The Caribbean is likely the most popular destination for travelers in Colombia. Picture perfect beaches, sweaty salsa nights, fascinating culture(s), colorful architecture, friendly people and plenty of fresh fish – does it get any better?
While there are many interesting places in Colombia that attract more and more tourists each year, here is my breakdown of top 12 awesome spots to visit in the Caribbean. Put on your sunglasses, grab a fresh coconut and read on – no matter if it´s your first or second time, there is a destination to discover for you on this list!
The colorful houses and clear turquoise waters of Cartagena need no introduction. I am yet to meet a traveler to Colombia who is not eager to visit this famous port of Colombia – the historical downtown, the castle of San Felipe and nearby islands are the reasons to linger in Cartagena for a few days at least, in spite of higher prices compared to other Colombian destinations.
There are a number of hostels and guesthouses within the walls of the old town, but Cartagena being quite touristy, it is a good idea to book your spot a few days earlier, especially if you are traveling in a group. (I know this because it has cost us a good deal of walking to find five free beds on a hot July evening.)
In Cartagena, you will be easily amazed by the downtown; walk in the streets and admire the bright facades for as much as you can stand the heat – however, I personally would not recommend paying the 17.000 COP for the entrance to the castle of San Felipe. There is not much in terms of a museum and unless it is your first time visiting a castle, you might not be too impressed.
Disclaimer: I come from a country full to the brim of castles, palaces, manor houses and ruins. I love visiting them but it takes quite a bit to impress me. If you come from the US or something like that, it’ll still probably wow you.
What I loved in Cartagena was the day trip to the island of Baru – if you have time, take two days and spend a night there. I felt we were in a bit of a rush to go back and would have liked to stay for more. There is a guesthouse on the island, but you can also bring your tent/hammock and camp there. These day trips usually include a lunch and you can see the skyscrapers of the new city from the boat too.
Another popular island trip is to the Islas del Rosario.
Santa Marta is a busy city on the coast and you are likely to land here if you are traveling from Bogota by plane.
The city is less picturesque than Cartagena and although many people don´t like it much, I enjoyed my three visits here – the port is a nice place to watch the sunset, the colonial downtown is a bit simpler albeit nice, but it also feels less catered to tourists.
The nickname of Santa Marta is arenosa – sandy – because of the ever-present wind that swirls the sand in the air.
The food you must try in Santa Marta is salchipapa – a coastal fast-food consisting of fried potatoes, fried sausages, a ton of mayo and lettuce. It´s unhealthy AF and I wish I could eat one right now. On the other hand be careful about ceviche (prawns cooked in lemon with tomato sauce and onion) which if not 120% fresh can cause you a severe food poisoning or a nasty skin rash which is what happened to me. Or both. (I feel like such a party pooper after telling you this. I love a fresh ceviche, but there is only one way to find out how fresh it is!)
There is a beach within the city but I would avoid swimming there – neither the beach in the port nor the well-known Rodadero (otherwise a popular spot for celebrating the New Year – surprisingly a family event in Colombia!) are too clean.
Instead, you can take a local bus to get to the nearby Playaca or Taganga – the trip takes about 20 minutes and there are many buses going that direction as it is on the coastal road. (There are taxis who´ll happily charge you 10 – 20.000 COP to return to Santa Marta at night in case you´ve missed the colectivo.)
Playaca is a bit hard to spot if you don´t know where it is but if you watch out for it, you´ll be able to jump out of the colectivo when you get there. When in doubt, ask other passengers!
I have heard people saying that Taganga is a sketchy place full of crime; well, if you know your way around, you can see quite something different than that. Keep reading to find out how to find the picture perfect non-sketchy spots!
Taganga is mainly a party place; there are a couple of clubs at the beach where you can dance the night away and of course you can run into dealers looking for a customer (but, I mean, what did you expect?), but you can also skip this and simply enjoy the calm water of the bay. Anyway, even if you do fancy cocaine (I´m not judgmental), you should be extra careful about following the man to the olla (drug shop) as it is easy way to get mugged. Just so you know.
Colombia has only recently signed the peace treaties and even if the safety situation has improved significantly, you should still be careful and watch out for your belongings at all times, everywhere.
The best beach is obviously not within the Taganga village; follow the way along the coast, cross the dry hills and you will find a series of calmer spots (because nobody wants to hike for 30 minutes in the heat)(unless you’ve just spent a few months in the mountains and are feeling like a hero with all that oxygen on the coast!), better suited for a relaxing day. The waters, unlike in other places, are calm because the rocks of the bay break the currents so you can swim peacefully without getting tumbled off your feet and half drowned.
