This diverse, action-packed itinerary covers a lot of Colombian ground in two weeks. The trip starts on the northern Caribbean Coast with time to explore Tayrona's beautiful national park, sandwiched between the turquoise sea and rugged mountains. From here, you'll visit Colombia's carnival city, Barranquilla, and spend a few days in the stunning inner-walled city of Cartagena before taking a flight to Cali, the salsa capital of the world.

Highlights

  • Visit the beautiful Tayrona National Park
  • Experience the Carnival in Barranquilla
  • Explore the cobble stone streets of Cartagena

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 National Park Tayrona Park
Day 4 Transfer to Barranquilla: The Carnival City Barranquilla
Day 5 Barranquilla -> Transfer to Cartagena Cartagena
Day 6 Cartagena Walking Tour - Cooking Class Cartagena
Day 7 Rosario Islands Day Trip Cartagena
Day 8 Cartagena -> Flight to Cali Cali
Day 9 Salsa Dancing in Cali Cali
Day 10 Depart Cali  

Detailed Itinerary

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

Santa Marta is the gateway city for Tayrona National Park
Santa Marta is the gateway city for Tayrona National Park

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. 

Tour duration: Full day with 4-5 hours of hiking (with an English-speaking guide)

Day 3: Free Day Near Tayrona National Park

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.

(Optional add-on.) 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: 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: Cartagena Walking Tour - Cooking Class

Learn the secrets to Colombian cuisine
Learn the secrets to Colombian cuisine

If you didn't get a chance to explore the city yesterday, not to worry—today you'll experience the "Pearl of the Caribbean" on a walking tour. Let these cobbled streets transfer you back to colonial times as you stroll amid colorful houses and lively squares. You'll start in the expansive Plaza de los Coches, at the entrance to Old Town, and finish at the yellow arcades and galleries of Plaza Las Bovedas, experiencing all of Cartagena in between. 

In the afternoon, you will take part in a cooking class! Gilles and his wife will welcome you to his restaurant in Cartagena's historic Old Town and you'll discover the exotic, rich flavors that comprise Caribbean cuisine. After a welcome cocktail, you will start cooking. The class culminates with an epic dinner where you'll get to enjoy the delectable dishes you've prepared.

Walking tour: Three hours (with an English-speaking guide)
Cooking class: Three hours

Day 7: 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-trip duration: Seven hours (including transfers)

Day 8: Cartagena -> 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 9: 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 10: 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.

Map

Map of Vibrant Colombia: The Caribbean to Cali - 10 Days
Map of Vibrant Colombia: The Caribbean to Cali - 10 Days