A couple of weeks ago, we spent a few days in one of our favorite sections of Colombia’s Caribbean coast: an area in Magdalena Department east of the port city of Santa Marta and anchored by Tayrona National Natural Park. After so much COVID confinement, we were looking for a beachy location at which to celebrate a big milestone for Susan: her early retirement. (Susan note: “Retirement” is such a strange word. I think of it as moving on to new vistas!)
We had visited Tayrona almost three years ago and had really loved the area, so a trip back was just the ticket. We also wanted to explore two towns we had missed before: Palomino and Minca.
(NOTE: As usual, most of our photos are in galleries. Just click on the first one to view larger versions one by one.)
The lay of the land
Colombia’s Caribbean coast spans over 1,000 miles from its eastern border with Panama to Venezuela in the west. For this trip, we focused on the area between the port city of Santa Marta and Palomino to the east. We stayed at the fabulous Casa Tayrona Los Naranjos, right at the eastern edge of the Tayrona National Natural Park (more about the hotel below).
Here are a couple of things that fascinate us about Caribbean Colombia.
- It includes the highest coastal mountain range in the world. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a separate range from the Andes and rises 19,000 feet in only 30 miles from the coast. On a clear day, you can see some of the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada from the mountain hamlet of Minca (we didn’t, because our day to visit Minca was rainy).
- It’s the homeland of ancients. The Sierra Nevada is inhabited by four indigenous groups – the Kogi, Wiwa, Kankuamo, and Arhuaco. The Kogi and Arhuaco are both descendants of the ancient Tairona civilization for which Tayrona National Park is named. With their all-white clothing, the Kogi and Arhuaco people are the most visible to tourists along Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The Arhuaco make a beautiful, naturally dyed version of one of Colombia’s most recognizable
handicrafts, the woven “mochila” bags that you’ll see for sale in any tourist center.
The Sierra Nevada is also home to one of Colombia’s most important archeological sites, Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City). The city is believed to have been founded by the Tairona people around 800 AD and was abandoned around 1500 with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. The Lost City comes by its name honestly: it’s situated deep in the mountains, and the only way to visit it is to take a very challenging, several-day trek with an organized group. If I can ever convince John to sleep in a hammock, this might be a follow-up to our Inca Trail trek someday!
Tayrona Natural National Park
Tayrona Park occupies a wide swath of coast anchored by Santa Marta on the west and Los Naranjos on the east. As an area of protected biodiversity, Tayrona offers a little bit of everything: dense jungle foliage, panoramic mountain scenery, and some of Colombia’s most stunning beaches.
One thing to know about Tayrona is that its signature beaches are reachable only on foot, by boat, or on horseback (you can hire a horse inside the park). Like our first visit in 2019, we just spent a day here and entered from the main El Zaino headquarters on the far eastern edge of the park. That meant we only had time to explore Cañaveral, Arrecifes, Arenillas, and La Piscina beaches. As you can see from the map below, there are TONS more beaches to see in this incredible park, but getting to them requires hiking in from the alternative Calabazo entrance (which was closed when we were there) or taking a boat from Santa Marta or the village of Tagonga on the western side. Another alternative is to hike in and overnight in one of the campgrounds that are numerous around the La Piscina/Cabo San Juan area. Maybe next time!
We can’t say we fell in love with Palomino. A 45-minute drive west of Tayrona park, this beachside resort town has a big reputation as a backpackers’ mecca with a laid-back, hippie vibe. The day we were there, it was dusty, quiet, and felt a little sad and desperate (it will take a while for backpackers to return to Colombia in full force post-COVID). But we did enjoy our stop on the way to check out Cascada Valencia.
Minca is another backpacker destination south of Santa Marta and about 600 meters up in the Sierra Nevada. With its lush mountain scenery, coffee farms, and nearby waterfalls, Minca attracts hikers and lovers of the great outdoors. In spite of the rain, we enjoyed our day there – especially our hike up to the La Marinka waterfalls.
Occupying a prime beachfront location just outside of Tayrona Park, Casa Tayrona Los Naranjos is a little slice of heaven. With its world-class service, outstanding food (with a resident chef trained by Michael Mina), and beautifully manicured grounds, Casa Tayrona has the feel of a five-star resort – but with a three-star price tag. We WILL go back.
- The flight to Santa Marta is about an hour from Medellín. Viva Air has a couple of inexpensive flights a day.
- All of the above-mentioned places are reachable from the Santa Marta airport via bus or taxi. However, renting a car makes getting around in a short timeframe a lot easier. We recommend Localiza – great service, a reasonable price, and easy in-out at the airport.
- At least twice a year, Tayrona National Natural Park closes for a few weeks to give the natural environment a break from tourism. Make sure you check the park website for updates.
- On our first visit to this area in 2019, we did a dive trip out of Taganga – a small fishing village just north of Santa Marta and bordering Tayrona park. Taganga is worth a day trip, and if you’re in a diving mood, we highly recommend Ocean Lovers. You can also hire a boat to take you to some of the harder-to-reach beaches in Tayrona.