Tayrona National Park in northern Colombia is world famous for protecting some of the loveliest coastline on the Caribbean Sea, where white sand beaches curve elegantly amidst granite capes spilling from the coastal mountains. Thousands of people visit each year to relax under palms and dip into blue waters.
Just inland, away from the crowds, ancient ruins are set among lush jungle full of unique flora and fauna, serving as a perfect hiking destination.
One day we stretched our sunburnt limbs on the sands of Cabo Beach. Between bouts of swimming in the clear waters and watching the play of shadows thrown by palms onto granite boulders, we would meander to a food stand to buy another cold coconut or some ice cream. The hours passed easily, and as people drifted back to their camps, we had an enormous stretch of beach almost to ourselves.
We had already walked the few miles from our campground to La Piscina by the time the sun crept over the waves, rolling gently from the east.
The following morning, we set out before dawn from the campground at Cabo San Juan for a hike. The early hour ensured empty trails and not a soul stirred the dewy canvasses as we walked through the campground.
We had already walked the few miles from our campground to La Piscina by the time the sun crept over the waves, rolling gently from the east. The aptly named beach offers quiet blue waters sheltered by a tight crescent of smooth granite boulders and a small reef. This stretch of sand, popular with families, was completely quiet at 6 a.m.
The journey to El Pueblito
With the morning warming and the rising sun burning off the inshore mist, we turned inland, away from the lapping waves, the inviting sand and the crowds. Enveloped by dense tropical dry forest, we trudged along a muddy path snaking past boulders and across streams.
We were uncertain of the exact directions and we had past the last trail sign — a tiny piece of rotten wood that hung crooked from a stump, "Pueblito" barely decipherable — at least 30 minutes back. Fortunately, local workers on horseback headed our way, nodding at my pointed finger and inquiry, "Pueblito?"
The trail swung away from the coast in earnest and started to climb into the mountains. No switch-backs, turns or steps; we just climbed a loamy scar carved by countless feet into the hillside, crawling up the steepening slope through thicker and thicker forest.
No switch-backs, turns or steps; we just climbed a loamy scar carved by countless feet into the hillside, crawling up the steepening slope through thicker and thicker forest.
Tayrona National Park is famous for its abundance of birds, reptiles and mammals, and even near exhaustion, with corneas stinging from profuse sweating, we managed to spot the rare cotton-top tamarin. The endangered pint-sized primates passed in a small family party through the canopy, the males glaring at us with their comical white crests as the young and females moved out of sight.
The trail dragged on past the two hour anticipated hike, and by hour number three, we were getting suspicious and worried. Then we reached a sign, an actual sign, clearly pointing "Pueblito" to the left.
We stumbled on and found a curious looking mound, an open grassy areas encircled by carved rocks and a set of ancient stairs leading uphill into a dead end of downed wood and verdant tangles. Finally we had reached the ruins of El Pueblito.
A never-ending endeavor
These ruins are much smaller than the more famous Tayrona ruins of the Lost City, but their serene and beautiful setting makes for a unique experience. The Tayrona people built this large city several hundred years ago, placing it in the cool lush mountains to escape the harsher climate of the coast.
We spent several hours wandering along restored stairways that led to the top of empty mounds where the Tayrona had built their houses. We marveled at an intricate system of rock channels, stone bridges and aqueducts that controlled flooding and irrigation.
We spoke with the local caretaker and archeologist, who first informed us that we had missed the hiking trail and had taken the long horse route instead (that explained the riders at the start of the trail). He also said that the large excavated area that we saw was only a fraction of the ancient city, most of which remained buried beneath jungle.
A handful of local children, wearing traditional white shirts and pants, stained green and dusty, slashed at thick vines and dense grass with dull machetes.
The archeologist, with the help of local Koguis, direct descendants of the Tayrona, was working to control the vegetation that grew lush and rampant, threatening to engulf the plaza of smooth table-sized stones. A handful of local children, wearing traditional white shirts and pants, stained green and dusty, slashed at thick vines and dense grass with dull machetes. The task seemed insurmountable.
While hundreds of people mingled on the beaches below, only a handful made the hike to the ruins, leaving us to sit in peace and wonder what the city looked like several hundred years ago.
On the return we took the actual walking trail, a shorter yet more adventurous route built by the Tayrona to reach the beaches below, which still contained many old stone bridges and steps. It roughly followed a rushing stream plunging through a ravine clogged with enormous rocks. The path wound up, down and around boulders, even passing through miniature caves.
We spilled from the forest utterly exhausted, but exhilarated, and just in time to spend an hour or two at La Piscina, toes curled in the sand, sucking cold coconut milk through a straw.
Tayrona National Park becomes extremely busy during the local holiday season and often closes completely once capacity is reached, so call ahead to make sure you can enter. A wide range of accommodations, from tents to cabins, are available at several beaches. Although it is not mentioned in the guidebooks, plastic bags are not allowed in the park; pack all snacks and gear accordingly.
The closest airport with regular international flights is in Cartagena, one of the oldest cities in the Americas. It takes three or four hours by shuttle or bus to get from Cartagena to Santa Marta via Barranquilla. It is also possible to fly into Santa Marta from major airports in Colombia.
From Santa Marta, a short bus ride takes visitors to the official entrance at Canaveral. After paying the entrance fee and getting a permit another short shuttle ride drops visitors at Canaveral near the beaches. From here it is a 45 minute walk to Arrecifes, the first worthwhile stop to camp. An hour's hike further down the coast lies Cabo San Juan Beach, with more accommodation and restaurants.