Paradise in Parque Tayrona

Packing list:

  • One large yellow backpack stocked with six cans of various precooked meats, too many girl clothes, toiletries, and one towel
  • One small red backpack packed with an enviably small and sensible selection of boy clothes and three books
  • 3 liters of water (which would be sweated out in under an hour) and one bottle of coconut flavored rum
  • One plastic grocery bag full of high-sodium and/or high-sugar individually packaged snacks and one roll of toilet paper

(Notably absent from above list:  cutlery, can opener, mosquito repellent, and second towel).

Setting off

We love camping, we said.  Three nights won’t possibly be enough!  We daydreamed about sunsets on the beach, fresh air and stars overhead.  We extolled ourselves for our enlightened appreciation of the simple things in life.

With our usual optimism and an amateur packing list, we set off from our home base of Cartagena for Parque Tayrona, a paradisaical national park in Santa Marta four hours northeast by bus.  We passed through Barranquilla (home of the legendary Carnaval), over the Rio Magdalena, and into the jungle.  Every town we passed was increasingly covered in vegetation.  The mountains slowly emerged, capped with halos of mist that curled down like ribbons into the valleys.

I thought a lot about blood on that bus trip (not for personal reasons), of vicious things that happened in those jungles.  I thought of the Colombia I’d heard of years before: a specter defined by coffee, cocaine, and decapitations.

We arrived at the park entrance at 5:02.  Evidently, amid all our starry-eyed daydreaming, we failed to realize that the park closes at 5:00 PM.  Sharp.

After being rebuffed with a tight-lipped “The park is closed,” our puppy eyes and pleading were somehow pathetic enough to convince a second employee to register our IDs and admit us to the park.  And so, we started our trip with the great luck not to have to search for habitation in the Colombian wilderness after sundown.  Win.

The lucky bearer of the yellow backpack and all my clothes

First night in the jungle

For those who haven’t heard a howler monkey in the wild, the sound registers somewhere between an energetic woodpecker and a choleric dinosaur, depending how close you are.  During our several hour walk to our campsite, we heard howlers*, dodged bats swooping over the trail, and stepped over multi-lane highways of red ants the size of my pinky toes.  The only real mode of transportation within the park is by foot (or by hoof if you choose to pay for a ride on an unenthusiastic horse).  We chose the first option.

The sounds became stranger and the trail more challenging as the sun set.  Just as the last bits of pink light were leaving the sky, we plodded into the campsite on the first of many beaches in the park.  Over the next few days, I would see other backpackers wander into our site as if they’d been lost in the wilderness for days: disheveled, hunched under the weight of their packs, and always slightly confused but glad to have found a place to sleep.  I imagine that’s precisely how we appeared that first night.

We were met in the darkness by a man we’d later come to know as Andres.  Andres– owner of the campground, master of the stink eye.  His face seemed to be crusted over permanently by the salty air, like a weathered pirate.  He moved like rusted iron.  I got the feeling that he wasn’t nearly as old as he looked.

Our first night consisted of tired legs, coconut rum, an eight-foot alligator washing up on shore (alive), laughing with boisterous Colombians until Andres turned off the lights in an effort to shut us up, and falling asleep in hammocks at 4 AM.

Approaching our campsite on our first night.

Paradise and mosquitoes

Over the course of the next few days, my dear travel partner and I came to some uncomfortable conclusions regarding our tolerance for the outdoors.  After being ravaged by mosquitoes (I still look like I have the chicken pox), our romantic visions of taming the jungles of Santa Marta with naught but canned tuna began to fizzle.

But as sleepless as our nights may have been, the days were spectacular.  We hiked for hours from beach to beach, dipping in the water whenever we got too warm.  The waves were turquoise and surprisingly powerful.  The humid and buggy nights were alleviated by a few cold beers and still more boisterous Colombians (and Argentinians and Brazilians).

Coconut on the beach in Arrecifes

Enormous rock formations line the beaches all along the park

Frisbee anyone?

