Tayrona National Natural Park

The golden place of Colombia


Tayrona National Natural Park, Magdalena, Colombia

GPS: 11.307153885627, -74.065041545489

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Founded in 1964 in northern Colombia, the Tayrona National Natural Park is a vast exotic reserve stretching along the Caribbean Sea at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. This protected area includes a land part of 150 km² around the city of Santa Marta (450,000 inhabitants) as well as a sea area of about 30 km². Its white sandy beaches are bordered by mangroves or forests that are washed by the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea.

The Tayrona National Natural Park has about 30 kilometres of paradisiacal coastline. A layer of eternal snow covers the high peaks of this coastal massif, considered the highest coastal mountain in the world (5,775 metres above sea level). This unique location gives Tayrona a majestic setting where pristine beaches and tropical forests stretch out at the foot of snow-capped mountains. The great diversity of ecosystems in this natural area is reflected in the richness of its fauna (108 species of mammals, 300 types of birds, several hundred types of molluscs or crustaceans, etc.) and its flora (alternating vegetation in tropical, coastal and mountain environments, including many endemic species).

This Colombian destination was the home of the ancient Tayrona tribes until the arrival of the first Spanish settlers in the 16th century. The archaeological site of Ciudad Perdida, totally secluded in the tropical jungle, is the embodiment of the importance of the heritage remains of the Tayrona National Natural Park. It was rediscovered by chance in the 1970s after 400 years of oblivion, although its existence was already known to the local communities. Alerted to the sale of ancient gold objects on the black market, the Colombian government only learned of the discovery of Ciudad Perdida three years later. According to specialists, this site near the Buritaca River was built several centuries before the legendary city of Machu Picchu (the two sites may even have been rivals). The remains consist of stairways, paved roads, terraces, platforms, ceremonial centres and stone buildings. Rich in marine and terrestrial biodiversity, the Tayrona National Natural Park is considered one of the most beautiful ecological destinations in South America. The humidity of its forest can reach up to 99%.

