Worth the Hype and High Prices? – Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Tayrona National Park is Colombia’s first national park and it protects a string of beautiful beaches. The park is one of Colombia’s top five most talked about travel destinations, but is Tayrona worth the hype and high prices?

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El Cabo Beach, just one of the beautiful coastal spots that are protected within Tayrona National Park in Colombia.

The hype about Tayrona

Established in 1969, Tayrona National Park is located in Northern Colombia. The mainland beaches around Cartagena, another top travel destination in Colombia, are not very nice so the promise of postcard-perfect beaches within the park, about a four-hour drive away, is very enticing. In 2012, almost 294,000 people believed the hype about Tayrona and visited the park, making Tayrona the second most visited of the more than 50 national parks in Colombia.

Beaches Tayrona National Park

A red flag warns of dangerous conditions in the water. Rip tides plague much of the coastline in Tayrona National Park.

Tayrona National Park protects a long stretch of coastline including a string of beaches that are truly beautiful–blue/green water, white arcs of sand, shoreline palms and vegetation. These famous beaches are reached via a rolling trail that meanders along, sometimes slightly inland, sometimes on the beaches themselves. Be prepared for lots of walking in sand and lots of sun exposure.

From the parking lot at the Canaveral entrance we hit the trail and about 45 minutes later we came to Arrecifes Beach where the water was too rough for swimming (rip tides plague much of the coastline within Tayrona). After admiring the view and cooling off in a patch of shade, we moved on to the next beach.

Arricifes beaches Tayrona National Park Colombia

Arricefes Beach is lovely to look at but the water here is too rough to swim in.

As the name would imply, swimming is possible at La Piscina (the pool) Beach. About a dozen locals had basic snack stands set up at La Piscina too and they were doing a moderate business in overpriced junk food and beverages (more on that later).

About three leisurely hours after leaving the parking lot we reached Cabo San Juan de la Guia Beach (aka, El Cabo), the most popular and developed of the bunch. Here we found an open air restaurant, a huge camping area (more on that below) and a beach full of backpackers and locals. A bit more poking around revealed an informal nude beach around a rocky elbow in the coastline here. Just sayin’.

Cabo San Juan PNN Tayrona Colombia

El Cabo Beach is the most built up and most crowded beach within Tayrona, drawing locals and travelers with its long beach and relatively calm water.

Cabo San Juan Tayrona National Park Colombia

There’s a camping area slightly inland from El Cabo Beach or you can rent a hammock in the thatch roof Hammock Hut on the rocky outcrop in the distance.

Though the park is said to harbor more than 50 endangered species, we did not see much wildlife in the park–really just two caracaras, some lizards and a frog.

The high prices of Tayrona

We entered the park at the Canaveral entrance and paid the entrance fee (39,500 COP or about US$16.50 pp and entrance fees seem to go up every year). We’d been warned that visitors to Tayrona are not allowed to bring in plastic bags, alcohol or anything in glass and park officials did half-heartedly look in the cargo area in the bed of our truck but they never looked in the cab or in the backpacks we had with us. We drove on to the (free and guarded) parking lot and could have easily entered the park from there with backpacks full of bottles and plastic bags. In fact, we saw plenty of other visitors with plastic bags and bottled beverages in the park. And who can blame them?

Cabo San Juan Tayrona Park

Rocks, cactus, white sand and a protected bay for swimming make El Cabo the top spot in Tayrona National Park.

Prices for food and beverages from vendors inside Tayrona are at least double what they’d be outside the park, so expect to pay at least 5,000 COP (US$2) for a beer or soda. That probably sounds like a bargain based on prices in your home country and we do realize that park prices are high due to the effort and expense vendors incur to bring goods into Tayrona. We’re merely pointing out that, by Colombian standards outside the park, prices are high within the park.

