El Cabo San Juan: The Best Beach in Parque Tayrona

El Cabo San Juan Beach in Parque Tayrona, Colombia
El Cabo San Juan Beach in Parque Tayrona.

El Cabo San Juan beach is an undeveloped tropical paradise in Parque Tayrona. Situated along the northeast Caribbean coast, it’s easy to access and deserving of its reputation as one of Colombia’s, if not South America’s, prettiest beaches.

To get there requires a little bit of effort, but it’ll be worth it.  Santa Marta is the main jumping off point for visits to Parque Tayrona. You can book a cheap flight, or take a bus if you’re already within Colombia.

Once in Santa Marta, or the nearby fishing village of Tanganga, the most popular way to reach the entrance of Parque Tayrona is to book a shuttle service from your hostel or hotel. I booked my trip at La Casa de Felipe in Tanganga, which you can do whether or not you’re staying there.

The cost was about 15,000 pesos ($8.50), and it turned out to be the not-so-quick and comfortable way to go. They squashed as many people as possible into the minivan, and when the last few travelers who booked the shuttle saw their only comfortable option would be the roof, they took a more costly taxi instead.

And I bet they got there a lot faster than us, as we stopped several times for people to get money from ATM’s, as well as snacks and water.

Arrecifes Beach
After an easy 30-minute walk through the jungle, Arrecifes Beach will be your first view of the Parque Tayrona coastline.

Once on our way, it wasn’t more than an hour’s drive up the coast to the park entrance. Foreigners pay 34,000 pesos ($19) to enter, while most Colombians pay 13,000 ($7.50).

The shuttle will drive you further into the park. If you’ve arranged your own transport, such as a taxi, make sure it drives you to the start of the trail as well. If you make the mistake of being let off at the park entrance, you’ll have a minimum 1-hour walk along a paved road that looked very boring. Don’t waste your energy to save a few dollars.

At the start of the trail, you’ll see some horses for rent. The cost is about 16,000 pesos ($9). If you choose to walk, as most do, it’s an easy 30 minutes through the jungle, on a clearly marked trail. It can get muddy in places, so you’ll be more comfortable in shoes. If you only bring flip flops, it’s still possible, but will be faster (if not more painful) barefoot.

After a half hour, you’ll start hearing the crashing waves, at which point you’ll emerge from the jungle on a rocky outcropping. The way down isn’t clearly marked, so if you find yourself at a dead end requiring rock climbing skills, you’re going the wrong way. Back up and look for the trail down to Arrecifes beach.

This first beach has dangerous riptides, and it’s not advised that you swim there. Several hundred visitors have died along these beaches, so don’t become a statistic. That said, I did the initial jungle walk with a rowdy group of six Chileans, and upon seeing this first beach, they immediately went for a swim in the shallows, despite a clearly heavy surf.

El Cabo
View of the camping, hammock, and restaurant area of Finca Cabo San Juan.

Arrecifes beach is the first of three. It’s about a 50-minute walk to the second, named La Piscina. Both of these beaches have fincas where you can stay, however both are more popular with Colombians than foreigners, who prefer the more picturesque El Cabo San Juan.

It takes about an hour and a half walking at a leisurely rate to reach El Cabo San Juan, which features a single finca with restaurant, hammocks, and camping ground.  A short walk beyond El Cabo is a nude beach, however this is generally only visited by sun worshipers staying at El Cabo.

2011 prices for accommodations at Finca Cabo San Juan are:

  • Cabin:  50,000 pesos  ($28)
  • Hammock on rocks: 25,000 pesos  ($14)
  • Hammock by beach: 20,000 pesos ($11)
  • Tents: 25,000 pesos  ($14)
  • Own hammock or tent: 15,000 pesos  ($8.50)

Prices are per person. Checkout is 2 PM.  Electricity runs from 6 PM to 10 PM, though sometimes the generator is on during the day too. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Prices range from 8,000 to 20,000 pesos ($5 – $11) per meal.

Bring snacks, but there’s no point bringing all your own food and water. It’s heavy to carry, you need to supply your own pots/utensils, and no fires are allowed.

The best place to spend the night is a hammock in the bungalow on the rocks. It offers 360-degree views of the sea and coastline.

In addition to better views, you’ll only hear the crashing waves below, whereas guests staying at the campground are exposed to the noise from the generator every night. Plus, the campground is set back from the water (and therefore sea breeze), so mosquitoes are a potentially bigger problem. Rented hammocks include mosquito nets.

El Cabo San Juan
Two girls cross the small stream that splits the two beaches of El Cabo.

