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Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) Tayrona
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Introducing Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) Tayrona

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 and 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 in 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 over 500 dwellings were discovered, estimated to have been home to 4000 people at one point in history.

For many travelers (too many in high season), the park's biggest attraction is its beaches, which are set in deep bays and shaded with coconut palms. Vicious currents ensure most are not suitable for swimming, though you can swim and snorkel at a select few. Tayrona beaches are among the most picturesque on Colombia's coast. Some of the beaches are bordered by coral reefs, providing reasonable snorkeling and scuba-diving opportunities. Snorkeling gear is available for rental in the park if you don't bring your own from Santa Marta. Mosquito repellent is essential and be wary of snakes in the area – if you are bitten, Ecohabs keeps antivenin on hand, though most folks don't know it. Do not let them take you to Santa Marta!

About 95% of Tayrona is privately owned and the park is managed by a concession, Aviatur, which seems to do a very good job of building luxury accommodations, but a poor job of maintaining trails.

One important thing to keep in mind: high season nowadays attracts such an influx of tourists that the park's visitor capacities are often ignored. At Cabo San Juan de la Guía in December 2010, the three flush toilets had to be shared between 400 people that had been admitted. The army was called in to make sure no more people could enter. Many travelers complain of overcrowding, poorly maintained trails, dirty bathrooms, and exhausting waits for food and services. Do consider limiting your visit here to the low season (February to November), or be prepared for the possibility that much of Tayrona's undeniably world-class charms may be lost in the crowds.

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