If you get hungry, expect to pay park premiums too. For example, the restaurant at El Cabo Beach charges about US$10 per plate for any meals including seafood. Basic breakfast is more than US$5. To avoid paying the inflated prices, we carried in our own water and snacks and bought beverages from a local Kogi Indian family selling fresh coconut water in a shady spot along the trail.

Kogi indigenous indians Santa Matrta Tayrona

The only thing we purchased inside Tayrona National Park were fresh coconuts from this Kogi family that had set up a makeshift stall along the trail through the park.

We visited Tayrona National Park as a day trip from Taganga Beach (about a 30 minute drive from the park entrance) because we enjoyed Taganga and because we found a value-for-money hotel there and we knew that accommodations any closer to Tayrona are pricey. Ecohabs Tayrona, for example, offers rooms for US$102 to US$321 per night inside the park and even “mid-range” and “budget” accommodations close to the park have jacked up prices.

Ecohabs Hotel Tayrona National Park Colombia

The thatch roofs you can see along the shore are part of Ecohabs, a pricey place to stay inside Tayrona.

There are slightly more economical ways to spend the night in Tayrona National Park, but even the park’s camping options come with a hefty mark up that make them pricey by Colombian standards. For example, one of the camping areas at Arrecifes Beach charges about US$10 per person per night including tent rental, about US$4 per person per night if you bring in your own tent or about $US7.50 for a hammock and mosquito net.

PNN Tayrona Park Colombia

Tayrona is the first national park established in Colombia and protecting shoreline like this is a big reason why the park was created back in 1969.

Camping at El Cabo Beach is even more expensive. The most coveted way to spend the night in Tayrona National Park is in one of the hammocks in the Hammock Hut, a huge, open air, thatch roof structure built on a rocky outcrop on El Cabo Beach overlooking the sea. That will cost you about US$12.50 per hammock per night and reservations are highly recommended.

The Hammock Hut at El Cabo is so picturesque that it’s on the cover of the 2012 Lonely Planet guide to Colombia.

Tayrona National Park Colombia

The trail through Tayrona National Park alternates between inland scrub and sandy shoreline.

If you plan on camping inside Tayrona you’re probably going to have camping gear and supplies with you which means you may want to consider non-hiking options to get into the park. You can rent horses to ride and/or carry your gear in or you can take a small open water taxi boat from Taganga or from Santa Marta to El Cabo beach for 25,000 COP/US$10 per person to the beach and 45,000 COP/US$18 per person back to town.

Beach trail Tayrona National Park Colombia

Part of the trail through Tayrona National Park.

So, is Tayrona worth the hype and high prices?

Tayrona was the first Colombian national park that we visited and it was certainly beautiful and we’re glad we saw it but, in our opinion, other less famous parks in the country deliver more bang for the buck and we’ll be telling you about them soon.

What do you think? Is Tayrona worth it? Let us know in the comments section, below.

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Photo Essay: The Heart of Street Art – Cartagena, Colombia

The street art tradition is alive and well in Cartagena, Colombia where works by modern graffitti and street art legends from Colombia and around the world, including DJ Lu, Lik Me, Fin DAC, Yurika MDC, M.R. Love and DEXS, mingle with historic Colonial architecture in this UNESCO World Heritage Site city. The city’s Getsemani neighborhood is the heart of Cartagena’s street art scene, particularly on Calle de la Sierpe which was the site of 2010’s Pedro Romero Vive Aqui (Pedro Romero Lives Here) street art project. Some of the original work from that project still exists and new pieces are added all the time. The following shots are some of our favorite examples of street art in Cartagena taken during different visits to the city over the past year. Enjoy.

