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Go to Tayrona National Park for Free

Go to Tayrona National Park for Free, Free Camping in Tayrona, Alternative Entrances to Tayrona National Park, the Downside of Tayrona, Map of Alternative Tayrona Entrances, Tayrona Park Management, Owners of Tayrona Park, Who Runs Tayrona National Park in Colombia.

The Other Side of Tayrona - A Cautionary Tale

When you visit Tayrona for the first time, it will enchant you. Especially if you make it as far as La Piscina and Cabo San Juan. There is geographic, meteologic phenomenon that occurs in those 25 km2 that creates an energy which you probably are no better equipped to explain than I. But you feel it.

You also feel it in your wallet. Assuming you are not a Colombian citizen, entrance alone will cost you roughly $20, and that is only the beginning. Food is roughly 4X more expensive than equivalent meals would be just 5km outside the parks entrance. Hammock camping, which elsewhere in Colombia runs between $3-$5 per night, will cost you $10-$15, and even campsites are charged by the person. If you are comfortable paying U.S. / European prices this may seem like a negligible cost for your vacation in paradise. If you’re on a tight budget over a long trip, a few days in Tayrona can set you back weeks.

After the first time visiting the park, I made a few disgruntled comments about prices to expats living in the Santa Marta area and learned a bit more about the Park’s ownership. While Tayrona was declared a National Park in 1964, management of the park is leased to a French company operating out of Bogota. The local perception (and we have no way of verifying this) is that it is being run at a significant profit, with little money going back into the park or the surrounding community)

Free Entrances to Tayrona

There are at least 3 ways you can potentially the park for free:

  1. Walking along the beach from Los Naranjos, just north of the parks entrance.
    This seems too easy, but I’ve heard it works. You will have to pay 3.000-5.000 COP to enter Los Naranjos—negligable compared to the 35.000 required for Tayrona. The problem with this is it puts you right in the middle of the controlled zone. So no camping except in designated areas, no fires or cookstoves, etc. And you’re there without a wristband.
  2. Enter at the Calabazo entrance before 6 AM.  (Recommended)
    This is said to be a tried and tested method, but obviously it requires a very early start. However this entrance gives you an opportunity to pass through La Pueblita. (Lets face it, once you hike to the beach, you’re probably not going to embark on a 3hr trek up the mountain to see it!
  3. Enter through the little village of Mexico.
    The Mexico entrance offered the most discrete entrance into the park, provided the opportunity to see a totally new section of Tayrona, and had the additional benefit of dropping us out on a rarely traveled beach. For guerilla campers on budgets, this seemed like the obvious choice.

GPS Track for Mexico Entrance

Map of Mexico Entrance to Tayrona National Park

(Sorry, GPS battery died just before beach)

The Mexico Entrance

We arrived in Mexico around 11AM, and were told by the locals that there was a guard at the gate, but that he never stayed long. He told us to hide in his back yard, and sure enough, after 5 minutes, the guard left and we were given the go ahead.

Tayrona National Park Entrance Sign at Mexico Trailhead

For the next 3 hours, we treked through the jungle on a trail that was fairly apparent, though there were some sketchy ledges and tough inclines. In the final third of the trip, you will reach the mangrove forest, at which point you simply follow the riverbed to the ocean. Along the way there few wonderful swimming holes. For the full 3 hour hike we did not see another soul.

When arrived at the beach, we were exausted and ready for a swim, but before we even had a chance to sit down, we were met by 3 men, at least one of whom worked for the park. They argued vehemently with us 30 minutes on whether we had the right to enter the park along this path and after making no progress whatsoever we embarked on what was supposed to be a 45 minute hike to a beach where camping was permitted.

Extortion in Tayrona National Park

Instead of a 45 minute hike, we were taken on a 2-3 hr trek to a miserable—and appropriately named—beach Playa del Muerto (Beach of the Dead). This was the guards’ family property. Mosquitos were terrible, the place was run down, and we were in no mood to pay these guys for camping.

They then proceeded to demand 200.000 COP ($115 USD) for a 25 minute ride back to Santa Marta that they were making with or without us. Complete and unadulterated extortion.

I continue to believe this entrance is viable, (though I admit I won’t be trying it again any time soon). You need to arrive at the beach at sunset. It was a 2+ hour hike from that beach to the nearest road, store, etc, so the guards have to leave by 3:30 or 4:00PM at the absolute latest. It is also hard to imagine that they come every day as there was absolutely no one else on the trail or beach. But if extorting money is what they are going for, than maybe it is worth their while.

Tayrona Park Management

200.000 COP is ridiculous amount of money. If you try this and run into these guys, don’t let them push you around. We got the ride out for 50.000 COP for 3 of us, and there is no way anyone should pay a peso more.  Furthermore, pressure needs to be put on the government to get rid of this contract. National Parks should not be for profit entities where extortion to this degree is tolerated.

If you've never been to Colombia before, you may think this sort of thing is commonplace throughout the country.  I say emphatically: It Is NOT!  It is a shame that it is allowed to go on in one the of the country’s most beautiful and most visited national treasures. There are good reasons expats living in Santa Marta do not visit Tayrona, and price is only part of it. Park management is atrocious, greedy, and criminal.

Let me be clear: We followed a path that was marked Tayrona National Park. There were no “do not enter” signs or fences, but signs directing us to our desired destination.  Unfortunately others have had similar experiences in Tayrona as well.  Take this information as you will. If you have money and a few days, it is an amazing place. But its beauty and energy is being sucked out by the people who are running it.