It is about time I write about the Colombian Caribbean coast. I have been there various times now, and in different places. Why the good, the bad and the ugly?! Well, there is a little of both along the beaches of North Colombia from what I have seen in the past years. Cartagena is, of course, the pearl of the Caribbean, the beautiful, the colonial city, the tourist hot spot. Tayrona National Park has breath-taking beautiful beaches. Santa Marta and Taganga, a popular backpacker hang-out, are not the prettiest places, but have their charm. Barranquilla is an industrial harbour city, flourishing, but ugly (sorry!). It comes alive during carnival though, apparently the 2nd biggest in the world after the one in Rio. So where to start? Let’s go from West to East in 3 blog posts.
Cartagena is our starting point. I have heard good things about Capurganá which is near the boarder to Panamá, so even further West, but have not been there yet myself (getting there is a bit of a hassle still). Anyway, Cartagena is the most developed tourist city in Colombia, I would argue. It is popular with both international and domestic tourists. It has a cruise ship terminal, so expect herds of American tourists during the day, but a little quieter nights as they flock back to their boat at night. Being relatively touristy, Cartagena is also a little more pricey, so expect to pay more than 12 €/£10 for a dorm bed or around 45 €/£40 for a private double room in a nicer hostel. But it also means there is a lot of accommodation on offer, so you can shop around a little bit. I can absolutely recommend El Viajero Hostel bang in the middle of the Old Town (but in a quiet side street), but have also heard good things about Volunteer Hostel, which is a social enterprise. I would recommend to stay in the charming Old Town, not in Bocagrande, which unfortunately looks like a 80’s 3rd world dictator’s dream of tourism development (i.e. hotel high rises en masse). Now, with your accommodation sorted, let’s see how you can pass a few days in Cartagena. Here are some ideas:
Cartagena is the perfect place to take a stroll. Just get lost in the cobbled streets in the Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site), admire the Spanish colonial architecture, the colourful buildings with bougainvillea cascading down from balconies. Peek into old churches and cathedrals, chill out with the locals in the shade of trees at Plaza Bolivar, and admire the famous yellow clock tower above one of the city gates. If you are a history buff, you could take a guided tour to learn more about the architecture and the important role Cartagena played in the colonial times. Or you grab some info from the Tourist Information right next to the church of San Pedro.
2. The Fort of San Felipe
Built in the 16th century, the castillo resides on top of a hill just a short walk from the centre. It provides views over the city as well as the sea, and is a great place to stroll around as well. The fort has many bunkers and underground tunnels, so it can not only provide some relieve from the heat but also serves as a backdrop of creepy pictures, if you want to. It is well preserved and also part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, so well worth the visit and the small entrance fee (about €5/£4).
3. Sundowner on the City Wall
This is a must. It is such a must, that I have included it as a separate point. You can walk along the city walls that face the sea anytime, but the best time of the day to do this is just before sunset. The light is absolutely amazing. You can either grab a cold beer from a kiosk in town and just go and hang out there yourself, or you “sundown” in style at Cafe del Mar right in the best spot on top of the walls, with a cool cocktail in your hand and chill beats in your ear. Of course this was when I ran out of battery for my camera. So the only pictures I have are those in my head.
4. Go for a mud bath in a VOLCANO
Yes, you read that correctly. A 30 minute drive out of town there is a small volcano, and it is filled with (apparently healing) mud. At El Totumo you can jump right in and float on top of the mud for a bit (you cannot drown, the mud is too dense). If you fancy, the locals can give you a massage in the volcano with the mud. There are no shower facilities, but you rinse the mud off in the lagoon that is just a few steps away from the volcano. The local ladies can assist you with washing the mud off, so you don’t look like a sea monster going back into Cartagena. Just tip every local that helped you there with massage, washing the mud off, taking pictures of you while you’re in the mud etc. with about 1€ (COP$3,000). Tours to the mud volcano can be booked at hostel and hotel receptions and at tour companies throughout town. It is a fun half-day trip and you get to meet other travellers, from both Colombia and the world.
5. Go swimming, snorkeling or diving at Islas del Rosario
You can take a boat to the beautiful beach of Playa Blanca, the white beach, that lives up to its name. On how to get there, read the little post over at 5point5 blog.
For snorkeling or diving the National Park Islas del Rosario is a great spot. There are a few diving schools in the Old Town (Diving Planet and Cartagena Divers). I went with Diving Planet since it is a 5* PADI centre for a day trip, including 2 immersions and cost around 85€/under £80. We started in the morning with the ride on a speed boat of about 1 hour to get to the islands, which are all mangrove islands. There we stopped at a hotel on one island that we used as a base and also had lunch at later that day. Our group consisted of 3 divers plus guide and 2 snorkelers, so it was nice and relaxed. There are lots of massive corals and also lots of fish due to the mangroves (which they hopefully do not cut down to make space for “proper” beaches). The dive sites are chosen according to the level of experience of the divers and also visibility (usually around 15 metres). The water is nice and warm, so that makes for relaxed dives. In the afternoon the speedboat brings you back to Cartagena (or Playa Blanca if you want to spend the night there sleeping in a hammock).
6. Enjoy the relaxed night life
While I love to dance (also salsa), I also really enjoy just hanging out at night, with a cool beer and cool people. You can certainly do both in Cartagena at the same time. On the plazas there are various bars, some with billiard (a favourite pass time of Colombians), some with live music. I spend an entertaining evening with other travellers at Donde Fidel bar and salsa club, enjoying the mild breeze of the outside seating at the city walls, and another night at Media Luna hostel with a live salsa band at their massive bar.
This point shouldn’t surprise you… While there are supermarkets and also a massive market, I also had a fantastic dinner at Sol de la India, a vegetarian restaurant with adjoint yoga school. One of my smoothies is inspired by them, and their food was absolutely delicious. There is also another vegetarian restaurant called La Girasol (the sunflower) around the corner. As with most tropical places, the fruit is amazing here and you can get fresh juices or fresh watermelon from lovely dressed ladies anywhere in the centre. Apart from that, since they are big on fish on the coast, of course, at the restaurants just tell them you would like a plate of arroz de coco (coconut rice – so yummy), ensalada (salad) and frijoles sin tocino (red beans without bacon).
So Cartagena is a must see if you are heading to the Caribbean coast of Colombia. It is a beautiful town where you can easily spend 3 or 4 days (or more). In summary:
Sites and Sights: ++ (full of historic buildings, even though the Old Town is relatively small; the Caribbean provides lots of entertainment)
Food: ++ (not overwhelming, but well manageable as a veggie)
Best time to go: December until April (Dec. and Jan. are high season) when it is dry season; I went in the wet season in August though and had one rainy afternoon, so not too bad.
Transport: fly into Cartagena’s airport Rafael Nuñez with direct flights from all over Colombia as well as Atlanta, New York, Florida (just 2.5 hrs from Miami!), and Toronto and Montréal. It is near the city, so a taxi from there only costs you less than 10€/£8; also very good bus connections to all parts of the country from the bus terminal which is about 10 km from the centre (take a taxi to get there). You can also sail to or from Cartagena to Panama via San Blas islands – looks beautiful and I have heard good (and not so good things – do your research on the boats).
Money: Cartagena is not cheap in comparison with other parts of the country