Moon Cartagena & Colombia's Caribbean Coast


By Ocean Malandra

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Romantic cobblestone streets and ancient ruins, golden beaches and turquoise waters: Colombia’s Caribbean coastline offers relaxation and adventure in equal measure. Dive right in with Moon Cartagena & Colombia’s Caribbean Coast.
  • Strategic itineraries for adventurers, nature-lovers, beach bums, history buffs, and more
  • Unique experiences and can’t-miss highlights: Stroll through Cartagena’s historic central district and admire the vivid bougainvillea cascading from balconies, dance to the sounds of salsa and champeta, or walk along the Old City’s fortifications at sunset. Visit organic coffee farms, sample ceviche at a trendy sidewalk spot, or relax in a beachside cabaña at an ecofriendly hotel
  • The top outdoor adventures: Find the best beaches for diving, snorkeling, kitesurfing, and more. Hike lush, forested mountains and look out for flashes of colorful feathers, or make the multiday trek to the ancient city of Ciudad Perdida
  • Ways to respectfully engage with culture from local Ocean Malandra, including how to support small businesses and travel ethically and sustainably
  • Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
  • Reliable background on the landscape, history, government, and culture, including a handy Spanish phrasebook
  • Helpful recommendations for health and safety, plus suggestions for LGBTQ+ visitors, solo travelers, travelers with disabilities, and seniors
With Moon’s expert tips and local insight, you can experience the best of Cartagena.

Expanding your trip? Check out Moon Colombia.



bougainvillea-covered house in Cartagena

DISCOVER Cartagena & Colombia’s Caribbean Coast


Planning Your Trip

The Best of Cartagena and the Caribbean Coast


The Wild Coast


Johnny Cay.

Colombia is a whirlwind of colors and sensations; magical realism pervades the entire country’s varied terrain. Its Caribbean coast in particular is a tropical dreamscape. Reigning over it in sultry majesty is Cartagena, an architecturally stunning seaport ringed by colonial walls, lined with cobblestone streets, and filled to bursting with nightlife.

Stretching west and east of the city are a kaleidoscope of landscapes and cultures, from the beachfront Afro-Colombian villages of Capurganá and Sapzurro to the red desert bluffs of La Guajira, home to the matriarchal Wayúu people. In between, you’ll find laid-back bohemian villages and flamboyant Carnaval celebrations that last for weeks. Snorkeling, diving, and otherwise playing in the turquoise sea are options, but so are hiking and bird-watching in the Sierra Nevada, the world’s highest coastal mountain range.

Sun worshippers will never run out of devotional opportunities. Unspoiled islands with sugar-sand beaches beckon, from the luxurious Islas del Rosario just offshore from Cartagena to the harder-to-reach, calypso-driven San Andrés Archipelago.

Kogi girl from the Sierra Nevada

Alquímico bar

Santuario de San Pedro Claver

In this multifaceted jewel of the South American continent, you’ll discover flavorful cuisine and dawn-breaking fiestas that can happen any night of the week. It’s the Colombian people themselves who steal the show. Always ready to jump up and dance to the near-constant backdrop of music, their profound passion for life is always on full display. Join them.

palenquero dancers

beach in San Andrés

hammocks and hats for sale


1 Wander Along Cartagena’s Walls: Stroll las murallas, part of the largest series of fortifications in South America, and cap off your ramble with an alfresco drink at sunset.

2 Live on Island Time: Just off the coast you’ll find the Islas del Rosario and Islas de San Bernardo, strings of islands with white-sand beaches that let you live out your Caribbean dreams.

3 Dance Until Dawn at Carnaval: Join the throngs on the streets during Carnaval de Barranquilla, a centuries-old festival that’s recognized by UNESCO, or celebrate at a more off-the-beaten path Carnaval along the coast.

4 Chill Out in Hippie Heaven: Lounge on the beach, go for a hike, or just hang in a hammock in bohemian getaways like Taganga, Minca, Palomino, and Capurganá and Sapzurro.

5 Explore Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona: Pitch a tent or rent a cabaña and play on the wilderness coastline of Colombia’s most popular natural area.

6 Have an Epic Night Out: Whether you’re lounging at bars or dancing at discos and salsa clubs, you’ll learn why Cartagena’s nightlife is legendary.

7 Indulge in Caribbean Cuisine: From the freshest ceviche to aphrodisiacal seafood stews, dining on the coast is a true feast for the senses.

8 Snorkel and Dive: Head out on underwater explorations of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve in the San Andrés Archipelago.

