Let’s start at the end, shall we? It was the farewell dinner of my Explore Colombia trip. We sat (moping a little, but also planning a reunion tour in Georgia) in a swanky restaurant in Bogota. And we went round in a circle, explaining to the rest of the travellers what our trip highlight was.
And amusingly enough, we somehow all settled on the same one: Tayrona National Park.
In a bid not to appear like we were copying from each other, every person gave a different reason why it was their favourite experience. But it all comes down to the fact that Tayrona National Park is one special, special place. I doubt that neither words nor photos will do it justice, but let me try and explain its magic…
We arrived at the park outskirts from the picture-perfect port city of Cartagena. Dishevelled after several hours on the bus, the air was hot and muggy, the increased humidity immediately apparent. And still in the first half of the 10-day trip, the conversation was stilted and small talk-heavy. How much water would we need for the journey ahead? How many layers? And why is bug spray never as effective as you hope it will be?
Carolina, our local leader, answered all our questions and reassured us that everyone on the trip – from 20-somethings to 60-somethings – would cope just fine with the hike. She neglected to inform us, however, that we were about to see some of the country’s most jaw-dropping scenery. And that we were about to embark on one unforgettable adventure.
As we started out on a sort of woodland trail that gradually became more tropical-looking and palm tree-filled, we realised it wasn’t all about the visuals. The journey through Tayrona is about the sounds. If you wander quietly, you’ll find they’re all around you: chirping, buzzing, hissing and more. The jungle is alive, and it’s full of surprises.
The journey through Tayrona is also about the sensations. Hiking here can require navigating muddy puddles so large it’s sometimes easiest to abandon shoes altogether. And in doing so, I promise you, you’ll feel the freest you’ve felt for quite some time. Mud squelching beneath your feet, child-like in your joy, at one with nature…it’s a great way to get around.
The walk itself allows little time to get bored. Getting from the park entrance to La Piscina (the first swimmable beach you’ll come across) takes an hour or two, depending on your pace. Straight at times and steep at others, it’s both pleasant and punctuated with other people walking it (it seems only friendly tourists venture to Tayrona; you can nearly guarantee every person you come across will greet you with a smile and a “hola”).
For our Intrepid group, the only thing more exciting than the first time spotting the sea (you hear it before you see it) was a monkey sighting! (Well, in all fairness, it may not have been a sighting had it not been for Carolina. She was the one who shushed us and pointed out the adorable cotton-top tamarin swinging from the branches above.) We all stood in silent awe, captivated enough to forget cameras and focus on the present.
We passed the odd stray cat and a wide array of colourful butterflies too, but once the beaches properly come into view the wildlife became almost an afterthought. Beaches in Tayrona aren’t manicured, they’re rugged; they’re not calm, they’re wild. And though that means many aren’t safe to swim in, their roar and their picturesque nature more than suffice.
You see, it’s not just about the blue of the water or the white of the sand, it’s how the lush, green, jungle-clad mountains greet the beaches. It’s the rewarding feeling of knowing you had to work, had to sweat, to reach this beautiful place. And it’s the knowledge that not many travellers make it to Colombia, let alone a gem as stunning as Tayrona.
For arguably the most iconic stretch of sand, it’s worth extending the initial hike a little longer – a half hour or a little more from La Piscina. Because you don’t want to explore Tayrona without seeing Cabo San Juan. This beach is the one that comes up when you Google the park. It’s the one they put on postcards, the one that’s actually two beaches separated by a thin stretch of sand, a destination where you can swim or laze in hammocks or just amble round and take more photos than you know what to do with.
A few of my group members and I spent a blissful few hours at Cabo San Juan. We washed off mud from the hike in the refreshing water. We squealed as the powerful waves tossed us around. We lay in the hot sun, happy and talkative. Having helped each other on the hike, having held hands and joked around, we found ourselves to be close and at ease now, no longer reliant on small talk, no longer cautious, no longer strangers.
After all, we’d made it to paradise. And the only thing left to do was enjoy it as much as humanely possible.
Colombia is calling your name. Explore its beauty and beaches on an Intrepid Travel small group tour.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Rebecca Shapiro, iStock/javarman3, Rebecca Shapiro, Rebecca Shapiro, iStock/Rodrigo A. Rodriguez Fuentes.)