Maybe the least visited department on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Here you see the desert next to the ocean which is just one of the reasons to visit this department. La Guarija is a peninsula in the north of Colombia on the border of Venezuela. In many parts (especially in La Alta Guajira) you can still see the originally habitants of the area, the Wayuu Indians. At about 2 hours distances from the capital Riohacha lays Uribia, also named as the Indian capital of Colombia and also famous for its goat slaughtering on the market. From Uribia it is a short tide to Manaure, the salt capital of the region. Here you can see the salt production done by modern machines or locally by the Wayuu Indians. Back in Uribia a road up north brings you through the desert to Cabo de la Vela and a bit further to Pilon de Azucar (sugar pile). One can sleep in hammocks on the beach and the fresh cooked sea food is delicious and cheap. For the ones who like the adventure, La Alta Guajira has several other interesting and less visited places like: ecological park Jepirachi, Bahia Honda and Bahia Hondita, the desert of Bahia Honda, Punto Gallinas, the dunes of Taroa, Nazareth (population local Indians in National Park La Makuira), Serrania de la Makuira (an oasis in the desert with cloud forest) Puerto Estrella, Laguna de los Patos (a fresh water lake in the middle of the desert), Puerto Lopez, Punto Espada and the Piedra del destino (stone of destiny). To get a good impression of La Alta Guajira you will need at least 5 days. Public transport is not used in this area and as roads are not clear you will need a car (preferably a 4x4) with a driver who knows the area and the local people well.
Valledupar & Nabusimaké
Valledupar is the capital of the Cesar department. This department doesn’t have any beaches but is mentioned here because it covers a big part of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The capital itself is famous of the Vallenato. Every year round April it celebrates its festival dedicated to the Vallenato which is most popular music from the Caribbean Coast. From Valledupar you can go up to Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Pueblo Bello is a little town at just one hour from Valledupar and from here you can go up as far as Nabusimaké, the most important town of the Arhuaco Indians. It is as if you go back in time several hundreds of years and the Arhuacos have conserved mostly of their original culture and lifestyle. It’s a good place for some short hikes and the village itself is wonderful. But be warned that the Indians don’t like many tourists and if you go please make sure you have permission and show a lot of respect for the Indians and their environment. From Nabusimaké it’s possible to go up further into the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta but to be able to reach the sacred lakes and the snow tops of Pico Bolivar and Pico Colón you will need a special permission from the local Indian authorities and this is something very hard to get.
Santa Marta & surrounding
Santa Marta is the oldest city of Colombia and also the city where Simon Bolivar, the big freedom fighter of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, died. The city center is filled with colonial style buildings but not as nicely preserved as in Cartagena. The city center of Santa Marta shows you a typical lifestyle of the coast region and also has beach resorts just 10 minutes from town called Rodadero. Places to visit in Santa Marta are the Tayrona Museum and the Quinta de San Pedro, the finca where Simon Bolivar spend his last days. The city is interesting but mostly visited because of its surroundings.
National Park Tayrona
Maybe the most visited is National Park Tayrona. This beautiful national park of 1200m² lies just 45 minutes with the bus from Santa Marta and reaches from the coast to deep in the hills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The park has numerous beautiful and unspoiled beaches and you can visit several archaeological sites of the Tayrona Indians like Pueblito Pueblito can be compared with the atmosphere of Ciudad Perdida (Lost City). The most popular beaches in the park are Cañaveral, Arrecifes and el Cabo. But the most beautiful beach is the unknown Playa Brava.
Further north, about 30 to 40 min from the main entrance of Tayrona Park you find some other nice beaches. If you don’t like many tourists Palomina is a good alternative for the Arrecifes and Cañaveral sector of Tayrona.
Taganga is a small fishing village at just 10 minutes from Santa Marta. There are 2 nice beaches and the nicest one can only be reached by boat or a walk along the cliffs. The served fish is fresh and delicious and around Taganga there are several good diving spots.
This waterfall lays on the route from Santa Marta to Riohacha. From the road you will have to walk for 30 minutes through beautiful nature to reach the waterfall with several levels. It is possible to climb up the waterfall and swim in the several lagoons (sacred lakes for the Tayrona and Kogis Indians).
