Caribbean via Colombia

“What do you think of Colombia?” my husband asked. Colombia? We were searching for a way to get to South America from the States, and round-trip flights to the most popular destinations — Argentina, Peru, Chile — were surprisingly expensive. Colombia, on the other hand, was half the cost of those routes, and schedules typically involve a stop in Miami before heading to Bogota, an easy three-and-a-half-hour flight. “Sure!” I quickly agreed.

We spent one week roaming Colombia’s memorable Caribbean coastline, a fantastic mix of everything from wild, jungly beaches to the bustling colonial jewel that is Cartagena.  If you’re thinking of taking a Caribbean vacation, look no further than Colombia.

Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona

Trail to Tayrona

We approached the coast via a short domestic flight from Bogotá to Santa Marta, a small port town northeast of Cartagena. From there, we hopped on a local bus to Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. The park is not accessible to vehicles, so an official van drove us from the bus stop to a trailhead, from where we walked about one hour through the steamy jungle to the Arrecifes camp area. (You can also hire a horse to ride through the jungle, but it takes about the same about of time.) Stepping over leaf-cutter ants and hermit crabs, we were rewarded for our efforts with a beautiful view of the wild coastline — empty beaches bordered by large, round boulders — and with a welcome drink upon reaching the Arrecifes camp.

After checking in to our tent — which had been set up for us, complete with a sleeping pad, pillow and blanket, on a concrete platform with a view of the ocean — we ran to the water to cool off. Warm and calm, we shared the waters with just a few other travelers and a couple local donkeys lounging on the beach. After our evening swim, we headed back to our camp and hit up the restaurant.  While you have the option of roughing it, you don’t need to pack in anything to Arrecifes: There is a full-service restaurant open from breakfast through dinner, and the camp will set up your choice of hammock, tent or eco-hut for sleeping.

Pristine Tayrona beach

Although the remote park is difficult to reach, hot and humid, the rugged tropical beauty of the coastline made it one of the most memorable destinations we’ve visited. A series of gorgeous beach after gorgeous beach await those who hike the coastline, and you could spend weeks exploring this sparsely populated region.

After two days enjoying the pristine beaches, warm water and tropical vibe, we decided to head back to civilization. The fastest, most direct way back?  Boat!  How do you book the boat? “Just show up,” we were told. “There’s one that leaves from the next beach over around 10 a.m. … or maybe 11 a.m. … not sure about the time, just check with the boat.” It turned out that the boat that maybe left at 11, or 12, didn’t actually leave till 2:30; no matter, we were able to enjoy splashing in the water right up until boarding time.  The fast, hair-raising boat ride provided amazing views of the coastline, and we found ourselves back in Santa Marta in no time. From there, we hopped on one of the hourly buses to Cartagena, an easy three-hour journey.

Cartagena de Indias

Cartagena de Indias, the jewel of Colombia, explodes with bright tropical colors, beautiful people and the sounds of salsa. Ladies transporting fruits on their heads, men hawking tropical juices, flowers spilling over colonial balconies and cobblestone streets wet with an afternoon rain: it’s lush, it’s heady and it’s complex.

Cartagena’s streets overflow with fruits and flowers

Cartagena is a melting pot in every way, from the food to the people to the music to the cultures. It’s here that I first learned the necessity of the siesta, and it’s here where I shed my inhibitions about dancing with the more-experienced Colombians and just let go and became one with the music.

By day, we wandered the walled city, absorbing the richness of it all, sampling ceviche and shakes, climbing the old fort, and stumbling into cafes and museums to escape the heat. By night, we danced with the locals in small salsa bars, fueled by the best mojitos we’ve ever had (made by who I am convinced is the best bartender on earth) and incredible live bands. I watched with relief as a Cuban lady spent several songs attempting to teach my husband to dance; unfortunately, she didn’t have much more success than I’ve had, at one point telling him “No como un robot!” (Not like a robot!).

The walled city is closed to cars at night, and with horse-drawn carriages awaiting guests, magical lighting illuminating the Spanish buildings and music oozing out of every bar and falling onto sidewalks, it’s one of the most romantic places in the world.

Making the perfect mojito is serious business in Cartagena

After two nights in the historic walled city, we decided to splurge on an oceanfront hotel in the touristy Bocagrande district, a peninsula of reclaimed land filled with 5-star hotels, spas, and restaurants.   I’ve never experienced ocean waters as warm as those off the coast of Cartagena; in fact, I found myself wishing it were slightly cooler.  Though the ocean was warm and inviting, the beach was filled with entrepreneurs hawking massages and jet ski rides, so we learned to run quickly from the sand into the ocean waves to avoid being hassled.  When the waters became a little too rough, we wandered back to enjoy the Hotel Caribe’s stunning pool and abundance of amenities.

One night we signed up for one of the very popular Chiva bus tours of Cartagena.  These open-air buses load up with tourists – a fun mix of domestic and international – then pass around bottles of rum and soda to get the party started.  There’s a live band on the bus the entire time, and a host who gets everybody dancing in their seats.  The trip starts with a city “tour” that involves quick drive-bys of famous sites, a snack stop, a dance party on top of the wall, and finally entrance to a club with a few more free drinks.  It’s cheesy, it’s touristy, and it’s a blast.  We met Colombians on weekend trips to Cartagena, learned how to party like locals, and even held a sloth (I’m still not sure how that happened).

For a rich cultural experience, scenic variety and sheer fun, Colombia’s Caribbean coast delivers.  There’s a rhythm to Colombia that seeps into your soul, and stays with you long after your vacation has ended.

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