I’m writing this from inside an open air hut. To my left, Lia is swaying on a hammock. Past her is a pool, complete with waterfall and slide. In front of me is our beautiful cabana nestled in foliage and trees. Around us we hear various birds, water trickling or splashing, and some mysterious animals we haven’t actually been able to see. Surrounding us are stone walkways, huts, scuttling lizards, and so many shades of vibrant greens and earthy browns, it’s hard to believe this is anywhere near a city. But we’re only about an hour outside of Santa Marta, Colombia, a bustling city that we passed right through on our way to paradisaical Eco Hostel Yuluka, just outside the entrance to Colombia’s famous Parque Tayrona. Little did we know that we’d end up liking our hostel more than the tropical, remote beaches of Parque Tayrona…
How to Get from Cartagena to Parque Tayrona
Getting here from Cartagena was a bit of a challenge. As I’ve mentioned in posts before, Lia plans, I execute. It usually works well, but I realized some of the information she had researched was a bit outdated and we needed to improvise. Not a problem. Navigation is something I’m pretty good at. I didn’t want to be rushed, and we wanted to enjoy the hearty included breakfast, so we planned to wake up bright and early at 6:30am and pack up.
We rolled out of bed around 8:40am and barely made it to breakfast. I asked our hostel owner how to get to Parque Tayrona from Cartagena. He responded in English using his usual cadence of normal speed followed by super speed. “Oh man. To get there itistoofuckingeasy.” Apparently, his definition of too fucking easy is different than mine. As he casually explained about 7 different options, all of which went over my head, I latched onto the easiest one. But it would take cash. No problem. I googled where the closest ATM was: right around the corner. Getting cash would be toofuckingeasy.
Google lied. A security guard told me (I think, my Spanish still isn’t very good) that I would need to walk through the mall, then through a plaza, then I’ll find Banco de Bogota. Mind you, Cartagena is hot. Really hot. Air Conditioning is an expensive luxury in Colombia, so the mall was sweltering. I crossed the plaza, feeling the sweat pour down my back. I reached the bank, grabbed the cash, hid it (safety first!), and walked back. When I returned, my loving wife kept her distance because I looked like a soaking wet ginger mop.
At around noon, we had finally packed up, paid for our room, and said goodbye. We hailed a taxi right outside the hostel and told the driver to go to the Berlinas Terminal in Marbella. Berlinas is a big minibus company. We grabbed two tickets for Santa Marta for 80.000 COP (roughly $27).
After 30 minutes of stewing in my own sweat and talking to a guy backpacking from England, I was met with the sweet sweet embrace of A/C. The 3 hour bus ride was not terribly relaxing though, since drivers in Colombia seem to treat double yellow lines and other road rules as suggestions or challenges.
How to Get from Santa Marta to Parque Tayrona
At this point I knew we needed to get a bus at some place called Mercado Publico destined for Palomino, a sun-soaked beach town that is located past Parque Tayrona. Where or what Mercado Publico is, I wasn’t sure, but a friendly armed police officer took pity on our broken Spanish and pointed us in the right direction.
I should mention that absolutely everyone we’ve encountered in Colombia thus far has been patient, kind, and helpful. Every time we got lost (which was many times), we asked someone else for help, and were pointed in the right direction. This entire country is filled with friendly and helpful people!
We sat ourselves right next to the driver, in prime A/C range. Unfortunately, the driver couldn’t understand us. It was fine because we also couldn’t understand him. Due to that oversight, 4 hours later we wound up dropped off somewhere in Santa Marta. He called it Centro. I called it lost.
After 20-30 minutes of wandering through crowded market streets and smelly alleys, weighed down by our packs and drenched in sweat (or, if you want to be optimistic, adventuring! exploring a new and totally unfamiliar place!), we finally reached Carrera 13 y Calle 11, where we were escorted into a bus. I have no idea why the bus had chosen this particular intersection to be located, as it wasn’t a bus stop in the usual sense of the word. But wherever it was, it was the right bus (we could tell by the guy we followed that kept yelling “Palomino! Vamanos!”) and we boarded it. Later we would find out that this is how the Colombian bus system works: without rhyme or reason, and yet, it’ll take you anywhere you need to go.
This bus took us a little north of an hour and costs us both only 14.000 COP (about $2.33 each), which was perfect for our budget and worth the trek to find it.
