No journey through Colombia is complete without exploring the Caribbean region, located in the north of the country and filled with stunning landscapes. While the Colombian Caribbean is often associated with the coast, it’s an area that boasts mountains, forests, jungles, colonial architecture, and, of course, beaches. It’s an attractive destination for backpackers, as well as lovers of nature, hiking, nightlife, history, and the sea.
This region, which gets its name from its location in front of the Caribbean Sea and borders Venezuela to the east, is divided into eight departments. Within these, you’ll find 11 national parks and cities such as Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Barranquilla.
In this article, we’ll take you (at least mentally) to this beautiful region, with a recommended route through the Colombian Caribbean.
Keep in mind that this tour only covers the most important cities in the area, making it a great option if you’re planning a one-week stay in Colombia.
Both Bogotá and Medellín offer direct flights to Santa Marta, the first stop on our itinerary. So, regardless of which of these cities is your gateway to Colombia, you can easily make your way to the Caribbean region.
Recommended Route Through the Caribbean Region of Colombia
1. Santa Marta
Proposed length of stay: 2 nights.
Santa Marta is the capital of the department of Magdalena and the location of one of the most important ports in Colombia.
This city is notable for its location between the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Caribbean Sea, creating a scenic urban landscape that blends beaches and mountains with colonial architecture, historic centers, and sea-view hotels.
Among the attractions in Santa Marta are the Santa Marta Cathedral Basilica, Bolívar Park, the Customs House, the Park of the Lovers, and the International Marina, all located in the city center, as well as Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, a sugar plantation located to the southwest, known for being the place where Simón Bolívar died.
City activities include diving in places like Taganga, one of the best areas to stay in Santa Marta and a paradise for backpackers.
Eating seafood, shopping for handicrafts, and, of course, sunbathing and swimming at Rodadero Beach or White Beach are also part of the entertainment in Santa Marta.
That being said, temperatures in Santa Marta tend to be very high, so walking between its areas can be quite a challenge and it is recommended to use a taxi to get around its neighborhoods, as well as wearing comfortable clothing, sunscreen, and carrying water at all times.
Moreover, Santa Marta is very close to the Tayrona National Natural Park, one of the most paradisiacal places in all of Colombia.
How to Get to Santa Marta
How to Get to Santa Marta by Air
Santa Marta has the Simón Bolívar International Airport, located 16 kilometers from the city.
This airport has connections with cities like Medellín, Cali, and Bogotá through airlines such as Avianca and LATAM Colombia.
From the airport, you can take a taxi and be in downtown Santa Marta in about 20 minutes.
How to Get to Santa Marta by Land
You can travel to Santa Marta overland from cities like Cartagena, a journey that takes 4 hours, and Barranquilla, which is an hour and a half away by bus.
You can also travel from Bogotá to Santa Marta overland, but the journey is much longer and tiring.
The Santa Marta bus terminal is a 15-minute drive from the city center.
Accommodation in Santa Marta
- Hotel Arhuaco by Solar Hotels (Luxury hotel in the tourist area of Rodadero).
- Hotel Boutique Casa del Viento (Budget hotel in downtown Santa Marta).
- Divanga Hostel (Cheap hostel with a pool in Taganga).
Activities in Santa Marta
Proposed length of stay: 1 or 2 nights.
The Tayrona National Natural Park is a must-visit during any trip to Colombia, but especially when following a route through the Colombian Caribbean.
It is a place surrounded by beauty, where you can choose between crystal-clear waters (although not all are suitable for swimming), jungle and mountains. The fauna, flora, and sunsets of this national park will take your breath away.
Another point of interest located within the Tayrona National Natural Park is the Chairama Archaeological Museum.
Tayrona is 34 kilometers north of Santa Marta, in the department of Magdalena.
How to Get to Tayrona National Natural Park
How to Get to Tayrona by Land
The best option to get to Tayrona is by bus from Santa Marta, but it can also be visited from Cartagena. Departing from Santa Marta, you will be in the park in about 40 minutes.
In both cases, the buses go in the direction of La Guajira and you need to tell the driver to drop you off at the entrance to Tayrona.
Once at the entrance to the Tayrona National Natural Park, you must show your passport and pay an entrance fee, about 15USD approximately. There are a few shops near the entrance where you can get snacks.
If you have enough budget, you can opt to eat and stay in one of the eco-hotels located within the Tayrona park, an unmissable experience.
Whether you choose to stay in the park or not, you will need to return from Tayrona to Santa Marta to continue the route.
Accommodation in Tayrona
Proposed length of stay: 1 night (2 if you want to go to the carnival).
Barranquilla is the capital of the department of Atlántico, southwest of Santa Marta, along the western bank of the Magdalena River.
This city is recognized nationally and internationally for being the venue of the Barranquilla Carnival, one of the main cultural celebrations of Colombia, declared National Cultural Heritage.
During the carnival, which takes place every year from the Saturday before Ash Wednesday to the following Tuesday, the streets of this coastal city are filled with visitors seeking to immerse themselves in popular music, dance, costumes of all kinds, and folklore.
Therefore, if you want to go to the Barranquilla Carnival, it is advisable to book a hotel in advance to find the best deals, as accommodations tend to fill up quickly for that date.
Beyond the carnival, Barranquilla has picturesque neighborhoods with Art Deco architecture, restaurants, shopping centers, and a river promenade full of street art and food stalls.
