A day in Tayrona Park: Muddy jungle trek & wild beachfront

Tayrona Park is one of the must do’s in Northern Colombia if you ask me. From Taganga you can take daily boat transfers to Tayrona park. Its about an 35km boat ride (1:15h), but be prepared for choppy waters. Not for everyones stomach ;o). 

I actually preferred the bus option on the way into the park that takes you first to Santa Marta (calle 11/cra. 11, 20-30mins, pretty frequent, 2.5k COP) and then Tayrona park entrance (another 30-40mins, 7k COP). This works out at about half the cost of tourbus operators. The bus driver is meant to let you know where to get off, but best keep an eye out yourself. Once at the park entrance, its a 2h walk first on muddy jungle roads at least this time of the year (Nov/early Dec). My recommendation … just take the shoes off. Doesn’t hurt, looks way less embarrassing than hopping around to keep your new trainers clean and is actually healthy. 

Once you managed to get through the jungle, you will get to enjoy a nice walk on the beach until you get to the swim spot (la piscina) near Cabo St Juan. On the way you’ll find camping grounds, indigenous selling coco nuts and beach restaurants with refreshments and excellent fish (I am saying this as not a big fish eater … lovely stuff).

As I mentioned above, the boat is the best way home from here. Loads are waiting with 4.30pm usually the last departures. Don’t miss it as camp sites are often fully booked in peak season. Better though, in hindsight, get your hands on one of the hammocks in the lodge at Cabo San Juan beach (though pricey, see here for details). 

Magic place!

 

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Taganga: Still a great spot to get away from Santa Marta’s hustle & bustle

I hadn’t actually picked up on Taganga until Uri, my Israeli fellow Spanish student, mentioned to me. Its 10mins by car from Santa Marta, an Israeli hotspot and offers a way better beach than in the centre of Santa Marta and some good value watersports such as diving, kite surfing etc. It also boasts good accomodation including hotels, hostels & airbnbs (many with great seaviews) as well as many restaurants.

The lonely planet verdict is quite a bit more negative on Taganga in that it deems the place, once a quiet fishing village, as overbuilt and overrun. I share some of the criticism in particular that there local economy hasn’t participated enough in the tourist influx, but also like its evening charm.

Everything is just so close and with a good vibe altogether. Significantly less hassle than on the beachfront in central Santa Marta, much fewer street prostitutes (against what I had been told) and with a fair bit of Hippy touch as every second a guy tries to sell you a tribal wristband (I have 4 by now myself despite not buy any there).

Good place to relax for a few days and use as a base for nearby spots Tayrona & even Minca though for that Santa Marta itself cuts out one (bus) stopover. 

A few days in Santa Marta …

Santa Marta doesn’t exactly boast the strongest reputation amongst travel destinations in Colombia. In fact, most people merely use it as a base for trips to the lost city (see here), nearby Tayrona park or the village Minca with its outdoor & coffee tours. However, its not that bad after all and, in a similar fashion to Cali, has its own charm if you just give it a little time and don’t get upset about a lack of a free walking tour. For business minded people, I think there is not free walking tour on offer yet ;o)

I don’t do religion except for Pink Floyd. Stephen (Liverpool)

My first night was indeed just before my own lost city tour. I spent the afternoon in Hostel Masaya on calle 14 & carrera 5 (great place), more precisely in one of its pools on the rooftop. The first stroll through town was a bit of a shock. The city is pretty dirty and, judging by chats in the hostel, is perceived as pretty dangerous (in partiucular calle 10 & lower at night). The beach seemed too much of a hassle to go … alone is tricky in any case if you value your belongings somewhat. Otherwise my stroll was fine.

Surely, once the sun sets and you wander about the malecon / beach front you will get inundated with cocaine & marihuana offerings by street dealers and attract the attention of the many hookers (or putas). The hooker issue has so far been the most pronounced in any of the cities I have seen, chiefly due to its proximity to Venezuela that has sent many women into forced prostitution to make a living for themselves, their children and relatives (see this economist article for a good summary). Many people sound caution with these girls and reports of theft (money, cards, phone) and drugging (scopolamine – cheeky mind control drug) resurface all too often to be just myth. The limited number of police (especially at night whrre threy seem fewer in numbers) doesn’t offer enough protection.

