Tayrona Park, Crown Jewel of the North Coast


Tayrona is the best known of Colombia’s protected natural areas, and the second most popular, with over 200,000 visitors annually. Situated 20 miles from the port city of Santa Marta, Tayrona covers 70 square miles total, with a fifth of that in the marine environment. The terrain includes the lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the highest coastal range in the world. The park is a haven for wildlife, featuring over 300 species of birds, 100 different mammals, and 400 types of fresh and salt water fish. Among the critters roaming the park are Howler Monkeys, Pumas, deer, and loads of Iguanas.

                                          A total looker

The park is pretty developed, with lots of private businesses providing accommodations, food, and services, such as horseback riding. On the other hand, it’s not the user friendliest park ever, and is best suited for those that are independent and self reliant. On the contrary, with so many cafes, stores, and campgrounds, it’s not necessary to bring everything with you, but the prices for goods are much higher than outside the park. Another negative aspect of so many conveniences is the large amount of trash that’s left on the trails. There are luxurious eco bungalows available, but the price during high season in January exceeds $200 a night. Camping is also pricier than might be expected, with $15 the nightly rate, and minimal services provided.

                          The coastline at Tayrona is primal

The terrain itself is stunning, with huge round boulders scattered all along the coastline, and the temperature is usually hot and extremely humid. The trails are well marked and easy to follow, and a shop selling something to eat and drink never far away. The ocean is very rough in most places, and several signs warn that upwards of 500 people have drowned here. That is a sobering statistic, but very realistic as the water has lots of rip tides and powerful surges. Even the areas recommended for snorkeling, like the Piscina and San Juan Point, are often too much for many landlubbers. However, the beaches are clean and lovely, though not spacious, and the offshore scuba diving is among the best in Colombia. Tours can be arranged through any number of outfitters in Santa Marta or Taganga, and due to the difficult logistics of getting around the park this is a good option.


For those like myself more DIY oriented, a shuttle can be taken from any number of stops outside the park that will deliver to one of the main entrances, Neguanje, Calabazo, and Canaveral. These three portal stretch from West to East, with Neguanje used the most, owing to its’ proximity to Santa Marta. The entrance fee for foreigners is $21,000 pesos, about US $7, triple the price for Colombians. There are a few trails that lead to featured spots like Playa de Muerto, renowned for it’s crystal clear water, and Cabo de San Juan, which is famous for it’s massive boulders spread through the rain forest. There are several different eco habitations available near Canaveral, on the far east side of the park, and horses can be rented at any of the entrances to provide transportation into the interior. Hiking is not a problem, although the distances covered range from 4 to 10 kilometers, so energy is compulsory.

Tayrona is a bird watchers sanctuary, for those with the required patience, and although the trails cover only small portions of the total area, wildlife can be encountered if the timing is right. I came across 3 Mountain Foxes late in the day, beautiful gray creatures who fled immediately. The park is really tailored to travelers who don’t mind spending plenty to rent one of the luxury eco habs and purchase everything needed there. It can be a great destination for well equipped campers as well, but distances are hefty and therefore stamina is a must. It is a beautiful slice of the Caribbean coast that will be appreciated by outdoor enthusiasts with a sense of adventure.


Minca, mejor que mucho

            One of several small falls above the Pozos Azules

It’s not the kind of place that comes to mind when thinking about Colombia, but this little mountain village gets my vote for best of honors. A slow 17 kilometers up and out of dusty Santa Marta, the route climbs relentlessly through increasingly lush terrain. Coffee farms cover the hills, which are the preamble to the mighty sierra nevada further up, the highest coastal range in the world at almost 4000 meters. This road has lots of semi blind curves where it’s wise to blast the horn if you’ve got one.

      One way bridge above the Rio Minca, Minca, Colombia

After 40 minutes or so a metal bridge over the Minca River is crossed and here sits the town. The center is a cafe/bakery, a bar across the street, and a souvenir shop/mini market, with drivers waiting, ready to take somebody someplace. There are lots of places to stay overnight close by and the only way to find is to seek. I followed one set of signs to isolated hostels that led me past the police station, through a small ghetto, up a long muddy hill and then 40 steps down to the first place, rancho de la luna. This was a rough jewel of sorts, triple level, each unit took up the entire floor. lots of open air, bed and hammock, mosquito nets mandatory. Nothing that impressive except for the view from the patio, but that was world class, $40, no breakfast.