On the list of things to see in Barranquilla are the Caribbean Museum, the Salgar Castle, located 20 minutes by car with beautiful views, the zoo, and the Barranquilla Cathedral.
Taxis are the best option for getting around the neighborhoods of Barranquilla, but another option is the TransMetro, a mass transportation system similar to Bogotá’s TransMilenio.
How to Get to Barranquilla
How to Get to Barranquilla by Land
To go from Santa Marta to Barranquilla by land, you can choose between buses, operated by companies like Copetran and Expreso Brasilia, or vans from Berlinas and other companies.
The duration of the trip is about 2 hours and 30 minutes, for a cost of between 3 and 15 USD, depending on the time and the company you travel with.
Most ground transportation companies have their own terminal at different points in Barranquilla, so it’s convenient to travel with the one that drops you closest to your accommodation.
How to Get to Barranquilla by Air
Barranquilla has the Ernesto Cortissoz International Airport, with flights from and to Colombian cities such as Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali, San Andrés Island, Valledupar, Montería, and Medellín. These flights are operated by airlines Avianca, LATAM, EasyFly, and Wingo.
The airport is located south of Barranquilla, in the city of Soledad, within the department of Atlántico.
You can take a taxi to get from the airport to downtown Barranquilla in about 30 minutes.
This air terminal also connects with international destinations, among which Miami stands out, with American Airlines and Avianca, Fort Lauderdale, through Spirit Airlines, Aruba, with Aruba Airlines, and Panama City, with Copa Airlines.
Accommodation in Barranquilla
- Hotel El Prado (Luxury hotel in the El Prado neighborhood).
- NH Collection Royal Smartsuites (Hotel with gym and pool in Alto Prado).
- Hotel San Francisco (Cheap hotel in downtown Barranquilla).
4. Cartagena de Indias
Proposed duration of stay: 2 or 3 nights.
Cartagena de Indias is the capital of the Bolívar department and the most visited city in the Colombian Caribbean, as well as one of the most important in the entire country.
Cartagena stands out for both its beaches and its historical and cultural legacy, as it played a crucial role during the Spanish colonies in Latin America, which can be seen in the picturesque houses, walls and cannons of its Historic Center, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Among the many must-see attractions of Cartagena de Indias are its cathedral, one of the oldest in America, the Gold Museum, the Clock Tower and Simón Bolívar square, all located in the narrow streets of the walled city.
This beautiful city is very popular with tourists from around the world who come to swim and sunbathe on its white sandy beaches, learn to dance salsa in the clubs of its “Zona Rosa” and taste representative dishes of Colombian cuisine.
Moreover, although Cartagena de Indias is often associated with elegance and exclusivity, in recent years, neighborhoods like Getsemaní have become a meeting point for hipsters, bohemians, and the alternative public in general, with craft beer bars, art galleries, many graffiti, and boutiques.
As if that weren’t enough, Cartagena is a business destination with business, luxury, and boutique type hotels.
Visiting Cartagena de Indias at the end of this route through the Colombian Caribbean is to end on a high note, as you will have something to see and do, regardless of your tastes, preferences, or interests.
The ideal way to get to know this city is to lose yourself among its streets and neighborhoods, but if the heat beats you, you can always resort to taxis or the Transcaribe, the Integrated Mass Transit System of Cartagena de Indias.
It’s also a good idea to book a tour of Cartagena de Indias to make the most of your time in the city.
How to get to Cartagena de Indias
How to get to Cartagena by land
There are many buses and vans that go to Cartagena from other cities in Colombia, like Barranquilla, for about 8 USD, or from Santa Marta.
From Barranquilla to Cartagena, there are companies like Berlinas that offer the possibility of being in one of their private terminals within the city in less than two hours.
Other transport companies like Copetran have their arrival point at the Cartagena Transport Terminal, located northeast of the city center.
How to get to Cartagena, Colombia, by air
Being such a city of great relevance at the tourist level, the Rafael Núñez International Airport of Cartagena de Indias is the third busiest passenger airport in Colombia.
This airport has connections with the United States, Panama, Peru, Mexico, Canada, and the Netherlands, operated by airlines such as Delta Airlines, JetBlue, American Airlines, KLM, LATAM, and Copa Airlines, to name just a few.
As far as domestic flights are concerned, the Cartagena airport connects with Bogotá, Medellín, Bucaramanga, Armenia, Santiago de Cali, San Andrés, Pereira, Cúcuta, and Montería.
This airport terminal is about a 15-minute car (taxi) ride from downtown Cartagena.
How to get to Cartagena by boat
Cartagena has a privileged location, so you can get to the city from practically anywhere on Caribbean cruises.
Accommodation in Cartagena de Indias
- Be Lounge Hostel (Boutique Hostel)
- Allure Chocolat by Karisma (Luxury Hotel)
- Hotel Or Cartagena (Hotel with pool)
Activities in Cartagena
In Cartagena, our recommended route through the Colombian Caribbean concludes and, from here, you can return by plane to Bogotá or Medellín to continue exploring Colombia or return to your country.
Similarly, as we mentioned earlier, from the Cartagena de Indias airport, you can fly to the United States, the Netherlands, and other countries.
This itinerary was thought out because, as we are fans of architecture and history, it would be best to leave Cartagena as the last stop on the tour.
However, if you are a nature lover, you could do the route in reverse, starting from Cartagena and leaving Santa Marta with the spectacular Tayrona park for the end.
Either way, a tour through the Colombian Caribbean is an unforgettable experience.