From Santa Marta it is possible to visit parts of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. But as safety situation is instable and for some parts you will need permission of the Indians we only mention Minca. Minca is a beautiful small town at an altitude of 600m with stunning views over Santa Marta and is a perfect spot for some (short) walks to visit some of the waterfalls nearby.
In both the Tayrona Park as in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta you can stay at these kinds of cabins. The cabins are located in the middle of the nature and are practicing a sustainable tourism looking after the environment. The cabins also shelter refugees from the Sierra Nevada. These kinds of places are ideal to see more of the rich flora and fauna of the region.
The lost city
Deep in the jungle of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta lays the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida), one of the most important archaeological sites of South America and only discovered in 1976. Hidden high in the Sierra, la ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) of the Tayrona Indians flourished 1,500 years ago. Different ruins within the park can be reached up a steep path of loose rocks. Only a small part of the city is ´cleaned up´ for the tourists. The only way to visit the city is to go on a 5 or 6-day trek through the jungle and mountain hills organized from Santa Marta. The nights will are in hammocks and a local guide will explain you about the history. It will be an experience you will never forget but also a very tough one due to the high temperature and the numerous mosquitoes.
Between the most touristic places Cartagena and Santa Marta lays the industrial city of Barranquilla. Barranquilla is not a holiday destination for beach and ocean but is more a bit dirty, hot and an anxious city with many street vendors in the center. Like it or not, it shows you the typical Caribbean life in Colombia which you would miss if you would just pass the city. Every year in February the city changes completely and holds the biggest festival of all Colombia and the normal daily life style changes for 5 days into costumed parades and exuberant parties at night during the Carnaval of Barranquilla.
Cartagena & surrounding
Cartagena, or Cartagena de Indias, founded in 1533, is the most popular tourist site of Colombia. In the past Colombia was a popular destination for English pirates as the Spanish gathered here their treasures which would be shipped to Spain. The walls around the city where build to defend and to hold. Just outside the city you can find Castillo de San Felipe de Brajas, a castle which survived attacks of Henry Organ, Sir Francis Drake and other English seamen. The city has two important tourist centers; the walled city (city center, San Diego and Getsemani) and the peninsula of Bocagrande. The ones who like colonial towns, culture, romance and history will love the walled city and others who like resorts, beaches and modern shopping centers will prefer Bocagrande. As the distance between the two is just a 10 minute in taxi or bus it doesn´t matter that much where you will stay as you can easily visit both.The nightlife of Cartagena is exciting, with many bars and clubs which play good (salsa) music. Also a good place for a meal isn’t hard to find. In the colonial town there are many restaurants offering local and international food. It is impossible to mention all highlights of Cartagena as the walled city is like one big open museum with many squares, museums, colonial buildings etc. But to mention a few highlights in the colonial town and around Cartagena.
Las Muralles: the old city wall which is almost fully intact. Walking around the city over the wall is a unique experience and also a good start to get to know the city.
Plaza Bolivar: the central square of Cartagena with the sculpture of Simon Bolivar on a horse in the middle. Every evening local people gather together to play chess and if you are interested you can even try a game yourself with one of the local masters of the game.
Plaza San Pedro, Santa Domingo and San Diego: three other squares worth a visit. At all of the squares you can see local street artists performing their typical music and dances of the Caribbean and most restaurants have also tables outside on the square.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas: former mentioned castle of the Spanish to defend Cartagena against the English. Biggest castled ever build by the Spanish outside Spain and in its history it was never conquered.
Calle de Arsenal: the Zona Rosa of Cartagena with many bars and clubs to go out, especially in the weekend.
Donde Fidel: salsa bar visited by many famous salsa artists on the corner of Plaza de los Coches and Plaza de Aduana. If the music is to loud inside you can try the seats outside.
Inquisition Museum: just across the Plaza Bolivar this museum shows the history of the Inquisition in Cartagena.
Bocagrande: a peninsular with beach resorts, shopping malls, restaurants and the best beaches of Cartagena.
Los ejecutivos: neighborhood where lot of local people go in weekends to party. There is a little square with bars and discos and sometimes there’s live music.
