This post was originally written for and published on Colombia Eco Travel.
Tayrona National Park is at the top of almost every visitor to Colombia’s bucket list. The idyllic photos grace the covers of almost every guidebook, and the locals rave about it. It’s also incredibly eco-conscious; the park limits the amount of people let in per day, educates people about the environment before they’re let in, and even bans plastic bags. There’s usually just one catch in all those guidebook descriptions: don’t go during high season – a warning I brushed off in all my travel wisdom.
As an expat with a full-time job in Colombia, my windows for travel are the same as most other Colombians (around Christmas and Easter). It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t going to stop me from exploring my new country whenever I could. So I booked a flight to Santa Marta without looking back and thought I had outsmarted the system by booking a cabana right outside Tayrona National Park months in advance, figuring at the very least I wouldn’t stay there during high season. I still don’t know what the best decision would have been, but here is how mine turned out.
My hostel advised I wake up early and get in line as soon as possible; being in vacation mode, I interpreted this to mean 8 AM. This was supposed to mean 6 AM. By the time I arrived, the line was stretched out down the highway by at least a couple of kilometers. Semi-trucks drove past us (dangerously close, but you couldn’t help but be glad for the manmade breeze), and the drivers were taking photos of the line with their cell phones. Because external tourism is increasing exponentially in Colombia, Tayrona set new records in 2015. I waited on the asphalt in blistering heat for 4 hours. My not-so-brilliant plan to visit the park as a day trip (also frowned upon in guidebooks) was going to mean entering the park, hiking the two hours to the beach, looking at it, and promptly turning around. But there were rumors that they were selling tickets for tomorrow, and this would allow me to enter the park promptly upon opening the next day - totally redeeming the day trip plan. So I wiped the sweat away from my brow and hoped for the best.
When I finally arrived at the ticket booth, I was told they couldn’t sell tickets for tomorrow until all the tickets for today were sold. So I waited for another hour. When it was finally in my hands, it felt as precious as the golden ticket in Charlie Brown and the Chocolate Factory. I then noticed some people who had just shown up managed to get tickets for the next day without waiting in line for five hours. My happy-go-lucky travel attitude waned when I realized this, but I did my best to brush it off; there was no going back now.
The next morning, I arrived again at 8 AM and was ushered right in like a VIP. But even so, I was still stuck on the trail behind families weighed down with a week’s worth of camping gear. I maneuvered around as much as I dared but ultimately still spent a lot of time waiting as slower hikers took their time. I arrived at Cabo San Juan (the main hub of the Park) and figured I better grab some lunch for spending the next few hours exploring. After waiting for food in the restaurant for over an hour, (why didn’t I bring food again?), I set off to finally find those perfect beaches.
Unfortunately, the only two beaches that were safe for swimming were completely crowded; you couldn’t even swim at the nudist beach due to the strong current, so not even skinny-dipping could get you away from the masses. My boyfriend spent some time at Cabo San Juan snorkeling, but every few minutes, you could hear an obnoxious whistle reminding people not to get too close to the rocks. It wasn’t exactly relaxing, but it was undeniably beautiful, and there was some great people watching. Our time in the Park passed quickly, and finally it was time to head out before it got dark. I hoped to see some wildlife on the walk out, but I wasn’t so lucky; it was probably too hustling and bustling of a week for any of the monkeys or sloths to venture too close to the path.
The next day, I regretted almost every decision I made regarding my visit to Tayrona*. I wished I hadn’t gone in high season; I wished I hadn’t waited in line the day before for 5 hours, and I wished I had packed a lunch. So there you have it – a complete guide on how NOT to visit Tayrona National Park.
*A friend visited Tayrona right before and on Christmas and had a totally different experience than me. When you go can make all the difference; plan accordingly.