This diverse, action-packed itinerary covers a lot of Colombian ground in two weeks. The trip starts on the northern Caribbean Coast and allows time to explore Tayrona National Park. This protected area is home to rugged mountains, indigenous ruins, and white-sand beaches hugging turquoise waters. You'll then spend a few days enjoying city life as you explore the ancient fortress city of Cartagena. Mixed in with all this is a jaunt to Caribbean islands and a visit to the heritage site of a long-standing Afro-Colombian community. You'll cap your two weeks of adventure with a jaunt to the southern Colombian city of Cali, the salsa capital of the world.

Highlights

  • Visit Tayrona National Park, regarded as one of the most beautiful protected areas in Colombia
  • Laze on the white-sand beaches of the Rosario Islands
  • Tour San Basilio de Palenque, a community originally founded by runaway slaves
  • Learn to Salsa and try out your moves in Cali, the world-capital of salsa dancing

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Santa Marta -> Transfer to Tayrona National Park Tayrona Park
Day 2 Tayrona National Park Tour Tayrona Park
Day 3 Free Day Near Tayrona Park Tayrona Park
Day 4 Transfer to Barranquilla: The Carnival City Barranquilla
Day 5 Barranquilla -> Transfer to Cartagena Cartagena
Day 6 Salsa Dancing Cartagena
Day 7 Day Trip to Palenque Cartagena
Day 8 Explore Cartagena Cartagena
Day 9 Rosario Islands Day Trip Cartagena
Day 10 Flight to Cali Cali
Day 11 Salsa Dancing in Cali Cali
Day 12 Cali Free Day Cali
Day 13 Depart Cali  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Santa Marta -> Transfer to Tayrona National Park

Sunset in Santa Marta, gateway to Tayrona
Sunset in Santa Marta, gateway to Tayrona

Welcome to Santa Marta, site of the first Spanish settlement in Colombia! After arriving at the airport, you'll transfer to Tayrona National Park (an hour outside of the city) and check into your hotel. Here the Sierra Nevada Mountains roll right on down to the shore before disappearing into the Caribbean Sea. It's this singular landscape that makes Tayrona home to some of South America's loveliest coastline.

You'll have the rest of the afternoon to relax and enjoy your hotel, which is located on a peaceful spot at the foot of the mountains and overlooks the Caribbean. Wander down to the nearby beach, which makes for great sunset viewing, before heading back to the property where dinner will be served on-site.

Day 2: Tayrona National Park Tour

Beach in Tayrona
Beach in Tayrona

After breakfast at your hotel in Santa Marta, you'll transfer to Parque Nacional Tayrona (Tayrona National Park). This 58-square-mile protected area is home to some of South America's loveliest coastline. Its jungles are also the home of the Kogi indigenous tribe, who are direct descendants of the ancient Tairona people of whom the park is named. 

You'll enter the park and hike in the foothills near Play 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, a windswept cove anchored by huge volcanic rocks. During the trek, your guide will point out several species of flora and fauna. You'll have the afternoon free to enjoy lunch on your own and relax on the shore.

Return to your hotel in the late afternoon and enjoy dinner. 

Day 3: Free Day Near Tayrona Park

Beach on Colombia's Northern Caribbean Coast
Beach on Colombia's Northern Caribbean Coast

After breakfast, enjoy a free day to experience the natural surroundings around Tayrona Park, since entry inside the park is only allowed for one day. This is your chance to explore the region's stunning topography on your own, which boasts the world's highest coastal mountain range. 

You can also 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: Transfer to Barranquilla: The Carnival City

Ornate costumes
Ornate costumes

Situated between Cartagena and Santa Marta, the coastal city of Barranquilla is home to the country's biggest street party, carnival. If you come during the time of this celebration (four days before Ash Wednesday) you'll find Barranquilla rollicking over four intense days of partying and festivities. This is South America’s second largest carnival celebration behind Rio de Janeiro.

Note: If you're visiting when Carnival is not taking place, Barranquilla is still worth checking out. The birthplace of pop star Shakira has some trendy neighborhoods, like El Prado, where you can pop in at a cafe for some Colombian coffee. There are also popular restaurants, like La Cueva, which over half a century ago was a favorite haunt of a young Colombian journalist named Gabriel García Márquez.