Street art in Cartagena, Colombia

fin DAC street art Getsemani Cartagena de indias Colombia DJ Lu - Juegasiempre street mural Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Pedro Romero street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Dexs street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia fin DAC street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Pedro Romero street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia M.R. Love street mural Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Pedro Romero street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Yurika MDC street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Lik Me hola street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Street mural Getsemani Cartagena Colombia street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Pedro Romero street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia

 

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Skipping Santa Marta – Totumo Volcano & Taganga Beach, Colombia

Within an hour of leaving the Colonial city of Cartagena we were in the countryside and our truck was surrounded by small, frantic yellow butterflies and it felt like being inside a Gabriel García Márquez novel: eery, fragile, pre-destined. It got even more surreal as our full day of travel took us to the crater mud pit at Totumo Volcano, the city of Santa Marta and on to Taganga Beach.

The muddy miracle of Totumo Volcano

We were still surrounded by yellow butterflies when we arrived at Totumo Volcano. Totumo is a tiny little volcano, just 50 feet (15 meters) tall. Rickety wooden stairs lead up its flanks to the crater which is filled with milk-chocolate-colored mud. The story goes that a local priest was offended by the hell-like fire and brimstone that came out of the crater and started sprinkling the thing with holy water until the fire and brimstone turned into thick mud. Improvement? You be the judge.

Tutomo Volcano Colombia

Totumo is an actual volcano but it’s just 50 feet tall, so it looks more like a big ant hill.

Now visitors pay a couple of dollars to climb into the Totumo crater and bob around in the mud like strawberries in chocolate fondue. This is appealing to some because, hey, you’re bobbing around in a volcanic crater and because the volcanic mud is full of minerals that have medicinal properties. No word on the current holy water content and whether or not that’s good for your skin.

Tutomo mud Volcano Colombia

The crater of Totumo volcano is filled with mud which you can climb down into for a soak.

The air temperature was about one million degrees celcius when we were at Totumo, however, so the idea of getting into hot mud was completely unappealing as was the idea of the long, dusty walk from the crater to the nearby lagoon where the mud is washed off.

Skipping Santa Marta

From Totumo we drove to the city of Santa Marta but despite the good things we’d heard about it (coastal location, laid back vibe, South America’s second oldest surviving Colonial city), we found it hot and dusty and mostly un-Colonial and wholly uninspiring (if you disagree you’re welcome to do your best to change our minds in the comments section, below).

Cathedral Santa Marta, Colombia

The cathedral in Santa Marta was closed when we visited.

One of the things we value most about our peripatetic lives is the freedom we have to stay or go as we choose so, after a disappointing and pricey lunch and a visit to the (closed) cathedral in Santa Marta, we moved on to nearby Taganga Beach.

We did ultimately discover a fantastic budget breakfast place in Santa Marta. It’s called Merka Welcome Restaurant and it’s on Calle 10C No. 2-1. For 5,000 COP (about US$2) we got huge plates of eggs, etc. Another 4,000 COP (about US$1.50) got us an enormous pitcher of amazing fresh made fruit juice. The only weak point, literally, was the coffee.

Merka Welcome Restaurant Santa Marta, Colombia

Our favorite thing about Santa Marta? the great, cheap breakfasts and terrific seafood at Merka Welcome Restaurant.

This simple restaurant (fans, mismatched tables and chairs) is famous for well-priced seafood dishes as well so we returned one night for dinner and Carlos, the night-time waiter, assured us that the food was “fucking good”. He was right and we feasted on huge plates of tasty, fresh fish for 15,000 COP (about US$6). Carlos hugged Eric when we left.

Do NOT confuse Merka Welcome Restaurant with a place in Santa Marta called Welcome Restaurant. It’s much more expensive. And you should probably skip the place called Pizza Vomito. We did.

Taganga Beach bums

Though Taganga is less than three miles (5 km) from Santa Marta it seemed like another world. The drive there, up and over the undulating coastline, felt a very small bit like driving along the Amalfi coast with impossible drops, blue water below and buildings clinging to hillsides.

Taganga, Colombia

The bay near the beach town of Taganga, Colombia.

