If you LOVE secluded beaches with crystal clear water, choose Tayrona Park (or Parque Tayrona in Spanish). Anthony and I are not particularly beach people but Tayrona mesmerised us with its lush palm tree forest and its perfect combination of rocks and empty sandy beaches. Despite the high entrance price, this place is a no-frill site where high-end accommodation doesn’t exist and most overnight visitors camp on or near the beach. In this post, we give you practical travel tips and recommendations on how to go camping in Tayrona Park and how to fit this visit into your budget travel. So you can plan a perfect beach adventure stay!
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It all started here…
We had been travelling in Colombia for a month and still hadn’t made a decision on whether to visit Tayrona Park or not. The sheer price of the entrance fee would sink our budget deep down and the idea of keeping on the so-called “gringo trail” wasn’t exactly appetising either. But after all the hesitation, we decided to go for it.
Why? For two reasons: 1. we will earn back this money soon after we start working again in Europe; and who knows when we’ll have the opportunity to go to Tayrona again, and 2. because everyone, including locals, told us that it’s a paradise, a very special place in South America. We couldn’t miss that!
Why is Tayrona important
So let me tell you one thing straight away: Tayrona is not so full of tourists as we thought. The main wow factor for us was the tropical palm forest we had to hike through, the rustic camping experience and that it was perfectly possible to find beautiful yet empty beaches!
Situated on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, in the north, Tayrona is the most famous natural park in the country. Apart from being a top visitor attraction, it’s a UNESCO protected area and is also home to some of Colombia’s few indigenous groups. They are the ones maintaining the park, so it’s important to show respect to their sacred place.
This park fascinates visitors not only with its spotless beaches but also its abundant fauna: you can easily meet condors, eagles, alligators (yes!) and turtles for example. It’s a closed national park on 15,000 ha and you need an entrance ticket to get in.
Visitors typically are either day-trippers or stay overnight in one of the camping sites. Because there’s just so much to enjoy here, we don’t actually recommend to plan it as a day trip. Stay at least overnight, or even two nights or more!
What to expect there
Here’s what to expect in Tayrona National Park:
- Compared to other destinations in Colombia, Tayrona is an expensive place to visit
- Low-key camping accommodation in tents and hammocks, and a few pricey wooden houses within Tayrona Park
- There’s no stores inside, just little kiosks where you can buy overpriced food, drink, water and beer
- There’s no cash machine inside or at the entrance, it’s not possible to pay with a card so prepare with enough cash
- To get to the beaches you need to hike through lush palm tree forest on a relatively easy trail that is made difficult by the constant heat with high humidity
- There are several beautiful and hardly visited beaches – at some of them it’s forbidden to swim as the currents are too strong (people often disregard this warning at their own risk)
- There are significantly more people during the day when the day-trippers are in the park. Beaches get literally deserted around 4 pm when they leave the park, so it’s absolutely worth to stay at least one night
- The indigenous groups have sacred sites within park limits where visitors are forbidden to go
- The park is closed for a month (usually in January) when it’s being cleaned and to give time to the environment to regenerate.
Tayrona National Park map
Here’s a map of the trail and beaches accessible from El Zaino.
Tayrona National Park accommodation
In the park, don’t expect any flashy accommodation – it’s a natural area where nature is the most important. But I suspect you don’t go to Tayrona for luxury anyway. However, important info: there’s no hostel in Tayrona Park.
It’s possible to book accommodation (camping and basic bungalows) right at the Tayrona park entrance, but that’s more expensive. If you’re ready to stay in a tent or a hammock, there’s really no need to book your accommodation ahead; there will be space.
Another thing to keep in mind: some accommodations offered to visitors at the entrance are actually outside the park. So if you consider arranging your night before entering the park, make sure you ask about the precise location.
Camping in Tayrona National Park
So here comes the interesting part: camping in Tayrona Park.
