The Caribbean Coast is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colombia with foreign and local tourists alike and for good reason – stunning coastline, fantastic Caribbean vibe and a vibrant nightlife make for an enticing combination.
Cartagena is the jewel in the crown of Colombian tourist destinations. It is actually quite a large city with a population approaching one million. Of interest to tourists, however, is the historic centre with its fort and colonial buildings.
It was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and was a major trading port, including the slave trade. It was heavily fortified, the current fort being completed in the 18th century. In the 19th century the city was almost decimated by attacks and outbreaks of disease, but recovered in the early 20th century.
Unfortunately, Cartagena is well and truly discovered and direct flights from the U.S. has meant skyrocketing prices. To stay in the historic centre is out of the question for budget travellers, Eating out is exorbitant. I stayed in the tourist ghetto, Getsemani, where you can find cheap guest houses and some good restaurants, cafes and salsa bars. It’s a well dodgy area at night, full of manky prostitutes and coke heads. That said, there is a huge police presence along the main drag, which is well lit at night, making the easy 10 minute walk to the old town a safe affair.
I personally thought Cartagena was a bit over-rated. It is good for a day and no more in my opinion. It is definitely worth a visit, but the high prices mean it is better to get in and out.
Barranquilla is an industrial port town and Colombia’s 4th biggest city. It is not known as a tourist destination with the exception of its carnival which takes place in February. It is one of the largest and reputedly craziest carnivals in the world. I heard mixed things and decided to skip it. As with other popular carnivals such as Rio, prices skyrocket and you have to book accommodation well in advance or you will miss out.
Santa Marta is another popular tourist destination, especially for local Colombians. There is a great nightlife here and during the summer season and there is an endless parade of stunningly gorgeous Colombian women to be seen. It seems in some bars, they are just lining the walls. With my basic spanish, I was struggling with how to approach. A friend told me, just grab one! So I did, it was so easy. Getting one home, however, proved to be more of a challenge as most single women live at home and there is a 3am curfew when the bars close. An Irish guy working at my hostel gave me some advice. He was a handsome chap who spoke fluent spanish and was a bit of a lady’s man. He told me to get their numbers, make a date after work and invite them to a “Love motel”, the equivalent of the Japanese Love Hotel. What if they resist, I enquired? You tell them there is a line of women waiting to go with you and not to waste your fucking time! I wonder how well this line would down back in Ireland….
There are not really any great beaches here, but Santa Marta makes a good base for exploring other attractions such as Minca and Parque Tayrona.
Taganga is a backpacker hangout about 20 minutes drive from Santa Marta. You can get there by taxi. There is a scene there, with backpackers from Europe and Argentina, enjoying the sunsets on the beach. It is not a surf destination, but you can dive there pretty cheaply. Personally, I thought Taganga was a bit of a dump. There is only one decent restaurant there and the nightlife is pretty dire, with only two crappy clubs. Weed and coke are freely available, but as in any foreign country exercise extreme caution as there is a police presence on the beach. It’s a small place and buyers will very quickly become known to dealers, attracting unwanted attention. From Taganga you can book the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) trek. I didn’t do the trek myself, but from first hand reports I got, it is a gruelling hike in sweltering heat and the ruins are not much crack, however the scenery on the way makes it worthwhile – it’s the not the destination, but the getting there.
A beautiful national park stretching for 150 square kms. It is easily reachable by bus from Santa Marta or Taganga. The bus drops you off at the entrance and then you walk into the park. It takes about 2 hours (from memory) to get to the coast. It is an pleasant and scenic walk. Some complain about the high cost of entry, but in my opinion it is worth it, as they authorities have gone to great effort to build nice walkways and to make the area safe. The actual part you are permitted to enter is quite small, as deeper parts have been known to be FARC territory and hence off limits. Once there, you can opt to stay overnight in camps. Tents are already set up there, there is no need to carry your own. That said, they are a bit manky. I hate camping and one night was enough for me. The coastline is stunning – very similar to that of Brazil. We had bad weather, however, and there is not a great deal to do when the weather is bad.
Barranquilla Carnival photo courtesy of Matt Wooten