Cartagena, Colombia is one of the most interesting, beautiful and culturally diverse up-and-coming travel destinations of 2015. Once regarded as dangerous and unpredictable, travelling to Colombia is finally starting to appeal to curious travellers of all types including families, female travellers and solo backpackers looking for something a little outside of the norm.
With its boldly colourful streets, delicious local cuisine, rich cultural traditions and nearby paradisaical beaches, it’s no wonder that Cartagena is becoming one of South America’s most desirable destinations. This week-long itinerary will take you in and around Cartagena, through the surrounding towns and to the beautiful Tayrona National Park.
Day 1 (Cartagena): Whether you fly in the night before or arrive on an early flight, allow yourself the first day for adjusting to your new surroundings, overcoming possible jet lag, and spending some time getting to know Cartagena. After landing at the centrally located Rafael Núñez International Airport, hail a metered taxi to your hotel and check into your room before hitting the streets to explore.
Photo Credit: Seattle Dredge
There are countless accommodation options in the city, but be sure to consider staying within the Old City walls. Eleven kilometres of high stone walls loop around a section of the city made up of vibrant and colourful colonial style buildings, parks and historical monuments. This is where most of the action happens, and it is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the entire country. Check out El Viajero Hostel, considered one of the best hostels in South America. It is perfect for budget travellers looking for a social atmosphere, as you can choose between shared accommodations or a private room.
Planned on a straightforward grid system, Cartagena is easy to navigate and you can wander around aimlessly without getting lost. This is a good time to grab your first bite of Colombian cuisine and visit some of the eclectic street markets before resting up for the next day.
Day 2 (Santa Marta): You can further explore Cartagena on the morning of your second day before travelling toward Santa Marta in the afternoon. Walk around the parts of the city that you may have missed, and visit a supermarket to stock up on a few snacks for the road. It would be a good idea to bring along a smaller backpack for this portion of the trip, and ask to leave your larger luggage in the storage room of your first hotel (most hotels are happy to offer this service free of charge).
From there, head to one of the many transportation companies that offer rides from Cartagena to Santa Marta. A private shuttle bus will not cost much more than taking public transportation and will save you a lot of time and discomfort (a ride on a public bus is bumpy, uncomfortable and lacking in air conditioning). MarSol is a popular option with offices located right next to Old Town, friendly service, stops along the way and reasonable pricing. The ride will take between three to four hours, and the shuttle will drop you off directly at whichever accommodations you have booked for the night in Santa Marta (Masaya Hostel is comparable to a luxury hotel with two swimming pools, a cinema, rooftop terrace and bar, free WiFi and nightly activities including dance classes). Santa Marta is more of an industrial city than a tourist destination, but it is worth exploring the markets and the main beaches before grabbing dinner near your hotel. Call it an early night, as tomorrow will arrive quickly.
Day 3 (Tayrona National Park): The earlier you can arrive at the park’s check-in, the better—you will want to think about leaving at around 7:00-8:00 a.m. From your hotel, head to the Mercado (accessible by foot from most locations, ask in your hotel lobby for directions) and look for buses labelled “Tayrona”. The bus ride will cost 6,000 pesos (about $3) and take approximately one hour. It will drop you off at the gates of the park, where you will pay the 38,000 peso (about $19) entrance fee with an optional $1 shuttle ride to take you further into the park.
From here, you will begin a hike which can take anywhere between 1.5 and 3 hours, depending on your pace and fitness. The hike will take you up and down rocky mountain trails, along cliffsides with an ocean view, through narrow passages in the rock, along remote beaches, under tangled mangrove and palm forests, and around vibrant turquoise lagoons. In humid conditions, it is one of the most challenging yet rewarding hikes in the area. You may also opt to rent a horse for 32,000 pesos ($16), which will shorten your ride to the campground to 30 minutes.
Once you arrive at Cabo San Juan Beach, check into the campground, where you can rent a hammock in the raised hut for 25,000 pesos ($12.50) or one down on the ground for 20,000 pesos ($10). In the campground’s raised hut, you will feel as though you are in a movie or a dream. Sitting atop a tall stone outcrop, reachable only by a strip of crisp white sand, the open-air hut is surrounded on three sides by vast ocean horizon. Backed by the jungles of Tayrona, the hut is filled with about a dozen swinging hammocks, and topped by a private suite with a bed. It is, hands down, the most incredible scene that you will lay eyes upon when travelling to Colombia.
Day 4 (Tayrona National Park): It is best to give yourself two full days in the park, so rent your hammock for two nights. There is a restaurant right on the beach that offers several types of meals including pasta, meat, rice and greens. The meals range from 10,000 to 22,000 pesos ($5-11). Beer is also available at 4,000 pesos ($2) and smoothies at 5,000 ($2.50). There are two beaches on either side of the hammock hut and several other beaches nearby for exploring.
The campground has many amenities such as flushing toilets, hot showers, public electrical outlets, lockers to rent and a snack bar. There are also many local vendors that frequent the park with handmade jewellery, food and other items. While there is plenty to do in the park in terms of active hiking, snorkelling and pickup sports, this is the kind of place that you will want to sit and relax as much as possible. Tayrona’s Cabo San Juan beach is an absolute paradise.
Day 5 (Taganga): There’s no need for another three-hour hike through the jungle at this point: you can hop on a boat right at Cabo San Juan beach and ride it over to the village of Taganga for 45,000 pesos ($22). Taganga is just around the mountain from Santa Marta, yet is completely different in every way. There are no high-rise buildings, few paved streets, and none of the hustle-and-bustle of city life.
This small beach village is comprised of smiling locals and a thriving expat community of surfers and backpackers. Taganga can be described as nothing less than charming, picturesque and peaceful. You will have the option of either catching a bus directly back to Cartagena that day or spending a night in the village, where you can enjoy some fresh seafood and a beautiful sunset.
Day 6 (El Totumo Mud Volcano): One of Cartagena’s most enjoyable attractions is the mud volcano just outside of the city. A mud volcano is caused by a geothermal phenomenon in which hot water deep below the earth’s surface mixes with minerals, creating a mud that is forced upwards through a fissure. The mud slowly builds up, creating a large cone that is essentially a soothing hot spring with natural healing properties.
You’ll have to shower before entering and climb a rickety wooden staircase up to the peak, where you will wait in line to climb down a thick wooden ladder and slowly submerge your body in the mud. The next hour or so will be spent clumsily trying to lap your way over to the centre, caking your face in mud, laughing with friends, trying to get yourself onto the exit ladder, having the mud slicked off of you, and walking over to the nearby river to wash the excess mud off your body.
Photo Credit: Seattle Dredge
All in all, it’s a great experience and a fun way to spend a morning or afternoon. There are several inexpensively priced tours offered from Cartagena, with many offering free lunch at a beachside restaurant. Some tours combine a visit to the volcano with a kayaking trip to the mangrove swamps.
Day 7 (Cartagena): Today is your day to experience anything you may have missed on your first couple of days in Cartagena. Sample some more local dishes, learn a little salsa, do some souvenir shopping, or simply sit in the main square and watch the day go by. If you’re interested in Cartagena’s nightlife, tonight may be the best night to go out, as you will be able to sleep it off on tomorrow’s flight. There are plenty of bar and dance club options around the city—try asking in your hotel lobby for suggestions, or just walk around until you find a busy spot. Don’t forget to try some of the delicious street food before you head off to bed.
If you haven’t gotten enough of Colombia yet, there are plenty of places left to explore—you can always check out the beautiful San Andrés Island on your next trip!
Featured Image Photo Credit: Seattle Dredge