This is the form of accommodation that most travellers choose. Who wouldn’t want to embrace the jungle with all its colours and noises in a tent or in a hammock? Camping in Tayrona Park can be done either in a tent or in a hammock; both of them can be rented or you can bring your own. Before you ask, wild camping or sleeping on the beach is absolutely prohibited.
It’s important to start the hike early from the park entrance (8-9 am), especially if you arrive without your own tent, as tents and hammocks reservations work on a first come, first served basis. Unfortunately booking a hammock or a tent beforehand is not possible.
Shower and toilet services are rather rustic and cooking may be possible only if you set a fire yourself. The camping place provides a cooking pot.
Camping places in Arrecifes
On our walk into Tayrona Park we passed by a few camping places, all with a similar level of service. Camping Don Pedro and Yuluka are the most famous ones. Don Pedro is the only one that is marked on the map.
Our Couchsurfing host in Santa Marta recommended us to stay in Jacobo B as the cheapest alternative, 15 mins walk from the beaches. We had our tent (that we borrowed from our host) and stayed 2 nights; instead of the official 10,000 COP per night / per person we paid 30,000 COP together. If you plan on staying more than one night, you can discuss the price.
Camping at Cabo San Juan, Tayrona Park’s most famous
Many travellers hear about camping in Cabo San Juan, the most famous in Tayrona Park. As it’s also the most famous beach, the camping place is the most expensive within the park. There are tents and hammocks already set next to each other like sardines in the tin.
For a higher price, you’ll get to sleep right on the beach and will be next to restaurants and other amenities. And alligators. They’re included in the price.
Ecohabs bungalow resort
The most luxurious accommodation in the park is Ecohabs; stylish wooden huts with hay roof where all kinds of hotel services are available, such as WiFi, laundry, pool, even hot tub! It’s basically a bungalow resort 15 minutes walk from Playa Canaveral. It has good ratings, but the price is really not backpacker-friendly.
There are a few basic wooden bungalows in Tayrona in the Arrecifes sector. The number is really limited and is expensive. These can be booked in advance, upon arrival to the entrance.
Beaches of Tayrona National Park
The camping you’ll choose within Tayrona Park will largely be influenced by which beach you want to spend most of your time at; and how much walking you agree with. Now, there are a lot of beaches in the park and I believe that everyone will find their cup of tea.
There are three entrances to the park and we can access different beaches from them. The most popular entrance, the one overnight visitors choose, is in the east, called El Zaino. There’s about an hour hike through the forest on a built-out trail until you reach the first beaches. From here the trail turns into a coastal walk that stretches through numerous amazing beaches.
Palangana entrance can be reached from Taganga by boat. This entrance is more popular with day-trippers. The third entrance at Calabazo leads to the middle of the park passing through Pueblito, the biggest indigenous village inside the park. If you want to take the Calabazo entrance check ahead if it’s possible to visit Pueblito.
The most remarkable beaches in Tayrona are reachable from El Zaino. They are divided into 3 sectors: Canaveral, Arrecifes, Cabo San Juan.
Beaches at Sector Canaveral
It’s the first beach that you reach coming from El Zaino. There is a beach bar serving drinks and more people than on other beaches.
A small, tucked-away beach between Canaveral and Arrecifes. Sometimes it’s not possible to swim here – then it’s marked with a red flag.
Playa la Arenilla
If you are staying at the camping at Arrecifes, this is the first Tayrona Park beach you’ll reach. It’s a relatively calm beach without many people where it’s possible to swim. But the shade is quite far from the water and the sun can be strong in that area.
Playa la Piscina
Don’t mix it up with La Piscinita! Piscina is a popular beach with a long sand area and enough shade. One can swim here. It’s only a 10 min walk after Arenilla.
Sector Cabo San Juan
Playa Cabo San Juan
This is the most famous and most popular beach. We were surprised by the number of amenities built here, on the territory of a natural park. You can find here everything you need, provided you came with enough cash: breakfast, lunch, cooked dinner, snacks, drinks, beer, cocktails, souvenirs, beach towels.
