Ship wrecked in Tyrona National Park

17 May

If you were fortunate enough to be ship-wrecked on one of National Park Tyrona’s gorgeous beaches, you’d probably hide the flare gun and ignore passing ships offering to carry you back to civilisation, in favour of lingering a little longer to top up your tan. This park certainly ticks all the right boxes for becoming a real life Robinson Crusoe. There’s never been a better excuse to grow your beard long, let the sand exfoliate your bare skin, bathe in crystal clear waters, drink coconut milk and sleep under the stars. So without further ado, turn off the TV, put the newspaper down, hide your mobile phone and prepare to lose yourself in nature’s playground.

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The park lies between Taganga and the Rio Peidras. Covering 15,000 hectares of jungle, beaches and sea and reaching to 900 metres above sea level, the park is the most bio-diverse spot on Colombia’s Caribbean coastline. Set at the foot of the world’s highest coastal mountain range, the park offers scenic hiking, atmospheric pre-Colombian ruins hidden deep in tropical rainforest and stunning beaches strewn with huge grey boulders, backed by palm trees.

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There are several ways to get in and out of the park. The cheapest is to take one of the frequent buses from central Santa Marta ($3 USD) that will drop you at El Zaino (1.25 hours from Santa Marta with pick ups), the main entrance to the park. Pay your admission fee ($18 USD for stays of up to one month) at the booth and take the mini-bus covering the 4km paved road to the start of the walking trails. If you’re feeling fit, it’s possible to make a strenuous but rewarding 3 hour walk from Calabazo into the mountains, through Pueblito and down to Cabo San Juan at the coast. You can also take a boat directly from Taganga to Cabo San Juan de la Guia where you’ll pay the park’s entrance fee directly on the beach. This option is more expensive than the other two (approx $20 USD one way) but if you have the money, it’s a great way to see the coastline and you’ll be on the beach within one hour flat. To see as much as possible, we arrived via El Zaino and walked out of the park via Pueblito.

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Once inside of the park there are several walking trails leading to beaches and inland jungle areas. There are some wooden walkways, stairs and ladders across rocky sections, through mangroves and up to high hilltops for bay views.

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We found it was best to pick one spot to call our base and then once we were set up, we’d make day walks to different areas. The distances you’ll need to carry your gear aren’t huge but it’s advisable to leave your big backpack safely back in Santa Marta or Taganga and take only a small bag.

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95% of the park is privately owned, so unlike other beaches on Colombia’s Caribbean where rustic beach bars serving cheap cocktails have popped up and you can string a hammock for a few dollars at palm thatched shacks, here, it’s all run by a management company, Aviatur, and more rigorously controlled. On the plus side they take some steps to protect the park’s beaches and jungle, however, because they have the monopoly on accommodation and food, and don’t allow vendors into the park, everything is very expensive in comparison to the rest of the country.

There are several good accommodation options within the park. Many people opt for camping to keep costs down. Unfortunately, free camping on the beach is not permitted but there are several established camp grounds with decent facilities.

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Canaveral is an area favoured by the wealthy. The beaches are good and there is an upmarket resort called Ecohabs offering luxury cabanas with televisions, walk in showers and a pool. This comes at a price and at nearly $300 USD a night, it’s well out of reach for the average traveller.

At the other end of the scale, Cabo San Juan de la Guia tends to attract backpackers and groups of young locals. Cabo San Juan is one of the most beautiful areas in the whole park and for this reason it can also be one of the busiest.

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We’d seen publicity photographs but even these airbrushed, high-definition shots failed to do the beaches justice. The sand is golden and the sea, deep aquamarine. Shade is offered by tall palm trees lining the beach and massive, smooth boulders look like they must have arrived from outer space. The sea here is safe for swimming and as you enter the crystal clear water, it’s impossible not be to mesmerised by tiny fragments of fools gold dancing around you. Venture a little way into the jungle around the beaches and groups of curious monkeys can be spotted swinging in the trees.

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The big campsite here is next to the beach but it’s busy and can resemble a music festival with cramped tents and only a couple of flush toilets for one hundred or more people. If you’re feeling romantic, and remember to book in advance, you can sleep in hammocks on top of the mirador. You’re guaranteed to wake up with a million dollar view and the sound of the waves crashing around you.

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There’s a playful vibe and it’s a good spot for solo travellers to meet others. Impromptu games of football or volleyball occur on a grassy patch in front of the camping and the bar area is lively in the evenings.

We stayed in central Arrecifes at Camping Don Pedro and really loved the well maintained grassy setting. It’s 5 minutes back from the beach, along a side track from the main path, but the spacious grounds with fruit and palm trees, plus an excellent restaurant more than made up for its distance from the sea.

