From Colombia’s Caribbean coast to the vibrant cities of Bogota and Medellin, this country is such a diverse and fun place to explore. In the Northern region, you can’t miss Cartagena, and no trip to Colombia is complete without experiencing the magic that is Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. Whether you have a few days or weeks to spend in Colombia, it’s a great and affordable place to travel with friends, family or alone.
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The Colonial Old Town is rich in history and gushing with incredible views around every corner, Cartagena is a gem. Flowers hang from balconies in this UNESCO World Heritage Site, making the colorful buildings pop even more. Plan to stop several times to take pictures during your visit.
After sailing from Panama, Cartagena was my first stop in Colombia.
I couldn’t resist eating arepas filled with cheese and coated with butter made by local street vendors. They’re fresh off the grill, warm and so delicious. You can find fresh fruit and coffee just about everywhere. The temperature is hot year-round, and when I say hot… I mean sweat is dripping down your face hot. Take advantage of the nearby beaches for a beautiful place to cool down and spend time walking around and taking in the sights both during the day and at night.
In the historic area of town, there are many clothing stores that fit any budget as well as museums, and hotels. Get used to people standing in the street trying to grab your attention, in an effort to get you into their stores and restaurants. This is a widespread practice here. At night, the historic area of the city feels safe, and you’ll see people gathering in the plazas for a drink before dancing the night away to reggaeton or salsa in one of the many nightclubs.
If you’re looking for a place to disconnect and truly relax, you’ll find it in the mountains in Bonda. Although not on the coast, Bonda is a town near Santa Marta, Taganga, and Tayrona and located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range.
Getting here is an adventure in itself. We stayed at Finca Carpe Diem, located in Paso del Mango in the Northern region of Colombia. This place has two pools with incredible views of the mountains, as well as a restaurant and bar. From Cartagena its a few hours by bus, followed by a taxi ride to the Police Station. Now comes the fun part! A motorcycle taxi will take you up the mountains with all your luggage for 15,000 Colombian pesos. (Approx $5) The ride is about 20 minutes long and a bit bumpy.
Unwind surrounded by nature or take a chocolate-making tour or waterfall tour.
If you want to visit Colombia to party, you’ll have a blast in Santa Marta. Places like La Puerta, La Bodeguita, and Brisa Loca attract both locals and travelers ready to have a good time any night of the week. Parque de Los Novios is a good place for people-watching, and restaurants surround it. During the day, head to the beach or walk along the coast to meet some of the locals.
I was told to avoid Carrera 2, and take a taxi if you are traveling at night.
Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona
Simply put, there is magic in Tayrona. Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona has pristine beaches, lush landscapes and it’s definitely worth it to spend a night or two here. There are two ways to get into the park. I chose to hike five hours from the Calabazo entrance to Cabo San Juan de Guia, a beautiful beach where you can camp. This route is much less traveled, and two hours into your hike, you’ll pass by a small village called Pueblito. This is where the Kogui, the indigenous people live so you’ll want to respect their space.
Once you pass Pueblito, you’ll scale down large rocks to get to the beach. You can rent a hammock for the night, or for the same price of 40,000 Colombian pesos; you can rent a small tent. The tents are already set up, and they come with two foam mattresses. There are bathrooms and showers available and a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I brought 4 liters of water with me, which came in handy but you can also purchase water bottles at the restaurant.
The following day, go for one last swim in Cabo San Juan and then head to La Piscina, another beach located a 15-minute walk away. These are the only two beaches you can swim in so take your time and enjoy it! The hike towards the main entrance takes you to another camping area and other beaches that are too rough to swim in. There are several places where you can stop and get snacks along the way, but it’s not a bad idea to bring your own.
Remember to pack light and bring out what you brought in. The cost to enter the park is 42,000 Colombian Pesos. ($15 USD.)
Tubing in Rio Don Diego
When you visit the national park, spend a few days exploring the area surrounding Tayrona. One of my absolute favorite activities in Colombia is river tubing in Rio Don Diego. This tour costs 45,000 Colombia pesos ($16 USD) which includes a hike, tube, and boat ride back to where you started. We chose to go at 2 pm to get a break from the sun. Bring sunscreen, water, and snacks and get ready to cruise to Playa Don Diego. On our way to the beach, we saw horses crossing the river and howler monkeys. So peaceful!
If you’re looking for a quiet, untouched beach, then head to Mendihuaca. Only a short bus ride away from Tayrona, and a 20-minute walk from the road, this beach is right up my alley. With nearly no one in sight apart from my friends, the water is calm enough to swim in, but filled with algae. Head there for sunset and don’t miss the view from the Mendihuaca river. My friends Kim, Eli, Nick and I stayed at the nearby Yuluka Hostel which has a pool with a slide, cabanas and an excellent restaurant.
Taganga is a fishing village on the Caribbean Coast. Learn to scuba dive or spend the day in Playa Grande. If you aren’t a fan of crowded beaches, hike along the mountain trail to find the beaches that the locals visit. They are much less crowded, and the water is crystal clear even on cloudy days.
Why I didn’t like Playa Blanca
Located about an hour’s drive from Cartagena is the turquoise-colored, white sand beach of Playa Blanca. I wasn’t a fan. When you’re traveling somewhere new, there are places that you won’t always enjoy as much as others.
In this case, Playa Blanca was highly advertised and recommended to me by some of the locals I met, but I felt it was too overcrowded.
We arrived on a tour bus, and I didn’t like the fact that every five minutes, someone is trying to sell you something, either food or souvenirs while you are on the beach. I also didn’t like to see so much trash on the beach.
I’d say skip Playa Blanca, but if you want to check it out, avoid coming on a Sunday.
I’m so happy you made it all the way to the end of this post! I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments.
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