I then followed the goofy signs farther on towards Oscar’s Place, another 1/4 mile or so and though I could finally see it below me, but I thought forget it. To schlep a suitcase this far was absurd. So back down the hill, slick and muddy in flip flops, and up another tributary street looking for another signed place.

I never did find it, but I met a friendly old dude walking his dogs and he recommended the Mirador, back down and then up another hill. I followed his advice, and finally made it to the top of the hill and the place. This was a nice, wooden cafe and bar, with plenty of cush seats. It was on top of the hill and afforded that same killer view down to Santa Marta. Karin showed me the rooms, double with a bunk, fan, screened windows and cable TV. $45 with breakfast….sold. I crawled back down the hill to grab my stuff, unload, and get to the water.

                                  The very chill El Mirador

A short while later I was lounging in the fine flow of Rio Minca, which runs right through the middle of town. Some of the finest pads in the village sit on the banks, which is probably the choicest real estate around. Giant trees hang over the river, full of boulders and still flowing nicely in the december dry season. When it’s rainy it has to be high volume and very impressive. But, truth be told, this was below much of the town and notably the slum barrio where public sanitation systems are but a dream. A couple of blocks up from the rio one of the 2 main roads parallels it past the church, soccer field, and various cafes. One had a chess playing owner of a bakery/resto, a very nice guy who gave me some helpful directions. Another a block down has a friendly, efficient crew, along with a splendid deck over the rio. That’s where I dined, sharing the table and tales with a pair of very tired German girls, who had spent the last 3 days in the jungle camping at Tayrona Park. I had only spent a long day in the park 2 days before and sympathized completely.The food was terrific, the first and only burger of the year, and a couple of Club Colombias finished the spell, high in the hills. The next morning I was bound for Pozo Azul, a much acclaimed local spot that was supposedly 7 k up the main road. I wisely contracted with a motor cycle taxi to haul me up, and then come back in 3 hours, for all of $4000, a little over 2 bucks. Even on the back of a bike, and the kid was an expert driver, the distance seemed farther than 7 k. Finally we popped off the road and descended a slightly sketchy side trail and reached the river.

A wooden bridge spans the craw where the river drops 25 feet, but the good stuff is upriver here, past a couple of supremo waterfalls and ultimate swimming holes, with a big canopy of trees providing shade. The gorge can be followed up far enough to spend one of your best days ever, and the local fellas will be waiting to take you back to town if you worked that out already.

There are several other places worth seeing, including Las Cascadas, a series of waterfalls 25 meters high that is 5 kilometers out of town, with a beautiful natural pool beneath. Further away but still close enough to day trip is La Reserva Natural de San Lorenzo, part of the Parque nacional Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Situated at 3100 meters altitude, it provides a fantastic view of both the coastline stretching from Baranquilla to Parque Tayrona as well as the summit peaks of the Sierra Nevada, which can be snowcapped at any time of the year. The reserve is famed for its’ high concentration of endemic birds. And coffee fanatics will want to visit La Victoria coffee farm, which has been producing terrific organic coffee for over a century.

Minca is worth at least a couple of leisurely days, and a very cool and relaxing break from the heat of the north coast just below. The area is rapidly becoming a center of outdoor activities, with several outfitters offering hiking, mountain biking, and river rafting tours. Shared taxis are cheap from Santa Marta and can be found at the central market. The difference between the two neighboring settlements is dramatic, in temperature, terrain, and especially, vibe. You might think you’re actually in Hawaii or Colorado, but it’s another amazing facet of Colombia, land that I love.

Vital Information:

El Mirador Ecoturistico www.miradordeminca.wordpress.com

Parque Nacional Natural Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta www.parquesnacionales.gov.co/…/parque-nacional-natural-sierra-nevada