Colombia’s Caribbean Coast
Forget the frenetic energy of downtown Bogotá, or the sizzling salsa of Cali, Caribbean Colombia is all about the chill. In vibe that is, because temperatures here stay as hot as the Caribbean colours in its coastal towns all year round.
Throw colonial, cobbled cities into this coastline’s heady mix of rainforest, mountains and stretches of pure golden sand and you’ll understand why Colombia’s Caribbean coast is often the grand finale to vacations here. The bougainvillea-filled balconies of Cartagena’s UNESCO-listed old town streets vibrate with an energy rooted in its Spanish, Colombian and Afro-Caribbean roots, while in Tayrona National Park you’ll be hiking through lush forests to reach some of the most glorious, and gloriously secluded, beaches in the Americas.
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CartagenaGuidebooks wax lyrical about Cartagena’s old-town charms, and with good reason – stories of pirates and treasure, colourful colonial architecture and a distinctly Caribbean rhythm add up to a city that rivals Peru’s Cusco for the crown of ‘most captivating in South America’. One of the first cities founded by the Spanish in South America and quickly the main Spanish port, Cartagena’s labyrinth of UNESCO-listed cobbled streets are lined with brightly painted houses and fruit stalls. Wooden balconies overflowing with flowers provide a seductive backdrop to hidden plazas and colonial churches, while a steamy, heady mix of Caribbean, Colombian and African influences produce a lively street culture.
Walk the old city walls and explore the ramparts of the San Felipe Fortress, the largest Spanish fort in the Americas. Alternatively, head for a night out in lively Getsemaní, Cartagena’s up-and-coming district of sizzling salsa bars and excellent local restaurants. Don’t miss the city’s street food either. Tasty arepas, unleavened maize flour patties stuffed with egg and ground beef, are ubiquitous, while those with a sweet tooth should head for “el Portal de los dulces” in the colonnades of Plaza de los Coches. Here you’ll find all kinds of traditional, colourful Colombian candies including cocadas, made from shredded coconut.
Fishing VillagesSet on a narrow spit of land between the Caribbean Sea and the Cienago de la Virgen lagoon, and just 20 minutes from Cartagena, the tiny coastal village of La Boquilla is a gateway to sublime mangrove swamps filled with endemic birdlife. Join a cooperative of local fishermen offering tours through the natural mangrove tunnels to tucked-away lagoons and maybe even taste some of their catch – served up in the traditional local way with coconut rice, plantain and salad. It’s also possible to visit a social project here, set up to support the children of poor fishermen.
If you prefer to simply get away from it all, then peaceful Palomino – some 70km to the east of Santa Marta – offers a laid-back beach-town vibe and an unbroken, mostly uninhabited stretch of pure golden sand. Although the water here can be rough you can still enjoy spellbinding Caribbean sunsets after days spent cooling off in a hotel pool.
Rosario IslandsOften included as an easy optional day trip from Cartagena, the snorkelling around the 30 Rosario Islands’ reefs is magnificent. This national park protects one of the country’s most significant coral ecosystems – home to turtles, sharks and a plethora of colourful reef fish. Dive or snorkel, kayak through mangrove forests or relax on the islands’ pristine coral beaches with a bowlful of delicious local seafood.
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Santa MartaSouth America’s second-oldest surviving colonial city and the gateway to Tayrona National Park has a colourful past. Most famous as the place where great South American liberator Simón Bolivar took his final breath, Santa Marta was also once a hot bed of illicit smuggling. These days it’s tourists, not pirates, that visit the city’s historic streets, beautiful beaches and excellent restaurants, bars and cafes.
Tayrona National Park
Once home to the indigenous Tayrona Indians, Tayrona National Park protects Colombia’s picture-perfect tropical coastline. Here, mountains blanketed in humid jungle give way to swathes of golden sand beaches, backed by coconut palms and giant marbles of smooth granite.
It’s totally secluded with no access by car or road, so you’ll need to walk for your beach time. Moderately challenging hikes of a few hours take you along (sometimes) steep and rough trails through the rainforest, where monkeys swing overhead, iguanas saunter across your path and all manner of jungle creatures flit through the foliage. Once you reach the beach area at Arrecifes you can choose to snorkel among the local reefs, tuck into a tasty lunch of freshly-caught seafood at one of the beach-side food stalls or simply kick back and enjoy the serenity.
Alternatively, a four-to-five hour return hike from Arrecifes takes you to one of Tayrona’s most picturesque spots, el Pueblito. Here the ruins of pre-Hispanic terraces from the former Tayrona Indian culture jostle for space among the trees.
How to get thereSmall group tours will include Colombia’s Caribbean coast as a grand-finale to a longer tour of the country. Most will make use of the country’s network of regional airports and save time by flying north from Colombia’s more southerly attractions – you’ll likely arrive into airports at Santa Marta or Cartagena and explore the region over ground from there. Vacation specialists offering bespoke tours in Colombia can tailor your itinerary to take in as much of that laid-back Caribbean atmosphere as you wish.
However you travel, be aware that a certificate of Yellow Fever Vaccination may be recommended for entry into Tayrona National Park and the Rosario Islands. Check with the specialist running your tour for full, up-to-date details.
How safe is it?Colombia has had its fair share of bad press, but in reality the few dangerous pockets of the country are isolated far from the tourist trail and local people are keen to shed previous negative associations. Expect a warm, Caribbean welcome to this part of Colombia, with plenty of smiles and invitations to join in with some sizzling salsa.
Best time to go
Colombia’s Caribbean coast is hot and humid year-round, making a dip in the sea an enticing prospect in all seasons. Temperatures in Cartagena rarely move from the low 30°Cs, which can be sweltering in the heart of the city. You’ll want to allow plenty of time to wander slowly between its main attractions or head to Santa Marta where a slightly drier, cooler microclimate feels a little more comfortable.
The Caribbean coast is at its wettest in September and October and driest from December to March. The latter is peak season and brings peak prices –and relatively for Colombia, crowds. You’ll want to book early to secure accommodation in places like Cartagena and Tayrona National Park.
Be aware that Tayrona National Park is often closed to tourists throughout February to allow local communities to perform traditional rituals, as well as clean and maintain the park.
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The best time to go to Colombia is in December to March, when the Andes are drier.
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