Whether spending a week on the coast for travel or vacation, there’s no doubt that you will have an amazing time.
Here’s your guide to spending the perfect week on Colombia’s Caribbean coast:
In my opinion, Santa Marta is where you should spend the majority of your time on the coast. It’s less touristy than Cartagena, much less expensive, and close to more attractions. If you fly into Cartagena, it takes about four hours by bus or shuttle to reach Santa Marta. I recommend using MarSol, which provides a “door-to-door” service. I’ve heard of some people having bad experiences with them but mine was great!
Santa Marta is the oldest city in South America (post-colonization). It’s filled with beautiful, colonial-style architecture. It also has a great selection of bars, hostels, and restaurants. Because there’s less tourism, prices are still reasonable. The people are welcoming and friendly. Costeños are some of the friendliest, most outgoing people I’ve met during my time in Colombia (along with caleños). Keep in mind that if you’re a woman you will likely get a lot of attention from the locals. In general, it’s harmless, but it can be uncomfortable at times.
One of the greatest things about Santa Marta is its location. It’s only a short bus ride away from many other attractions. Tayrona National Park is a MUST-SEE if you’re on the coast. I can’t stress this enough. If you go to the coast and don’t go to Tayrona then you might as well have not gone. See below for more info on Tayrona!
From Santa Marta, you can also take a day trip to Taganga, a small fishing town which is popular among backpackers. If you’re looking to spend some time in the mountains, Minca is another great, nearby option. Be sure to check out the giant hammock at Casa Elemento hostel!
Tayrona National Park
Tayrona has many different areas and it’s impossible to see it all in one day. Cabo San Juan is the most popular but it’s more difficult to get to and requires some hiking. If you’re looking for a shorter trip I would recommend taking a chiva to Bahia Concha. This is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen and it will likely be less crowded than Cabo San Juan. There’s something magical about having crystal clear water in front of you and the untouched mountains of the Sierra Nevada behind you. I paid $45,000 cop (about $15 USD) and it included round-trip transportation and snorkeling. Lunch is a little pricey (about 30,000 cop or $10 USD), but you’re welcome to bring your own food.
To organize transportation, find someone selling tours on the beach (but be careful) or go to a travel agency. Also, if you go to the chiva parking lot in El Rodadero (the parking lot with all of the colorful buses), you can organize transportation there.
Once you’re at Bahia Concha, you can rent a beach tent for the day for around $30,000 cop ($10 USD). Someone will come by and take your order for drinks and lunch. You can also buy drinks from vendors on the beach or bring your own. While Bahia Concha is an easy day trip, camping overnight is also an option. If you take a chiva be sure to talk with the company and tell them of your plans to stay overnight. Make sure that A) they can give you a ride back the following day and B) they know you’re staying so they don’t wait for you. Also, research beforehand because occasionally camping is not possible. Most importantly, enjoy and smile because you’re on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world!
This is where I stayed for most of my trip. I actually thought the hostel was in Santa Marta before I arrived, only to find out it was in a small town outside of the city. But it was a great mistake to make! Colombians will tell you that Rodadero is where rich Bogotanos go on vacation, but I met a lot of locals here and some really great people. I wanted to spend as much time as possible on the beach and in El Rodadero I was only a 5 minute walk away.
If you decide to stay in El Rodadero, there is one hostel I cannot recommend enough. It’s called Calle 11 Hostel and it’s by far the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. The beds are comfortable, each bed has a privacy curtain, it’s own outlet, and it’s own light. The hostel has a pool, a kitchen, and pet tortoises and cats. The staff are super friendly and 24-hours. And, as I said, it’s only a 5 minute walk from the beach! If walking back at night, it’s a safe area. However, always make sure to have a healthy amount of caution.
If staying in El Rodadero, I recommend spending some time on the beach drinking Coco Locos, a typical costeño cocktail, and eating ceviche! You can buy beer almost anywhere for $2,500 cop (around $.70). People will constantly try to massage you and you might need to say no 100 times before they leave. If you want a massage they usually charge around $30,000 cop ($10 USD) but you can try and talk them down. In general, El Rodadero is relaxed, the people are friendly, and the life is good.
Ahhh, the famous Cartagena. I found Cartagena to be overrated, but it’s still worth taking a day or two to get to know the city. Why overrated, you ask? It’s filled, and I mean FILLED, with tourists. You will likely hear more English than Spanish here. As a result, you will pay tourist prices (as somebody earning Colombian pesos, this was tragic for me). The beaches are nice, but I found the beaches in El Rodadero and Tayrona to be more beautiful. The locals are friendly, but you’re more likely to meet foreigners. If you’re looking for an authentic Colombian experience, Cartagena isn’t the best place.
But as I said, it’s worth spending a few days to get to know the city. The walled city is filled with restaurants, bars, and clubs and it’s nice to have a few beers or some food while sitting on the wall watching the sunset. There are a lot of nice restaurants and bars if you’re looking for a night out, or you can take a horse and buggy ride around the old city.
If you want to spend some time in Cartagena, but only want to be on the beach (or practice water sports), I recommend Posada Kalea hostel. It’s a little difficult to find and you’ll have to ask around. The area is called La Boquilla. It’s a newer hostel and the staff is AMAZING. When I arrived, they greeted me by name. They were super helpful with anything I needed and very attentive. I stayed in the six-bed dorm and it had it’s own bathroom and mini-bar. It even had a balcony with a hammock that overlooked the ocean.
This hostel is actually ON the beach. It’s sort of secluded but great if you’re just looking to relax. The hostel has food and a bar with a large variety of drink options. If you walk to the left, you’ll see a lot of hotels and if you walk to the right, there’s more of a local, bohemian feel. It’s a cool place to experience but do keep in mind that there’s not much to do besides the beach and water sports.
Whatever you do, make sure to make the most of your vacation. Have fun, meet new people, explore! The Colombian coast is a wonderful place full of wonderful people.