Taganga also has a nice variety of handicrafts you can purchase as many hippies set their stalls there. They have leather goods, semi-precious stones, naturally or artificially colored seeds, parrot feathers, alpaca wire and if you manage to explain yourself, they will make you a custom design according to your wishes. (You might want to avoid buying parrot feathers as their origin is quite possibly harmful to the colorful birds of Amazonas who become prey to feather hunters; the hippies will obviously tell you fairytales about how they exchange them for beads with the indigenous tribes in the jungle, but that is quite doubtful.)
Recently (December 2017) I have heard some disturbing news about industrial development in Taganga which will probably destroy the beauty of this place as we’ve known it for good.
Minca is not right on the beach, but it is close enough to reach by bus from Santa Marta. To rest a little from the glaring sun reflecting from the white sand right into your eyes (ah, who needs a rest from that?), take a trip to the mountains and enjoy the lush jungle for a bit!
Sadly, I haven´t had the chance to travel to Minca, although many of my friends recommended me to go there. Nevertheless, you can find more detailed information in this post
Read more in this guide to Minca by Thomas from Tom! Plan My Trip
If you like a challenge, El Parque Nacional Natural de Tayrona is for you. To get to the beach, you must hike (and sweat) across the jungle for about two hours – it is not the best idea to do this as a day trip. You cannot swim everywhere because of the dangerous currents – avoid entering the sea in Arecifes. Cabo San Juan, 20 – 30 minutes of a walk from Arecifes, is a safe spot.
If you are not quite the hiker, you can rent horses to carry you and your backpack through. The hiking trail has improved since they´ve installed a wooden path to walk across the muddy parts.
In Tayrona, you can also visit the ancient ruins of Pueblito – it is a rather short hike and not too difficult for an experienced hiker, but you must climb over slippery stones so an appropriate footwear (with a good grip) is crucial.
Read my complete guide to Tayrona with all you need to know before going on this adventure.
Palomino is this village on the coast that has great surfer options and that´s why it gets described by dudes in colorful shorts with words as laid-back and sun-soaked. (I assume that is the typical surfer vocabulary??? Correct me if you will because I’ve never tried surfing!) That is not a cliché though because it fits this place pretty well.
This village is becoming more and more popular as years go by; it is located on a river of the same name and has things to do even if you are not surfing. In the dry season, you can go river tubing (which is a lot of fun; the current is not so wild and the groups are usually accompanied by a guide who will help you if you get stuck. Our friends even brought their dogs with them! They were super tired by the end of it.). You can also watch the turtles hatching, walk in the upper part of the village with typical houses and drink a lot of juice of tropical fruits. The beach is nice but be aware that the waves are wild – don´t go too far from the coastline because of the currents.
There are some hiking options, you can rent a bike or walk on the beach – if you walk far enough, there is, in fact, another river.
Do eat the best empanadas ever – a lady sells them in a shop that is more or less in the middle of the dirt road leading to the beach. Her pastries are less greasy than is usual in Colombia and I swear I ate my weight in them.
Also, try empanadas with shrimps and if you´d like a fish, the best is to ask the fishermen around the lunchtime, they will fry it for you. (That is true all around the coast. They go fishing in the morning, but there is not much left in the evening so the lunch is the best time to pick a good, fresh fish.)
It used to be common to make a bonfire at the beach every night, but as the focus of the tourism is moving towards a more ecological approach, setting fires is discouraged to protect the natural habitat of the turtles.
I loved visiting Palomino in the low season. In fact, I enjoyed myself a lot more than in praised, but overpriced Tayrona – first of all, there were more people to make friends with, plus it was a lot cheaper. (I spent all the week eating just empanadas a mil and drinking jugo Hit. Don´t judge.)
Many hostels and shops are closed off-season, but the rain is not much of an obstacle (the rain pattern is rather regular and easy to predict most of the time) and the ambiente is way more relaxed. If you are stingy enough, it is possible to find a room for as little as 10.000 COP, or even get an invitation to sleep in someone´s house.
There are plenty of places to choose from when it comes to accommodation and they weren´t overbooked at all even in the high season so you can most probably just get there, have a look and choose the right spot. Do make sure your bed/hammock has a mosquito net because there are way too many vampires thanks to the river!
