This 12-day itinerary is for those eager for some aquatic adventure. It covers major highlights along Colombia's Caribbean coast and affords plenty of opportunities to dive, snorkel, swim, and frolick in the water. You'll begin in the colonial city of Cartagena, then head east to the Santa Marta. Afterward, take a 4x4 to the remote Guajira Peninsula, home of the northernmost point in South America. Circle back to Santa Marta and enjoy a few days hiking around Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona.

Highlights

  • Stroll the cobbled streets and ancient ramparts of Cartagena
  • Catch your own lunch with locals in the quaint fishing village of La Boquilla
  • Meet local indigenous groups on the rugged Guajira Peninsula
  • Go tubing down the Río Don Diego
  • Explore the untouched rainforests of the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Cartagena Cartagena
Day 2 Explore Cartagena Cartagena
Day 3 La Boquilla Fishing Day-Trip Cartagena
Day 4 Drive from Cartagena to Santa Marta Santa Marta
Day 5 Ríohacha - Manaure - Cabo de la Vela La Guajira Desert
Day 6 Punta Gallinas & Taroa Dunes La Guajira Desert
Day 7 Cabo de la Vela Santa Marta
Day 8 Tour of Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona Tayrona Park
Day 9 River Tubing - Return to Santa Marta Santa Marta
Day 10 Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona - Pueblito Ruins Tayrona Park
Day 11 Free Day Near Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona Tayrona Park
Day 12 Depart Santa Marta  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Cartagena

San Pedro Claver Cathedral in Cartagena's Old Town
San Pedro Claver Cathedral in Cartagena's Old Town

Welcome to Cartagena! This colonial fortress city on the Caribbean Sea 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 featuring 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 2: Explore Cartagena

The Portal de los Dulces, an outdoor sweets market
The Portal de los Dulces, an outdoor sweets market

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. 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 the city. At dusk, take part in the sultry coastal atmosphere as the city comes alive with street performers and musicians.

Day 3: La Boquilla Fishing Day-Trip

Fishing boats in La Boquilla
Fishing boats in La Boquilla

After breakfast at your hotel, you'll be picked up and transferred to the mangroves and rivers outside of Cartagena where you can experience a small example of Colombia's unmatched natural landscape. This region, populated by afro-descendants whose ancestors came from the west of Africa, lives on the abundant fish that swim among the roots of this delicate ecosystem of fresh and salt water. A local fisherman will take you by boat to catch some fish where you'll assist in the process of checking cages and nets to see what delights will be served later on.

After reaching the local community of La Boquilla, you'll interact and chat with the locals as they teach you how to prepare the fish you've just caught. Enjoy a feast for lunch before you head back to Cartagena for some rest.

The rest of the afternoon and evening will be free time to explore Cartagena.

Day 4: Drive from Cartagena to Santa Marta

The Río Magdalena
The Río Magdalena

This morning, you'll depart Cartagena and head east along the coast towards the smaller colonial city (and founding site of Colombia) Santa Marta. On the way, you'll stop outside the city of Barranquilla, at the Bocas de Ceniza, where the waters of the Magdalena River meet the Caribbean Sea. This is the mouth of Colombia’s most important waterway and principal river shipping port. You'll embark on a unique walking tour that takes you through narrow embankments and islands that separate the sea and river. It's an estuary alive with various species of waterbirds. 

Midday, you'll continue driving to La Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, a large expanse of marshes between the Magdalena River and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains. It's a fascinating ecosystem: village fisherman live in houses on stilts and the bird population is one of the richest in Colombia. You'll then finish the drive to Santa Marta, South America's oldest surviving city. Stay in the historic downtown and (if you have the energy) explore the city on foot.

