Crystalline beaches, the dense forest of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, the charming historical center of Cartagena, the endless landscapes of La Guajira desert, hidden waterfalls in Minca... This is just a taste of what you'll discover during this itinerary along the Caribbean cost of Colombia.
A region extremely rich in termes of fauna and flora, characterised by many contrasts as the modernity of Cartagena and Santa Marta compared to the historical and cultural heritage of the indigenous communities living in the Sierra Nevada.
In this article we'll explore 8 highlights along the Caribbean coast that will definitely inspire your journey:
Tayrona National Park
Ciudad Perdida Trek
San Andres Island
Ready for a mix of relax, adventure and strong emotions?
Tayrona National Park: tropical forest, white sand beaches & beautiful animals
Our visit of Tayrona park was an incredible immersion in a place like no others in the world.
We started a trek from the entry of Cabelazo and after about 4 hours we left the intense jungle for the unspoiled crystal clear beaches. Apart from its biodiversity, this park is also characterised by the precious heritage of the Tayrona indigenous population occupying the area before the Spanish conquerors.
Cabo San Juan is the most famous beach of the park, but also the most crowded! Don’t stop there, but walk a bit more to reach Piscinas, Playa Nudista and Castilletes which are more unspoiled. You won’t regret it!
We stayed two nights in Tayrona to really enjoy the site and we got out from the other entrance which is called Zaino (about 1h30 by walk). If you don't like hiking, I suggest you to visit the park from this entrance, the path is shorter and easier, but of course more crowded!
Transport and accommodation in Tayrona Park
Tayrona park can be reached with a 40-min bus from Santa Marta departing from the central market.
To really feel the atmosphere of Tayrona, I recommend you to spend two nights in a camping: full equipment available, a lot of fun and the sound of birds to wake you up! We chose Don Pedro camping that offers accommodation in tents, hammocks or huts, it's well equipped and it provides a modest restaurant which is very practical considering the location.
To me, the best option is to stay near the entrance for the night before your visit: I recommend Casablanca Tayrona (relaxing and quiet), Costeno Beach or Los Hermanos (trendy hostels with party atmosphere) which are right outside the park.
Practical tips: don't forget your sun cream, a hat, water and snacks (food inside the park it's quite expensive)
Minca: a natural paradise to relax
Minca is a true natural paradise surrounded by rich vegetation that attracts many European backpackers!
It is located about 1hour from Santa Marta where regular buses leave almost every hour from the central market of the city.
If you're looking for a relaxing break, Minca Ecohabs is the perfect spot. Enchanting wooden huts totally immersed into nature, a delicious breakfast and a breathtaking view. You'll have the impression of enjoying all this just for you!
Here some activities to explore Minca:
Marinca waterfall: the entrance is paying (around 15 000 COP) and gives you access to two waterfall, a restaurant, the famous suspended nets, many services and a small restaurant. You can reach the site with a walk of about 1 hour from Minca;
Pozo Azul is another great waterfall, but I really suggest you to visit it in the earliest hours of the day to avoid the crowd. It's totally free and can be reached with a walk (1h15) from the center or by moto taxi in about 15 minutes;
Los Pinos view point. This trek of about 3 hours will bring you to a special place to admire an incredible landscape: in clear days, you'll be able to see the road to Barranquilla surrounded by the sea! You can combine this trek with a stop to Marinka waterfall in the morning and then continue to Los Pinos. For the way back, you can take another road for Minca passing from Pozo Azul;
A chocolate tour at Finca Carpe Diem to support small producers. The activity includes a chocolate based massage, very funny!
Discover the coffee production at Hacienda la Victoria and try the delicious coffee of Minca characterised by a cocoa taste;
If you're interested in bird watching activities, ask directly to the various tour operators and agencies located in the center of Minca;
Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) 4-day trek: physical effort & endless emotions
Ciudad Perdida, a unique archeological site in Colombia, the hidden pearl in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta. Its origins are uncertain, but studies explain that Ciudad Perdida was built Before Christ, when the Tayrona indigenous community populated the area.
History of Ciudad Perdida The Lost city was actually never lost, in fact the indigenous communities have always been aware of its existence, but were just trying to protect it. When the site was re-discovered in the ‘70s, the so called Guaqueros started destroying it and fought while looking for gold and precious gems. Some years later, the area experienced the violence of guerrillas and coca plantations. It was only in the 80’s that thanks to tourism the site opened its doors to the most adventurous ones, under the control of the farmers of the area and the 4 indigenous communities living here: Wiwa, Kogis, Arhuacos and Kankuamos.
This experience was absolutely one of the most incredible ones in Colombia: intense walking each day, hot and wet weather, early wake up, tired legs, but the eyes were fulfilled by the beauty of Sierra Nevada at each step. Wiwatour perfectly organised our 4-day trek and our indigenous guide Chamaco allowed us to have a real cultural exchange and understand better the lifestyle and values of the communities.
Arriving at Ciudad Perdida was an amazing emotion, this place has definitely a special energy and spirituality that you can feel from the beginning of the trek.
Practical info for Ciudad Perdida/The Lost City
The trek can be done in 4/5/6 days according to your physical preparation and the price starts from 1 400 000 COP/ 250 euro. The agency takes care of everything: transportation, accommodation in camps along the pathway, food and the guide for the entire trek (an optional translator is also possible). Each day you'll walk from 6 to 20km.
