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Early morning at Casa Tayrona Los Naranjos – looking down the coast into Tayrona National Park

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
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    Beautiful Aruhuacan mochilas at a stand in Minca

    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!

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Ciudad Perdido’s distinctive terraced platforms are as iconic to Colombians as Machu Picchu is to Peruvians. (photo credit: El Mundo)
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!

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We have barely scratched the surface of the all the beaches in Tayrona. (Map credit: wego-planet.com)
Palomino

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

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.

Our lodging

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.

Other tips
  • 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.
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Scenic Taganga

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53 Comments

  1. Anne Gifford Reply

    What a great adventure! I loved all the photos!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Gracias, querida tia! Glad you liked the post 🙂

  2. Looks a fabulous stretch if coastline and another beautiful representation of Colombia. You have to love beaches which are as remote as those, and not easily accessible; we love the thought of that!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Its remoteness is part of what makes Tayrona so special. And we’re glad to see the Colombian government is so committed to preserving and protecting it. Glad you liked the post!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks – glad you liked the post!

  3. WOW! Stunning pictures! I would so love to see Columbia and this just helps to cement that on list of places. I shared your post with my husband and he immediately started looking at flights to Columbia 🙂 Congratulations on your moving to new vistas!!! 🙂 -Meg

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Oh, GREAT!! We’d love to see you in Colombia soon. It’s such a fabulous country, and we sing its praises every chance we get. Have a great day!

  4. Absolutely beautiful! Thank you for taking us along on your trip again. I feel like I was there with you!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Mimi – you WERE with us 🙂 Hugs.

  5. Really enjoyed reading this post. Really informative and with great photography. It’s a region I haven’t yet been to… hopefully in the next few years.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much! There’s so much to explore in Colombia. Hope you can visit someday.

  6. Beautiful photos! The one that really caught my attention is the first one… I associate cactus with dry climates so to see them growing amidst such lush greenery and so close to the coast is bizarre.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      There are so many microclimates in that part of the coast. Those cactus are on the grounds of the hotel we stayed in, which is in a more arid part. But you don’t have to drive too far to get into dense jungle. That’s one thing we love about the area. Glad you enjoyed the post!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much – glad you enjoyed it 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, L&C! We’re glad you got to see Tayrona – it’s such a special place. Have a great day!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      It was great, Henry. Hope you’re well. We met your friend Carolyn today 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Rebecca – glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Pam! It still feels pretty surreal 🙂

  7. I love those heliconias, the soap ginger, and your hike through the jungle which eventually ended at a beautiful beach. What a refreshing adventure after the long Covid confinement!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Bama – it was so nice to have a change of scene, for sure! Hope you and your family are hanging in there; we saw that the COVID situation isn’t too great in Indonesia at the moment. Sending good thoughts . . .

      • We’re in the middle of the second lockdown, and things are a lot worse this time due to the spread of the delta variant. It’s quite stressful and worrying to see how more and more people I know got infected or lost their loved one(s).

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Mel! So sorry I’m just now replying. Thanks for your comment – hope you’re having a great day!
      – Susan

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      It’s not going anywhere, amigo! I still have a strong feeling you too will be back here someday 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Donna! Sorry for my late reply – I’m WAY behind on responses. Hope you’ve had a great July!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much – glad you enjoyed the post!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much! And we likewise really enjoy learning about Britain from your blog. We’re so excited about visiting there someday and your blog will be a great resource!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Alison! Just realized how behind I am on replying to comments (it’s been a crazy couple of weeks). Hope you and Don are well!

      • We are thanks. Beautiful hot summer here. Never thought I’d say it in Vancouver but we could use some rain 😳

        • John and Susan Pazera Reply

          I hope you get rain soon! I was astonished at the heat in Vancouver during the big heat wave. It just feels like the weather gets more and more broken every year 🙁 But glad you two are well.

  8. Thank you again for taking me with you to a beautiful location. Since I use a walker to get around, there’s no way I’d be able to get there if you didn’t take me along electronically. Enjoy it as long as you can!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Helllooo, Muriel! Sorry i’m so late in replying. We are so glad you enjoy our blog! Hope you’re having a great day.

  9. Just gorgeous! Although Palamino is just as you describe it – dusty and little tired. But Tayrona and Minca are high on our list of places to visit when we finally manage to return to Colombia. Hopefully we can time it before the crowds reappear.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We’re so looking forward to your return! More Colombian wonders await 🙂 In the meantime, we’re following in your footsteps again, headed out on our road trip to Santander and Boyaca tomorrow!

  10. Congrats, Susan, on your early retirement. Beautiful coastline and photos. Thank you both for the virtual tour.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Natalie! Hope you’re having a great week 🙂

  11. This area looks absolutely stunning—the jungle vegetation (love those bright pink leaves), the archeological sites, and WOW, those beaches! Congrats on your early retirement Susan.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Caroline – thanks so much! Hope you’re well.
      – Susan

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hello, Alison! Thank you for your comment. Hope you can visit Colombia someday – it’s heaven on earth 🙂

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