There’s a building on a small peninsula with hammocks and private rooms. In the busy camping, tents are erected very close to each other. Don’t walk at night to the swampy area just at the beach because alligators live there (we saw one!). This is the single most popular beach in Tayrona, the water is literally full of people.
You can also reach Cabo San Juan from the Calabazo entrance after 2 hours of hiking.
The furthest beach on the coastal path. Actually, there are two beaches right after each other, might be both nudist. We don’t really know, as both beaches were quite empty, with only a few people; most of them were in full swimming suit.
Although it’s not possible to swim in any of them, people disregard it. There’s a shade to chill. It’s about 15 minutes walk from Cabo San Juan.
Beaches accessible from Palangana entrance
It’s a large beach in front of a mountain backdrop, providing an idyllic place to swim and sunbathe. However, many visitors continue walking to the more secluded Playa Cristal from here.
Playa Cristal or Playa del Muerto
A popular beach which can be reached from Playa Neguanje on foot. Considered one of the prettiest beaches in Tayrona, it’s definitely not as deserted as others in the park. Visitors can come here by boat too from Taganga.
It’s an often empty beach with white sand and palm trees in the backdrop. It’s great for snorkelling and diving as the marine life and coral reef is excellent. Nearby is the Mirador 7 Olas (“7 waves lookout”); don’t miss that, it offers a splendid view on the sea and the beaches.
Although Bahia Concha is officially part of the Tayrona Park, since June 2019 there’s no need to purchase an entrance ticket (only the obligatory insurance) to access it. This means a long-awaited alternative for budget travellers who’d rather save that money, but surely more people on the beach. You can reach the coast by a hike from the entrance.
Only beach accessible from Calabazo entrance
A really quiet but pretty beach, a fair trek from the Calabazo entrance. It’s also reachable from Cabo San Juan with a 3-hour hike. There’s a restaurant and accommodation in hammocks and bungalows at this beach.
What to bring for camping in Tayrona Park
It’s really hot and humid in the park both day and night, so we didn’t need any warm clothes, only a thin sleeping bag. Most of the things we brought with us were food to cook (see our shopping list below) and water. Other things you’ll need:
- Torch, unless you are ready to go to sleep early, as the sun goes down at 6 pm. If you need one, check out this hands-free headtorch.
- Swimming suit
- Towel – we always bring our travel towel, which is ultra-small and quick-dry, like this colourful large travel towel
- Hiking sandals or boots – my favourite hiking sandals are from Teva
- Toilet paper
- Soap / shampoo
- Rain jacket
- Change of clothes after the beach
Eating in Tayrona Park
Buying food on site
Obviously, the easiest option is to buy food in the park. There are basic restaurants at almost every beach where home-cooked food made of locally sourced ingredients is served at high prices. A small can of beer costs 6000 COP, a 1.5-litre water 5000 COP.
Cooking at Tayrona
If you are counting your cash, the cheapest way is to cook yourself. Of course, there’s no fridge in the camping, so bring food that doesn’t need refrigeration and keeps fresh in a humid environment. This was our shopping list for Tayrona Park for 3 days:
- Bags of pasta
- Tins of carrots and peas
- Packaged cake
- Infinite amount of crackers
- Muesli bars
- Arequipe, the Colombian dulce de leche, a sweet spread for bread (and cake. And crackers.)
- A bag of crisps – although we don’t eat crisps
- As much water as possible or a water filter.
- Matches to make fire
As eco-conscious travellers, we tried to buy goods that are less packaged or avoid plastic as much as we could. But we had to realise that it was just not possible to take all these requirements into account.
It’s possible to get fresh water from the shower. But after some sickness under our belt due to bad water, we didn’t trust non-purified water. For occasions like this, we would have absolutely loved to have a water filter, like this handy LifeStraw bottle!
