Cartagena is the perfect starting point for three weeks in the Colombian Caribbean: it’s a beautiful, comfortable city, with a 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 Walled City of Cartagena, enjoying the beautiful, colorful avenues and squares, as well as the wonderful restaurants and shops. 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 excellent 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 beautiful 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 quaint little mountain village of Minca.
Minca is an adorable little spot to enjoy a few nights in a cooler climate, and take advantage of the enviable 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, Minca has a delightfully laid-back atmosphere and often ends up being a favorite spot for many travelers in Colombia.
Your next stop should definitely be a couple of nights in the world-famous natural wonder that is 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. 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.
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—or 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 28 miles (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.
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.
This is a flexible itinerary which 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.