Perhaps the best known national park in Colombia, the Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona (PNN Tayrona, 34 km northeast of Santa Marta on the Troncal del Caribe highway, tel. 5/421-1732, www.aviaturecoturismo.com, 8am-5pm daily, COP$37,500 non-Colombian, COP$14,000 Colombian resident, COP$7,500 children, COP$7,500 students under age 25 with a valid ID) encompasses gorgeous beaches, tropical rainforests, and archaeological sites.
The park extends over 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of land from the edge of Taganga to the southwest to the Río Piedras on the east. The southern border of the park is the Troncal del Caribe highway and to the north is the Caribbean Sea. To the east and south of the PNN Tayrona is the PNN Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a much larger national park.
The frequently tempestuous waters of the PNN Tayrona provide dramatic scenery, with palms growing atop massive island boulders, waves crashing up against them. There are more than 30 golden sand beaches in the park that are set dramatically against a seemingly vertical wall of jungle. Although you can’t see them from the park, the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains are only 42 kilometers from the coast.
The park includes significant extensions of highly endangered dry tropical forests, mostly in the western section of the park. You will notice that these forests are much less dense than the humid tropical forests. At higher elevations you will see magnificent cloud forests. In addition to beaches, the coast includes marine estuaries and mangroves. The park includes streams with chilly waters that flow from high in the sierra: In the western part of the park, many of these run dry during the dry season, while in the eastern sector they have water year-round.
The forest in Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona is alive with plant and animal life. Over 1,300 plant, 396 bird, and 99 mammal species have been identified here. Four species of monkeys live in the park, and they can often be spotted. Five species of wild cats have been identified in the park. These are the margay, jaguar, ocelot, panther, and jaguarundi. Their numbers are few and these great cats are expert at hiding in the jungle: Don’t count on stumbling across them during your visit! Other mammals include sloths, anteaters, armadillos, deer, and 40 types of bats. Birds include migratory and resident species, including the rare blue-billed curassow (locally called El Paujil), a threatened bird that lives in the cloud forest.
Planning Your Time
There are two rainy seasons: April-June and September-November, with the latter more intense. During these times, trails can be extremely muddy. If at all possible, avoid visiting the PNN Tayrona during the high seasons mid-December through mid-January and Semana Santa, and to a lesser extent during the Colombian summer school holidays from mid-June until mid-July. During holidays the park is swarmed with visitors. Long holiday weekends (puentes) are also quite busy here, regular weekends less so, but during the week is by far the best. While many visit the park on day-trips from Santa Marta, spending one or two nights in the park is recommended, even though accommodations and food are expensive.