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Exploring Colombia | How to Visit Tayrona National Park

Parque-Nacional-Natural-Tayrona-Cortesa-Charly-Boillot-3

Tayrona National Park, on the north coast of Colombia, protects a vast swath of rainforest and some of the most beautiful palm-fringed Caribbean coves and beaches of South America. The national park itself is a narrow hilly lowland from the coast extending into the foothills of the vast Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. One of the world's highest coast ranges, the isolated peaks towering 18,700' above sea level are just 26 miles from the coast. As a result of its isolation and vast elevational range over such a short distance, the Sierra Nevada and the coastal lowlands of the park are one the most spectacular and biologically diverse landscapes on Earth.

Indigenous Culture

It's important to understand when exploring this region, both within and around the national park, the region is a sanctuary for four separate but related indigenous peoples, descendants of the Tairona civilization including the Arhuaco, Wiwa, Kogi and Kankuamo. The Taironas inhabited the ancient city of Chairama, or "El Pueblito" as it is commonly known, located in Tayrona National Park from 800 thorough 1600 ACE when the Spanish arrived. Other ancient sites and current settlements of Tairona descendants throughout the region are connected through stone paths and foot trails, some of them reaching high into the Sierra Nevada.

While most of the high country is off-limits to outsiders, it's important to know wherever you are walking in the area, inside the park and out, it is considered their sacred land, so please, keep your garbage with you and be respectful of the environment and the inhabitants. Ask permission before taking pictures of homes or indigenous residents. Some areas are designated as sacred ceremonial sites reserved only for indigenous use.

In the heart of the national park, the Pueblito ruins are an archaeological site accessed via forest trails with terraces and structures built by the Tairona civilization. There is also an indigenous Kogi settlement at Pueblito that looks over the site including a sacred ground for ceremonies to the Pachamama—Mother Earth.

The indigenous residents here believe Tayrona and the Sierra Nevada is literally the heart of the world. Through their mystical wisdom and deep connection to the earth, they bear responsibility among humankind to maintain the balance of the universe. Degradation of the air, land and water on planet Earth, and catastrophic events like hurricanes, droughts or famines are the cause of human failure to maintain the world harmony.They strive to maintain balance by making offerings at sacred sites and giving back to the earth what has been taken out of it. They have also reached out to issue warnings and share their cosmovision with visitors who will listen. For more information about the Kogi and their mission watch the documentary: Aluna The Movie. 

How to Visit Tayrona National Park and the Sierra Nevada

When you visit the Tayrona region we will help you experience the natural beauty and indigenous culture including the wisdom they have to share as guardians of Earth. We offer four different ways for our travelers to experience Tayrona National Park and the Sierra Nevada. 

1. Hike Calabazo to Pueblito and Canaveral

This ambitious hike into the interior of the national park ascends uphill to the archaeological site of Pueblito where there is also a small Kogi settlement. From here the trail descends on an ancient stone path to the beach at Cabo San Juan, and subsequently follows along the beach to the entrance of the park at Canaveral. This is a very challenging hike suitable for only very fit hikers due to the following reasons: a) The hike takes from 8 AM to 4 PM with breaks for lunch and a swim, b) the trail conditions are extremely variable including mud, loose gravel, wet rock, sand, irregular stone steps, and boulder hopping, c) there are sections where you crawl under boulders or slide down on your buttocks, and over a headland up and down hundreds of wooden stairs, d) temperatures are typically hot and conditions very humid. Horses are no longer allowed to ride part of the trail, so it is necessary to hike the entire way including a long 2-3 hour ascent at the start to reach El Pueblito. 

2. Beach trail from Canaveral to Cabo San Juan and back

This easy hike enters and returns through the main entrance of the park and follows the beach trail as far as you want to go. It begins and ends ascending and descending hundreds of wooden stairs over a headland that opens to a long, mostly flat trail above the high tide line behind the beach under palm groves around beautiful coves. As this is the main access point in and out of the park it can be very busy with daytime beach goers. However, we enter early in the morning when the park opens knowing that returning later in the day it will be busy with visitors walking and riding horseback. (We don't hire horses here except for emergency because they are too damaging to the fragile habitat.) You can hike on this return trail for as long as you like, typically have lunch in one of the many beach restaurants in the park, and then turn around at any point. There are typically hundreds of visitors and backpack campers on any given day. There is also a Kogi "Mamo"—spiritual leader—who invites passersby into his house to share their traditions and cosmovision of the world. 

3. Seydukwa Indigenous Village

There is a wonderful spiritual place of the Arhuaco indigenous tribe called Seydukwa hidden in the jungle mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Few outside people have the privilege to visit this place protected by the Mamos and the indigenous community. With permission granted on each occasion by appointment only, you get to know the customs and ancestral rites of the indigenous communities to maintain the natural order of the world. The moderate hike is approximately 2 hours uphill on an open dirt road and forest trail. After a typical lunch in the community you are accompanied around the community, see how cacao is grown on stone wall terraces and panela or honey is extracted from the cane sugar using a traditional wood trapiche press. Your guide will help interpret ancestral values and traditions including an introduction to the sacred symbolism of the ayu (coca leaf). Return walking back, or you can leisurely float down river in an innertube back to your vehicle up to a few hours.

4. Taironaka Reserve and Archaeological Site

This is an easy day that is fun for the whole family in the heart of the region connecting the jungles of the Sierra Nevada foothills with the Caribbean beaches and small coastal village communities. Drive past the national park along the coast road to the Taironaka Ecological Reserve and Archaeological Site hiking in for 20 minutes on a reconstructed stone paved trail among ancient paths, aqueducts, stairs, terraces and relics of this ancient city. Originally settled by ancient peoples for its fertile soils the area is landscaped with colorful tropical flowers among cacao plantations and an archaeological museum showcasing ancient Taironaka life as goldsmiths, craftsmen, sailors and warriors. After lunch hop in an inner tube for the leisurely float down the Don Diego River (no rapids) surrounded by forest habitat of monkeys, birds and butterflies under the towering peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains all the way to the beaches of Palomino. 

For more information give us a call at 800-345-4453 or check out our trips to Colombia.

Keeping it wild,

Kurt Kutay

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