Day 5: Barranquilla -> Transfer to Cartagena

Cartagena at sunset
Cartagena at sunset

After breakfast, you'll transfer a couple hours from your hotel in Barranquilla to Cartagena. This colonial fortress city on the Caribbean is rich in culture, architecture, romance, and even pirate history. Depending on the time of your arrival, you'll have a few options for activities. You can relax and enjoy your 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 CochesPlaza de la AduanaParque 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, Getsemaní 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 6: Salsa Dancing

Put your dancing shoes on
Put your dancing shoes on

You'll have the entire morning and afternoon to spend on your own. Maybe visit Cartagena's bohemian colonial neighborhood of Getsemaní, if you haven't already, and enjoy the cafes and colonial churches. In the evening, head back to Old Town and prepare to experience the beating heart of Colombian culture: salsa. Music and dance link every corner of this nation, none more so than this genre. That's right, you won't just be listening to the music, you'll be hitting the dance floor as well. 

Under the tutelage of a local instructor, you will learn the fundamentals of salsa dancing—its rhythms and syncopations, its heart and soul. The best part is all experience levels are welcome. In fact, you can do it by yourself if you're traveling solo. Ultimately, salsa in the Caribbean is about giving yourself over to the romantic mood and sultry night, and everyone's invited to the party.  

Day 7: Day Trip to Palenque

Palenquera women
Palenquera women

Today you'll leave the city on a day trip to visit the town of San Basilio de Palenque. Centuries ago, Cartagena was Colombia’s main port of entry for slaves abducted from Africa. During the 17th century, escaped slaves built isolated forts in the jungles surrounding Cartagena. Palenque, located just over an hour from Cartagena, is the only such fort that survived during the intervening years.

Today, the Afro-Colombian inhabitants of San Basilio de Palenque have preserved many of the customs of their African ancestors. You see it in the traditional dress of the palenqueras—women who sell fresh fruit and other goods out of baskets often carried on their heads. You'll speak with locals, learn about their heritage, and enjoy a traditional lunch. 

Day 8: Explore Cartagena

The main gate of Cartagena's Old Walled City
The main gate of Cartagena's Old Walled City

After breakfast, take your pick of numerous ways to experience Cartagena, either on your own or with a private tour. Maybe a surfing excursion on the coast, or a day lazing on the white sands 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: 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 10: Flight to Cali

Municipal Theater, Cali
Municipal Theater, Cali

Today you'll hop a flight from Cartagena to Cali, all the way at the southern end of Colombia. Upon arrival, a driver will meet you at the airport for transportation to your hotel. If you aren't too tired, you can take the opportunity to hit the town and explore.

There's much to do and see here. Colombia's third largest city has its share of historical, cultural and recreational sites to keep visitors busy, particularly in three walkable neighborhoods: Centro, San Antonio, and Granada. While visiting Cali's galleries, museums, and ornate churches is a great way to spend an afternoon, the real enjoyment occurs after the sun goes down. That's when Cali springs to life with music and dancing.

Day 11: Salsa Dancing in Cali

Street musicians in Cali
Street musicians in Cali

Cali is legendary for its dance culture. This city of seduction has no shortage of salsa clubs that boom long after midnight. You can even find welcoming locals dancing in the city's parks. Be prepared to hear foot-tappingly infectious music everywhere in Cali, from the suburbs to the supermarket.   

If the mood strikes, you can join a Salsa 101 class (as a newbie or a refresher) before heading out to authentic local bars like La Topa Tolondra, or full-on nightclubs like Club Tin Tin Deo, to show off your moves. Lastly, on the third Saturday of every month, there is a free open-air dance party called Salsa al Parque, held at Antiguo Club San Fernando.

Day 12: Cali Free Day

The church at San Antonio, Cali
The church at San Antonio, Cali

Today is yours to enjoy however you see fit. As mentioned before, there are many highlights in Cali. You could hike to the top of Cerro de Las Cruces (Hill of Crosses). As the name implies, the top of this hill is home to three looming crucifixes and some sweeping views of Cali down below. If hiking isn't your thing but you still want great views, head up to Parque San Antonio and do some people watching in front of the old church. You could also sample the culinary scene. Cali is famous for its tamales—meat and masa (dough) wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.

Day 13: Depart Cali

La Ermita Church, Cali
La Ermita Church, Cali

It's time to say farewell to Colombia! Enjoy your last hours in Cali with a leisurely breakfast at your hotel, a city stroll, and/or souvenir shopping. A representative will meet you at your hotel and drive you to the airport for your return flight home.