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If camping is not your thing, they also offer cabanas with doubles or alternatively you can sling a hammock between trees and sleep under the stars. If you’ve brought food, there are outside cooking facilities and the restaurant serves home cooked Colombian specialities. The vibe was very laid back and following a beer, dinner and a game of cards with new-found friends, we’d often retire early to bed. At night the stars were some of the brightest we’d seen and the jungle came alive with an orchestra of crickets and frogs.

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There are some lovely sandy beaches around Arrecifes. Some are backed by freshwater lagoons and others filled with tiny shells and hermit crabs. It’s a great spot for wide panoramas as the sun goes down. Deep, calm bays in this area are good for swimming and snorkeling. It’s worth taking account of the notices on the park’s beaches letting you know which areas are safe for swimming and which are certainly not. Big waves and strong currents have cost people their lives when they’ve disregarded the advice.

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Don’t miss the circular trail leading from Castilletes. The walk takes you down to a long stretch of deserted beach where rolling waves crash on the shore and boulders scream out to be climbed. The high lookout has great views across the bay and tree tops and the trail follows a jungle route full of huge leaves and interesting looking fungi back to where you started.

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For something a bit different, take the scenic inland path uphill to Pueblito or pass through here on your way in or out of the park. The journey to get here is all part of the fun and will have you sweating as you climb over giant stone slabs and duck under rocky overhangs whilst surrounded by pristine rainforest.

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It’s very likely you’ll be on the only people on this trail and you’ll feel like an intrepid explorer discovering lost civilisations for the first time. There is no need for a guide as there’s basically only one well sign posted path. The markers can be found all over the park and let you know how much of the journey has been completed in percentage terms. In general, beach and coastal walks are easy to moderate with 20-30 minutes between settlements, however, the walk to Pueblito is hard so a good level of fitness is required. The climb takes around 2 hours return and allow 30-40 minutes to explore the site. Remember to wear trainers for this climb as it can be muddy and slippery.

Make sure you stand completely still and quiet at some point to see and watch the rainforest come alive. The are more than 200 species of birds living in the park ranging from hawks to toucans. There are also dusky titi monkeys, red squirrels, collared peccaries and even jaguars. It’s amazing what you might come across but don’t get scared in the jungle if you hear a fearsome roar as we did, it’s most likely to be a small frog causing the commotion!

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Pueblito was once a very important urban centre for the Tyrona’s who lived all over the Sierra Nevada hills and built hundreds of stone structures with thatched roofs and terracing. The dwellings were linked together by impressive stone paths and stairs showing impressive engineering skills.

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The Tyrona’s were the first indigenous people the Spanish met in South America in 1499. The Spanish were quick to claim stores of gold as their own and the following 75 years of intense fighting all but wiped the Tyrona’s out without a trace. Their dwellings were left abandoned and over years they were reclaimed by the jungle. Pueblito isn’t as well-preserved as Cuidad Perdida, but it’s very atmospheric and offers an interesting glimpse into a lost civilisation. There’s something romantic about finding ruins in their original state and covered with plants.

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One house has been rebuilt, complete with a roof, but others are simply fragments of their former glory.

Keep an eye out for the Kogui Indians who live in area near to Pueblito. They have long, dark hair, thick fringes and wear long white robes with short Wellington boots. They often carry distinctive embroidered bags and coloured bead necklaces. They consider the area to be sacred and have a mystical presence. Looking and living like their ancestors would have hundreds of years ago, they provide the cultural component to this extraordinary park that mixes nature and archaeology perfectly.

So if you’re even the smallest bit impressed by pristine Caribbean beaches, unique nature and ancient civilisations hidden deep within beautiful jungle, you should seriously consider steering your ship onto the rocks for the chance to spend a few interrupted nights on shore. We can guarantee, you certainly wont want to leave.

2 Responses to “Ship wrecked in Tyrona National Park”

  1. thetravellush May 17, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

    I’ve heard such great things about Tyrona National Park. I’m hoping to get to Colombia soon, so I will definitely use this post as a reference when I go! Thanks for giving such a detailed breakdown of costs and attractions. It’s super helpful 🙂

    • latinchattin May 18, 2014 at 5:47 am #

      Thanks for your great comment. Tyrona National Park is a very special place and even though it’s tempting to keep it a secret, I crumbled and decided to share its beauty with everyone. Colombia is a great country and has so much to offer, we’d really recommend you visiting. We felt slightly nervous going there but loved every minute.

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