Arrecifes, Cabo San Juan & Pueblito: A Practical Guide to Tayrona Colombia

Tayrona must be the most famous National Park in Colombia. Its magic has to do with seeing the snowy mountain peaks while swimming in the warm waters of the Caribbean, surrounded by thick jungle.

If the idea of swaying in a hammock and listening to the noise of the selva (yes, the jungle is noisy at night!) at night, waking up to birds chirping and starting your day eating an arepa and jumping right to the waves (because it´s effing hot and humid) sounds like an experience you want to add to your folder of impressive pick up stories (what?! You don´t have one? But you do have a drunk humble brag folder, right?)(these brackets are getting out of my hands, hope nobody noticed), well anyway, if you weren´t interested in getting to Tayrona, you wouldn´t be here, so let´s get to the business right away.

Super-trooper contents:

In this particularly detailed article, I answer the following questions:

  • How to get to Tayrona
  • What to expect in Tayrona
  • Things to do in Tayrona
  • Where to stay in Tayrona
  • Should I bring food and water to Tayrona?
  • How much money will it cost me?
  • Is Tayrona worth the effort?

Now that we have set the right expectations, dear reader, let´s get down to business, listo?

Tayrona Colombia
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How to get to the Tayrona National Park in Colombia

The entrance to Tayrona that you are most likely to use is located near the coastal road connecting Santa Marta to Palomino and further. If you arrived in Santa Marta by bus, you can take a bus to Tayrona directly from the bus station – this will most likely be a fancy one with air condition and filled with tourists. The ticket from the bus station to Tayrona costs about 17.000 COP.

A cheaper option that the locals use is to take a colectivo bus. You will know it goes to Tayrona because of the board behind the front glass where it says Palomino, Tayrona, Taganga and so on. You can catch the colectivo in front of the Exito supermarket, on the big road. There are no formal paradas (bus stops) so you just have to pay attention and wave your hand when the bus is approaching. The colectivo will charge you about 5.000 COP, has no air-con, but provides fresh wind from the open windows, wide opportunities for people watching and a bunch of locals who will gladly tell you when you arrive at Tayrona. And most probably some cheesy latino pop music. Shortly, a ride of your dreams.

The Exito where you can catch the bus is located about 1,5 km from the bus station. If you don´t fancy walking on broken glass in the sunshine, you can catch a mototaxi – simply hail down whichever motorcycle that passes by. Mototaxis are often informal and whoever has a bit of time and wants to make some extra cash can give you a ride. They can take your backpack too; if you have a bulky suitcase, it will be better to take a regular taxi. Actually, if you don´t enjoy an adrenaline rush, maybe avoid the mototaxi. Just sayin´.

If you want to get to Tayrona from the Santa Marta downtown, ask for help at your hostel. They will give you more details on where to catch the colectivo – you will most probably need to get to the intersection.

Hiking in Tayrona
Hiking in Tayrona

What to expect at Tayrona NP?

To have a great experience visiting the Tayrona NP, you need to set your expectations right.

Tayrona is amazingly beautiful, yes. It is also a bit of a trek to get from the entrance of the park to the beach. In the recent years, wooden walkways have been constructed to make the walk easier, nevertheless, it is still a solid 2 – 3 hours hike across the jungle. Think mind-blowing nature (if Colombian jungle doesn´t blow your mind, then I don´t know what will), high humidity, heat, and mosquitoes. Oh, and a couple of locals doing the hike with a lot more ease than your precious hypersweaty self, as usually.

Read more: How to avoid the dengue fever in tropical countries?

The colectivo will leave you near the entrance. You need to walk in, pay the entrance fee (more on that in the budget section of this article) and walk some more. You can whether take the free bus to take you up to where the hike starts, or simply walk. There, you can rent a horse to take you and your backpack to the beach (about 20.000 COP if I remember it right), or take the walking path. Both are enjoyable – the horses take a different way, sometimes between rocks, sometimes muddy and narrow, it´s fun in its own way.

The first settlement you will get to after the walk is called Arrecifes. You will first notice the beach but avoid swimming here because of the currents. There are signs to warn you and you should listen to them – the ocean is wild at this place and will easily drag and drown you if you get to the water. These are not some red-flag-on-the-beach-in-Italy currents. Recife is known for being deadly and I am saying that without wanting to sound too dramatic.