The beach town of Taganga itself, however, feels nothing like the Amalfi coast. Beach front eateries, people selling handicrafts from blankets and hostels and hotels in all shapes and sizes give Taganga the look of a burgeoning traveler ghetto but it still, thankfully, attracts Colombian travelers, especially on weekends. Taganga was a must-visit years ago then fell into disarray but new construction and lots of travelers gave Taganga a comeback vibe when we were there.

After checking out a lot of different accommodations we made a real budget hotel find in Casa D’mer hotel. Located right on the beach at the far end of the malecon, this hotel has clean, spacious private doubles with fans and good mattresses for 70,000 COP (about US$27) including free coffee, free ice water, great staff owners and use of a small but satisfying plunge pool. The furnished roof deck has great sea views.

sunset Taganga, Colombia

Fishing boats at sunset in Taganga, Colombia.

Fish-based meals can be had from simple vendors on the beach in Taganga for around 10,000 COP (about US$4) and there are an increasing number of international eateries in town too. Intifada Cafe serves up great falafel, if you can stomach the anti-Israel propaganda on the walls, and Pacahamama is an actual French restaurant with an actual French chef.

Taganga-juice

Fresh juice on the beach in Taganga.

A shop called Casa Amarilla has tailors who will make you a custom swimsuit in 24 hours and another shop in town was cleverly incorporating bright, handmade, traditional mulas (or molas) made by the Kuna people into modern handbags, shoes and more.

The curved bay and beach in Taganga itself is nothing spectacular. The water is murky and the shoreline is cluttered with fishing boats. But a 20 minute walk along a trail that takes you up and over a bluff delivers you to Long Beach with snack shacks, chairs and umbrellas for hire and a much more inviting beach and clear water. Add in cold beer for 3,000 COP (about US$1.50) and you’ve got yourself a nice day. Water taxis make the short trip to and from Taganga too.

Long beach, near Taganga, Colombia

Long Beach, with clear water and beach vendors, is a short walk from the town of Taganga.

One warning: muggings, sometimes with machetes involved, are an increasing problem in Taganga, so be aware. However, we liked it in Taganga so much that we used it as a base for a long day trip to Tayrona National Park which we’ll cover in our next post.

Taganga street art

Street art in Taganga.

Colombia travel tip

Despite their generally dismal condition, many roads in Colombia have tolls. These tolls are particularly frequent and costly in northern Colombia. We paid more than US$25 in tolls just to drive the 145 miles (233km)  from Cartagena to Santa Marta. You have been warned.

 

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Our Latest Work: Diving in the Galapagos, Colombia’s Best New Hotel of the Year (so far), One Fascinating Border & Beer

Our latest work includes freelance travel stories about luxury diving in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, the best new hotel of the year (so far) in Colombia, why you’ll want to linger around the border between Colombia and Ecuador plus Latin food (and beer!) coverage galore. Let’s get started.

We love the idea of Adventurous Luxury so we were glad to contribute this piece about the unconventional luxuries on a liveaboard dive boat in the Galapagos Islands to the April issue of Luxe Beat magazine which is all about adventurous luxuries around the world.

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When we stumbled upon the brand new Hacienda Bueanvista Hotel in the coffee region of Colombia (thanks Aunt B!) we knew we had to tell everyone about it, so we did in this review of the best new hotel in Colombia (so far) for the Shermans Travel blog.

Hacienda Buenavista Colombia

The only reason to stop at most borders in the world is to get your passport stamped and move on as fast as possible. However, the few miles between Ipiales, Colombia and Tulcan, Ecuador is home to a very unlikely church and a very high-maintenance cemetery. Both are worth a visit, as we explain in our very first piece for the Atlas Obscura website.

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And we just keep raving about the food and drink scene in Colombia with new pieces about the acclaimed chef Leonor Espinosa, the queen of Colombian cuisine, the expanding world of Colombia’s Rausch brothers and a look at the many microbrewery tours in Medellin.

Visit the Published Work page of our website any time to see all of our freelance work in one place.

 

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