Not such a secret

By Rob Packer

Whenever I go to a really nice beach, I find I’m torn in two directions afterwards: the first is to tell everyone, the second to tell no-one and keep it a secret. In the case of Tayrona National Park, however, Colombia’s national parks authority, SINAP seems to be the same quandary. The park lies just under an hour from Santa Marta and two to three from Barranquilla, and its secret is out: the park is famous across Colombia and is considered one of the must-see attractions of the country. But there’s a twist: with only a couple of roads into the park, most of the better beaches involve around an hour of hiking or horse-riding through the forest.

A life-changing beach experience in Tayrona.

Walking through the forest to get to the beaches of Tayrona.

Ants in Tayrona. We saw some ants carrying huge loads here.

How the food and drink gets into Arrecifes.

Cynthia, a colleague from Kiva visiting Colombia invited me to spend the weekend in Tayrona after my first week in Barranquilla. After a longer-than-promised journey from Barranquilla to Santa Marta and then onwards to Tayrona, we got off the bus and started walking the asphalt road down to Cañaveral, where the comfort comes to an abrupt halt along with the tarmac and the mule track to the mochilero havens begins. After nearly an hour of dodging provision-carrying mules, the first sign at Arrecifes did not go down well: the strong undertow has killed a number of people over the years. Menos mal, the beach at Arrecifes is a windswept desert compared with the beautiful, more sheltered bays along the coast. Putting on the swimsuit and running into the slight-cold, but really just-right water was truly exhilarating.

Arrecifes. No swimming here.

More waves at Arrecifes.

Fishing at Arrecifes.

I loved how this, and lots of other rocks around Tayrona, looked like they'd been cut in half like a piece of cheese.

Cooling off after a hike.

It was memories of this that had us jumping down boulders the next morning, abandoning grandiose plans to walk out of the park overland. We’d climbed up to El Pueblito, a pre-Columbian[1] Tayrona settlement, and suddenly the idea of another three hours of walking through the forest and no beach at the end started to sound ridiculous. The walk down from El Pueblito was a stunning torrent of boulders that just encourages you to run down them. Back at sea level, we ran into a pair of bogotanos Cynthia had met at a raucous evening of bingo the night before—while I was sleeping off four hours of sleep after a night of rumba in Barranquilla, oblivious to the party happening five metres from where I was sleeping. The two guys from Bogotá showed us their favourite beach in the park, unsignposted and a stone’s throw across a palm-tree plantation from the main path. As all four of us tried to balance on a huge rock twenty metres from the shore, the water’s transparency and lack of people made it seem like it was our little secret: so close to the path and yet so remote.

El Pueblito, a pre-Columbian Tayrona settlement in the park.

El Pueblito. This was the breaking point where we decided that a few more hours of hiking with no beach at the end weren't worth it.

El Cabo, one of Tayrona's most famous beaches.

A relatively deserted beach. Crystalline water and no-one else there. Thanks to the bogotanos.

Fried fish with arroz con coco (rice with coconut), another piece of caribeño deliciousness.

And so we headed back towards civilization and mobile-phone reception, with the new-found knowledge that a hike that doesn’t end with a beach is only half a hike.

The view of the sunset in the forest on the walk back to civilization.


[1] I know I’ve ranted before about how to spell Colombia, but if you’re talking about pre-1492 America or Columbus, it’s Columbian. Promise!

Night-time in Tayrona.

Sundown at Tayrona.

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