One of Colombia's most popular national parks, Tayrona grips the Caribbean coast in a jungly bear hug at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The park stretches along the coast from the Bahía de Taganga near Santa Marta to the mouth of the Río Piedras, 35km to the east, and covers some 12,000 hectares of land and 3000 hectares of sea.
The scenery varies from sandy beaches along the coast in the north to rainforest at an altitude of 900m on the southern limits of the park. The extreme western part is arid, with light-brown hills and xerophytic plant species such as cacti. The central and eastern parts of the park are wetter and more verdant, largely covered by rainforest. May, June and September to November are the wettest periods. At least 56 endangered species call the park home, but most stay out of sight, deep within the forest.
The region was once the territory of the Tayrona people, and some archeological remains have been found in the park. The most important of these are the ruins of the pre-Hispanic town of Pueblito (called Chairama in the indigenous language), considered to have been one of Tayrona's major settlements. Here the remains of more than 500 dwellings were discovered, estimated to have been home to 4000 people at one point in history.
For many travelers the park's biggest attraction is its gorgeous beaches, which are set in deep bays, backed by mountains and shaded by coconut palms. However, vicious currents mean that most are not suitable for swimming, though you can take a dip and snorkel (with great care) at a select few. Look out for the red flags and never go in the water where you see them; many foolhardy swimmers drown each year. Snorkeling gear is available for rental in the park. Mosquito repellent is essential and be wary of snakes in the area.
One important thing to keep in mind: high season attracts huge numbers of people. By far the best time to visit is the low season (February to November). Otherwise, be prepared for the possibility that much of Tayrona's undeniably world-class charms may be lost in the crowds.