But there are a few downsides to staying in the hammocks on the rocks as well. Due to your exposure to the wind, it can get chilly at night. Definitely bring a change of warm clothes for the nights, such as a hoodie and pants. A light sleeping bag would also work well. The finca rents blankets for a small fee.

I had a base layer, t-shirt, and thin hoodie, along with board shorts, and was still cold enough to shiver. It took me an hour or two to fall asleep, but once I did, I slept pretty well and there were no issues with mosquitoes.

Another downside to staying high up on the rocks is your ability to access them. Namely, it requires crossing a small stream that cuts through the sandy split between beaches. At low tide, it’s only a foot or two deep, with a gentle current — no big deal. At high tide, it’s a different story. The water can be chest-high, and the current out to sea is much stronger.

The sandy split of El Cabo at high tide
At high tide, the stream between beaches became much deeper, giving beachgoers a greater reason to pause.

Unfortunately, as I found out during my stay, the tide comes in during the early evening.

Picture this, you enjoy a nice dinner with new friends, maybe a few beers, and then are walking back to the cabin with just a head torch to light your way.

What was once an easy-to-cross stream has become a torrent of muddy water. You have no choice but to wade through the water, and climb up on the exposed rock that acts as a partial bridge. From the rock, you have to make a short leap onto a wet wooden plank held in place by a few sandbags. Oh, and it might be raining too.

So I think part of why I was shivering before falling asleep was the fact that I had to get soaking wet to return to the hammocks. They don’t warn you about this when you choose where to stay.

While I only had a beer or two, several girls got properly drunk, and I could hear their screams as they waded through the cold water to get back to their hammock later in the evening.

View of the popular bungalow with hammocks
The bungalow atop the rocks features about 15 hammocks on the main level, and 2-3 private bedrooms on the second floor.

When the sun is out, the main beach at El Cabo San Juan is the hub of activity. It could easily be a beach in the South Pacific. Guys love climbing on the big rocks, while most of the girls are happy to work on their tans.

Speedboat service
A speedboat service shuttles travelers once a day between El Cabo San Juan and Taganga for about $20 (one way).

There are several ways to exit El Cabo San Juan.

You can walk back the way you came, which can take about two hours, and then catch a bus or taxi back to Santa Marta. You can rent a horse to speed up the experience. Or my personal preference, pay 40,000 pesos ($25) for a seat on the daily speedboat back to Taganga.

The boat ride lasts 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the seas. One Aussie girl I spoke with who took the boat to El Cabo San Juan said it was the worst boating experience of her life, and she’d spent time working on cruise ships. Apparently the sea was rough, and the boat bounced up and down violently, causing her to get doused with water the whole trip.

My ride back to Taganga was perfect, and a fun way to see a section of the coast that isn’t otherwise accessible.

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Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    loved it dave, took me back….altho looks and sounds like its getting busier and busier, they have a speedboat shuttle service now…..yikes, the developing beast of tourism….the place is a far cry from when the character ‘mark’ traveled it in the famous book ‘the gringo trail’..
    happy days, nice post

    • says

      Glad you enjoyed it. I was talking to a Colombian friend last night, and she said there were like 600 people camped out there when she last went a few years ago.

      To be fair, it was during the popular Semana Santa (Holy Week) vacation period for Colombians, but she still said it was gross (because the finca only has 4 toilets!

      I do wish they’d make a sturdier bridge to the hammocks on the rocks — it’s not fun getting cold and wet right before you have to go to sleep.

  2. Anonymous says

    loved it dave, took me back….altho looks and sounds like its getting busier and busier, they have a speedboat shuttle service now…..yikes, the developing beast of tourism….the place is a far cry from when the character ‘mark’ traveled it in the famous book ‘the gringo trail’..
    happy days, nice post

  3. says

    Beautiful beach photos Dave.It strikes a similarity with the beaches here in the Philippines especially those of Bucas Grande Island. I love the bungalow atop the rocks. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Catacus says

    Yes, the crowds at Cabo are getting bigger and bigger! Unfortunately the park is taking in a bunch of money, but not investing it into infrastructure.

    • says

      I actually thought the hike into Cabo was fine. There were some new raised walkways being built in the first 30 minutes through the jungle, and the beach part was fine. I just wish the Cabo finca would ensure a better way for visitors to get to the bungalow on the rocks.

      I’d rather it stay the way it is now and be on the more rustic side, then end up over-developed. I think that’s the biggest appeal for backpackers…the sense that you’re getting away from the cities and civilization.

