An enticing draw of visiting Colombia's northern coast is close proximity to culture, mountains, beaches, and islands for the ultimate tropical adventure. On this 10-day itinerary, you'll start off in Santa Marta with two days of hiking around Tayrona Park. Make an overnight stop in Minca to visit a coffee finca before continuing on to Cartagena where you'll explore the city's quaint narrow streets with historic palaces, churches, and mansions painted in pastel colors. Then speedboat to the Rosario Islands for swimming and snorkeling before finishing the trip with one more night in Cartagena's romantic Old Town.

Highlights

  • Explore the untouched rainforests of the Sierra Nevada Mountains
  • Relax on pristine Caribbean beaches
  • Spot exotic bird species in Minca
  • Stroll the cobbled streets and ancient ramparts of Cartagena
  • Kayak around Isla Baru off the coast of Cartagena

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Santa Marta Santa Marta
Day 2 Tour of Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona Tayrona Park
Day 3 Free Day Near Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona Tayrona Park
Day 4 Sailing Day-Trip - Return to Santa Marta Santa Marta
Day 5 Drive to Minca - Coffee Farm & Village Tour Minca
Day 6 Sunrise Birdwatching - Transfer to Cartagena Cartagena
Day 7 Arrive in Cartagena Cartagena
Day 8 Explore Cartagena Cartagena
Day 9 Kayaking Around Barú Island Cartagena
Day 10 Rosario Islands Day Trip Cartagena
Day 11 Depart Cartagena  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Santa Marta

Sunset on Rodadero Beach, Santa Marta
Sunset on Rodadero Beach, Santa Marta

Welcome to Santa Marta! This busy port enjoys the distinction of being the first Spanish settlement in Colombia. Though it’s often used as a stopping point for day-trips in the area, the historic downtown has been restored and is worth a visit. Stroll its cobbled streets lined with multi-colored buildings and take plenty of photos (you won't miss the stately, white-washed cathedral). There is a slew of hotels, restaurants, and bars in the area, too.

Nearby, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains are home to Colombia’s tallest peak, Pico Cristóbal Colón, which sits at a whopping 5,700 meters (18,700 feet). These mountains are also the gateway to postcard-worthy Tayrona National Natural Park, on the palm-fringed Caribbean coast.

A local guide will pick you up at your hotel and share his/her knowledge about Santa Marta. Your tour includes a visit to the botanical garden and Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino (where The Liberator, Simón Bolívar, died in 1830). You'll explore the city's historic center and then head to the Caribbean waterfront for panoramic views of Taganga, a traditional fishing village.

Day 2: Tour of Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona

Arrecifes Beach, Tayrona
Arrecifes Beach, Tayrona

After breakfast, you'll begin a half-day tour of Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. This protected area is known for having some of the most virgin coastal landscapes in the entire country. Indeed, when you see promotional images of Caribbean Colombia, often you're seeing images of Cabo de San Juan, which is located in Tayrona. You'll experience much of this coastline with a local guide while visiting the white-sand beaches and rainforests further inside Tayrona.

First, it's a hike in the tropical foothills near Playa Cañaveral, at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Then visit the exotic beaches of Arrecifes and La Piscina, the latter of which is an ideal spot for swimming and snorkeling. Continue to Cabo San Juan and enjoy the bay of white sand surrounded by large volcanic rocks. On the way here, you can observe several species of flora and fauna pointed out by your knowledgeable guide. The afternoon is yours to enjoy on your own. Have a bit of lunch and relax on the shore.

You'll return to your hotel in the late afternoon with time to enjoy the sunset and dinner served on-site.

Day 3: Free Day Near Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona

Try some snorkeling in the Caribbean
Try some snorkeling in the Caribbean

Enjoy a free day to experience the surroundings outside Tayrona Park. This is your chance to explore the region's singular topography on your own, which includes the world's highest coastal mountain range.

You can take your pick between a range of organized activities such as snorkeling, sailing, river tubing, hiking, or wildlife spotting. You can also take a day-trip to Minca, a beautiful Colombian village in the mountains, and visit a coffee farm. 

Day 4: Sailing Day-Trip - Return to Santa Marta

On the open sea
On the open sea

Today, it's time to dust off those sea legs. After breakfast, you'll head out for a sailing trip on the Caribbean where you can relax and partake in a range of water activities like kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving. This area of Colombia is known for its various bays and secluded beaches, so take advantage of the protected coastline as well as the nearby coral reef system, which boasts a highly diverse marine habitat. 

After the excursion, you'll be transferred back to your hotel in Santa Marta where you'll have the rest of the evening to explore the city's dining scene.

Day 5: Drive to Minca - Coffee Farm & Village Tour

Parque Tayrona
Parque Tayrona

After breakfast at your hotel, you'll be picked up and transferred to Minca, a delightful mountain village located in the scenic Colombian hillside that's starting to attract in-the-know backpackers. Minca is seemingly a world away from the bustling city of Santa Marta down on the Caribbean coast — and remember to bring a layer as the temperature above sea level is cooler than other parts of the country.

Your Minca adventure includes a half-day tour (and tasting!) by 4x4, starting in of one of the area's organic coffee farms of which Minca is known for. After learning about the production process, there’s a visit to the natural swimming hole of Pozo Azul for a refreshing dip, so bring your bathing suit! 

Enjoy some free time and have lunch on your own before you embark on an afternoon walking tour of the town center. Alternatively, visit the hummingbird balcony at Hotel Minca where you can relax and observe hundreds of hummingbirds that feed there.