In the high season (New Years´Eve, July – August) a lot more stuff is going on, people come and go and party in the meanwhile, hippies chill, surfers get a tan, I drink five sugary juices an hour, everybody is sweaty, you know – pure bliss.
Buritaca is another small village on a river; the beach is lovely as the sweet water mixes with the Caribbean Sea, but be aware that there is not much shade to be found. It is similar to Palomino, except that it mostly caters to the local, Colombian tourism – it´s probably going to be harder to get around without at least basic Spanish.
This big city on the Caribbean coast is mostly popular for its carnival which is the second biggest event of this kind in South America, after the carnival of Rio in Brazil. No worries though even if you are visiting outside of the carnival season in February – there is still a lot to see!
Read more about the Carnival of Barranquilla at the Two Scots Abroad travel blog.
The cultural capital of Guajira, Uribia, is a good place to buy Wayuu handcrafts (such as the colorful traditional bags, mochilas) and generally stock up before heading to the remote Cabo de la Vela.
There are cheap flight connections from Bogotá landing at the small local airport of Riohacha – look for flights with Viva Colombia for the best price – and from there you can take a bus to Uribia.
Read why you should visit Uribia in this article by Cazbag
Cabo de la Vela
This Wayuu village in the desert of the Guajira region (lying on the borders of Colombia and Venezuela) is one of my favorite spots in Colombia. The life here is rough – there is only a sand road leading here, no sweet water sources (= no flushing toilet, no shower) and fruits and vegetables are scarce, but the local culture is fascinating. The Wayuus were such fierce warriors that they were never conquered by the Spanish and they preserved their culture and language against the enforcement of language and religion during the colonization.
I encourage you to travel to Cabo de la Vela on your own, stay with the locals and buy food and souvenirs directly from them directly instead of taking an agency tour – income from tourism is crucial for the survival of the community.
Cabo de la Vela is a great place to visit for the adventurous and resilient, but even “softer” tourists can enjoy a few days here in spite of a bit of an inconvenience. It is probably not a place for you if you are a city person looking for nightlife, but if watching the Milky Way and shooting stars on a pitch dark sky sounds good to you, Cabo de la Vela will fulfill your wishes.
For details on how to take an independent trip to this village, read my detailed guide to Cabo de la Vela.
Even further and harder accessible than Cabo de la Vela, Punta Gallinas is the most northern point of South America – beautiful, rugged and difficult to reach. The sand dunes stretch into the endless horizon and the waves of the Caribbean hug the serene, untouched landscape.
Read more about Punta Gallinas in this guide by Mum We Are Fine.
San Andrés & Providencia
These two lovely islands are actually near the coast of Nicaragua, but shush! You can get there by plane from Bogota easily. In fact, there are flights to San Andres from Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Cartagena and Barranquilla with different airlines. If you snatch a cheap deal, a return flight can cost you about 200$ although mostly it is a bit more pricey.
The beaches are magic, the sea is unbelievably clear and the locals are descendants of pirates, speaking a linguistically interesting mix of Spanish and English (which I didn´t understand one bit).
While San Andrés is already used to the influx of tourism, Providencia feels more remote and has far fewer hotels per meter square. You can get to Providencia by a catamaran or a small plane from San Andrés – we took the catamaran and I was awfully seasick. (And awkwardly threw up in my lap just after I said “No voy a vomitar“. Take those pills!)
It requires a bit of planning to incorporate San Andrés and Providencia in your itinerary, but they are very beautiful and worth a visit, especially if you are not too short on time and can afford to spend a couple days in transit.
Read more about San Andres in this article by Sarepa
If you are planning to travel to Colombia, I wrote some more articles that might be useful for you:
How to find a teaching job in Colombia (without agencies and even as a non-native speaker)
11 wonderful places to visit in the Caribbean in Colombia
Have you noticed I loved the Colombian coast? In this article, I have tried to list and give basic tips for the places I think are worth your time when you travel to Colombia – I tried to go beyond the classical Cartagena – Tayrona – Palomino itinerary that the majority of people take. If you are traveling to Colombia for the second time, or even living here, I hope this gave you some inspiration for your future trips and vacations. The best places to visit on the Colombian coast obviously depend on your personal taste; whether you like cities, islands, jungle or desert – there is a place for every kind of summer-loving traveler in the Caribbean.
Have you traveled to the north coast of Colombia? Do you have more tips on where to go in the Caribbean? Ask questions or share your experiences in the comment section below!
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