If you have limited knowledge of Colombia, perhaps the first things that come to mind when this South American country comes up is Narcos and Pablo Escobar. That’s certainly what prompted my parents to flip their lids when I announced at our regular Sunday night dinner that I was planning a trip there a couple years ago. This was before the colourful walls of Cartagena started popping up all over Instagram feeds, insidiously creeping into people’s minds as their next vacation destination.
While I didn’t encounter any drug lords or cocaine on my trip, there was still plenty of adventure, bucket list moments and drool-worthy meals to be had. Since it was my first foray into South America, I took it easy and started in the vibrant Caribbean port city of Cartagena before leisurely making my way to the jungles of Tayrona Beach and finally escaped to the paradise of Isla Baru for pristine beaches and seafood feasts.
SCHEDULE AT A GLANCE
Duration: 10 Days
Day 1 – 5: Cartagena
Day 5 – 7: Tayrona Park
Day 8 – 10: Isla Baru
Read: Colombia Lust List
DAYS 1 – 5: CARTAGENA
A historic port city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Cartagena is as vibrant as it is safe. The walls of the colonial buildings within the Old City are brightly-hued while the people are friendly, welcoming and quick to laugh with visitors.
+ Casa Pombo: If baller accommodations is high on your priorities then this spot is the popular pick to feel like a fancy pants. It’s a luxurious oasis tucked away behind grand doors in a gorgeous buildinig with a rooftop pool to escape to.
+ Friends to BE: For those with a more modest budget (or who want to save their funds for feasts) this is an awesome little hotel situated in the trendy Getsemani neighbourhood. Floor-to-ceiling wooden doors and exposed brick walls flank an interior courtyard with a little pool while the rooftop terrace offers a gorgeous view of Cartagena.
+ Convento De La Popa: Located at the top of Mount Popa (obvi), stroll the foliage-covered archways of the cloister within the convent before drinking in the view of the city below.
+ Castillo De San Felipe De Barajas: For more expansive cityscapes views, a mere 10-minute drive away is this great fortress atop San Lázaro hill. Peek at the sunset through the little windows of the crumbling corner alcoves or settle along the walls.
+ El Totumo Mud Volcano: If getting massaged in a volcano filled with mud sounds like fun, then you’re in luck! Take an easy day trip an hour outside of the walled city to float in the viscous mud – known for its therapeutic qualities – of Volcano de Lodo El Totumo. I LOVED it!
+ Graffiti In Gestamani: Venture beyond the protective walls of the Old City to the caliente neighbourhood of Getsemani. Take to the streets of the city’s coolest barrio (neighbourhood) and meander alongside impressive murals and political graffiti to soak in the local culture.
+ Chill at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara: It can get HOT in Cartagena so take it easy and head over to the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara hotel for the day. Enjoy a relaxing lunch on the terrace courtyard then cool off at the pool (but wait an hour after you’ve eaten, of course).
+ Chiva Bus Tour: Part sightseeing tour, part pub crawl, these vibrantly painted, open-air buses is an authentic (and fun!) way to whisk around the city. At night, take a shot of rum and shimmy in your seat while music blares over this party vehicle.
+ Champeta Lessons: When in Cartagena, you champeta – a genre of folk music and dance that originated in this region. Take a lesson in this lively dance at Ciudad Movil, an ecclectic space that serves as an art gallery, concert venue, hip restaurant, bar and a dance studio. You can get delicious oven-baked pizza at the bar in the back!
+ Salsa the Night Away: You cannot come to this lively Caribbean city without cutting a rug so head to Barzuto Social Club for a night of dancing. Throw back some mas fuerte mojitos to loosen those hips and put your dance lessons to use as the live band does their thing! Café Havana is also a popular (and touristy) choice.
+ Mojitos + dancing at Tasca Maria: If a more intimate scene is more your thing, this tiny bar is perfect for downing cheap beers and minty mojitos well into the night. A great local watering hole where Latin music blares in the background while you make new friends and the party spills into the darkened streets of Calle Media Luna.
+ Mila Café: You like breakfast? Of course you do because you’re not a monster. This bakery restaurant will satisfy you morning meal cravings. With an upscale boho-cottage vibe, indulge in traditional churros dipped in velvety melted chocolate or something classic like an eggs benny but with a Colombian twist.
+ La Cevicheria: This Anthony Bourdain-approved establishment is as Instagrammable, with its bright white interior and hand-drawn chalkboards, as it is delicious. While ceviche is an obvious choice, my absolute fav dish was the crab pincers with honey mustard vinaigrette.
+ El Boliche: This intimate cebicheria serves superior quality seafood, honouring artisanal fishing practices. If you’re luckily enough to snag one of coveted 25 spots, indulge in tamarind-, sour cream- or coconut-flavoured ceviches
+ Maria Restaurante: For a fancy night out, take a seat amid white-lacquered pineapples and huge, colourful tiger murals. Sip on passionfruit mojitos while noshing on innovative Colombian fare of octopus carpaccio and beet risotto.