On the other hand, there are several low key restaurants near the seafront with outdoor seating that invite for a cold beer and, as I would find out, some spontaenous salsa action and chatty locals (requires Spanish of course). There is also a few vibrant streets on calle 14 & higher that feel perfectly safe, offer plenty of food options (be nit street or restaurant), street music and good vibes generally. So its really a big mix. Just pick wisely!

Most interesting was the time out with the folks from the hostel. There was a french guy who studies hospitality and has just completed a 6mth placement in Masaya (great Spanish skills), a Venezuelan guy working at Masaya, another french guy married to a Colombian who is working in the Medellin outfit of Masaya and the highly interesting Stephen from Liverpool (Everton fan though to get the record straight … must be excited about the upcoming derby in the FA cup). 

Stephen has moved to Colombia 7 month ago and fallen in love with Santa Marta. As he says, its the kind of place where he fits in. His own history is quite a story. He has overcome long-term addiction (27y of heroin, 22y crack cocaine), 4 kids and by now 9 grandchildren (if I count correctly … and just from his eldest daughter) and years of work to help other addicts. Without going into too much detail here, i really enjoyed the open conversation we had on several occasions, his stories and his views on life. You don’t often find people that live to tell this story (as Stephen reminded, most of his friends that got on heroin in the 70’s are dead). Great guy – good luck with everything!

So whats your story of Santa Marta gonna be?

Rodadero: Nice beach, an acquarium & a lot of amigos …

I didn’t spent too much time in Rodadero though this was partly due to me not being aware of the place before. Too much enjoyment on the Masaya hostel roof top I guess with friends Stephen & co. The beach / town lies between the airport and Santa Marta itself. Its beachfront is dominated by large, mostly white apartment buildings with either sea or ‘mountain’ view. Much of Santa marta is made up of green mountain scenery in fact. Quite idyllic at times. 

The beach strip reminds of the many tourists in town with plenty of western restaurant offering. Unfortunately also a lot of ‘amigos’ – guys that try to sell you mainly tours over here rather than cocaine and/or girls (although I am sure they can help you in many ways if you have the right amount of peso’s). The beach itself is of better quality than Santa Marta, but you are even better off getting a COP12k return ride to playa blanca right next to the aquarium. 

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The latter (COP35k) is worth a visit if you haven’t been at an aquarium before. Outdoors it offers several large pools with 3 smaller dolphins, the three larger (show) dolphins and plenty of other sea life including huge turtles. There is also a small fish museum with more creatures and and a hall with indigenous artefacts on display. Including a 20min show and a walk around you should budget with 90mins in total. the rest depends on how quickly the boat transfer to/from the beachfront takes you.

Having fallen in love a bit with the nightlife charm of Santa Marta, I prefer having out there. But a night or two in Rodadero are still time well spent.

 

Villa de Leyva: Busy colonial beauty

Villa de Lleyva is a small village that is characterised by its magnificent colonial architecture throughout with very little dilution from more modern buildings owing to its national monument status. It’s a retreat for Bogotan’s (about 3h away, direct busses available) and a tourist magnet. The streets were pretty crowded during my visit, exaggerated by the large concert scheduled for that day. In my view, the drive-in (1.5h from Tunja) is as valuable an experience as the village itself. If you have time, take a mountain bike tour to get away from the hustle and bustle take in the stunning surroundings.

The full name of the village is Villa de Nuestra Señora de Santa Maria de Leyva (City of our lady santa maria de Leyva) and was inaugurated in 1572 by Lieutenant Hernan Suarez de Villalobos. Nestled into the picturesque Zaquencipa valley it was declared a national monument already in 1954 – the key to the fantastic preservation of its Colonial architecture today. The price level in town was pretty steep for Colombia with even a spot on the camping ground setting you back about USD10/night from memory (probably due to the festival).

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Traditional breakfast: In Colombia you have many options for breakfast. A common one in the Andean region are soups such as Caldo de Costilla (beef soup with veg – a great cure for hangovers ‘Guayabo’ though not required that day) or Calentado (soup of beans, rice, egg, arepa, chorizo, chicharron). Very tasty even though first glance it admittedly can look a little odd to a European.

Mountain bike tours: There are plenty tour operators about offering guided and unguided trips (bikes for COP10,000/h). Have a look at tripadvisor (Ciclotrip seems a good outfit). Sadly, I didn’t have time having been there just for the day, which I regret a wii bit especially after the great day on the bike I had enjoyed in San Agustin – the mountainous country is just great for bikers.