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No thanks to the Netflix series Narcos, Colombia doesn’t necessarily conjure up images of turquoise waters, verdant jungle and colonial cities that drip bougainvillea. But that’s exactly what the country’s Caribbean Coast has to offer. Follow us on a whistle-stop tour through Cartagena, Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park.
Cartagena is the Colombia you’ve always dreamed about. Enclosed within 13km of stone walls, the city was founded in 1533 and today much of is part of a Unesco World Heritage site, playing host to perfectly preserved 15th, 16th and 17th-century Spanish colonial architecture. The late Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia’s Nobel Prize-winning author and father of magical realism, set many of his novels in Cartagena and also kept a home here. It only takes one afternoon of wandering the city’s streets – watching the soft light flicker across peeling candy coloured façades – to understand why.
As is the case in much of Latin America, life in Cartagena revolves around city squares. The city is home to a number of plazas populated by indigenous women selling bright woven bags and vendors arranging fresh fruit atop colourful wooden carts. Plaza Simon Bolívar pays homage to the great liberator of South America and is a palm-shaded escape from the afternoon sun; Plaza Santo Domingo is the place for people-watching come evening.
Cartagena’s colonial centre is beautiful, but it’s no secret. The formerly sketchy enclave of Getsemaní is the city’s most up and coming neighbourhood, which has blossomed into a food and nightlife hotspot. Explore the winding graffitied walls of the area on your way to the chaotic Mercado de Bazurto, before settling into the Plaza Trinidad for the night.
And while one half of Cartagena looks like a fairytale, the other half, incongruously, looks like Miami. Make the trip to San Convento de la Popa to get a view over the top of Bocagrande, the high-rise filled neighbourhood that mimics the famous Florida skyline. Alternatively, make a day-trip to the Islas del Rosario and take in the skyscrapers en route to the archipelago’s pristine beaches.
Locals will tell you it’s a sin to leave the city without trying posta Cartagenera, a typical dish of beef cooked in Coca Cola and brown sugar served with rice, beans and plantain. The offering at the traditional La Cocina de Socorro is delicious but intense. Alternatively Marzola Parrilla Steakhouse, which has walls plastered with Argentinean artifacts, serves delicious meat-centric dishes in a fun setting. Finish up your night with an icy aguardiente (a spirit made from anise and sugar) at Café del Mar, a bar set in one of the city’s ancient walls that overlooks the sea.
Nearby: Volcán de Lodo El Totumo
Discover the healing powers of mud at the nearby Totumo Volcano. Clamber up this small mound and dive into the mineral-rich mud that lies within. Wash off (or get washed off by locals) in the lagoon afterwards and then venture to Manzanillo del Mar beach for a grilled fish lunch at Restaurante Donna.
Santa Marta, Colombia
The oldest city in Colombia, laidback Santa Marta is lapped by the Caribbean Sea and fringed by the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, whose peaks can be seen from the main beach. The place is a little rougher around the edges than Cartagena, but this makes for a younger, less touristy and more vibrant vibe.
La Casa del Piano is a cute boutique hotel with a rooftop pool, and its position on Calle 19 drops you right in the centre of the action. Wander the malecón and make your way back through the Parque de Los Novios (the couple’s’ park, which comes complete with canoodling).
Settle into one of the terrace tables of LaMart for a long dinner of ceviche. Nightlife in Santa Marta is more on the scale of a pueblo than a big city but the bars around Parque de los Novios have a few party options if you’re unperturbed by underage drinking and reggaetón.
You can’t move in Colombia without stumbling across a street, square or statue named in honour of Simon Bolívar, the Venezuelan military and political leader who liberated six South American countries from Spanish rule before he died of tuberculosis at the age of 47. His estate and final resting place lies just outside of Santa Marta and is a fascinating visit.
Nearby: Ciudad Perdida
La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) is an architectural marvel to rival Machu Picchu. Up until recently, the site had disappeared into wilderness populated by violent militia and drug traffickers, but is now reachable via a week-long trek.
Tayrona National Park, Colombia
Located in Buritaca on the outskirts of the Tayrona National Park, Playa Koralia offers the ultimate escape. A series of eco cabins are set between towering palm trees that open onto a stretch of sand. Each has its own theme, open-air bathroom and no wifi. Lounge in a hammock, practise your downward dogs on the beach and dance around the bonfire while fuelled by the tiki bar at night. (Tip: do all of the above while covered mosquito repellent.)
Playa Koralia is a destination in itself, but is also the perfect gateway into Tayrona National Park. The preserved land was once home to the Tayrona people, who are now extinct, but have mixed with the indigenous Kogis in order to preserve aspects of their culture. The Kogi’s way of life is intrinsically linked with nature, and many of them have found work in the preservation of the park.
Tayrona is characterised by lush rainforest, pristine beaches set in deep bays backed by mountains and lagoons and waterfalls that make for welcome swim breaks. La Laguna del Cacique Mendihuaca is a hidden bathing spot with a small waterfall. It remains today an important site for indigenous fertility rituals, and if you look closely at the surrounding rocks you can see traces of wax left behind after candlelit meetings.
Tellingly located near the town of Camarones (‘shrimps’ in English) Santuario de Fauna y Flora Los Flamencos is home to a lake that provides sanctuary to flamingos. Local skippers row you out on an evening trip (skirting very close to the Venezuelan border) in the hope of spotting some spindly pink legs in the water before the sun sets and the shallow waters turn to ink.
Kate Hamilton was hosted by G Adventures
G Adventures Caribbean Colombia Express trip costs £949pp for an eight-day trip from Cartagena to Santa Marta. Direct flights from London to Bogotá are available with Avianca and priced from £560pp return.
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