Day 5: Ríohacha - Manaure - Cabo de la Vela

Cabo de la Vela, Guajira, Colombia
Cabo de la Vela, Guajira, Colombia

In the morning, you'll transfer east to the coastal city of Ríohacha and the gateway to the arid desert landscapes of La Guajira Peninsula. From Ríohacha, you'll depart for the remote fishing village of Cabo de la Vela, located in the northern panhandle of Colombia. On this adventurous 4x4 journey you'll pass through the major Guajiran city of Uribia before continuing via desert paths to the town of Manaure, where you'll have free time to explore its famous salt mines. 

Upon arrival at Cabo de la Vela, there will be free time to enjoy swimming at the village's scenic beach. Recently, this little town has become a hotbed of ecotourism and it boasts a wealth of rustic, indigenous-style accommodations with generator electricity and very few phone lines. The most authentic sleepover option is to hang a hammock a few meters from the waves. It's a great place to unplug and unwind.

Accommodations: Hammocks

Day 6: Punta Gallinas & Taroa Dunes

Sunrise at Punta Gallinas
Sunrise at Punta Gallinas

Today, you'll delve even deeper into La Guajira as you arrive at Punta Gallinas, located on the northernmost edge of South America. Here the sun-scorched earth and steep dunes taper off into the azure waters of the Caribbean.

You'll enjoy a local lunch served on a typical farm and then visit the sloping dunes of Taroa. The angle of the sandy mountain here is steep and its summit affords a view of the Caribbean Sea. You can spend the remainder of the day wandering the shore, swimming, and then watching the sunset from the Punta Gallinas lighthouse

Accommodations: Hammocks

Day 7: Cabo de la Vela

The desert near Cabo de la Vela
The desert near Cabo de la Vela

Today, you'll have a chance to spend more time in Cabo de la Vela, an area at once wild and tame, barren and developed. The entire region is inhabited by the indigenous Wayuu people who have lived there for hundreds of years and is considered sacred. The two most popular activities here include kitesurfing and relaxing on the beach.

In the afternoon, you'll return to Riohacha where you'll then be transferred to your hotel in Santa Marta.

Day 8: Tour of Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona

The coastline of Tayrona National Park
The coastline of Tayrona National Park

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 9: River Tubing - Return to Santa Marta

Time for some inner-tubing
Time for some inner-tubing

Today, throw on your bathing suit and take a relaxing innertube ride along the lazy Río Don Diego, which runs down from the Sierra Nevadas all the way to the ocean. This fun route unfolds at a manageable pace, with hilly green rainforest lining both sides of the river. From the riverbanks, you'll hear howler monkeys and spot a variety of birds and butterflies. You'll even see views of snowy Sierra Nevada peaks in the distance. 

If that's not enough, the river culminates at a beautiful white-sand beach along the Caribbean Sea. Here, you will have the chance to relax on the sand, dip your toes in the water, and enjoy the views. After the excursion, you'll be transferred to Santa Marta and your hotel.

Day 10: Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona - Pueblito Ruins

Ruins at Pueblito
Ruins at Pueblito

Leave your accommodation bright and early for a full day of hiking through the jungles of Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona (Tayrona National Natural Park). The park consists of a 150-square-kilometer (58-square-mile) protected area covering the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta foothills where they meet the Caribbean coast. Today, your destination is the archaeological ruins of Pueblito Chairama.

Get ready for a challenging hike to this archaeological site reached by forest trails. These Pre-Columbian ruins were home to the ancient Tairona people who once inhabited the area. Continue on to the beach of Cabo de San Juan for a well-deserved dip in the sea before enjoying lunch. Afterward, walk back to meet your driver at the park entrance and return to your hotel where dinner will be served.

Day 11: Free Day Near Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona

Jungles of Minca
Jungles of Minca

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 12: Depart Santa Marta

Los Naranjos beach outside of Santa Marta
Los Naranjos beach outside of Santa Marta

It's time to say goodbye to Colombia! Enjoy your last morning in Santa Marta with a leisurely breakfast and walk along the sea. A representative will meet you at your hotel and drive you to the airport for your connecting flight home.

Map

Map of Explore Colombia's Caribbean Coast - 12 Days
Map of Explore Colombia's Caribbean Coast - 12 Days