There is accommodation available at Arrecifes and it´s not a bad choice – I will give you more details on this later in this article.

Next spot is Cabo San Juan – that is the beach you see on all the photos from Tayrona. Cabo San Juan is about 20 minutes from Arrecifes and it is safe to swim there. Accommodation is also available, albeit more rudimentary.

colorful hammocks in Cabo San Juan
Colorful hammocks in Cabo San Juan

Things to do in Tayrona

Apart from admiring the nature, swinging in the hammocks and drinking coconut water, you can opt for several other activities.

The beach of Cabo San Juan

Cabo San Juan beach is impossible to miss. It is a perfect spot to swim – thanks to huge underwater rocks circling the bay, the waves are soft and the currents are not dangerous. You can lounge in one of the hammocks available in a small shack on the rock, swim in the warm Caribbean water, or snorkel. Most probably you can also go for a boat trip if you talk to the locals.

Cabo San Juan beach
Welcome to el Cabo!

Hike to Pueblito

Adventurous visitors will enjoy this option. If you don´t mind sweating some more, put on your hiking shoes, apply repellent and set on the journey. The forest trail to Pueblito starts at the bottom of the camping of el Cabo and I strongly advise you to wear closed shoes. While it is possible to hike it in sandals, it is an awful idea. My crazy husband told me it was an easy hike and I went in flip-flops, but really, you should be less stupid and wear shoes with a good grip.

The path consists of big, more or less round stones and rocks (or is that called boulders?) that you half climb, half jump across a lot of the time. It is beautiful and fun to hike and I had a great time there. In low season, I only met two Argentinian hippies with all their belongings on their back and a silent English couple in matching outdoorsy outfits of beige color, with matching caps. (I guess the Korean trend of couples dressing the same way has made it big time, worldwide.)

I also met a small, flashy green snake that scared the shit out of me after all those stories of how hard it is to get an antidote in Colombia if a snake bites you, more so in the middle of the jungle, but the friendly fellow didn´t care about my exposed toes and went on with whatever business a snake like him could have planned. I, on the other hand, went up the rocks with an increased speed and heart beating loudly in my ears.

The rocky path to Pueblito is said to have been built by the Tayrona people who have lived here since prehispanic times. The stones occasionally hit against each other when you step on them and produce a sound that was meant to alert the inhabitants of Pueblito of any upcoming visitors.

Up on the hill, there are ruins of dwellings, temples, and terraces of the ancient village and a few huts built with the original technique to illustrate the old way of life to the tourists. There is also an old Cogui selling coke. (I mean Coca-cola.) Supposedly, this was one of the major settlements in the area back in the day. The original name of the town was Chairama – the current name of Pueblito simply translates as a “little village”.

It is a peaceful, calm spot that looks perfect for camping, however, staying overnight is prohibited; you should trust my judgment on this one and sleep in the camping downhill.

Hiking to Pueblito takes about an hour or two depending on your shape, your obsession with taking photos of everything, and last but not least, your shoes.

There is no entrance fee to Pueblito which is only fair because you´ve already paid a ton of cash for entering the park anyway, right? Si, señora.

From here, you can whether go back the same way or continue straight and simply head down to the coast again. This way is not marked (duh), it´s steep and not rocky and it will take you to a nudist beach. From there you can easily reach el Cabo again.

An ancient temple in Pueblito
An ancient temple in Pueblito

Wildlife in Tayrona

Tayrona flaunts a rich biodiversity that every nature-loving visitor can admire. If you are lucky, you can spot some amazing huge turtles in Tayrona. I have a history of not seeing turtles in turtle beaches so I can´t add my two cents, but my husband says he´s seen a really old giant turtle in Tayrona once.

Hopefully, you won´t see the turtle hunters though – they kill animals for the carapace if they get a chance. However, tourism in Colombia is getting more and more focused on ecology and nature (ecotourism) and there are rules being implemented on the protection of beaches where turtles hatch. Still, it´s a long way to go.