+ Di Silvio Trattoria: If your stomach is getting homesick, find comfort in familiar Italian cuisine in the middle of the Getsemani neighbourhood. If you’re lucky, as you wait for your personal-sized pizza to bake you may witness live performances by a street dancers or musicians tableside.
+ Demente: Lounge under the open roof at this tapas restaurant right at the edge of Plaza de la Trinidad in Getsemani. A great spot to party as well, indulge in delicious sharable dishes like the crab dumplings or tuna tartare with yucca chips before joining the late night festivities.
+ Portal de los Dulces: Translating to “Portal of Sweets,” you’ll find this candy market in the Plaza de los Coches. With the infamous clock tower as a picturesque backdrop, peruse stalls towering with jars of local delicacies like tamarind balls and Muñecas de Leche (doll-shaped candies).
+ La Paletteria: Wring your hands in angsty indecision over the plentiful options of paletas at this glorious spot. Beat the heat with a refreshing paleta of chopped fruit and juice (like the mango biche) and/or indulge in a creamy banana split flavour dipped in chocolate!
+ Street Food: Sometimes the best way to immerse yourself in a culture is by sampling the street food. Wander the vibrant streets of the Old City and pose with saucy palenqueras before purchasing a plate of freshly cut fruit from bowls they’re balancing on their heads. Snack on cheesy arepas and meat-filled empanadas.
Days 5 -7: Tayrona national Park
With some of the best beaches in South America, you can’t miss out of Tayrona National Park. There are gigantic boulders straight out of The Land Before Time along shorelines that stretch for miles bordering Jurassic Park-esque jungles.
+ Costeño Beach Hostel: If roughing it is your idea of fun, then reserve one of the thatched ecolodges on this remote stretch of beach. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience (La Brisa Tranquila next door might be a better option) but it was a prime location, a mere 20-minute scooter ride from Tayrona National Park.
+ Casa Elemento: If proximity to the national park isn’t a priority, then consider making Minca in Santa Maria you’re homebase, specifically at this hostel that boasts the biggest hammock with an awe-inspiring view of the surrounding lush landscapes.
+ Camp in Tayrona Park: You can rent a hammock or set up camp on park grounds to maximize your time and fully immerse yourself in the beauty of wild nature.
+ Hotel Jaba Nibue: For those with a taste for luxury hotels, the ecohabs at Jaba Nibue are based on ancient designs and were built right into the side of the mountain on Playa Grande.
+ Tayrona National Park: This protected national park is paradise for nature lovers and the only reason you need to venture out to the Santa Maria region.
Hike through dense Jurassic Park-esque jungles or commandeer a trusty steed for a horseback ride with a local guide leading the way.
Marvel at massive boulders that pile up along the coastline and soak up some vitamin D on one of the many beaches your find throughout your journey deeper into the park.
+ Rio Mendihuaca: If the waters are too rough to surf, trek down the coast towards the still water river of Rio Mendihuaca. You’ll find plenty of locals relaxing on tubes and taking leisurely dips with mountainous greenery looming in the background.
+ Quebrada Valencia Waterfall: If you’re staying at Costeño Beach, there is a waterfall a mere 5 miles away to explore. Relax amid towering ficus trees or if you’re more daring, cannonball into the freshwater swimming holes below.
+ Salchipapas: I mostly ate this Latin American version of poutine or “Colombian Nachos”. Fries would arrive at our oceanside table at La Brisa Tranquila covered in sliced hot dog (classy) shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, cheese, mayo, and ketchup. For an added zip I sprinkled Frank’s Red Hot over the culinary masterpiece because I’m classy like that.
Days 8 – 10: Isla Baru
Loving Cartagena but needing a relaxing escape from city life? Isla Baru is the ideal escape, a short 45-minute drive to paradise. Here you can relax and enjoy the Caribbean temperatures with a refreshing breeze blowing from the sea.
+ Playa Manglares: The absolute highlight of my trip was staying at this slice of paradise with the sassy owner, Olga. Not only do they serve the best mojito I had the entire trip but the rooms were gorgeous – dramatic netting covering the beds, an intricately tiled private outdoor shower, and hammocks hanging in the rooms to watch the sun set over the mangrove-lined bay below.
+ Boat tour of Islas del Rosarios: An archipelago located off the coast of Colombia, Islas del Rosarios is situated within a national park and infamous for it’s clear turquoise waters. Arrange a boat tour to navigate the surrounding islands and explore the depths by snorkelling.
Take a lunch break at one of the many islands and watch as freshly caught lobster is grilled with salt, pepper, garlic and served with coco rice, patacones and a squeeze of lime and copious bottles of cerveza.
+ National Aviary of Colombia: While what is essentially a bird zoo may sound a bit odd, it’s actually REALLY cool and definitely warrants a visit. Stroll through the sprawling outdoor facility of landscaped ecosystems and admire the vivid pink flamingos and make friends with curious parrots.
+ Playa Blanca: Claim a patch of sand at one of the most popular beaches in Colombia and work on your tan or get a relaxing massage from a local. After you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Maria’s Kiosk and drink a rum-filled cock cocontail from a hairy coconut before digging into the catch of the day, fried patacones and coco rice at Maria’s Kiosk.