We unfortunately have run short on time in our visit to Colombia, so we were only able to preview the Caribbean coast line. We flew from Medellin to Santa Marta and spent a week exploring the coast.
This beach town is more of a gateway for tourists to other destinations like Tayrona National Park, Minca, and the Cuidad Perdida (lost city trek). The town itself has a small historic center with a few good restaurants and shopping streets, but the best beaches and jungles are outside the city.
We stayed in a cheap hostel outside the downtown that is not worth a mention. We visited Playa Blanca per advice of Trip Advisor and friends. From the city, you take a cab for 10,000-15,000 Pesos ($3.50-$5) depending where you are staying to Rodadero beach. Then you will hop on a boat for 10-15 minutes to Playa Blanca. Be careful to not get help from one of the guys on the beach or they will consider themselves your guide and expect you to eat at certain restaurants so they get a commission (this happened to us).
The boat ticket is 12,000 round trip ($4)- don’t lose your ticket or you won’t get back. In our case, we had no ticket but couldn’t lose our guide. Once on the beach, there’s tons of restaurants with almuerzos for 22,000 ($7) including fried fish, fish soup, salad, and rice.
You can go on the zip line or rent a snorkel for 10,000 Pesos for an hour ($3). There’s rocks along the cove with pretty fish. The water is clear blue and refreshing, but it’s a very crowded beach. We experienced it being full of Colombian families though and not Gringos. The last boat returns at 4:30/5pm.
Tayrona National Park
You can visit the park on a day trip from the city, but I suggest staying at least one night near or in the park. You can catch a local colectivo bus from the city heading to Tayrona and Palomino for 12,000 Pesos ($4). The bus is green and white and leaves every 45 minutes approximately.
We chose to stay at Eco Hostal Yuluka, 1km from the park, to get there early and beat the crowds. The hostel was beautiful! Even though it’s on the main highway into the park, it feels like a paradise in the jungle. They have dormitories with 8 beds and A/C with bathroom for $12/bed or private doubles for $60/night. Their free breakfast is delicious and gives you a choice of three options that change every day. Lunch and dinner are affordable and delicious too.
There’s a small swimming pool oasis with a slide and waterfall, nice for relaxing after a visit to the park. They also offer a free shuttle to the El Zaino park entrance every morning at 8am. It’s totally worth a stay.
You need to arrive early at the park, because the lines are already long at 8:30am and they do have a cap on how many people they let in each day. They also close for the whole month of February for maintenance.
The ticket costs 54,500 Pesos in high season ($20) and 44,500 in off season ($15). It’s only valid for one entrance, so you can’t exit and re-enter on the same ticket. You can camp at one of the beaches overnight by renting a tent or hammock at the ticket booth. I suggest this as its well worth staying more than a day.
From the ticket booth, you can walk a half hour or pay 3000 Pesos ($1) for a Colectivo van to drive you in. They do wait until every seat is full to go. Then at the entrance you can rent horses or walk in. There’s a detour to the right to see a mirador and Los Narajos beach. We skipped that in the interest of time.
We sadly only had a half day to visit the park and get out, because I was sick on our original planned day and we had a bus to catch that evening in Santa Marta. I don’t suggest rushing it like we did. The park is a paradise!!
You hike one hour through the jungle where you can spot wildlife like the monkeys we saw in the trees. There’s campgrounds along the way. The path is on wooden boardwalks up and down steps and winding through the hills. Once you see the ocean it’s another hour to the last beach- Cabo San Juan that everyone goes to.
Along the way you’ll see native villagers selling fruit and coconuts. The first two beaches you cannot swim at due to a strong current. Then you reach Arrecifes with its lagoon and ocean between the boulders. Don’t swim in the lagoons that are home to crocodiles. You can swim in the ocean though. There’s also a restaurant on the beach and tents to rent.
Then ten more minutes hiking takes you to the next beach, La Piscina. This beach has coral reefs and you can rent a snorkel for $16. The water is super clear and the beach is long and white. We fell in love with this less crowded beach and enjoyed a dip here on our way back out.
Another 20 minute hike through the woods brings you to Cabo. The beach is a W shape with the middle path of sand separating the two U shaped beaches. The middle leads to a gazebo lookout with hammocks. This beach is crowded! It’s beautiful and refreshing, but the restaurant has long lines and the sand is overpopulated with people. It’s worth a look, but wasn’t our favorite beach.
We definitely want to return to the park and stay a night. It’s so pristine and well maintained! Hopefully in off season it’s less crowded too. You can also buy tickets in advance to get in the park faster.
*from Santa Marta you can also visit Palomino on the other side of the park and Taganga! We missed out on these, but heard great things. Also, save time for visiting the Sierra Mountains in Minca, it’s an hour from Santa Marta and supposed to be beautiful and refreshing as well. There’s also the five day Lost City trek to the “Machu Picchu” of Colombia. These are all on our list for our next visit.
Our last stop on the coast was Cartagena. You can catch a “4 hour”, more like 6 hour, bus from Santa Marta to Cartagena. This city is way different and extremely hot and humid. It’s a UNESCO Wold Heritage City surrounded by 6.8 miles of stone walls erected by the Spaniards to protect from other countries invading. It’s colorful, vibrant, full of salsa music, and Caribbean flavors.
Cartagena itself doesn’t have beaches. The walls block the rough ocean that beats on the rocks bordering the city. You can take day trips to the Rosario, Baru, and San Bernardo islands for swimming and snorkeling. You can also visit another Playa Blanca and other nearby beaches. There’s even a mud pool atop a volcano, you can bathe in.
The city provides cruise ships a dock for the day and a flood of tourists barrel through the old city within even more fortified walls to purchase artwork, Panama hats, and expensive food for the day.
We loved the bright colored facades in blood orange, tangerine, and lemon. The cathedrals boast tall spires and vibrant pink and canary domes. The walls display artwork that tells Cartagena’s story. Women portray the stereotype of Caribbean women in white and red frilly dresses with ruffled sleeves and woven baskets full of fruit on their heads. Tourists must pay them for a picture.
Salsa Music blasts out the storefronts and locals hum and shake their hips. Cuba holds influence over the music, the cigars, and the food. Havana night club features live Cuban Salsa bands each night. In the Getsemani district, outside the old city walls, you’ll find more authentic culture and locals living their lives. The prices are also half what you’ll find in the historic center.
As backpackers, we try to avoid the super touristy towns and touristy areas of cities. We’d rather not walk around with the lines of cruise vacationers. So, Cartagena isn’t our favorite city. It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong and the buildings are vibrant, but it’s full of gringos!
We love the door length window sills with purple bars, where locals sit and peer out on the streets. The old wooden doors have fancy baroque door knockers of metal lions, elephants, lizards, and boars. The fortified walls provide a lookout to stare at the church spires and shingled roofs. There’s rusted metal sculptures throughout the city of men playing chess, women at a sewing table, dogs pissing on posts and men pissing on posts, and drunken bar brawls. It’s lively and unique! It’s just too hot, crowded with one-day visitors, and bloody expensive.
Next time, we will visit the islands and the volcano and get a different perspective.