In certain seasons, you can also experience the bioluminescent plankton in Colombia – swimming in the night, you will see glowing, phosphorescent-like waves rolling all around you. This is something I have yet to live, but it is for sure one of the most magical things on this planet. The Caribbean coast is famous for this natural wonder and it can be seen in Tayrona, but elsewhere too.

There are between 50 – 60 endangered species living in Tayrona, but you are not likely to spot them.

beach at Arrecifes
Beach at Arrecifes in the rainy sunset

Where to stay in Tayrona

You have three basic options for accommodation in Tayrona.

Outside of the park

There is a guesthouse or two (probably more by now) by the entrance to the natural park – I heard great reviews from people who have stayed there and if you are a sportsy badass, you can obviously stay here, hike to Cabo San Juan, lounge by the beach and come back in one day. In fact, many locals do that, but they are immune to the heat it seems. Also, I think that once you´ve paid the fat entrance fee, it is worth it to stay in the park for a few days for a full experience.

Inside of the park: Arrecifes and Cabo San Juan

Arrecifes is the fancier option.

They offer bungalows for groups (expensive AF – about 360.000 COP per night if I remember it correctly), but you can also camp (in your own tent) or rent a hammock. Considering that camping and renting the hammock costs about the same (30.000 COP), I went for the latter. Besides, I visited in the rainy season and didn´t feel like getting drowned like a rat in the middle of the night.

The hammock in Arrecifes comes with a nice tall roof so it´s fresh, a mosquito net (that is a must), a locker with a socket to charge your electronics and bathrooms conveniently right behind the lockers. The facilities were nice and clean when I stayed there and there were also some tables and benches available.

Hammocks in Arrecifes
Hammocks in Arrecifes

El Cabo San Juan offers the possibility to camp (also in your own tent) or rent a hammock, but is more humble. It is a bit cheaper as far as I know, but I haven´t stayed there. Most of the restaurants are located near el Cabo too. That brings me to the next step:

Should I bring food and water to Tayrona?

Tl, dr: Absolutely do bring food.

The restaurants available are not great and are all overpriced. Think 20.000 COP for a pasta with tuna whereby the tuna is from a can and is actually missing. (To compare, in most touristy places on the coast, you pay 20.000 for a fresh fish caught the same morning with coconut rice, a fried plantain and maybe even a soup or a drink. A regular lunch in the capital costs between 5.000 – 10.000 pesos.) Clearly, it´s a rip-off.

You can bring as much food into the park as you can carry, but please make sure you don´t litter and dispose of your trash in the available garbage cans. This is a natural park and you should respect that and protect it.

There are no spots to keep your food cool so you should bring stuff that can last. The lockers in Arrecifes are in the shade though so you can store it there. Do mind the ants – finish what you have opened and store food in a closed package. Nobody messes around with the ants in the jungle. You don´t want to have them in your backpack.

There is a guy who walks around in the morning, selling arepas and coffee. That´s your best bet for cheap breakfast. You can collect and eat as many coconuts as you wish if you don´t mind carrying and opening them yourself. (E.g: bring a knife.)

As for the water, I have some good news! The water in Tayrona is drinkable. You can use a water filter if you don´t feel safe enough, but from my experience, the tap water is just fine as it is. You can get it from the bathroom in Arrecifes or where you decide to stay.

Avoid buying pricey water bottles – use less plastic and save your pesos for something better – bring a reusable bottle instead.

It took me about 30 minutes to open this coconut; out of which 29 I was trying and 1 a guy with a machete cut it easily.

When is the best time to visit Tayrona?

In Colombia, it is never too cold or too hot to travel.

The dry season is the most popular time for visitors to the Caribbean coast in Colombia, but you can also visit in the rainy season without much trouble.

The dry season is in the months of December, January, July, and August. The rainiest months are April and October – November.

I have visited the coast for the first time in November and it was my favorite season. There were fewer tourists, the rain was not tragic at all (in fact, it rained for a few hours every evening, roughly between 6 – 8 pm) and it was easier to hang out with the locals. The prices were generally lower too. However, camping is not a good option in the rainy season and some activities are better in the dry months (such as river tubing in Palomino).

Besides, lying in my comfy hammock and listening to the rain hammering on the roof at night is a nice pastime too, don´t you think?