Explore La Guajira, the biggest desert in Colombia
La Guajira is the biggest desert in Colombia and an autonomous territory populated by the indigenous community Wayuu. For many years, they fought to protect their lands from Spanish conquerors, British pirates and the Venezuela government looking for peals.
Today, this area is one of the most critical ones in the country because of extreme poverty, lack of basic resources and political controversy. You'll immediately perceive a deep contrast between the social problems and the enchanting landscapes that will remain vivid in your head forever. Here, you'll meet beautiful women, guardians of local traditions and culture, while they make the typical Mochilas, artisanal colourful bags from la Guajira.
How to visit la Guajira?
I strongly suggest you to visit la Guajira with a local agency, we chose to trust Sierraventur Travel that put us in contact with Alta Guajira. The tour can be done in 2 or 3 days if you'd like to reach the Northest point of the continent, Punta Gallina. The cost for 2 days is 440 000 COP/person (about 108euro) and for 3 days is 600 000 COP/person (about 147euro) including transportation with a local driver, accommodation in typical hammocks called Chinchorros (possibility to book a room with an extra cost) and food for the entire journey. Consider about 100 000 COP more if you need an English translator.
The itinerary starts in Riohacha, the capital of Guajira. Here, I suggest you to book a place for the night before the tour in order to be ready early in the morning. Riohacha can be reached by bus with a 3-hour journey from Santa Marta.
Accommodation suggestion: Bona vida hostel
Itinerary to visit La Guajira
First of all, you have to keep in mind that you'll be visiting a desert, so most of the time during this tour you'll observe the landscapes from the window of the Jeep accompanied by the typical music of Vallenato. Distances are quite long and there are various steps each day. The driver will give you basic information and help if you need, but he's not a proper guide unless you ask him specific information.
Day 1: Riohacha - Salina de Manaure (salt extraction) - Pilon de Azucar - Cabo de la vela
Day 2: Cabo de la vela - Wind turbine Camp - Dunas de Taroa - Punta Gallina
Day 3: Punta Gallina - Mirador de Casares - back to Riohacha
Cartagena: the Pearl of the Caribbean
The charm of Cartagena will immediately caught your attention for its elegant and relaxed atmosphere. Despite being an important touristic pole, there are some spots and activities that will make you discover the city as a local:
Enjoying the colours of the sunset from the city walls
Strolling in the narrow streets of the historical center while admiring the colonial architecture
Eating some specialities in an authentic restaurant: Espiritu Santu
Exploring la Boquilla neighbourhood and meet its Afro-Colombian community through a community based tourism project Ecotours la Boquilla
Feeling the dynamic vibe and admire the colourful graffiti of Getsemaní
Experiencing Café Havana for a special dancing night with live salsa concerts
Visiting Bazurto market to discover the local ingredients and try the most typical Colombian recipes. Just for true adventurers, the market is dirty and fascinating at the same time! (pay attention to your stuff!)
Explore San Felipe castle
Take a daily excursion to Rosario Islands in low season to avoid the crowd
Feel the vibe of Santa Marta
Santa Marta is famous for its majestic Cathedral, which is supposed to be the first church built in South America! The city has a strategic position to reach the various spots: Minca, Tayrona park, Ciudad Perdida, Palomino, Taganga... The beach of Santa Marta is nothing special, but from here you can reach crystal clear spots such as Inka Inka, Playa Blanca and Playa Concha through a boat tour.
To really appreciate it, you have to feel its vibe: lively streets, colourful graffiti, music all over the city and the cosmopolitan atmosphere. For a proper tour, check the Free walking tours available.
Here, I took part in a solidarity project to help the creation of a recreational center for the children of a school located in a poor area of the city through Fundacion Francesca. Thanks to a crowdfunding we managed to collect about 500euro!
Ask me for more information if you'd like to make a donation.
Taganga: a charming fishing village
Welcome to a charming fishing village located just a few km from Santa Marta. Be ready to enjoy a spectacular panoramic view on the way to reach it.
Taganga is a natural paradise protected by spectacular mountains which is sadly facing a decline due to mass tourism, drugs and prostitution issues. If you visit it, it's important to support local projects and agencies engaged in the re-valorization of the cultural and natural heritage of this enchanting village, here some ideas:
Diskoncept: scuba diving certificates and events of ocean cleaning, ecological treks, cultural workshops and concerts;
Aecotagang offers boat tours to observe fishes and corals through a glass window!;
Pescaito free tour to discover an authentic neighbourhood of Santa Marta and its history through cultural graffiti;
San Andres Island and 7 shadows of blue
This paradise island is famous for its seahorse shape and 7-colour sea.
San Andres is a raw diamond. The colours of the seaside and the marine richness are incredible, but hide many problems: social inequality, waste collection, mass tourism, lack of cultural valorisation and low quality customer service.
The island is very touristic and pretty expensive, so I really recommend to avoid high season and to book your accommodation in advance. There are cheap flights from Cartagena of about 1h30. We rent a golf cart to explore the most remote areas of the island and this was definitely one of my favourite activities! We stopped in a wooden shack along the beach and met wonderful women from the island, guardians of the local gastronomy.
One thing you can't miss is a boat tour to reach el Acuario, Haynes Cay and Johnny Cay Natural Park. Make sure you do it early in the morning to enjoy snorkelling with colourful fishes or sunbathing on a white sand beach, the clearest I've ever seen! The boat tour is definitely the best way to admire the 7 shadows of blue that characterise the sea around San Andres!
Be aware of touristic traps and always verify the prices and try to negotiate!