Watching mating turkeys was never really how I envisioned my Caribbean paradises. Nonetheless, as the morning sun turned my tent all aglow, I started my first full day in Tayronait to the ruckus of a horny male gobbling after an uninterested hen. The courting had gone on much of the previous afternoon until the both finally disappeared, for some privacy maybe, at dusk. The tropics are full of surprises.
One of the most amazing things about Tayrona, besides the fact that few have heard of it, is that even an hour or more of hiking isn’t enough to keep the folks who do know away. While there are some sparse, overpriced accommodation options, the main way to stay in Tayrona is via tent. After climbing over coastal mountains, traversing remote Caribbean beaches, and wading into the jungle, my wife Emma and I’d settled in a place—Don Pedro’s—with an unassuming restaurant, a little sundry shop, and tents positioned around a grove of coconut and banana trees.
Not the worst of spots to start a day. We found a bare patch under mango tree, just next to a towering grapefruit tree bearing full-on citrus cannonballs, and pitched our tent. The turkeys, we’d thought, were just a passing fad.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Tayrona is a UNESCO site, a pristine slice of nature with mountains, desert, jungle, wetlands, the Caribbean, and an indigenous village—an all-in-one experience.
- Those thinly populated or all-out secluded beaches you’ve been imagining in the tropics, the ones with sky-sweeping palms and crystalline swimming spots—they’re a dime a dozen in Tayrona.
- It’s a great spot for a swirling combination of off-the-beaten-track seclusion, adequate facilities, and the sort of roughing it that suits backpackers, nature lovers, sun worshippers, animals spotters, coconut thieves, and the like.
A Sunny Day at the Park
One of the most beautiful things about Tayrona is hiking in the morning. Vista-laden cliffs wait to be clambered upon, sandy footpaths wind through the jungle, and animals rustle through the leaves. Vibrantly colored birds dash amongst the branches overhead while agouti dart around the underbrush. This was all on our way to a beautiful beach, Cabo San Juan, the park’s hotspot, for an early-day dip.
The Caribbean of Tayrona is not like that of Cancun: First, the tide rushes in and sweeps out with a vengeance, and secondly, there are no resorts blocking visitors out. The coves, where the water calms and the swimming is nice, are both open to all and full a free space. Emma and I spread out our sarongs and went for a splash, the water cool enough to cause us to toe our way in but warm enough to stay there comfortably. And that’s what we did.
Our day along the coastline of Tayrona pretty well consisted of swimming for a while, pulling our things together, hiking to another postcard playa, rinsing, and repeating. The further west of Cabo we made it, the less likely it was that other bathers would be there, and finally in mid-afternoon, just off a beachside siesta, we turned back and started the same stunning hike home.
The Coconut Quandary
We soon began what was to become a daily ritual in our time there: On our walk home, Emma collected fallen coconuts of the forest floor. She’d looked around conspicuously then grabbed one, two, three fruits that weighed a ton. There seemed to be no consensus as to whether they were fair game or not. Regardless, we carried them back to the campground, and in the midst of a late picnic lunch, I worked on cracking one of our harvested snacks open.
My coconut-cracking skills proved as rusty as the dulled machete I was using, so the process took an embarrassingly long time. But, eventually, it cracked, and after a toast of splendidly sweet coconut water, we ripped into the dense white flesh, stuffing ourselves rotten. And, in it was in those moments, prying loose slabs of stolen coconut, that the reality of Tayrona seemed all the more a dream. Mating turkeys be damned, that was what life on the Caribbean was supposed to be.
- Bring easy-to-assemble food with you. First of all, the restaurants gouge. Secondly, the kitchen at our disposal required building a fire to cook. I’m better at starting fires than opening coconuts, but it was still a lot more enjoyable to just make a sandwich.
- Leave the bulk of your luggage at your hostel in Santa Marta (the nearest city) and hike into the park with the bare minimum. No joke: it is an hour-plus hike with huffing trekkers resting along the way.
- San Juan del Cabo is the most beautiful beach and has its own campground, but it was much more crowded than nearby spots. Plus, the hike over was one my favorite parts of the experience.
- Note: There are other things to do besides the sun-and-surf, such as visiting an indigenous village (a major hike) and animal spotting (saw a variety of birds, monkeys, and agoutis).