like entrances to this beach were closed due to construction but I’ve read this is a beautiful photogenic beach however no swimming is allowed.
There are several other beaches and other beaches located off pathways with separate camping resorts which are typically overlooked by many visitors. These can be great options for exploring especially if you have ample time in the park.
What to Bring
Items to bring will entirely depend on what kind of trip you’re looking to experience; these first items are basics that apply to all visitors (day trippers and overnighters).
Quality Footwear – As much as you’d want flip flops for the beach, you’ll want a pair of good hiking shoes for in between beaches and something that you’re okay with getting wet and muddy!
Dry Bags – These are perfect for holding electronics, it’s not just water from the ocean but the tropical rain that is likely to hit in the wetter season afternoons.
Pack Cover – If your daypack or backpack isn’t waterproof this is must. My hike to Playa Brava consisted of a few inches of rain falling and soaking everything except my gear.
Lightweight Travel Towel – The perfect towel to use travel and beach hopping. The last thing you want is a cotton bath towel that will never dry and weigh a hundred pounds wet.
Travel Sunscreen – I find sunscreen from most countries to be pretty terrible and these tubes are the perfect size for travelling with and keeping weight low.
Travel Bug Spray – Bug spray can be hard to find, I prefer getting ahead and always having on me. These bottles are small but they go a long way!
Trekking Poles – Most people won’t have these and you might look like a tool but they sure saved my ass from some falls hiking to Playa Brava in a storm so it’s a good item to consider if you plan on getting on those sketchy trails.
Water Filter – A great option so that you’re not relying on expensive water. Only filter clear stream water from within the jungle and never ocean or pools that flow close to the ocean (probably self-explanatory but the salt will not be filtered out properly and is also not good for the filter).
Water Bottles – Grab a few from the market before departing on your bus. Water is the highest marked up item within the park because of the logistics it takes of getting enough of it in the park for all the visitors.
Snacks – Grab these from the market beforehand as well to cut down on some costs. I find it’s also a great option to always have some snacks while hiking in the more remote areas and will keep you from being dependent on the snack shops.
This next set of items are suited towards those who are staying overnight.
Headlamp – It will be pitch black dark once the sunsets even in the campgrounds so having a good headlamp will be helpful and a good safety item.
Portable Charger – Outlets are within the park but may require payment or leaving your device in the open so having a portable is highly preferable.
Mosquito Net – This is most important if you are bringing your own camping set up but is good to have as a backup as well.
Of course, if you plan on bringing your own sleep system you’ll have already thought about and likely have a tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and ground cloth. I wrote a post on my Appalachian Trail gear which is what I’ve continued to use travelling and can be viewed here.
Pro Tip: Leave any travel gear that isn’t necessary at a hostel in Santa Marta. Weight is the most important factor in backpacking and getting rid of all excess weight will help tremendously.
I travel light so this isn’t something I did personally but I would recommend doing so if you’re not geared towards lightweight backpacking.
The Tropical Climate and Best Time to Visit
The most important thing to note about the climate of Tayrona National Natural Park is that it is very much a tropical rainforest. The temperatures and humidity are mostly constant throughout the year with highs being in the mid to high 80s and the humidity in the 80—90% range.
The rainfall varies significantly throughout the year with the most amount and number of rainy days between September and December.
Consequently, the lowest amount of rainfall is during January – March, however the park is typically closed for a month during this time to ease the stress on the natural environment.
Summer months of June – August are typically deemed as ‘good’ weather months but you may face higher crowds during this period.
Helpful climate chart here.
However, with all this said, you’ve probably planned your Colombia trip when you can and at this point the time of year you are visiting isn’t very flexible. Even during rainy months, it can be a wonderful experience just pack accordingly.
I visited in late October and it seemed like everyday in that area of Santa Marta the weather was consistently nice in the mornings and early afternoons followed by late afternoon and early evening thunderstorms before clearing up for night.
Swimming – It is important to note that not all beaches are open for swimming due to extreme currents.
Caiman – These mini alligators are in the area and there are signs in some locations warning to avoid entering areas that look swampy. Be aware of your surrounding near swampy pools of water.
Mosquitos – It is required to have the Yellow Fever vaccine to enter national parks in Colombia however other mosquito related illnesses are present as well.
Poisonous Animals – Again Tayrona is a jungle and its inhabitants aren’t nice and cuddly. I don’t believe there is much risk but if you see a frog that looks poisonous, it probably is, and is best to be left alone.
Weather – An item you are more likely to face than poisonous frogs are rough storms that roll through quickly with little warning. Be prepared with proper equipment and try to find safe shelter in strong storms that could bring down trees or cause flash floods.
How Much Time is Needed and Sample Itinerary
Lastly, before you’re on your way let’s discuss the amount of time required for a proper visit.
Whereas a day trip is more than possible it could feel overwhelming with everything that is required which will be time consuming.
It could take upwards of three hours to get from Santa Marta to beachside in Tayrona. If this is all the time you have try to go as early as possible on the first bus out.
Therefore, the overnight is highly recommended, I wasn’t pressed for time but after hiking from Playa Brava to Cabo San Juan my second day I realized that I didn’t need to spend a second night in the park.
The vibe had changed so much from the initial experience that I was content on heading out.
If you want more time relaxing on beaches by all means I think two nights would be a great option.
Head to Santa Marta Public Market first thing in the morning to get final supplies and get a bus to the Calabazo entrance of Tayrona.
Go through entrance procedures and hike to Playa Brava.
Spend the rest of the afternoon on the beach and hiking to Teyumakke Falls before sunset and enjoy night activities at camp.
Hike over to Playa Cabo San Juan in the morning and spend sometime on the beach and exploring the area for the rest of the morning.
Decide if you want to spend a night there or beach hop to the beaches further east.
Get settled into camp in the afternoon or grab a bus back to Santa Marta.
Day 3 (optional):
If you chose to stay-over you’ll want to enjoy the calm of the morning on the beach before other visitors start showing up. After that you can easily hike over to the bus stop at El Zaino and be taken to that main entrance.
Additionally, if you rather not hike through the mud pits over to the El Zaino entrance and don’t care to experience the eastern beaches you can always hike back to the Calabazo entrance from Playa Cabo San Juan.
Feel free to reach out with any questions and I'll do my best to assist but most importantly I hope you find this guide helpful for your trip to Tayrona!
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