The perfect refreshment for a day on the beach

Sugary and salty snacks for beach-goers

Nice hat rack

Home Sweet Cartagena

After hiking, swimming, and hammocking to our hearts’ content, we left Parque Tayrona with lighter packs and sore quadriceps.  Finding our way back out of the park to a bus stop required walking several hours of trails through humid forests, followed by a cramped taxi ride with two Australians.

By the time we climbed onto the bus in Santa Marta, the combination of my own stench and three days worth of sweaty clothes stewing in my pack was beyond repulsive; it was bordering on toxic.  I avoided making eye-contact with the people around me.  In retrospect, I probably should have apologized.  No one deserves to be stuck next to the stinky hippies on a four-hour bus ride.  Que pena.

And so we returned to Cartagena, surprisingly nostalgic for the home we’d only left a few days earlier.  Tayrona may be a permanent paradise for some (like Andres and the alligators), but I’ll stick with the magic of the walled city and air conditioning units for now.

An average lunch for us Ramen-noodle-budget travelers

Andres’ interior decorating

El Cabo, the most magnificent of the beaches in Parque Tayrona

Heat and sea spray. Photo by J.S.

* I assume they were howler monkeys, but I have no authority to identify wildlife.  The shrieks were terrifying, though.  If anyone who is more educated in the flora and fauna of coastal Colombia knows what that creature might have been, let me know.


  1. Courtney

    Hi! I am getting ready for a backpacking trip in India! I found your sight! I love it! Also, I am in search of a backpack! The one pictured above looks awesome! I can tell it is an osprey but what color and style is it?

    Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Scouting trip to The North (Part 2) – Santa Marta and Tayrona Natural National Park | Uncover Colombia

  3. I haven’t been to Colombia, definitely on my list, but I have to say that quitting everything and just disappearing for a while into Latin America is a beautiful thing! I just started my journey (in the DR)! So I’m excited to see I’m not the only lunatic out there!

  4. This is something I planned on doing a couple of weeks ago, at the end, my plans didn’t come out as I expected, but they ar still on for january; your story made me wanna go there now.

    Great photos and writing!

  5. Great writing and stunning pictures! I ❤ Colombia and would love to go back someday… And yes, howler monkeys can scare the crap out of you, expecially if you're not expecting them to be lurking around!

  6. Yeah Colombia gets such a bad rep but I do want to go there someday (but maybe not a trip through the jungle to sleep on hammocks on the beach… as romantic as it sounds, I am not fond of mosquitoes). My cousin’s boyfriend is from Manizales and he showed me pictures of his hometown–absolutely gorgeous!

    • I hope you do visit some time, Amelie! It’s a beautiful and romantic place. How funny that you mention Manizales, I was just looking at pictures of the city today and thinking how nice it would be to visit. It’s right in the coffee zone (la zona cafetera), where you can find coffee plantations, cloud forests, etc.

      Thanks for reading!

  7. Howler monkey = Actual werewolf!! I stayed in the jungle in south Mexico in a small little hut and hearing that sound at night scared the living s*** out of me!

    I’d actually really like to spend a few days here in the park. 🙂 I camped for three days (two nights) and hated it because I was getting eaten alive by all the horrible jungle insects. I’d like to try it again and attempt to adapt. 🙂

    I love your pictures btw.

    • Haha thank God I didn’t hear them at night when I was trying to sleep, the roosters and mosquitoes and alligators were enough for me to deal with. And yes, I think bugs are possibly the most aggravating part about the outdoors. I’d also like to give it another shot (after buying some 99% DEET repellent). Thanks Ceri!

  8. Gorgeous. I admit, I’m very envious. I’m graduating with my MA next month, and the original plan was to tour South America with my bestie. Then getting pregnant kind of got in the way of that plan! lol. Oh well. I’m embarking on a whole new kind of adventure I guess. Cheers 🙂

    • Thanks Shannon! Double congratulations for finishing up your Masters and for the baby on the way! You’re right, that is a whole new kind of adventure. I wish you all the best, thank you for reading!