9 Trek to the Lost City: Climb through the jungle to Ciudad Perdida, the ruins of the ancient Tayrona civilization in the Sierra Nevada.

10 Discover the Remote Sands of the Alta Guajira Desert: Head out on a 4x4 to explore an otherworldly landscape where the desert meets the sea.

Planning Your Trip

Where to Go

Cartagena is a tropical, pastel-hued fortress city straight out of a fairytale and full of sensory experiences. In this sparkling city by the sea, you can feast on Caribbean cuisine and admire colonial architecture in the form of impressive churches, plazas, and fortifications. Catch the sunset along the water from las murallas, the stone walls that surround the Old City, for a good introduction, and soak up the atmosphere in Getsemaní, the city’s bohemian district full of mural-lined streets. Nightlife in the city is epic, so plan on exploring the lounges, discos, and salsa clubs. Cartagena also makes a great base for day trips or overnights to the Islas del Rosario, a string of postcard-worthy Caribbean islands just off the coast, or the peaceful riverside city of Mompox, a slice of yesteryear that exudes pure magical realism.

Cartagena’s Old City

Santa Marta and La Guajira

East of Cartagena along the coast lies an outdoor lover’s paradise. Santa Marta is often a base for adventures in the region, but you’ll also find compelling bohemian villages you may want to visit or stay longer in: Minca, set in the mountains, where you can visit coffee farms and go bird-watching along hiking trails; and Taganga and Palomino, offering laid-back beachfront vibes. Colombia’s famous Carnaval de Barranquilla also takes place in the vicinity. Farther east you’ll find the country’s most famous national park, Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, full of rugged cove beaches along the edge of the Sierra Nevada, the world’s highest coastal mountain range, and can embark on a multiday trek to Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), the ruins of the ancient Tayrona civilization. Farther along is the isolated coastline of La Guajira, the only real desert landscape in the entire Caribbean region, set strikingly against the sea. This area is home to the matriarchal Wayúu indigenous people and celebrated for its rugged beauty.

Carnaval de Barranquilla

Western Caribbean Coast

The less-visited Caribbean coast west of Cartagena is where you can go to get away from it all. Hop on a boat out to the Islas de San Bernardo, offshore islands with inviting white sands and crystalline waters. Also only accessible by boat are the car-free Afro-Colombian communities of Capurganá and Sapzurro, set on idyllic crescent-shaped bays. Beaches are isolated and wild here, backed only by the pristine rainforest and the clear blue sky, and trails along the coast and through the jungle offer lovely opportunities to hike.

San Andrés and Providencia

Reggae rhythms and gently swaying palm trees typify life in the San Andrés Archipelago. Located far from the mainland, these three idyllic Caribbean islands are heaven on earth for sunseekers. Part of the UNESCO-designated Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, the islands offer excellent scuba diving and snorkeling. The most bustling of the islands is San Andrés, with a lively beachfront boardwalk and enticing reggae bars. From San Andrés, you can day-trip to Johnny Cay and Rose Cay, the latter of which is also known as The Aquarium (El Acuario) for its pristine waters. Providencia and Santa Catalina—connected by a pedestrian bridge—are more expensive and require additional travel but are where to go to get away from it all. Kayak through mangroves or hike through tropical forest.

diver off the coast of San Andrés

reggae bar on San Andrés island

When to Go

Because Colombia straddles the equator and the Caribbean region lies mostly along sea level, the temperatures and length of days are nearly constant year-round. There are, however, distinct dry and rainy seasons. Throughout most of the coast, the months of December through February and July through August are considered verano (dry season). Invierno (rainy season) is usually between April and May and again between September and November.

In San Andrés and Providencia, June-November is the rainy season and January-April is the dry season. In the arid La Guajira area, there is a short rainy season during June and July, and another longer, more intense rainy season September-November, when it can be difficult to travel through the desert due to muddy conditions on the roads.

High tourist seasons run from mid-December through mid-January, during Easter week (Semana Santa), and, to a lesser extent, school vacations from June to August. During high season, hotel rates and airline ticket prices soar. Colombians from the interior flock to the Caribbean coast during the New Year’s holidays, creating a party atmosphere. Hotels and flights may be hard to come by during this time and the 10 or so puentes (long weekends) of the year.

Many of the major festivals and celebrations take place between November and February, including the Hay Festival in Cartagena and the Carnavals in Barranquilla and other Caribbean towns. Easter week celebrations are popular in colonial cities such as Mompox, Santa Marta, and Cartagena.