Eco travels while camping in Tayrona Park
In a protected area, being ecological is even more important than at other places. Here is our best advice:
- Try to produce as little rubbish as possible: waste handling in the park takes more effort than in cities and recycling is not done
- Bring your own reuse cup in case you want a cocktail
- Limit your showers to the minimum to preserve freshwater
- Don’t wander off the marked trail
- Use reef-safe sunscreen
- Be respectful of indigenous people if you happen to meet them; sometimes they work with visitors, for example selling freshly pressed juice
- Respect the sacred places of the indigenous – if it’s closed, don’t attempt to go there
Read more tips for eco travels in Colombia, and anywhere in the world.
What to do in Tayrona Park
Tayrona is such a magical environment, so to be honest what we did most of the time was exploring beaches and hiking the trails. But there are other amazing activities to indulge in too.
If you’d like to explore parts of the park on a horseback, locals offer horse tours. Ask at the entrance or at your accommodation where to book these.
Well-marked and well-preserved trails are tempting you into exploring the park on foot. Keep in mind that you’ll get tired sooner than normal, due to the high humidity. A very nice hike right after the entrance is the Sendero de las 9 piedras (9 stones trail) that leads to 2 lookouts and a completely empty beach where it’s forbidden to swim.
Discover the beaches and splash in the crystal clear and warm water at each of them, while sharing the white sand either with fellow travellers or only with coastal birds. If you are rather a sunbather, consider choosing beaches where swimming is forbidden for some me-time. Another tip for those who want to avoid crowds: go early to the beach, before the day-trippers arrive around 10:30.
Visit the Museum Chayrama
This museum at the trailhead at El Zaino exhibits about the park and the indigenous communities. The entrance is included in your park ticket price. At the time of our visit, it was closed.
Explore further beaches with a boat tour
Are you dying to see beaches where the trail doesn’t lead to? You can check out very secluded beaches and coastal parts on a boat tour organised by locals. Ask for details at the entrance or at your accommodation.
There are guided tours available within the park, where one can learn about the special flora and fauna. If you don’t speak Spanish, make sure you request an English-speaking guide. Ask about this possibility at the entrance.
How to get to Tayrona
The most obvious starting point to Tayrona is Santa Marta, the closest big city to the park. If you are anywhere else in Colombia, head to Santa Marta first.
There are direct bus services from Santa Marta to Tayrona Park which will drop you off at El Zaino entrance. As of June 2019 bus tickets cost 10,000 COP one way.
What time does Tayrona open
Tayrona operates with a strict opening time: 8 am – 5 pm. Outside of these hours, no one can go in or out of the park, so plan your day accordingly.
If you are a camper without your own tent or hammock, you want to take up your sleeping spot as early as possible, so be there between 8 and 9 to start your hour hike from El Zaino. The best spaces book up fast, especially at popular campsites like Cabo San Juan.
When you arrive at El Zaino entrance there’s a half-hour walk to the trail head, that you can drive through with a minivan (3000 COP). However, if you have time (maybe on your way out) we recommend to walk this distance; we saw there the cutest monkeys in Colombia!
Tayrona National Park tickets
Now comes the painful part.
Entrance to the park in 2019 in the high season: 63,000 COP and low season 53,000 COP, payable only in cash. With the ticket, you can stay as many nights as you want. You only need to pay for the accommodation plus an annoying 3500 COP fee for obligatory insurance.
You’re supposed to pay this fee for every single day you’ll spend in the park. But we got the tip to say that we are staying only 1 day in the park, to pay it only once.
It’s not possible to pay the entrance ticket (nor anything inside the park) with a card, so prepare with more cash than you expect to spend. Worst case scenario, you can withdraw money at the entrance with a 10-15% fee.
Tayrona park was my best experience in Colombia, it’s truly a paradise-like natural reserve. However, it has its price to budget in. Many people continue to Palomino, which is another beautiful beach near Santa Marta, or they hop on a bus and drive to further beaches.
For more beach inspiration check out our full guide on Colombia’s best beaches and if you travel onward, read our Colombian backpacking guide.
Would you go camping in Tayrona Park? Did you have a different experience there? Feel free to tell us in the comments!
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