There’s a place on the Colombian coast that is spoken about with reverence. Tayrona National Park is widely considered to be one of the country’s must-see locations; a huge stretch of protected land comprised of a unique mix of sand, sea, mountain and rainforest, with huge boulders littering empty stretches of beach and tall palm trees fluttering in the sea breeze.
So it’s difficult to reconcile my feelings about Tayrona. After two nights and three days at the park, I can say with a heavy heart that I really didn’t love the place that much.
I know. You think I’m mad. Just look at that landscape, right?! But here’s the thing: Tayrona has long been marketing the idea that the park is the most magical and unreal place a tourist is likely to visit. Now that the Colombian tourist board have changed the country’s slogan to “magical realism” it’s even more prominent – when someone comes to Colombia, they expect magic to be present wherever they go.
And sadly, Tayrona isn’t quite magical enough.
The pricy truth about Tayrona
Tayrona is billed as an escape for nature lovers, hikers and sunbathers alike, with abandoned beaches and empty jungle just begging to be explored.
So you’d expect the atmosphere to reflect this sense of emptiness and serenity – sleeping cheaply in hammocks, relaxing on the sand, drinking freshly squeezed juices bought from a single vendor wandering along the beach… and paying a price to match.
Instead, the people who work inside the park have a monopoly on how much money to charge – and they charge a lot, much to the surprise of the groups of tourists travelling through South America on a budget.
How to get in
You meet this expense as soon as you walk through the entrance to Tayrona. At a little office, you pay an entrance fee of 30,000 Colombian pesos ($15.50/£9) and have a white wristband taped around your wrist – a bit like a very odd theme park.
You walk a hundred metres to find a few white minivans and a cluster of Colombians waiting to drive you further into the park at a cost of 3,000 ($1.50/90p).
After twenty minutes they stop, and you start walking.
This walk through the park is usually the thing that sounds most daunting to travellers thinking about visiting. The weather on the Caribbean coast is hot and humid enough to start with, but throw in a couple of backpacks filled with two days of drinking water under the midday sun, and the sweat quickly escalates.
Across wooden walkways, up boulders, along scorching sand, through dust covered jungle and over multiple lines of giant ants busily carrying bits of leaves, you walk for about 45 minutes before reaching the first sign of civilisation: the Arrecifes site.
Where to stay
At the cheapest campsite, a place called Don Pedro’s near the Arrecifes site, a hammock will cost you 10,000 ($5/£3), while a tent for two is 25,000 ($13/£7.50).
Pretty reasonable, except the tents often have holes in and the hammocks don’t come with mosquito nets, so if you’re bite-susceptible then it’s worth dousing yourself liberally with Deet.
The most popular campsite for travellers is Cabo de San Juan, a further 45 minute walk through the park. They charge 20,000 ($10/£6) for a hammock – double the price of Don Pedro – and offers tents set up in rows that look more suited for a music festival than a ‘deserted’ coastline.
At the top end of the scale is the EcoHab resort, a collection of little straw roofed bungalows that cost around $300 a night. Needless to say we didn’t meet any backpackers staying there…
Where to eat
Once you’ve thrown down your bag and waited for the blood to drain away slightly from your sweating face, eating is probably next on the agenda. That, and drinking a lot of water.
But hang on – turns out the food in Tayrona is ridiculously overpriced. For a country that commonly offers menu del dia plates for between 5,000 and 7,000 pesos ($2.50-$3.50/£1.50-£2), the idea of paying 15,000 ($8/£4.50) for a meal actually hurt my insides. And this was at Don Pedro’s, the cheapest place we found; at any of the small tiendas located closer to Cabo de San Juan, the price of a standard plate of chicken, rice, plantain and salad was 25,000 ($13/£7.50).
Luckily, with the concept of camping or sleeping in hammocks at Tayrona – ‘roughing it’ for many travellers, instead of being in a usual hostel – the idea of bringing food and cooking is a common one.
Except when you reach a campsite and have a look at the kitchen, you’ll understand why that’s probably not the best idea.
The outdoor kitchen at Don Pedro’s site consists of a few blackened pots and a metal grill across a stone surface to light fires on. While a lot of people are probably adept at doing that, I have no shame in saying that I barely know the first thing about laying and lighting a successful fire that’s going to keep burning long enough to cook pasta on.
An Australian couple we spent the week with had brought supplies to cook with; eggs, tuna, a large bag of potatoes and two boxes of pasta. After their first evening in the kitchen, they appeared at the communal dining area where Josh and I were eating.
Apparently the task of collecting enough wood from the jungle to boil potatoes – not to mention trying not to kill the prawn living in the sink – was enough to make them buy dinner.