Before You Go
Passports and Visas

U.S. and Canadian travelers to Colombia who intend to visit as tourists for a period of under 90 days will need only to present a valid passport upon entry in the country. You may be asked to show proof of a return ticket. Tell the immigration officer if you intend to stay up to 90 days, otherwise they will probably give you a stamp permitting a stay of 60 days. Language schools and universities will be able to assist those who may require a yearlong student visa.


There are no obligatory vaccination requirements for visiting Colombia. However, proof of the yellow fever vaccine may be requested upon arrival at the Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona and, if you intend to travel onward to the Amazon, at the Leticia airport. This vaccination can be obtained at Red Cross clinics throughout the country. If you are traveling onward to countries such as Brazil, Ecuador, or Peru, you may have to provide proof of the vaccine upon entry to those countries.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that travelers have all the basic vaccinations updated. In addition, for most travelers to Colombia, the CDC recommends the hepatitis A and typhoid vaccinations. Hepatitis B, rabies, and yellow fever vaccinations are recommended for some travelers. If you plan to visit the Amazon region, antimalarial drugs may be recommended. With infections of mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria, dengue, chikungunya, and Zika possible in tropical areas of the country, visitors are encouraged to keep mosquito repellent close at hand.


Most travelers arrive by plane to the Caribbean coast of Colombia, with the vast majority arriving at the modern but smallish Rafael Núñez International Airport (CTG) in Cartagena. There are numerous daily nonstop flights into Cartagena from New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Atlanta. Amsterdam also has direct flights, though they’re not daily. Within Latin America, Mexico City and Panama City have multiple daily flights to Cartagena.

There are overland border crossings into Colombia from Ecuador (to Ipiales); by boat from Peru or Brazil to the Amazonian port of Leticia; and by sea from Panama to Capurganá or Cartagena. There is an entry point to Venezuela at the town of Maicao, but the border is frequently closed, and this is considered one of the most dangerous border crossings.

Intra-country flights are easy, safe, increasingly more economical, frequent, and, above all, quick. Besides Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Riohacha, and Tolú all host local airports.

Taking the bus to just about anywhere on the Caribbean coast is an inexpensive and popular, but slower option.

In the major cities of Cartagena and Barranquilla, there are extensive rapid bus networks. Private buses and taxis are ubiquitous in cities—the taxi-hailing app Easy Taxi ( is useful—although the best way to see the sights of most cities is usually on foot.

Renting a car, or even a motorcycle, is also a viable option, but it’s not necessary or recommended for the region; parking will be problematic, and public transit is fast and easy.

What to Pack

Pack your beach gear, folks: this is the Caribbean at its finest. For jungle explorations, including the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City trek), waterproof hiking boots and collapsible trekking poles are musts. For exploring the watery environs, a waterproof camera bag and silica gel may prevent the heartache of a ruined camera. If you plan on spending much time underwater, bring your own snorkeling gear; rentals are often overused and not in the best shape. For spotting birds and other wildlife, especially in the Minca and Palomino areas, you’ll be happy to have binoculars. A lightweight sleeping sack makes rustic sleeping conditions more comfortable.

To protect against the sun, pack a wide-brimmed hat; against the rain, a lightweight rain jacket and compact umbrella; against mosquitoes, lightweight and light-colored long-sleeved shirts and some strong insect repellent. For long bus rides, earplugs, eye masks, and luggage locks will make the trip more relaxing. A Latin American Spanish dictionary will help you get your point across.

Casual attire is fine at most restaurants and bars. In religious venues, theaters, and upscale restaurants, covered shoes and shirts with sleeves are expected. In larger cities, like Cartagena and Barranquilla, you’ll want to dress to impress before going to a nightclub, or you might get turned away at the door.

The Best of Cartagena and the Caribbean Coast


Arrive in Cartagena. Once you change into the light and airy attire standard for the sultry city, get to know the area with a stroll along las murallas, the massive ramparts that once protected Cartagena against pirates, taking in views of the city and Caribbean. Enjoy a sunset cocktail at Café del Mar, a bar atop the seafront section of the wall. For dinner, head to the San Diego area and enjoy a Cartagenan-style seafood meal at Santísimo or the best steak of your life at Marzola Parrilla Argentina. Spend the night at 3 Banderas, a friendly midrange option in a colonial building, or splurge on the breathtaking landmark Sofitel Legend Santa Clara hotel, a former monastery.


Walk the Old City streets, getting lost and found again as you amble from the divine Parque de Bolívar to the Plaza de Santo Domingo. Check out the Palacio de la Inquisición and the Santuario de San Pedro Claver.