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  • The magnificent beaches with turquoise waters bordering the Caribbean Sea: Cañaveral, Arrecifes, Cabo San Juan, La Piscina, Cristal (Playa del Muerto)
  • The six natural bays of the park: Chengue, Gayraca, Cinto, Neguanje, Concha and Guachaquita
  • The variety of ecosystems (white sand beaches, mangroves, tropical forests, mountain ranges, coral reefs, rivers, low and high Andean vegetation)
  • The multitude of fauna: jaguars, ocelots, monkeys, reptiles, dolphins, turtles, crustaceans, molluscs, fish, birds, bats, caimans, paujils (a type of Colombian peacock endemic to the region)
  • The profusion of flora (acacias, orchids, cacti, caper trees, birch trees, ebony trees, algae and endemic plants)
  • The ancien remains of the Tayrona and Kogi peoples: the sites of Pueblito (also known as Chairama) and Ciudad Perdida (also known as Teyuna or Buritaca-200); the archaeological museum of Chairama (Cañaveral area)
  • Hiking trails (Los Naranjos, La Piscina, Ruta A, Cabo San Juan del Guia, Pueblito); swimming, horseback riding, scuba diving and snorkelling, stargazing
  • Excursions by boat or car from the towns of Taganga or Santa Marta (west of the park)
  • The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a coastal massif covered with eternal snow (its peaks are located some 40 kilometres from the Caribbean Sea coast)
  • According to the descriptions made by the first Spanish conquistadors who landed on the Colombian coast in the 16th century, the indigenous populations who lived within the perimeter of the park were all wearing a great deal of gold. These Tayrona tribes wore various golden ornaments and refined jewellery all over their bodies (crowns on the head, large earrings, nose ornaments, belts, ankle and wrist bracelets). According to the archaeologist, Juaníta Sáenz Samper, none of the objects were made of 100% gold. These jewels were made of tumbaga (an alloy of gold, silver and copper) and were coveted for a long time by the Spaniards, who tried to recover them. Nevertheless, these people were endowed with exceptional goldsmithing skills, and the legendary stories encouraged the massive plundering of the treasures that embellished the city of Ciudad Perdida.
  • Accompanied by archaeologists and guaqueros (treasure hunters), Louisa Fernanda Herrera was the first to formally identify the ruins of Ciudad Perdida in 1976 in a jungle that had a reputation for being impenetrable. Unfortunately, she was forced to interrupt her research because of the intense conflicts linked to drug trafficking in the region. The excavations were not resumed until 30 years later, in 2006. Even today, the archaeological site is fiercely guarded and protected by some 30 soldiers sent by the Colombian army to combat looting. A community of villagers has recently settled in the area to vouch for the city’s treasures. Gold objects probably remain in the graves and tombs that cannot be desecrated out of respect for the ancestors.
  • According to the anthropologist Santiago Giraldo, the city of Ciudad Perdida was populated by 2,000 to 3,000 people at its peak (this figure could reach 10,000 if other surrounding constructions are included, as the site was very extensive). It was built on several levels on the mountain slopes and has dozens of terraces carved on a 300-metre slope. Other Tayrona localities were established on the coast at Banda, Chengue and Pueblito. They were independent of each other but maintained important trade links and close political relations.
  • Archaeologist Peter Eeckhout believes that the conquistadors never succeeded in conquering Ciudad Perdida. Faced with stiff resistance from the Tayronas, they eventually offered a barter deal, exchanging metal axes and wine for gold jewellery and objects. There was great disappointment when the Spaniards realised that these treasures were not actually made of pure gold by melting them down. These first contacts with the Europeans were nevertheless fatal for the Tayronas. They suffered from serious infectious diseases imported by the colonists, which exterminated the population and put an end to the existence of the city of Ciudad Perdida.
  • Despite its paradisiacal appearance, which encourages bathing, the danger remains on the coastal area of the Tayrona National Natural Park which is subject to strong sea currents (especially the beach of Arrecifes). Several tourists have lost their lives when venturing into unauthorised bathing areas.
  • The smallest species of lizard in the world is found in Tayrona National Natural Park. No larger than a coin, the lizard goes by the scientific name of Lepidoblepharis miyatai and is critically endangered.
  • In consultation with the four indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Kogui, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo), the park closes its doors to the public several times a year for a few weeks to allow nature to regenerate. This new measure, which is part of the “Respira Tayrona” strategy, is used by the park’s agents to clean up the natural areas and monitor the fauna and flora. Local communities enjoy this time to perform rituals in sacred sites. Usually, these closure periods are scheduled for the first two weeks of February and June and the second two weeks of October. It should be noted that the ancient site of Ciudad Perdida is generally closed to visitors throughout September (this is the month when the rains are heaviest).
  • Tickets for visits to the Tayrona National Natural Park must be made online. Make sure you arrive before 5 pm, when the park closes.
  • The main entrances to Tayrona (Cañaveral, Arrecifes, Cabo San Juan) can be reached by bus or taxi from the town of Santa Marta or Taganga, only a few kilometres west of the reserve. The secondary entrance, via the footpath from Cabo San Juan to Calabazo (allow five hours from Pueblito) is more interesting but difficult and therefore only for experienced hikers. You will have to walk through the jungle (or hire a horse) to reach your destination.
  • The least crowded period in the Tayrona National Natural Park is between December and April. If possible, avoid visiting the park in May, September, October and November as heavy rains can make the roads impassable.
  • Booking accommodation in advance is strongly recommended. Most campsites are in the areas of Cañaveral, Bukaru and Cabo San Juan del Guia. The latter, located on the western side of the park, remains the most popular destination. Due to the high cost of accommodation within the park, a tent or hammock is the cheapest option and can be rented locally.
  • Cigarettes and plastic bags are prohibited in the protected area. This measure applies to all national parks in Colombia.
  • A virtual tour of the park is available on a dedicated website.
  • A long hike of 3 to 4 days with the help of a local guide is necessary to reach the fabulous lost city of Ciudad Perdida (the oldest constructions date from the 8th century). Its remains are located at the foot of Cerro Correa, in the northern part of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (the site is more commonly called Teyuna by the locals). Before you can access the upper terraces of the city, you will have to climb a staircase of 1,200 steps. To add to your knowledge, the Gold Museum in Bogotá displays several gold treasures and jewellery from Ciudad Perdida.

Where to eat

  • Govinda's Restaurante Vegetariano
    (vegetarian cuisine)
  • Babaganoush Restaurante Bar
    (great location)
  • Ouzo Restaurante y Bar
    (gourmet restaurant)

Where to go

  • Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino
    (historical hacienda)
  • Museo del Oro Tairona
    (regional cultural centre)
  • Cathedral of Santa Marta
    (beautiful 17th century building)

Where to stay

  • Playa Brava Teyumakke
    (isolated campsite)
  • Hotel Boutique Casa Carolina
    (quiet building)
  • Hotel Casa Amani
    (beautiful house)