When people think of the Caribbean, they often think solely of the islands. Barbados, Jamaica, and Aruba just to name a few...but have you considered a trip to Colombia’s coastline? The Caribbean coast of Colombia is certainly one of the best places to visit in the entire country.
Cities like Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta provide an alternative to the typical Caribbean island vacation-package experience. Colombia boasts delicious food, lively music, and warm and welcoming people. The coast has a rich culture and beautiful landscapes waiting to be explored.
Reason #1. You'll get to visit lovely coastal cities
Seven years ago when I was living in France, I fell in love with a Venezuelan expat whose family now calls Colombia home. I first came to visit in 2018. We made a quick jaunt to Cartagena, a picturesque city with colonial architecture and colorful streets that seemed like a page from a Marquez novel.
Cartagena de Indias has quickly become a blogger favorite travel destination. It’s streets are like walking in history and it is known as the jewel of the Caribbean. It definitely lives up to this title and doesn’t disappoint. Founded in the 16th century by the Spanish you can see the influence everywhere when walking the ciudad amurallada.
The streets are bustling with vendors and there are many great restaurants and bars. The food is delicious. I love the fresh sea food and the fruit juices are amazing--definitely try a limonada de coco!
If colonial architecture isn’t your thing, visit the Bocagrande. It’s the more modern part of the city and kind of like the Miami of Cartagena. Stays in Bocagrande are also closer to the beach.
If you're looking for something a bit more Caribbean and a lot more remote, I suggest you hop on a flight from Cartagena to Colombia's idyllic island, Isla Providencia. It takes a bit more effort to get to but you'll be well rewarded with lush jungles, crystal clear water, and white sand. Need I say more?
Barranquilla is a super modern and bustling city. It is the largest city in the northern part of Colombia and the capital of the Atlantico district.
If shopping is what you love to do, then Barranquilla is your place. There are several malls including the Buenavista 1, 2 and 3 where you can find pretty much anything that you could possibly want. Another great shopping complex is Viva! Where you can also find a great mix of Colombian and international brands.
Colombia has some of the best malls I have ever visited. Retail is definitely thriving here. There are tons of restaurants and movie theaters to visit as well.
If you come in February there is the carnival festival--similar to the one in Brazil but on a smaller scale. It is less expensive than Cartagena and Santa Marta but has the prime location of being located in between the two cities so you could easily take a bus or a taxi for the day or a long weekend.
It is slightly harder to get around Barranquilla if you have limited Spanish speaking skills, but the people are super friendly and accommodating.
Santa Marta is where you go to relax and be in nature.
It’s beaches are beautiful and it is home to the majestic Tayrona National Park. Here you can hike or stay in one of a kind eco-resorts. If you’re feeling adventurous you can trek to the ancient ruins of the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City).
If you plan to trek to Ciudad Perdida this it takes roughly 4-5 days and there are several tours that you can book with a guide for reasonable prices.
One thing to note: It is recommended if you plan to visit the Tayrona National Park that you get vaccinated for yellow fever beforehand. These vaccines can be difficult or very expensive to obtain in the States but are free or low cost in Colombia.
We rented an Airbnb with some friends in Gaira which was beautiful. We stayed for a long weekend and had beach access at a very reasonable price.
I have also gone the hotel route, staying at the Marriott with my mother-in-law. Both are fantastic options depending on your budget and lifestyle preferences.
Reason #2. You'll get to stay in stylish and affordable places
Airbnb has been a life-saver. Prices are pretty fair for short and long term stays and you do not have to worry about the stress of setting up utilities, deposits and cost of furnishing a place. Whether you just stick with exploring the Caribbean coast or decide to extend your Colombian travel itinerary to include more of the country, you'll have no problem finding great places to stay.
If you are planning a shorter stay there are many hotels at very good prices. Cartagena has beautiful hotels both in the old part of the city and the newer part of the city. If you'd like to splurge for a night or two, definitely check out the Movich. The infinity pool and rooftop bar overlooking the city showcase stunning views day and night.
If you want the resort-like experience head to Santa Marta. I have stayed at the Marriott and it had great service and amenities. In Barranquilla there are a slew of hotels to choose from depending on what type of experience you are looking for.
The cost of living is generally pretty low if you’re making money in Dollars or Euros. You can eat out pretty cheaply and there are many great places for shopping both at malls and for locally crafted goods.
I rented several Airbnb's in Barranquilla for around $40-50 per night and they were in great locations with all of the modern amenities.
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Reason #3. You'll have no problem working from here as a digital nomad
I knew I wanted to stay in Colombia for more time and just needed a way to facilitate a longer stay. I studied International Relations and Diplomacy for undergrad and graduate school and decided to try my luck at teaching English online.
I earned a TEFL certificate and first tried teaching children with a Chinese company. I am currently working for a company based out of Costa Rica that partners with their Ministry of Labor to improve the English skills of high school students on scholarships and employees working for multinational corporations.
Reason #4. You'll be able to explore on a budget
Taxis are cheap! I have paid a couple of dollars every time I have taken a taxi and it is a preferred method of transportation if you do not have access to a car. The old part of Cartagena is very walkable and super safe. Barranquilla and Santa Marta are not as walkable and I would definitely recommend taking taxis or Ubers.
In Colombia, Uber is up and running again after being banned due to a lawsuit from a taxi company. However, bear in mind that someone must get in the front seat when entering the car to avoid any suspicion since Uber is still somewhat looked down upon.
Now that you're ready for your trip, don't skip on these helpful hints:
- As an American you can stay in Colombia on a tourist visa for up to 90 days but you can file for an extension. You are currently able to file for this extension online.
- Don’t expect warm showers everywhere you go. You can’t always flush the toilet paper in every establishment. More modern buildings will have better plumbing and some may have hot water but don’t expect this everywhere. Still, Colombia is beautiful and things like this should not deter you from visiting!
- A little Spanish will take you a long way--In Cartagena it is slightly easier to get around in limited Spanish since it has become a tourist destination for foreigners. However in Barranquilla and Santa Marta it is a little more difficult but as long as you try people are very warm and receptive.
- Most Colombian cities are organized into stratos (districts/zones) from 1-6. The higher the strato--it is generally more safe.
- Download Rappi! It is the Grubhub/Postmates of Colombia, but better! How could it be better you ask? Well, you can pretty much order anything from lunch to a yoga mat and it will be delivered to your door within an hour. I was even able to have a prescription delivered via Rappi!
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