If you have spare time be sure to take a cab or bus over to the impressive Castillo de San Felipe later in the afternoon.

For dinner it’s Peruvian-Caribbean fusion at Mar y Zielo. For an after-dinner cocktail (or two), go to Alquímico, a lounge that exudes tropical cool. Once warmed up, check out Donde Fidel to get your salsa groove on and meet new friends.


For a change of pace, take a cab or bus to one of the beaches just south of the city on the Bocagrande peninsula, popular with vacationing Colombian families. Grab a beach umbrella and a fresh coconut and enjoy the people-watching.

balcony-lined street in Cartagena

palenqueras selling fruit in the Old City

Spend the afternoon in the hip and happening neighborhood of Getsemaní, which has mural-lined streets filled with tapas bars and watering holes. Don’t miss the palenquero dancers in the evening (starting around 7pm) at Plaza de la Trinidad, the neighborhood’s beating heart, where you can also enjoy a beer from one of the many roaming vendors or at one of the bars with plaza seating. For dinner, head to Caffé Lunático for Spanish tapas and inventive Mediterranean-Caribbean fusion cuisine.

DAYS 4-6

From the Muelle Turístico de la Bodeguita in town, take a boat to the Islas del Rosario, which has the area’s finest beaches, and spend a couple of nights at an island hotel. A great choice is Gente de Mar on Isla Grande, but it’s also worth splurging on the private island experience at Isla Bendita.

Return to Cartagena in the late afternoon and take one last walk on the walls, then enjoy a final cocktail at the funky and friendly La Caponera in Getsemaní.


For some nature therapy and quality beach time, head east along the coast. Give yourself at least five days if you can. From Cartagena it’s a five-hour bus ride to Santa Marta, a convenient base to explore the enchanting area, including the nearby bohemian beach town of Taganga and hip mountain village of Minca; both also make for lovely overnight options. At Santa Marta you’re also just a one-hour bus ride away from the country’s celebrated Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, to which you can take a day trip or camp overnight.

If you have an extra three days or want a different sort of adventure, head farther east to La Guajira, a desert peninsula that is home to the matriarchal Wayúu people and striking wilderness beaches. Start in Riohacha, the departmental capital of La Guajira, and join an organized tour group that’ll take you out in a 4x4 to Cabo de la Vela, where you can take a dip in the Caribbean Sea or try your luck windsurfing or kitesurfing, and Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point of South America, where you’ll find an unusual landscape of desert dunes that drop dramatically into the sea.

kitesurfing at sunset in Cabo de la Vela


If you’re looking to add a true Caribbean getaway, head to the San Andrés Archipelago. With five days, you can explore all three main islands, or choose one to focus on if you have less time. The islands offer beautiful beaches, excellent snorkeling and diving, and fresh seafood.

Fly into San Andrés, the most bustling of the islands, where you can take a boat tour to offshore cays and enjoy beachfront reggae bars. To truly get away from it all, take a short flight or catamaran ride to Providencia, where you can relax on white sands, hike through the mountains, and kayak through mangroves, and from which you can walk to tiny Santa Catalina via pedestrian bridge.

The Wild Coast

This ambitious weeklong itinerary takes you to lesser-known points along the Caribbean coast. Be prepared to take several modes of transportation in order to get around. If you don’t have a full week to spend here, prioritize a visit to either the Islas de San Bernardo or Capurganá and Sapzurro. Note that waters can be rough December-March.


From Cartagena, you can board a bus for the three-hour ride to sleepy Tolú. Upon arrival, head to the boardwalk to hang out along the beach, as well as set up a day trip to the Islas de San Bernardo for the next day; boat tours typically leave at 8:30am. Or, make accommodation reservations in advance to stay on one of the islands, and head directly via a 2.5-hour ride from Cartagena; some lodgings, such as Casa en el Agua, offer direct fast-boat service.



On Sale
Dec 1, 2020
Page Count
208 pages
Moon Travel

Ocean Malandra

About the Author

In 2009, Ocean Malandra embarked on what was meant to be a journey across South America from north to south, starting in Colombia. After overstaying his six-month visa in Colombia because he was having the time of his life studying salsa in Cali and dancing the night away, he finally crossed the border into Ecuador-only to turn around a month later and come back to Colombia.

Ocean is a widely published writer who divides his time between Northern California and South America. His articles appear in diverse sites and publications including, USA Today, Business Insider, High Times, Paste Magazine,, Parabola Magazine, International Living Magazine, MassRoots, and many more. He specializes in writing about sustainable gastronomy, socially conscious travel, and solution-based environmentalism.

Learn more about this author