That said, you get what you pay for. I had re-drenched myself in sweat after walking 15 blocks, and of course, the bus had no A/C. I could feel myself slowly melding to the plastic seat in a horrifyingly sticky way.
Thankfully, Colombian buses do drive with all the windows and doors open, so when we eventually got on the highway I was granted a brief reprieve. I had to resist the urge to stick my head out the window like a dog.
Someone had told us to drop our bags by the door, which made us nervous, and street vendors and people asking for change would hop on and off, which made us more nervous. I was tasked with keeping an eye on the bags, and alternated between that and watching Colombian music videos (which are THE BEST EVER, all of them include the word “corazon” 50 million times and frankly buses are worth the misery just so you can enjoy watching old men wearing traditional hats singing romantic cumbia in ridiculous videos that are probably less ridiculous if you’re fluent in Spanish, which we aren’t).
The bus dropped us off with no stolen belongings at km 28, as we had requested (official bus stops apparently don’t exist in Colombia).
After 6 long hours of travel, we finally found Eco Hostel Yuluka.
Eco Hostel Yuluka: Paradise, TBH
Upon first walking into the walls surrounding the hostel, our jaws dropped. This place is amazing. It looks like paradise. From the thatched roofs to the waterfall running into the pool and the stone walkways leading through the jungle to even more gorgeous cabanas, we were in heaven immediately. THIS was costing us $12 a night?!! Colombia, you beautiful, wonderful country, you’ve outdone yourself again.
Checking into our 8-person dorm, we spent some time chatting with our dorm mates – the typical “where are you from? How long have you been travelling?” hostel chatter that, if you spend some time backpacking, you’ll come to know well. The thatched hut cabana dorm room is air conditioned, but is slightly open to the elements – so as we chatted, we furiously applied bug spray. Thankfully, Parque Tayrona is not malaria territory.
As we explored our new home for the next few days, we fell more and more in love. Eco Yuluka has a kitchen, laundry services, mango trees galore,and tons of wildlife to see – such as these crazy lizards that run on their hind legs like tiny velociraptors. There are included towels and a free breakfast. There are both hot and cold showers – though it’s blissfully not sweltering hot here, as we’d climbed up into some cloud forest-covered mountains, so a hot shower was actually welcome. Honestly, I wish I was being paid to say this, but I’m not – we just loved this place like crazy!
Eco Hostel Yuluka has a restaurant on site, and we soon found out that the food is fantastic and affordable. We had a filling dinner of bandeja paisa, a traditional Colombian “Countryman’s Platter”consisting of rice, beans, ground beef, chorizo, fried egg, sweet plantain, and cassava bread. Along with our meal we sipped fresh jugos naturales, which is like a milkshake made with the fruit of your choice – our favorite is maracuya, a kind of sweet passion fruit. Our dinner cost just 18.000 COP ($6) and the juice about 4.000 COP (roughly $1.50) – perfect for our budget. The complimentary (FREE, you guys) breakfast was also delicious, and generous: 2 fried eggs, a sweet pancake with honey, fresh watermelon, and another jugo naturales made of tomato de arbol, which is sort of like a sweeter cranberry.
Did I mention Eco Hostel Yuluka cost us $12 a night each? Y’all, do yourself a favor and book a night or 3.
We loved Eco Hostel Yuluka so much, we decided to give up a night in Parque Tayrona for another one here. Lia and I spent the day swimming, reading, and working on the blog. We needed a day of rest after yesterday’s stress.
Tropical Parque Tayrona, Colombia! Photo credit: “Cabo San Juan del Guia” (CC BY 2.0) by william.neuheisel
Parque Tayrona, Colombia
After relaxing and rejuvinating, it was time for the real reason we’d wandered all the way out to this otherwise random spot on a random road: Parque Tayrona. Colombia’s most famous park gets rave reviews, and we were eager to experience it for ourselves.
Eco Hostel Yuluka is only a couple of miles away from the park entrance, and provides a free shuttle, plus bag storage during your trip. Our plan was to camp overnight in Parque Tayrona, head back to pick up our backpacks, and then trek back to Santa Marta.
Of course, that’s not how things panned out.
Blissfully unaware of the misery in our near future, we packed most of our belongings up in our backpacks, bringing a change of clothes, our food, and plenty of water in our daybags. We said tearful goodbyes to Eco Hostel Yuluka and it’s shimmering waterfall pool and free breakfast (we miss it still) and boarded the shuttle for Parque Tayrona.