How to prepare
Because travellers talk (and often they blog), it’s easy to find out how to circumvent a lot of these issues.
- DO bring water: absolutely crucial, unless you want to pay a bomb. A 750ml bottle of water costs around 4000 pesos ($2/£1.20) in the park, and you’ll be drinking a lot more than usual due to the heat. We carried in a weighty 12 litres between two people, which lasted over 48 hours.
- DON’T bring plastic bags of water: because the park is a nature reserve, plastic “isn’t allowed on site” – although I carried various plastic items in… However, the cheapest way to buy water is in the big 6 litre bags and so a lot of tourists will carry these bags to the entrance of the park, only to have them taken away. We bought a bag in Santa Marta then decanted it into a couple of bigger bottles instead.
- DO bring snack food: a few bags of crisps, some fruit, and some biscuits will go a long way.
- DON’T bring food to cook: or do so at your own risk. It’ll take hours with very limited resources and you might have to end up buying dinner anyway…
- DO bring money: there are no ATM facilities in the park, surprisingly enough, so bring enough cash to cover your stay.
- DON’T bring alcohol: it´s prohibited to bring drinks into the park – although you can still buy beers at the campsites (for an extortionate price…)
- DO bring suncream, mosquito repellent and toilet paper: pretty self explanatory. The sun in Tayrona is seriously strong, and although the guys running Don Pedro assured me there aren’t bugs, the bites on Josh’s leg said different. Also the campsite bathrooms often don’t provide toilet paper…
- DON’T bring much else: the walk into the park is a killer, and within 10 minutes you’ll be acutely aware of how much you’ve put in your bag. If you can, leave the majority of your stuff at a Santa Marta hostel and just carry the basics: shorts, a few T-shirts, swimming stuff, a sarong, and something long sleeved at night as there can be a bit of a chill.
The plus points of Tayrona Park
Of course, all these details sound rather petulant when you’re re-reminded of your surroundings. Just look at those palm trees! That brooding sky! How can you complain about a few extra dollars a day when you get to chill out on those beaches?
For me, Tayrona was beautiful enough to spend a couple of days exploring. And soaking up the atmosphere that eventually settled about me – spending evenings at crooked wooden tables playing cards, before looking at the time and deciding 9.30 is getting rather late; retiring to a hammock or a tent, wiping dirt from your feet and looking up at the stars through palm tree fronds; waking up to cockerels strutting their stuff, and to a mother turkey clucking at her brood of obedient chicks.
I liked walking twenty minutes from the campsite through the jungle towards the beach, with the occasional monkey overhead and poisonous frogs on the path, our feet covered in a layer of grey dust from dying plants mixed with sand, past braying donkeys and patient horses, through other campsites with outdoor showers and piles of discarded coconut shells.
But I really don’t think that’s what Tayrona’s famous for, and creating that kind of atmosphere is easily done in a vast amount of places. I guess I couldn’t really see quite what made Tayrona as special as it’s supposed to be.
So what’s so wrong with Tayrona?
There’s a lot of hype surrounding Tayrona which isn’t visible when you’re inside the park – except for the prices. An entrance fee, festival-like wristbands, and an attitude from a lot of people working there that screams “this place is worth a lot of money so we can charge whatever we feel like” – when actually they’d probably have a lot more business from the constant stream of backpackers if prices were more reasonable.
Maybe it wasn’t the best weather during our few days there. Maybe I’ve been spoiled with amazing beaches around the world. But lots of other travellers on the coast admitted the same confusion about their time at Tayrona to me – and everyone felt rather guilty saying it. While the park is a beautiful example of Colombian nature, it’s not untouched, it’s definitely not unspoiled, and it’s way overpriced.
In fact, the only thing I could imagine the tourist-paid money going towards was the construction of the wooden walkways dotted along the route from the entrance.
The beaches are nice enough, but a lot of them have deadly rip tides and currents that make it much too dangerous for swimming.
The ability for backpackers to come here and live cheaply, while certainly doable, is barely possible. You’ll be eating cold tins of tuna in the tent you’ve brought with you (though you’ll still have to pay to pitch it), while hoping your 10 litres of water that you carried for an hour in your backpack won’t run out before you want to leave.
Ultimately, Tayrona felt like it was teetering in between two opposing concepts: the mysterious, untouched idea of a Colombian paradise versus the prestige and money that accompanies being part of the tourism boom.
Maybe I visited Tayrona National Park too late in the game. Maybe it’s already changed irrevocably from the lost paradise it used to be. But if that’s the case, travellers and tourist boards alike would do well to change their marketing strategies, and accurately reflect what the park is like now.
Because at the moment, it’s a rather high price for paradise.