There's also a full-day excursion that includes a trip to the stunning waterfall of Marinka, as well as a driving tour of the area with beautiful views of Santa Marta.

Day 6: Sunrise Birdwatching - Transfer to Cartagena

Early morning is the optimal time to experience the diversity of species found here
Early morning is the optimal time to experience the diversity of species found here

After an early breakfast, experience the awesome nature and diversity of Minca's surroundings with this unique birdwatching excursion. The area's dry scrub is great for colorful viewing, so you won't want to miss this.

You will leave from Minca at dawn! It is not a difficult hike, and the results are worth it. Your local guide will be able to show you a wide variety of rare species such as the golden-winged sparrow, the black-backed antshrike, and the rosy thrush-tanager.

After lunch on your own in Minca's pleasant village, you'll be transferred to Cartagena.

Day 7: Arrive in Cartagena

Cartagena's historic Old Town
Cartagena's historic Old Town

Welcome to Cartagena! This colonial fortress city on the Caribbean is rich in culture, architecture, romance, and even pirate history. Upon arrival, a driver will meet you at the airport and transfer you to your hotel.

Depending on the time of your arrival, you'll have a few options for activities. You can relax and enjoy the hotel amenities or get right into the mix with a neighborhood walk, either by yourself or with an English-speaking guide (optional add-on). Here are some other ideas to consider:

  • Wander the narrow streets of the historic Old Town, snapping photos of the lively plazas and colorful houses with bougainvillea-draped balconies.
  • Check out the colonial neighborhoods of San Diego and Santo Domingo, stopping at key sites like Plaza de los Coches, Plaza de la Aduana, Parque Bolívar, and Plaza de Santa Teresa.  
  • Walk along the Old Town's original fortress walls (dating back to 1586), constructed to protect Cartagena from sea attacks. These ramparts also afford panoramic views of the city and make great sunset-viewing spots.
  • Visit Santo Domingo, which, having been erected in 1552, is reputedly the oldest church in the city. 
  • Explore Getsemaní, the bohemian neighborhood just outside the walls of Cartagena's Old Town. Once a seedy area, Getsemani is now a cultural enclave filled with Spanish colonial architecture, graffiti art, boutique hotels, and street food vendors.

Finish the day with mojitos and fresh ceviche in one of the city’s hip restaurants or rooftop bars.

Day 8: Explore Cartagena

Colorful street corner
Colorful street corner

After breakfast, take your pick of numerous ways to experience Cartagena, either on your own or with a private tour (optional add-on). Maybe a surfing excursion on the coast, or a day lazing near the Caribbean waters of Playa Blanca, or even a sunset sail with a glass of bubbly.

Other options include a guided walking tour of Cartagena's UNESCO World Heritage walled city (Old Town). Together with an English-speaking guide, you will delve deep into Cartagena's Spanish-colonial history. You'll visit the city's extensive fortifications and famous fortresses like the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. You'll also stroll the walled city's cobbled plazas, like the Plaza de San Pedro Claver, with its Andalusian-style Cathedral.

If an organized tour isn’t appealing, simply create your own adventure around Cartagena. At dusk, take part in the sultry coastal atmosphere as the city comes alive with street performers and musicians.

Day 9: Kayaking Around Barú Island

Kayaking the Caribbean
Kayaking the Caribbean

This morning you’ll embark on a kayaking trip around Isla Barú, one of the gems of Colombia’s Caribbean. Located just south of the city of Cartagena, Barú was once part of the peninsula but is now separated by the narrow Canal del Dique, which runs inland and eventually connects to the Magdalena river. You’ll be exploring this canal and its attendant flora and fauna. The mangroves here are home to manatees, turtles, capybaras, and caimans. Some bird species you might encounter include hummingbirds, herons, and the yellow warbler.

Spend the remainder of the day relaxing. The best spot for this is also on Barú at Playa Blanca. It's generally regarded as Cartagena’s most beautiful beach, and the crystalline waters and soft white sands make a perfect spot to while away the afternoon hours.

Day 10: Rosario Islands Day Trip

A petit island in Rosario
A petit island in Rosario

After an early breakfast, you'll transfer from your hotel to the pier where you will board a speedboat for an hour trip to the Barú Peninsula. Along the way, you will see Tierra Bomba Island and Boca Chica, ancient forts that once protected Cartagena from hostile invaders.

After arriving at the Rosario Islands, change into your swimwear and head to Playa Azul, a crescent beach with soft white sands hugging the turquoise Caribbean Sea. After enjoying a buffet lunch, you will have time to relax and sunbathe. An optional add-on is to rent a kayak and embark on a two or three-hour paddling excursion before returning to Cartagena in the late afternoon. A car will pick you up at the pier to take you back to your hotel.

Day 11: Depart Cartagena

Sunset over the ancient ramparts, Cartagena
Sunset over the ancient ramparts, Cartagena

It's time to say farewell to Colombia! After breakfast, enjoy your last moments of Cartagena in a patio café. Or, if you didn't do the guided tour the previous day, explore the bulk of the city.

Enjoy Cartagena's cobbled maze of vividly colorful houses and ancient squares dating from the 16th century. Meander through the colonial neighborhoods of San Diego and Santo Domingo while learning about important historical sites like Saint Philip's Castle. Maybe pay a visit to the Palace of the Inquisition in Plaza de Bolívar, which was once the seat of the Holy Office of the Inquisition and is now a macabre museum. 

A representative will meet you at your hotel and drive you to the airport for your return flight home.