Café del Mar: bar, restaurant and club on the wall of the colonial town. Has beautiful views over the sea and Bocagrande.
La Boquilla: a local beach 20 minutes north of Cartagena. Very good and inexpensive fish dishes on the beach and without the many street vendors.
Volcan de Lodo `El Totumo`: mud volcano on the road from Cartagena to Barranquilla where you can jump in a crater of mud and get a massage from the local people.
National Park Islas del Rosario & Playa Blanca Baru
Located about 40 kilometers from Cartagena you will find the Islands of Rosario. You can get there by watertaxis in about 50 min. The Rosario Islands are made up of 43 islands, covering 20 hectares of coral islands and reefs. The climate is tropical and humid. The Parks mangroves, coral reefs, and sea flora constitute one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on the planet. Another island that can be visited with water taxis is the peninsula of Baru. On this peninsula you can find the most beautiful beach in the surrounding of Cartagena, Playa Blanca, an exotic with beach covered with palm trees. An alternative route is to go by bus, boat, bus and truck visiting Paso Caballos and Santa Ana to reach Playa Blanca.
Mompox is a beautiful colonial village south of Cartagena on the banks of Rio Magdalena, also known as Santa Cruz de Mompox. Ideal to escape the beaches and tourists of Cartagena. The village used to have an important trade port between Barranquilla and further inland. Now it is mainly known for its gold jewelry and handmade furniture. Mompox is the only town on the Magdalena River which has their main buildings facing the river. Other towns always concentrate on the main square.
Golfo de Morrosquillo
Traveling from Cartagena in southwestern direction along the coast line you will reach Golfo de Morrosquillo, a bay with some very nice beaches, the Islands of San Bernardo and a good spot for diving. The most famous holiday destinations are Tolu (which is the starting point for a visit to Islas de San Bernardo), Coveñas and San Antero. All have good beaches and facilities for accommodation. The best beach although can be found in unknown place called Playa Kalao. This is a private beach which can be reached from San Antero. Close by you can visit the Sinu Delta and an Arabic village on the river bank of the Sinu called Lorica. The Golfo de Morrosquillo is one of the best places to spot wildlife but staying in Tulo or Coveñas you won’t see much. Better to stay an ecolodge.
Further south/west to the border of Panama
Further south the Caribbean coastline you can find several mud volcanoes. One of them is Arboletes. In the crater of this volcano you can actually swim and afterwards you simple run down the hill to jump in the sea to wash off the mud. Further southwest you will find Turbo which is the departing point for destinations as Capurgana, Sapzurro and Panama. The Uruba bay is good for diving. At the border of Panama with Colombia you have the National Park Katios and the Darien Gap. A very dense jungle with a lot of nature and wildlife but no roads or infrastructure. As this area is known for guerrilla activities and other drug gangs it’s not recommended to visit this place without local contacts.
Golfo de Uruba & Capurgana
Further southwest along the coast you can find various mud volcano´s. The most famous one is near the village Arboletes. Much bigger, nicer, and less visited than the mud volcano el Lodo del Totumo. After a mud bath in the crater you can run down to the sea to rinse yourself of. Further southwest along the coast you can find the city Turbo, as a city not so interesting but ideal to take a boat to Capurgana, Sapzurro and Panama. The bay Golfo de Urubá is a great place to dive. Then finally you get at the border between Colombia and Panama to the Darian Gap and the National Park los Katios. A jungle area without a road from Colombia to Panama and without infrastructure for tourism. It is an area that is known for its guerilla activities and drugs gangs. According to the last information this area is not safe for tourism.
San Andres & Providencia
About 750 km out of the Colombian coast you will find the islands San Andres and Providencia. San Andres can only be reached by a plane from Colombia and Providencia can only be reached by plane or boat from San Andres. Both islands are typical islands in the Caribbean ocean. It is one of the few places where you won´t have troubles to communicated in English. San Andres is known for its white beaches filled with palm trees and a wild night life. Providencia is quieter and offers more for nature lovers like the National Park Old Province McBean Lagoon. San Andres and Providencia are both excellent places for diving.