Many visitors to Colombia choose to spend a significant amout of their vacation exploring Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Here I offer a brief guide and some personal advice about how best to visit Colombia’s wonderful Caribbean coastline.
Begin in Cartagena, Colombia’s (and possibly South America’s) most beautiful and romantic colonial city. Stay (for 3-5 nights) in the old town with it’s beautiful old colonial buildings and plazas. Don’t expect the beaches to be good in Cartagena though - head out of town to either Playa Blanca or the Rosario Islands to find lovely beaches with clear water. With time on your hands, spend a couple of extra nights in the Rosario Islands, a wonderful place to relax (though there’s very little to do other than just relax).
Click here for a link to Google Maps (opens in new window) to see about all these places I mention….
From Cartagena, consider catching a flight to the distant Caribbean Island of San Andres. San Andres has some wonderful beaches and is a popular package holiday destination. I personally much prefer the small neighbouring island of Providencia, one of the few remaining beautiful Caribbean Islands yet to see mass tourism. It’s a special place to visit is Providencia, where the locals all speak English. You can catch a boat or little plane to Providencia from San Andres.
Providencia Island - crystalline waters and exquisite beaches
Back in Cartagena, most tourists travel Eastwards along the coast. East from Cartagena are the most interesting and scenic beaches and tourist attractions, though if you prefer to head off the beaten track, you might want to travel Westwards towards Tolu, Covenas and the San Bernardo Islands.
West from Cartagena, the next major destination is Barranquilla (2 hours away). If it’s carnival time, this is the best place to spend carnival. If you like cities and the nightlife that come with them, maybe spend a weekend in Barranquilla. If not, you’re probably better off skipping Barranquilla and heading straight to Santa Marta.
Santa Marta is one of Colombia’s busiest and most popular beach resorts (4 hours East of Cartagena). There’s plenty of all inclusive hotels in the Rodadero district, whilst backpackers tend to stay in the less developed neighbouring town of Taganga, where scuba diving can easily be arranged. Personally I’m not a big fan of Santa Marta and Taganga - there’s much more relaxing and interesting places to visit further East. Santa Marta/Taganga is the staging post for excursions to Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City) - ancient ruins in the depths of the jungle that take 3 days to walk to.
An hour further East of Santa Marta (or Taganga) lies Tayrona National Park. This is a true highlight of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and is home to some of South America’s most scenic beaches. Swimming in the sea is dangerous here, so don’t visit if you have kids. As it’s a National Park, accommodation options are very limited - just one proper hotel (the luxurious Eco-Habs) and a handful of campsites where you can rent a hammock (or a bed in one of the few simple cabanas if you’re lucky and there’s space). Park Tayrona is a great place to spend plenty of time - there’s so many beautiful beaches to explore you could easily spend a week here and not have seen the whole park. Park Tayrona can also be visited on day trips from Santa Marta or Taganga, but it’s much more fun to base yourself in the actual Park and spend plenty of time exploring.
Colombia’s Park Tayrona
Travelling further East from Park Tayrona, it takes about 3 hours until you reach Riohacha, which is the capital of La Guajira province. La Guajira is one of my favourite parts of Colombia - I always recommend to friends that they visit if they have time. It’s a desert region with long stretches of scenic coastline and is populated by indigenous Wayuu Indians, who are a fascinating group of people with whom to interact. Riohacha is the capital, but there’s not much to see there. You’ll probably have to spend a night before travelling onwards to Cabo de la Vela. Cabo de la Vela is the main tourist destination in La Guajira, and is served by public transport from Uribia (so to get a bus from Riohacha ,you’ll need to change in Uribia). With the exception of the high season (Christmas & New Year, Easter Week and mid June to mid July), Cabo de la Vela is a very sleepy town - a desert town full of simple wooden shacks. It’s a great travellers destination, with plenty of simple places to stay (almost all of which are pretty much exactly the same - you’ll probably be in a hammock). There’s some fine beaches and viewpoints within easy walking distance of Cabo de la Vela - it’s a good place to chill for a few nights.
Travelling further East round the coast from Cabo de la Vela, is my favourite part of La Guajira - the little hamlet of Punta Gallinhas. It takes about 4 hours by either car or boat to get here - you’ll have to charter transport locally. Punta Gallinhas happens to be the most northly point in South America - it’s a tremendously beautiful little corner of Colombia. There’s a only couple of places to stay, but it’s well worth the effort to get here.
Travel further East from Punta Gallinhas and you would reach Venezuela - however, crossing the border on the coast is almost impossible (no roads?), so you’ll have to return to Uribia to cross the border into Venezuela. If you don’t want to travel to Venezuela, you could catch a flight (with Avianca) from Riohacha to Bogota.
There you go - enjoy Colombia’s Caribbean. I’ve mentioned just about everywhere that’s worth a visit. More travel information and in depth advice can be found on the Colombia travel guide I write - paisatours.com.