One of the biggest draws to Colombia is its diversity.
From the humid, colourful colonial city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast to the cold coffee region of Quindío in the South, Colombia is hugged by two oceans, making the country’s weather, food, culture and people different from place to place.
This diversity alongside Colombia’s tragic history, makes a visit to this country an overwhelming treat for all the senses and is why it’s at the top of most gringos’ South American to-do lists.
The Caribbean Coast in the North of the country is where you’ll find hot weather, crystalline waters and luscious National Parks, making a visit to the coast a must on any trip to Colombia.
Here’s my itinerary for two weeks on the coast.
Cartagena – 4 nights
If you’re starting your trip on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, likelihood is you’ll fly or catch a boat into Cartagena.
This colonial city oooooozes sophistication, romance and charm and is the perfect introduction to Colombia.
Ancient shabby-chic buildings of all colours adorned in picturesque wooden balconies and tangled cascading flowers line the streets. Horses and carriages strut around the old city constantly reminding its’ visitors of the city’s colonial history and exceptional street art is plastered around the hip areas of the city telling stories of the trauma and triumph the country has been through.
As well as its charismatic architecture, Cartagena also boasts a great variety of food choices, eclectic nightlife and walking opportunities to keep you busy for days on end.
Be sure to book onto a walking tour, go out salsa’ing and visit La Popa hill for great views across the city (it’s bigger than you’d think).
Buses to Santa Marta leave from Cartagena’s bus station regularly and take around 4/5 hours. Alternatively, you can book a shuttle through most hostels, which are a little more pricey but faster.
Santa Marta – 2 nights
Santa Marta is most commonly visited as a stop over point to get to neighbouring hotspots Minca, Tayrona National Park and the beaches on the coast however, in my opinion (people may argue this), a day or two here would not be wasted.
We’d heard a lot of horror stories about this city so were a little reluctant to stay there nonetheless, we booked into RUA Hostel and put aside two days for tanning time by their rooftop pool (this hostel is divine) and were pleasantly surprised!
Although Santa Marta was definitely the most sketchy place we’d been since arriving in Colombia, it still had the same charm as most other towns on the coast as well as some great food options. Check out Maharaja Indian Restaurant for excellent thalis or, Merkabar/Welcome Restaurant for great seafood and service.
My recommendation: if you visit Santa Marta, enjoy it in the day and be cautious at night.
From Santa Marta, you can get a bus to Minca or anywhere else further up the coast for next to nothing.
Minca – 3 nights
Minca is a breath of fresh air from the humidity of the coastline.
A small town snuggled around a 45 minute drive up into the mountains from Santa Marta, Minca is the perfect spot on the Caribbean coast to unwind and be at one with nature. From long treks and cascading waterfalls to coffee plantations and bird watching, it’s more than easy to fill at least three days relaxing in Minca.
Stay at Casa Relax, which is sat right next to a waterfall yet only a fifteen minute walk into the town and be sure to eat at Lazy Cat for great burgers and cocktails.
Colectivo taxis (minivans) leave from Santa Marta’s central market for Minca when full and cost approx 8,000 pesos.
Tayrona National Park – 2 nights
Tayrona is a wild, well-laid-out National Park located between Santa Marta and Palomino. Hosting a countless number of walkways and a vast expanse of diverse flora and fauna, it is possible to spend anywhere between one day and one week in this park – the choice is yours.
There are two options when visiting Tayrona – staying in a tent/hammock/up-market hotel within the park for as long as you fancy or, staying outside the park and visiting for the day. We opted for the latter.
There are clear walkways to get to where you want to. The most popular route leads you through diverse terrain, past Arrefices, La Piscina and finally to, Cabo San Juan, the most popular beach in the park. We don’t know whether we were unlucky on the day we chose to visit but, the final beach reminded us a bit of a Colombian Butlins – it was swarming with holidaying families and was far from the deserted Caribbean beach we had envisioned…
I feel we would have seen and gained more from our experience if we’d have stayed in the park for a night. Nonetheless, the accommodation we ended up staying at on the outside of the park – Eco Hostal Yuluku – I would highly recommend.
From the road running past Tayrona, hop on any of the many buses heading further along the coast and ask to get off in Palomino.
Palomino – 3 nights
Palomino is a small beach town located around 1 hour from Santa Marta. Still very underdeveloped, Palomino is mostly made up of one dusty road dotted with restaurants and shops leading its occupants to the beach.
Palomino is a hippie haven and is mostly frequented by crystal-lovers and backpackers seeking some chill out time and sunshine. During our time in Palomino we stayed in The Dreamer Hostel and treated these couple of days as a holiday doing very little. Some backpackers opt to hire tubes and spend the day bobbing along the nearby river or, simply spend their time lying on the beach sipping piña coladas until the sunsets.
Whether you choose to fly or bus your way further South, you’ll need to catch a bus back to Santa Marta to hop on further transport.