  9. dyefeltsool

    Thanks so much for the great trip journal. Like you, Columbia makes me think of decapitations but, it’s amazing how a place can sound so horrible until you get there and realize that it’s only just as bad as everywhere else if you’re part of a drug cartel or have no common sense. Bolivia was just the same when I went, people were scaring my Mum with all sorts of horror stories {I was only 18} but when I got down there it was awesome and no issues whatsoever. Those beaches look incredible by the way!
    If you want, you can check out my giveaway for an Eco Dyed Flat Crepe Silk Scarf that I made. The draw is on August 31.

    • Very true. I’ve had to explain myself to a lot of people this past year (“no Dad, really, people DO take vacations to Russia and survive!”), just like you had to withstand all those horror stories people kept telling you about Bolivia. Obviously bad things can happen, particularly in countries with less than stable governments, and I can’t pretend that I’m invincible as a traveler. But stereotypes that linger from decades long past don’t serve anyone either. In short, I’m glad that you had a great trip to Bolivia with your Mom!

      Also, thanks for the link to the giveaway, I’ll be sure to check it out!

    • Yes, please do go! Colombia is beautiful and so full of magic. I especially adore the coast (and I’m dying to visit the coffee districts in the mountains). Like their tourism slogan says, the only risk is wanting to stay!

    • Thank you Jess! I moved back here to Colombia about a month ago (I lived there for the first part of this year before going to Russia). Not sure exactly how long I’ll be staying, but I’m loving every moment of it while I’m here. Thanks for following!

  10. Beautiful pics. The beaches are amazing, but I find it odd that the rocks have little or no marine life on them. I live in the Pacific Northwest. If those rocks were on a beach up here, they would be covered in barnacles, mussels, anemones and starfish.

    • You know, I thought the same thing. It was very other-worldly. I kept posturing these theories about where these huge rocks came from, but my Colombian companions kept shooting them down. There is some seaweed growing on the underside of the rocks, just where the water meets them, but I think everything that is exposed is baked with such ferocity by the sun that nothing aquatic could survive.

      Thanks for reading!

  11. Jennifer Vidal, an unedited writer

    I am from Cali, Colombia. I have never been to Cartagena or Santa Marta, but I sure hope I can go one day with my family. But I’ve been to San Andres. It is beautiful. I highly recommend it.

    • I hope you can visit some day! I am hopelessly in love with Cartagena (y un Cartagenero). It really is as magical as it is described to be. I haven’t been to San Andres yet, I will have to check it out. Thanks for reading, Jennifer!

    • I agree, budget wanderer. I probably couldn’t live there full time, but a short break from my addiction to technology and air-conditioning was good for my soul. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  12. Pingback: Paradise in Parque Tayrona « My Favorite Spaces

    • Thank you Mikalee. It’s not exactly the freshly-caught fish and pina coladas I wished we were enjoying, but it works just the same. I’d rather eat simply and put the money toward travel anyway. 🙂

  13. itsallgrooovy

    Your pictures look great. I’ve just moved to Cartagena, I’ll definitely be putting this place on my ‘to visit’ list!

  14. Marta Loc


    I hate you
    I love you
    I miss you
    I’m jealous of everything you’re doing. Marta is beautiful…. I mean…I mean.. Santa Marta is beautiful!

    PS Joshua and I were just commenting on how much we love reading your well-written blog. I always feel like I am right there next to you (in spirit I am)!

    Sent me and email!

    • It was definitely a lot of fun. I kept telling myself the same thing, that usually the craziest experiences make for the best stories. This one was pretty tame in the relative scheme of things, to be honest, but still memorable!

  15. What a gorgeous place! I loved your post. I can only imagine the deadly Mosquitos though. I am a mosquito magnet ! Still sounds like a dreamy and romantic trip though! 🙂

  16. Loni Found Herself

    Oooh, I’m so sorry you were attacked by so many jerkwad mosquitos. Those pictures are gorgeous, though, so I suppose it’s a “no pain no gain” situation.

    And, yes, Howlers sound like something straight out of Jurassic Park. I loooove them.

  17. Fabulous beaches – but Paradise always has its serpents : in your case – the mosquitoes! Loved the pics. And you’re right – there’s no subnstitute for indoor plumbing and hot & cold running water. Enjoy!

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