There is a clear entrance to Parque Tayrona: there’s a booth and a long line of people. It’s quite obvious that this is where the entrance is. But pretty much everything after that is a guessing game. We weren’t sure why we were standing in line, or what we needed to do to get into the park (pay a steep fee and show our passports, it turns out). After this first line and paying our way, we were then herded along with a crowd to a little corral to watch an educational video – in rapid Spanish. I didn’t understand a word of it.
Fully educated, we were now released. Um, what now?
Turns out that the “Park Entrance” is just that: an entrance. The actual park is much further away. You have a few options: pay for a van to take you the mile or so further into the park so you can start hiking, or walk … to the hike. Ugh. We paid for the van, grumbling about how quickly the cost of a day in Parque Tayrona was adding up.
A short van ride later, we reached another quandary: hike, or hire a horse? Checking our remaining stores of cash, we were horrified to realize that we hadn’t brought enough … at all. Once we’d paid the steep entrance fee and the van fee, we had just enough cash to cover the campsite fee … not to mention the ride back home. Shit. We’d have to figure that out later. In the meantime, we had no option. We had to hike.
Hiking into Parque Tayrona
The hike started out innocently enough. There’s a well-maintained boardwalk, so that much of the walk is flat. You wound through dense jungle, appreciating the view but becoming progressively more irritated by the crowd – this is not an isolated hike, as my photo might have you believe. There are hoardes of people, heading both ways on the path. So for every moment you find yourself breathing deeply and appreciating life and all of it’s beauty, the next moment is spent awkwardly shuffling to one side so that a family of 6 and their 12 beach chairs and umbrellas can push past.
We took the crowds, in their various levels of beach casual dress, to be a good sign. There’s no way the hike, which we’d heard can take anything from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, could be terribly difficult if entire families were hiking to and from it carrying coolers and chairs, wearing nothing but wet bathing suits and flip flops. Right? I mean, that’s what you wear to walk to from the car to the beach in the USA. Not to hike for an hour through the jungle.
I don’t know what the Colombian beach-goers are made of, but it’s tougher stuff than the folks in Florida. After about half an hour of meandering boardwalk, the hike got tough. We’re regular hikers back home in California, but we were missing one crucial element in our training: heat.
The jungle was stiflingly hot. It was like hiking through a sauna. We were soaked through and sticky with sweat. Each of us were guzzling water from our 100-ounce CamelBak like crazy people. While Colombians trotted past us with ease, we lumbered slowly up the progressively steeper hills, gasping for breath. We got a lot of pitying looks: it was like watching a chain smoker trying to complete a marathon. We were literal hot messes.
Eventually, the forested hills gave way to sandy coastal scenery. We gulped the sea breeze in thankfully, taking long pauses to stop and appreciate the view. The frothy sea led to green rolling hills, backed by – oh shit, are those thunder clouds?
Of course, the day we chose to come to Parque Tayrona and relax on the beach there would be a thunderstorm. With our luck, could we possibly expect anything different?
Still, we’d gotten this far. As we climbed down into the coastal brush, the dirt underfoot turned to sand. But not like, the packed solid sand you get on some hikes near San Francisco. This was the kind of sand you get on the beach. Like, the kind that’s difficult to walk in and makes you feel like you’re trudging through a desert to your death. That kind of sand.
As our calves screamed in pain, we slowly lumbered towards the beach, expecting each turn to be our final destination. Little did we know, we still had another hour to go.
2 hours after we started hiking, we finally arrived at the first of Parque Tayrona’s 3 beaches: Arrecifes. But other than a few shabby, smelly horses and dirty campsites, there wasn’t much there. So we trudged 20 more minutes to the second beach: La Piscina.
At this point, all we wanted to do was wash our sticky, sweaty bodies off in some cool ocean water. And so, although we had intended to visit the 3rd and most popular beach, El Cabo, we decided to skip the additional 20 minute hike. Gratefully, we tossed our bags and dived into the welcoming waters of the Caribbean.
The water was warm and wonderful, and so welcome after our hike. But as we swam, it began to drizzle. Worried about our stuff, we hopped out and took shelter under a nearby tree. It was at this point that we weighed our options: we had no money to stay overnight, it was raining, and frankly, we were dreading the long hike back. After maybe an hour in beautiful Parque Tayrona, we decided to leave.
