How to Spend 3 Weeks Along Colombia’s Northern Coast

Colombias dreamy north coast is a must for beach-lovers visiting the country
Colombia's dreamy north coast is a must for beach-lovers visiting the country | © Diego Grandi / Alamy Stock Photo
Chris Bell

Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast is one of the most popular regions in the country for travelers. With beautiful beaches, culturally diverse cities, amazing biodiversity, and unique landscapes, it could easily occupy visitors for weeks at a time. From Cartagena to the Tayrona National Park and La Guajira, we’ve selected the best things to do on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

Cartagena is the perfect starting point for any Colombian Caribbean itinerary. It’s a beautiful, atmospheric city, with great tourism infrastructure, making it a perfect entry point into traveling in the region. It’s worth spending two or three nights staying in and around the old town, enjoying the colorful avenues and squares, as well as the wonderful restaurants and shops. You can enjoy a guided walking tour with a local insider as part of Culture Trip’s exclusive eight-day Colombian Caribbean adventure.

The colorful streets of Getsemani in Cartagena, Colombia

From Cartagena, there are a number of excellent day-trips you can enjoy: the historical Afro-Colombian village of San Basilio de Palenque, the beautiful beach of Playa Blanca, and the surreal mud volcano of Totumo are just a few of the options.

During or after your time in Cartagena, head out to one of the nearby islands to spend a night or two enjoying some beautiful Caribbean beaches – Isla Grande is a great option closer to the city, while those who don’t mind spending a bit longer on a boat will love the stunning floating hostel of Casa en el Agua close to Isla Mucura.

Your next stop is the city of Santa Marta – in fact, the second oldest city in South America – which is the perfect gateway to some of the most alluring natural sights along the Caribbean coast. Spend a night in Santa Marta to enjoy the pleasant old colonial center, before heading inland towards the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains to spend a few nights in the charming village of Minca.

A typical forest cottage in Minca

Minca is a lovely little spot to enjoy a few nights in a cooler climate and take advantage of the vast biodiversity of the Colombian Caribbean region. With plenty of hiking trails, coffee and cacao farm tours, waterfalls and swimming holes, as well as a wonderful selection of hostels and hotels and a laid-back atmosphere, Minca often ends up being a favorite spot for many travelers in Colombia.

Your next stop should definitely be a couple of nights in the Tayrona National Park: it might be busy, and a little pricier for foreigners, but it really is unmissable on a trip to this part of Colombia – and is also included on Culture Trip’s specially curated small-group Colombian Caribbean tour. Spend a couple of nights camping at the popular Cabo San Juan beachside campsite, or head inland from Arrecifes beach for some quieter campsites in the forest. During the day you can sunbathe, take a swim (although only on certain beaches), hike in the jungle, or trek up to the ruins of an old indigenous village named Pueblito. Tayrona is popular for a reason, so make sure not to miss it.

Cabo San Juan beach in Tayrona National Park near Santa Marta, Colombia

From Tayrona, your route depends a little on physical fitness: those who fancy a challenge can take four days to trek through the jungle to the Lost City – a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience – alternatively head directly to the little beach town of Palomino. Even after the hike, it’s worth having a night or two in Palomino to relax and recover from the 28mi (46km) you have just trekked! In Palomino, you can chill out on the beach with a cocktail and a tasty fish platter, or hike a little way into the jungle and ride the river back down to the sea on an inner tube.

Palomino a small beach town on the northern Caribbean coast

From Palomino you can continue on along the coast towards the arid deserts of La Guajira: stop along the way at Los Flamencos Natural Reserve for amazing sightings of flamingos and other bird species. The ultimate destination should be the beautiful seafront village of Cabo de la Vela. Home to some of the calmest blue waters in the Colombian Caribbean, as well as excellent kitesurfing, Cabo takes a bit of work to get to but is well worth the extra travel. Truly adventurous travelers can head even further north – the most northern point on the continent, in fact – to the wild and surreal desert landscapes of Punta Gallinas.

Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point on the mainland of South America

This is a flexible itinerary that could easily be adapted and changed for a longer or shorter trip, but as it stands it would be perfect for a three-week trip on the Colombian Caribbean coast, including time for bus travel and with a few flexible days for extra day-trips or simply to allow some time to relax.

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