When the time came to leave Medellín, my first stop was Santa Marta, the closest city to Parque Nacional Tayrona. The park is renowned for its remote, pristine beaches, and I thought it would be a great place to relax and disconnect for a few days.
When I had this thought, I must have blacked out or gone temporarily insane, because this was silly mistake number 1: completely failing to account for the fact that I don’t much like sand, water, or direct sunlight. I have never been able to tolerate more than half a day at the beach, especially if it’s hot, but for some unfathomable reason I decided to schedule three whole days at a tropical beach. So much for knowing thyself. Once I was on the ground in the park, this mistake became apparent very quickly.
At about 8 am, I took the bus from the center of Santa Marta to the park entrance, and after watching a video about the ecology of the park and paying the entrance fee, a minibus took me to the furthest point in the park where vehicles are allowed. I then proceeded to hike about two hours through the forest and waterfront to Cabo San Juan del Guía, the only beach that permits both camping and swimming. I met a friendly Italian woman on the trail who had about the same pace as me and also spoke Spanish, so I had some company along the way.
On the trail, I admitted to silly mistake number 2: bringing all my stuff with me. I had planned to go straight from Tayrona to Cartagena without spending another night in Santa Marta, so I opted not to leave my large backpack, containing all my clothes for my entire 10-week stay in South America and weighing in at about 25 pounds, at the hostel. This was a poor choice. Returning to the hostel after the park would have been worth it in order to have less weight on my back during the hike and less stuff to keep track of at the beach. Two hours each way with the large backpack was doable for me, but my shoulders were pretty sore by the end.
I spent the afternoon alternating between chilling on the beach, wandering the trails, and trying to write. The beach was incredibly beautiful, with some shade from the palm trees and clear water at just the right temperature, cool enough to be a relief from the heat but not cold. Cabo San Juan has two small coves side by side where swimming is allowed, and a little further down the trail are two larger coves where the sand is more steeply inclined and the undertow is much stronger, so swimming is not permitted. I actually preferred these beaches because they were less crowded, and I’m not big on swimming anyway. With plenty of sunscreen and bug spray, I managed to protect myself from burns and bites.
Here comes silly mistake number 3: thinking that the beach is a good place to write. After a busy few weeks in Medellín, I arrived in Tayrona with a serious backlog of blog posts and journal entries that I was hoping to tackle while I was sitting on the beach with nothing else to do. But between the sweat, sunscreen, bug spray, sand, water, and lack of a table and chair, it was just too messy for me to write for any significant length of time. This was the main reason I ended up staying for just one night instead of three.
I was hoping to spend the night in a hammock up on the rocks above the beach because the air is cooler, there are fewer mosquitos, and it’s quieter because it’s further from the restaurant and the main camping area. But when reservations opened up in the afternoon, I was told that there were none available for that night, so I settled for a hammock on the ground by the beach. I suspect that the man making the reservations wasn’t being honest though, because later that day I met two different groups of Colombians who had been behind me in the reservations line but had gotten hammocks on the rocks. I’d had the misfortune of standing in line near a bunch of self-important tourists who only spoke English, so I’m sure I got the “foreigner” treatment along with them. It ended up being a hot and uncomfortable night because I had to wear pants, long sleeves, and socks to keep myself from getting eaten alive by mosquitos, and there was hardly a breeze to be found.
Overall, Parque Tayrona is great if you love chilling on the beach and don’t mind getting pretty rugged. Because the place is so remote and the waves are small, there isn’t much in the way of water or sand sports — people come here to enjoy the natural beauty of the environment. Most visitors just stay for the day, which is fairly easy to do from Santa Marta and is probably the best option for people who aren’t beach-obsessed or don’t want to rough it for the night. The advantages of staying overnight are that you have more time to hike all the trails and explore all the beaches, you can see the stars super clearly at night, and you can appreciate the beaches when they are less crowded with day visitors, in the early morning and late afternoon.
But for me, with the heat and bugs and inability to write, 24 hours was all I could handle. I set out early the next morning, stopping for long breaks on different beaches along the way back to the park entrance. On the way out of the park I met an Argentinian couple who also wanted to go straight to Cartagena, so once again I had some company for the next leg of my journey.