Horses for rent in Tayrona
Horses for rent in Tayrona

How much money will it cost me?

Tayrona has become more tourism-focused and overpriced in the recent years. Prepare to spend a bit more on this experience, especially on the entrance fee.

You can cut down on the expenses by bringing your own food and drinking the tap water, but you will still spend a bulk of money on the accommodation and entrance fee.

Luckily, Colombia is not an expensive country so even “overpriced” isn´t as bad as it sounds here. Take a deep breath, think of the prices in California or Paris (ouch) and say bye to your money.

Tayrona entrance fee

Foreigners are charged 42.000 COP  which is more than Colombians unless they have a residency permit. Foreigners with residency permit and Colombians pay 16.000 COP – if you live in Colombia and have that fancy residency card, don´t forget to bring it with you!

You can find more information on fees, requirements, and tips on natural parks here.

Is Tayrona worth the effort?

Whether or not it is worth to visit the natural park of Tayrona depends on your personal taste and what you like to do. If you love nature, hiking and don´t mind simple accommodation, you will most probably have a great time visiting Tayrona. If hiking and sweating sound like nightmare ingredients, you are likely to feel cheated – unless you bring enough money and rent a horse to avoid the trek.

Read more: How to best enjoy Tayrona by Practical Wanderlust (Hint: They didn´t really like it that much.)

Since almost every traveler to Colombia ends up in Tayrona sooner or later, it is your best bet to choose the time of your visit wisely.

Personally, I think the best is to visit in low season when you can have many of the places for yourself and relax without running into noisy tourists all the time. While I am not likely to go back to Tayrona any soon, I am happy to have seen it and enjoyed the beauty it has to offer.

My last piece of advice – avoid talking about politics and commenting on the violent past of Colombia. There are many retired paramilitaries on the coast and you really don´t want to get in trouble with them.

The most practical Tayrona guide you´ve ever read

Tayrona combines mountains, wildlife, beaches, archaeology, hammocks, and coconuts – I guess that´s why it is so beloved by locals and tourists alike. This guide has walked you through how to get there, what to see, what to bring and what to expect – sincerely, I hope I exhaustingly covered all or most of your questions on visiting Tayrona – I know I am exhausted after writing this for three days for sure! If you are left with more unknowns, feel free to ask in the comments!

forest trail to Pueblito
Forest trail in Tayrona, waiting to be explored

More Colombia content:

If you are planning to visit (or settle in) Colombia, perhaps these articles will be useful for you too:

My elaborate guide to visiting Bogotá as a local (whatever that means, because locals are busy working, right?)

Adventurous & independent guide to Cabo de la Vela (Caribbean coast)

How to get a teaching job in Colombia without paying for agencies and as a non-native speaker

How to avoid the dengue fever and similar tropical diseases

Chasing waterfalls in the Putumayo jungle

Do stick around as I am constantly working on new content!

Learn Spanish online with me

Did you know I also give private Spanish classes online? If you want to prepare before jumping into the Latin world right away, need a couple of refreshing classes or help to trim your CV and motivation letter in Spanish, get in touch! I am happy to help you. Send me an email to girlastray.blog(at)gmail.com or contact me on my social media. (Just don´t DM me on Twitter. I am flooded with automated messages, oh my.)

Have you visited Tayrona? How did you like it? Do you have more tips on how to enjoy it best? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Stray story seeker. Hungry hitchhiker. Wannabe polyglot. Aspiring travel writer. Currently bumming around in Turkey. Follow me on my wonderful <3 social media - click on the orange icons below!

20 Comments

  1. Omg I have to laugh at your coconut story because in the Philippines I decided I wanted to get my own coconut. 4 girls, one super sharp knife, probably about 30 minutes. SO MESSY. But, I did it. haha

  2. I went to Tayrona National Park two years ago but for some reason I didn’t like it that much. Maybe too many tourists and not special enough…? Anyway you did a great description of the place and I hope others will be able to enjoy it too!

    • Yeah, it´s really sad. I hope more safety measures get implemented as Colombia is trying hard to position themselves as an ecology tourism destination…but hard to tell what is for real and what is just to pretend!

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