Main Cities on the Colombian Caribbean Coast Part I Uncover Colombia
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Cartagena de Indias

MAIN CITIES ON THE COLOMBIAN CARIBBEAN COAST PART I

June 20, 2024, 10:00 pm

Cartagena

Cartagena is not only one of the biggest cities on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, but is also one of the most popular tourist destinations for both Colombians and foreign tourists. Cartagena, more so than any other Colombian city on the Caribbean Coast, is a living historical city. The overly charming historic city centre (also known as la ciudad amurallada) of Cartagena is still contained within the massive stone walls constructed by the Spaniards, and the historic buildings within the walls are impressively preserved. In addition to offering a unique historical experience, Cartagena also offers a remarkable variety of beach and water experiences.

A short walk, or ride, from the historic city centre you will find the public beaches of Bocagrande, where you will find a good mix of both locals and tourists soaking up the sun, enjoying local food, and participating in various water sports and activities. In Bocagrande, you can also find a host of boutique shops and local handicrafts. If you want a more exclusive experience, you can catch a boat to the nearby Islas del Rosario, a beautiful island chain, where you will find crystalline waters, pearl white sand, and coral reefs waiting to be explored. Cartagena offers the perfect mix of cultural, historical, and tropical beach experiences. It is a city that you will most definitely want to visit during your time in Colombia.

To get to Cartagena, you can fly directly to Rafael Nuñez International Airport, or you can catch a bus from almost any major city in Colombia, including Barranquilla (2 hours) and Santa Marta (4 hours) on the Caribbean Coast.

Barranquilla

Located about 2 hours to the northeast of Cartagena is the biggest city on the Colombian Caribbean Coast: Barranquilla. Home to the second largest Carnival celebration in the world, Barranquilla is a great city to explore for a couple of days. Hands down, the best time to come to Barranquilla is during the annual Carnival celebration when the city comes alive with colors, music, aromas, and dances that will leave you breathless! However, if you cannot make it during Carnival, there are other things you can check out in Barranquilla as well.

Unlike Cartagena, Barranquilla does not have many historical options, but does offer an impressive variety of culinary experiences. Barranquilla is known for its incredible Arabic food, its traditional costeño (coastal) food (especially at the traditional Narcobollo restaurant), and locally caught and cooked seafood in riverside restaurants in the neighborhood Las Flores. There are also the local beaches in Puerto Colombia and Salgar—small municipalities about 20 minutes outside Barranquilla—to check out, as well as St. Nicholas Cathedral in the city centre and the historic neighborhood of El Prado, which is definitely worth a walk through.

To get to Barranquilla, you can fly directly to Ernesto Cortissoz International Airport or you can catch a bus from most major cities in Colombia, including those on the Caribbean Coast.

Santa Marta

Santa Marta is the oldest founded city in Colombia1, and it is famous for both its historic importance as well as its natural beauty and ecological richness. Santa Marta, like Cartagena is a very popular tourist destination and offers you the chance to see, experience, and explore many unique sites and attractions.

The most popular reason to travel to Santa Marta is for its ecotourism options, including the spectacular beaches within and around the city. While not exactly within the limits of the city, the most famous tourist site near Santa Marta is Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, a national park that offers you the chance to explore some of the most beautiful beaches in the area as well as observe up close and personal unique plant and animal species that inhabit the area. To get here, you can catch a bus or taxi from Santa Marta proper and in a matter of 20-30 minutes, you can be exploring this Caribbean jewel. Other popular beach areas in and around Santa Marta include Bahía Concha, Rodadero, and the beaches near downtown Santa Marta.

In addition to the beaches and natural parks, Santa Marta offers you the chance to explore la Quinta de San Pedro de Alejandrino—the place where South American liberator Simón Bolívar spent his final days, and the Museo Bolivariano de Arte Contemporáneo (Contemporary Bolivarian Museum of Art).  The Quinta de San Pedro de Alejandrino is a 17th century sugar cane plantation where Simón Bolivar arrived in the late 1800s to spend his last days. Here, you can learn about the history of the region, as well as the story of how and why Simón Bolívar arrived here. After learning a bit of Colombian history, you can also explore the Contemporary Bolivarian Museum of Art that houses a unique collection of local, national, and international pieces of art on the same premises. Likewise, make sure you observe the incredible and diverse community of wildlife that inhabits the grounds of la Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, especially the impressive iguanas.

About 2.5 hours north of Santa Marta is the smaller, but just as worthy of a visit, city of Riohacha. Riohacha is the capital of the Colombian department La Guajira—often called the Wild Wild West of Colombia. And, while Riohacha can seem a bit far from other larger Colombian cities, it is worth the trip.  In Riohacha, you can see some striking examples of indigenous handicrafts made by the Wayuu indigenous group that lives in La Guajira as well as take advantage of the unique culinary offers in La Guajira by trying local dishes like fried goat meat, lobster, and chirrinchi (indigenous moonshine). Also, make sure to walk along la Primera—the principal street in the city centre where you will find artisans exhibiting and selling their handicrafts and also take a dip in the ocean as you get to know the beaches of Riohacha.

Riohacha

20 minutes north and south of Riohacha, you will also find a host of extraordinary beaches and wildlife sanctuaries. Twenty minutes south, you can explore the community of Camarones where you can discover the Parque Natural los Flamencos/Santuario de Flora y Fauna los Flamencos—a natural park famous for the flocks of flamingos that feed on the shrimp in the area. Twenty minutes north of Riohacha, you can find the small beach community of Mayapo, which is privileged by an amazing and gorgeous beach.

Happy travels,

Share with your traveller friends!

Paige Poole
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paige Poole

Paige M. Poole is an Alabamian and traveler at heart who has settled, for now, in Barranquilla, Colombia, and earns her living as an English professor at the Instituto de Idiomas (Language Institute) at la Universidad del Norte (University of the North). When not teaching English, she enjoys blogging, traveling, relaxing on the beach, and spending time with her partner and two cats, Milo and Sophie. 

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