  5. says

    I love tayrona and Cabo San Juan, I love walking there and the bakery after Arrecifes that sells the chocolate bread maiden in stone stove. I love the small roads full of trees and the sound of the sea when approaching to your destiny. Certainly, don’t go during holly week, or the first days of January, it is full of people. Other wonderful places to know near Taganga and tayorona: Bahia Concha, Cabañas de Buritaca, Quebrada Valencia,  pozos colorados, Neguanje, and if you have enough time and money, Cabo de la Vela in Guajira.

  6. Nick says

    thanks so much for a great piece. a friend had raved about this trip and my girlfriend and I are thrilled to check it out in a couple weeks (Dec 18th or 19th). Is there a way to reserve the cabins beforehand? should I bring a tent? We have a couple weeks of travel leading up to this trip, so I hoping to avoid lugging it around if i can.

    • says

      I’m guessing there is a way to reserve in advance, you might want to Google around. There’s only one accommodation at Cabo San Juan beach.

      There’s space for pitching a tent, but the ground can get kind of wet. I don’t own the equipment, and preferred to spend my night in a hammock on the rocky outcropping.

      You just have to bring warm clothes as it can get windy up there, and you’re exposed.

  7. Diana says

    Hi Dave, Thanks for the good words about my country, i assume you had been traveling all around Colombia, I hope that you had the chance to go to San Cipriano near Buenaventura Pacific ocean, Is a rain forest only accessible by Brujita. If you have not…Please go is another type of paradise amazing river with Cristal clear waters.

  8. Dominic says

    Cabo San Juan is one of the nicest beaches on hearth, but also one of the hardest to get to.

    U can drive to the entrance of the park , or take the many buses from every city nearby , including Santa Marta, Taranga or Rododero. The entrance cost if 40000 pesos ($20)From there u have to treck for at least 2 hours to get to this beach, and this is the one you want to see if any. the next two are also beautifull and very close to walk to. U can also take the daily speedboat from Taranga that leaves at 10:30 am eveery day and leaves the beach to come back at 4pm.

    The boat cost 45000 pesos ($25 ) each way. And its a 45 minutes ride to hell. Think of it as a rollercoaster on water, with lots of water, totally drenching you and the up to 49 others crammed onboard. Unless your in luck and the waters are calm that day of course ( very unlikely). U do not pay the park any fee by boat.

    On the other hand the treck is long but if your not carrying huge backpacks, its totaly feasable and u can hire a horse or donkey for $9 each way to help or ride on. Som people even bring rollerboards suitcases with them on horses.
    I strongly reccomend spendin at least one night there, many options are available, food and toilets to but NO showers . My fav is the caabana on the hill.

    Enjoy paradise.

    • says

      I agree it’s one of the nicest beaches on Earth, but it’s really not that hard to get to. Like you said, you can take a bus or taxi, or even a boat.

      And the hike from the park entrance is not that long, only a few hours on a marked trail, and along the beach.

  9. Juliana says

    Hi Dave,

    Great report on Tayrona, I’m going next January. Do you remember what time the daily boat to Taganga leaves El Cabo? Is there only one boat per day? Thanks a lot!

    • says

      I was in Tayrona back in May 2011, so it might’ve changed, but I remember the boat left Taganga in the early afternoon, probably around 12pm or 1pm. I remember because it rained the night before, but the following morning was beautiful, so I spent it enjoying the beach before heading back.

      I enjoyed walking into the park, as it’s kind of fun to discover this section of coastline, but I was more than happy to take the boat out!

  10. Christina says

    Hey! I am a Canadian backpacker looking to stay at Finca Cabo San Juan but I cannot find a way to reserve a spot. Please let me know how you went about booking your stay and if you recommend it for a single girl traveller. Thanks so much!!

    • says

      I didn’t book in advance, I just arrived and lucked out to get a hammock, otherwise I would’ve rented a tent (which comes with a mattress, I believe).

      Unless you’re visiting during a public holiday, you should be fine, but maybe your accommodation in Taganga or Santa Marta can help make a reservation before you go into Tayrona.

      This part of Parque Tayrona is very popular with foreign tourists, especially backpackers, so I think you’d be fine traveling alone.

  11. Chris Burns says

    Do we need to reserve the hammocks beforehand? If so, can you direct me on how to do so?

    Thanks,

    – Chris

    • says

      A quick Google search shows that it doesn’t seem any easier to find that information online today than it did in 2011. Chances are you’ll spend at least one night, if not more, in Santa Marta or Taganga before you go to Parque Tayrona. You should be able to get better info at the hostels these.

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