Colombia Itinerary: the Caribbean Coast

Sarah Lempa

Chicago, USA

With mountains, deserts, jungles, and beaches, Colombia takes the cake for landscape diversity. The craziest thing is that you can find all of these geographical features right along the Caribbean coast, along with an impeccable amount of heart, soul, and delicious street food that will mysteriously nab most of your spare pesos. The landscape itself is absurdly captivating, but the unique fusion of culture is what really makes the Caribbean coast so special that it deserves its own Colombia itinerary. Warmth isn’t only applied to the weather here; it’s a holistic staple of the lifestyle and welcoming nature of the region. From breathtaking national parks to historic seaside ports, there are countless things to do in Colombia‘s Caribbean Coast. Here are 8 of our favorites:

Taganga, Colombia

Taganga, Colombia.
Taganga, Colombia.

This semi-sleepy fishing town is only a 15-minute drive from larger Santa Marta, but it feels like an isolated world due to the mountains that sandwich it on either side. The dusty, unpaved streets are lined with activity at night from both locals and travelers alike. Taganga is specially known for scuba diving of all kinds, drawing in rookies and pros from all over the world. Check out Oceano Scuba or Ocean Lovers to join in on some dives.

After a swim, there are a myriad of family restaurants where you can get almuerzo (lunch) for a fabulously cheap price with inviting hospitality to boot. Google Maps won’t point you to them, but taking a stroll down a random, quiet road definitely will. Here’s to playing hide and seek with your meals.

Santa Marta, Colombia

Santa Marta, Colombia
Santa Marta, Colombia

Santa Marta is everything you want in a city without any of the excessively tourist-catered hubbub (for now, anyway). At its heart, this port city has plenty of nightlife and vibrancy to keep you entertained. After hitting the city, this Colombia itinerary recommends that you venture out a little further from the center to find charming, quiet neighborhoods where life seems to glide by with ease from the outside looking in. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at Hostal Kaia, an oasis-like lodging with a pool and a swinging bridge that goes right over it. Oh, and there are hella hammocks all over the place. Use Santa Marta as your home base while you venture out into other nearby areas on the coast.

Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Tayrona National Park, Colombia
Tayrona National Park, Colombia

I never knew the downright majestic splendor that is a palm tree forest until I stepped foot into Tayrona National Park. Add this spot to your Colombia itinerary and find glimmering stretches of energetic waves, plentiful wildlife, and hammocks that you can spend the night in. Cabo San Juan is a camp area smack dab in the middle of the protected wilderness with tents and a hammock hut that’s perched atop a hill overlooking the ocean. It’s like living in Jurassic Park. The amenities are almost nonexistent, but the views and setting are all that you need for an incredible night in the jungle.

Despite being a widely renowned national park, I found it easy to get off the beaten path here and experience truly untouched nature. A lapse in proper map reading and some unguided curiosity landed me on a completely empty beach without any footprints or trace of humanity. My advice? Take the random paths. And don’t forget cash like I did; hammocks are only payable by pesos!

Minca, Colombia

Minca, Colombia
Minca, Colombia

Take the Jungle Book, and then add more hammocks, coffee, and Colombian soul—that’s essentially Minca. It might not be right on the coast like the other destinations, but it’s only about a 30-minute drive from another spot on your Colombia itinerary (Santa Marta). This small town is shrouded in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and has plenty of adventurous and leisure activities to add to your list. The area is famed for coffee and cacao farms, beauteous waterfalls, and mountainside views. Not to mention, you can lay in one of the world’s largest hammocks with valley views at Casa Elemento.

Palomino, Colombia

Palomino, Colombia
Palomino, Colombia

River tubing, beach horseback riding, and tons of bird watching opportunities are just a few of the things that make the small town of Palomino a must-stop on your Colombia itinerary. Although it’s seen an uptick in visitors in recent years, it still maintains an off-grid vibe with twisty turns in the quiet, sandy roads and plenty of sandy coastline to venture off onto. Now is the time to go, as it remains less tourist developed than many other resort-inclined areas in the Caribbean.

Hopping on a tube and lazily gliding down the Palomino River with a beer in hand is a formidable way to spend an afternoon here, especially on a clear day when you can see the Sierra Nevada peaks in the distance. In my experience, there weren’t many organized tours for this. It was more like some enterprising gentlemen with a gaggle of tubes waiting for your business. Find them in the town’s center and main street, which remains unnamed.

Cabo De La Vela, Colombia

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia. Matyas Rehak / Shutterstock.com
Cabo de la Vela, Colombia. Matyas Rehak / Shutterstock.com

Of all the places on this Colombia itinerary, Cabo De La Vela is the one to go to if you want to find yourself saying damn, I’m really out here. The desert flirts with the Caribbean Sea in this small town creating quite a unique contrast. You can just about count the number of roads on one hand, all of which are rustically unpaved. There’s plenty to do in Cabo: world-famous Colombia kitesurfing, hikes in the Guajira Desert, and lazy beach days at local Playa Del Pilon, which are a few area favorites.

Rincon Del Mar & the San Bernardo Islands, Colombia

San Bernardo Islands, Colombia
San Bernardo Islands, Colombia

Most of the well-known areas on Colombia’s Caribbean coast are central or northeast, but Rincon Del Mar is an off-track spot about 2 hours south of Cartagena, a direction that most won’t go in. It’s off the radar for many Colombians, and definitely most travelers. The few visitors who do decide to check out Rincon Del Mar will find themselves surrounded by friendly locals, fresh AF seafood, and the most laid-back vibes you could ask for.

The town itself isn’t the only reason to visit, either. The San Bernardo Islands are easy to get to with a short charter boat. Locals navigate the archipelago by speedboat and you won’t find many gringos here compared to the islands near Cartagena. Add this quiet spot to your Colombia itinerary to if you are looking for rest, relaxation, crystalline blue waters and hidden mangroves.

Cartagena

Cartagena, Colombia.
Cartagena, Colombia.

How could you visit the Caribbean coast without seeing Cartagena? Well, truthfully, you probably can’t. The majority of arrivals into the area come through this historic port city, and it’s well worth sticking around to check it out. The walled city in Colombia is incredibly safe, understandably touristic, and is known for its fabulous restaurants and luxury offerings. A stroll in the main area will be accompanied by solicitations from street vendors and perhaps a random dance or rap battle right in front of your eyes. Be prepared to leave a tip if you decide to stick around for the show.

By contrast, the nearby Getsemani neighborhood is much quieter than the main squares in Cartagena. Between colorful art, hole in the wall bars, and tons of empanadas, I can’t recommend it enough. Check out some of the nearby beaches while you’re there and eat as much ceviche as humanly possible.