We turned around and hiked back in under 3 hours, lugging our bags. About halfway through the hike, we ran out of water: 100oz wasn’t enough for both of us, it turns out. Thankfully, there was a vendor selling water at the insanely steep price of 5,000COP a bottle – there went half of the cash that we had left.
As we grumbled our way through the hike, we passed by some indigenous Tayrona Indians climbing trees to retrieve coconuts. These kids were scaling the trees like Spiderman: just jumping up them, on all 4’s, like it was nothing. They had a little station set up where they were selling the fresh coconuts, cut open, to drink. I’m sure it would have been a delicious and welcome treat, if only we could afford it. Still, it was awesome to see the natives who still inhabit these protected lands, and have for centuries. We would encounter the Tayrona Indians again later, in nearby Minca – and you can learn all about them on the Lost City hike aka La Ciudad Perdida, where you’ll discover their abandoned kingdom: the Machu Picchu of Colombia.
By the end of our hike, we were broke, tired, and grumpy. We hopped into the first collectivo we found, who took us both to Eco Hostel Yuluka to get our bags, and then to the nearest ATM – in Santa Marta. Instead of spending the night swaying in a hammock in Parque Tayrona, or at least back in our little Eco Hostel Yuluka paradise, we were stuck in Santa Marta for a night, where we had to scramble to find a hostel in an unfamiliar city at the last minute. Not ideal.
But, of course, we managed: this was our first taste of Travel Magic. Things just magically work themselves out. We may have been uncomfortable and unprepared, but we were fine in the end! After finally locating a hostel – using another hostel’s Wifi – we ended the night by downing a giant Colombian pizza (topped with fruit and meat, and washed down with a bubbly, cheap Aguila beer) and slept comfortably. The next day we were off to explore Minca!
Even on a cloudy day, Parque Tayrona is gorgeous. Photo credit: “Cabo San Juan del Guia” (CC BY 2.0) by william.neuheisel
Tips for Visiting Parque Tayrona
Although we didn’t really enjoy our (short) time in Parque Tayrona, I can’t really say that we got the full Parque Tayrona experience. We ran out of cash and couldn’t afford any of the amenities in the park, like the horseback rides, restaurants, hammocks, or campsites. I think we just didn’t budget for how expensive it was. Don’t make the same mistakes as we did. Here’s what you need to bring to Parque Tayrona.
What to Bring to Parque Tayrona
- A LOT of water. 100oz per person of purified drinking water, minimum.
- Sunscreen: even when it’s rainy or cloudy, you can still get burnt, particularly if you’re swimming!
- A comfortable backpack: one that you can carry for 2 or more hours without hating yourself. We brought a shitty duffel bag and an even shittier daybag, and our backs/arms/shoulders were aching during the entire hike.
- Snacks: the food in the park is INCREDIBLY overpriced, so bring as much as you can to help mitigate that cost.
- Bug Spray: 100% deet, minimum. We got bit up like crazy. Don’t worry, this is a malaria-free zone. But it’s not a mosquito-free zone.
- Clothes to Hike in: including shoes to hike in! I have no idea how everyone else was making do with shitty cheap flip-flops and jeans. But this was a HIKE, not a stroll, so be prepared!
- Plenty of cash: Expect to pay probably $75 for an overnight in Parque Tayrona. We brought like 100,000 COP total and ran out almost immediately. The entrance alone is 42,000COP each for foreigners. Then there’s the van (3,000COP), the horses (17,000COP), a campsite (25,000COP at El Cabo, the most popular spot), a meal (20,000COP) and so on. I’d recommend a minimum of 250,000COP … per person. And that doesn’t even take into account the cost to get back – our collectivo was something like 20,000 COP each.
How to Get to Parque Tayrona
Here’s a summary of how to get from Cartagena to Eco Hostel Yuluka, to Parque Tayrona.
- From Cartagena, taxi to Berlinas in Marbella (8.000 COP)
- Grab a Berlinas minibus to Santa Marta (40.000 COP each)
- Tell the driver you need to get to Cra. 13 y Cl. 11, Mercado Publico in Centro
- Grab the Palomino bus and get off at km 28 (7.000 COP each)
- Walk into paradise at Eco Hostel Yuluka
- Take the free shuttle from Eco Hostel Yuluka to the entrance of Parque Tayrona!
I hope this post was useful! Have you ever visited Parque Tayrona? Was your experience different than ours? Let us know in the comments!
Psst, let's make this a thing!
Like what you're reading? Subscribe! We'll only send occasional emails with content that doesn't suck, we promise.