Editor’s note: I’ve only been to Bogota, and Sam certainly makes me want to experience more of Colombia, especially the Caribbean coast. For more of his writing, click here to view his index.

I love national parks; in every country where they exist, these lands are set aside and protected. They are recognized as exceptional places that represent the finest landscapes in the nation, if not the world. Utah’s five national parks are among the reasons that I chose to make this state my home. Visiting foreign national parks has become a passion of my international travel, because while visiting temples, churches, and museums is always fascinating, these are the places that other cultures and countries have classified as their most sacred gems that they must preserve. Among these, one of the best national parks that you will find anywhere is Tayrona National Park on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

Tayrona National Park

Getting to Tayrona National Park was not an easy or convenient feat. For our trip to Colombia, we had based ourselves out of Cartagena and were short on time. The city closest to Tayrona is Santa Marta, which is a four-hour bus journey from Cartagena and two hours from the other main coastal city of Colombia, Barranquilla, a cosmopolitan city that is home to celebrities such as Shakira and Sofia Vergara. The journey was made additionally tough by the poor decision I made to visit this stunning coastline during October, by far the rainiest month of the year for the region. Despite the inconvenience, the pictures of Tayrona National Park, with many raving that it was Colombia’s highlight of the north, if not the entire country, proved too tempting to pass up. Though the drive for us was miserable, any other time of year I am sure it is beautiful as 70 kilometers of the trip is over the Cienaga-Barranquilla highway, a road that goes over wetlands and where the Caribbean appears on both sides of the road.

Though there is camping in Tayrona National Park for about 400 people, most guests stay in Santa Marta. We sadly just used Santa Marta as the place for us to rest up before going to Tayrona, though you can make a vacation in this wonderful city by itself. Santa Marta has a calm and pleasantness despite its size (half a million inhabitants). It is located right on the beach, but has a backdrop of mountains with forest, and is for Colombians an important tourist and commercial port. It was in this city that Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of America – who in his 47 years of life, liberated country after country, and served as president of Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, and as the founding president of Gran Colombia (the country that would later split into Colombia and Panama) – died. There is a museum there of his legacy, as well as a gold museum, as there is with many of Colombia’s cities. Just outside of Santa Marta are the mountainous villages of Paso del Mango and Minca, which are backpacker paradises. Many trekkers also use Santa Marta as a jumping off point for a multi-day backpacking journey to La Ciudad Perdida, a lost indigenous city in the Colombian jungles, whose ruins predate those of Machu Picchu. In the city itself, one must go spend the evening at the romantically named Parque de los Novios, which is not only where the nightlife is, but is a charming small park surrounded by romantic and incredible restaurants; my recommendation is Ouzo, a Mediterranean restaurant led by renowned American chef, Michael McMurdo, where the ambience is topped only by the delicious food. Combine dinner in Parque de Los Novios with the city’s position facing west over the Caribbean, and you will be treated to a spectacular sunset and a memorable evening with a loved one.

Yet, as I said, the real draw to Santa Marta is its proximity to Tayrona National Park, located less than half an hour drive away. Though by Colombian standards the nearly $20 US foreigners’ fee to be admitted to the park seems pricey, it is well worth the price of admission. Tayrona National Park maintains a consistent daily temperature in the low 80’s year-round, though it is very humid (January is supposedly the coolest and least rainy month to visit). When you begin your journey in the park, visitors start on top of the mountains, reaching 900 meters in elevation, and rapidly descend through thick tropical forest. The park teems with iguanas, monkeys, colorful and large bugs, and loud birds. There are elusive jaguars that hunt at night in the park and this region is the only home left to the critically endangered cotton-top tamarin monkey.

Tayrona palm forest

The main draw of Tayrona National Park is its seven beaches, each of which is picturesque and unique. Some people spend an entire week in the park, hopping to a different beach each day, and relaxing in paradise on one of Tayrona’s famous hammocks that can be rented for a few dollars under a palm tree. In journeying to Tayrona, I decided to go to the most popular beach (which is not Nudist Beach, one of the seven beaches that has a niche that is given away by its name), Cabo San Juan. Though some prefer the more peaceful, less busy beaches, like Playa Cristal, which limits admission to only 300 daily visitors, Cabo San Juan was my target because it is the only beach that consistently allows swimming, something that I was looking forward to after the hot hike. For the other beaches, the rough riptide of the Caribbean makes swimming too dangerous, yet they are still ideal for those content to sunbathe on the sand. In approaching Cabo San Juan, the steep descent suddenly smooths out, and for about 45 minutes, one must hike past other long beaches until you finally get to the palm tree forest that leads to Cabo San Juan.

Cabo San Juan

At Cabo San Juan, there is a busy café where you can get yourself lunch and a beer to enjoy while looking out at the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean. Snorkeling and swimming are popular activities as well, and there is a great strip of sand that is right where a river running down the mountain meets the sea. As I sat and soaked in the sun and relaxed, I looked behind me to see – about thirty feet away – another sunbather, a local crocodile basking in the warmth, a reminder to not get too comfortable. When it was time to call it a day, as the park gate closes at 5pm, I began to make my way back up the mountain. Though the machismo Colombian men laughed at us for doing so, with the humidity, heat, and the rain turning the pathway muddy, we opted to splurge by spending a few dollars to pay a couple of horses and their owners to carry us up the steep incline, which was far more difficult to ascend than it was going down.

Ascending on horseback

Though Cartagena’s colonial old city and nightlife put Colombia’s Caribbean coast on the map for tourists worldwide, if you journey east of there to Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park, you will discover the true gem of the northern most part of South America.

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