After doing a good bit of research on the different ways into and around the park, we decided that the best route for us to take from Santa Marta would be through the “secret” Calabazo entrance (described by other blogs as less overrun with tourists), with our first stop being Playa Brava. On a fluctuating trail of steep inclines/declines and a net elevation gain of about 1100 ft. over 3.5 hours in sweltering humidity, this path certainly isn’t for the lazy gallivanter, but the rewards are well worth the trek for those who are willing to put in the effort.
The National Park puts a lot of emphasis on conservation and keeping the park clean. Everything we read told us that we weren’t allowed to bring any plastics into the park so we were very strategic about the foods/snacks we brought and how we brought them. When we got to the Calabazo entrance, however, they didn’t actually check our bags, but it’s still good practice and better for the environment to skip the plastic.
Don’t forget to bring water! Make sure it’s in reusable water bottles/CamelPaks! You can refill them for ~COP 1,000 per liter.
In This Post…
- The Journey: There and Back
- …but would I do it again?
- What We Packed
- Resources: Other Links That Helped Me
The Journey: There and Back
Santa Marta to Tayrona
Catch the bus! It cost us COP 14,000 (~$4-5 USD) each. It does not run on an exact schedule. As soon as the bus fills up, it takes off. If you are wanting to get off at the Calabazo entrance (which is about 15 minutes prior to the main Tayrona entrance), tell the driver/fare collector on the bus and they will let you know when to hop off. However, I would recommend also keeping an eye on your GPS as we have experienced a couple of missed-communications (between fare collector and driver) and instances where they just plain forgot to let us off.
Calabazo Entrance to Playa Brava
Even though it was partially overcast, we definitely felt the wrath of the sun. The trail was definitely challenging with some fairly rocky terrain on lots of steep inclines and declines.
When we arrived at Playa Brava, we were so exhausted that we went straight to the hammocks to lie down. We ate some of our snacks and followed up with a couple hours’ worth of nap.
Our mosquito-netted hammocks were right on the water which made for a gorgeous view, but a pretty rocky experience. By the time we arrived, all but 2 hammocks remained. Luckily, they were mostly perpendicular to the ocean, so the wind did not hit us straight on.
The beach itself was gorgeous, but too dangerous to be swimmable; the waves were rough and frequent. It was a little painful to be so close to cool, refreshing water without the ability to jump in after our grueling hike in the heat.
Playa Brava to Playa Nudista, Cabo San Juan, La Piscina
To continue onwards, in the rainy season when the rivers are full and flowing, I believe you have to go back the way you came towards the Calabazo exit, but since the riverbed was dry, we were able to take a faster and ever-so-slightly less arduous route. The hike was 1.5 hours and I believe the net elevation gain was just under 1,000 feet.
We were able to see quite a few groups of capuchin monkeys along this trail!
Playa Nudista was wonderful. There were very few people on the beach and the water was much calmer than Playa Brava. Since we entered from the Playa Brava side, we did not see the sign that warns against swimming that folks coming from Cabo San Juan are greeted with. Whoops. We had no trouble with swimming, though. Contrary to widespread beliefs about nudist beaches, there were no creepy vibes from anyone here (with the exception of maybe a couple of oglers from the passing boats) — just folks who want to be free of clothing and one with nature.
Cabo San Juan was very crowded on the beach and in the water. It was cool to see, but we kept moving.
La Piscina was also awesome. There are rocks a good way out into the water that form a natural barrier to create a very calm swimming area, so this is definitely swimmable.
Arrecifes and Camping Don Pedro
I’d read in South America on a Shoestring that Camping Don Pedro was the best accommodation to stay at in Arrecifes. We found it to be a little difficult to find, but folks at other camps along the path saw that we were lost and directed us through their campground and to another trail that continued behind them. It wasn’t anything special, but it did seem to be a lot better established and have a lot more infrastructure than other campgrounds in the area. There were also a lot of other campers so we were able to make some new friends over dinner!
Arrecifes itself is also not swimmable as the current is too strong, but it was a very cool scene and we caught a really gorgeous sunset over the ridge there.
Unnecessary (but necessary) side story: I’d had a slightly rough night the night before at Playa Brava with the knowledge that there could possibly be animals running around under my butt who might suddenly decide to bite said butt. Sleeping in the hammocks at Camping Don Pedro initially felt a lot safer because we were in a mostly-closed netted enclosure. ..until I awoke to the sound of chewing/panting that seemed to be coming from right behind my back.
I froze, my hearbeat began to rapidly increase. I hear the creature start puffing heavy breaths through its nose the way a bull does in the movies when it’s about to attack. After listening for awhile, I determine that this is either a dog or a friggin’ horse. (Every so often, when someone would move in their hammock, the entire structure would shake. I was certain that sometimes it was the horse bumping into the posts.) So if a dog or a horse (!!) could get in, so could a jaguar or a mean, rabid monkey. (I was awake for ~2 hours listening for threats.)
Fast forward, I eventually fell asleep and, when I woke up, I found that our unexpected roommate was a sweet dog whose flea bites had gotten so bad he was chewing at his skin. 😦
Camping Don Pedro to Santa Marta
We asked the staff at Camping Don Pedro to point you to the trailhead to exit the park and headed towards what was labeled as Caballeriza on their map. Along the way, we saw (and heard) some howler monkeys singing some morning songs of intimidation.
Considering that this is the path most traveled by the masses, I expected it to be an easy walk in the park (heh). It was pretty easy, but not always a flat/straightforward path. There were some forks in the trail, but it seemed that, for the most part, you would figure out soon enough that you were headed the wrong way.
Once we saw the horse stable, we asked some of the caballeros to point us to the entrance. We walked to the road and were welcomed into a shared van that was headed to the entrance (10 min. ride vs. 45 min. walk). From the main entrance, we hopped onto a bus that was headed to Santa Marta!
..but would I do it again?
All in all, even though I sometimes found myself hating life while we were hiking the Calabazo trail, I think it was well worth it. I am not one for flocking with hordes of tourists and this route gave us a great opportunity to get away from that and experience (read: earn) the diverse beauty that Tayrona has to offer. I’d recommend and repeat!
What We Packed
We only brought what we could fit/would want to carry in a day pack.
- Water! (in Camelbak/reusable water bottle)
- Food/snacks in tupperware
- Bread (we had this in a paper bag and I awoke from my nap to discover that a colony of ants laid claim to it)
- Peanut butter
- Trail mix/nuts
- Bathing suit
- Thin towel/wrap (we love our HalfDay towel!)
- Water-resistant jacket
- Change of clothes
- Hiking boots
- Flip flops/sandals
- Dry bag
- Bug spray
- Baby wipes (to substitute for a shower in a pinch)
- Headlamps and a flash light
- Portable chargers
- Entertainment (book/Kindle, cards, etc.)
Hi! If you “had” to could you walk from playa brava to El Zaino in one day with a stop at a beach along the way?
Hi! Wow, this was so long ago that I really can’t remember. I think we tried to do this hike relatively quickly, though, so it might be tight.