Ever since Rodrigo de Bastidas became the first European to set foot on Colombian soil in Santa Marta in 1525, there’s been a long history of foreigner fascination with the country’s Caribbean coastline, and hundreds of thousands – Colombian holidaymakers chief among them – follow in his footsteps annually. In addition to hot weather and cool breezes, Cartagena boasts splendours from the town’s past role as the main conduit for the Spanish crown’s imperial plundering. For its extensive fortifications and colonial legacy, the walled city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
The 1600km coast holds a wide variety of landscapes from the inaccessible dense jungles of the Darién Gap on the border with Panama to the arid salt plains of the Guajira Peninsula. If it’s a tropical paradise you’re after, try the white, jungle-fringed beaches of Tayrona National Park near Santa Marta. The translucent waters around the fishing village of Taganga number among the most inexpensive places in the world to learn to scuba dive. Inland, travel back to the sixteenth century in sleepy Mompox and cross paths with coca-chewing Kogis on a mesmerizing five-day trek to the Ciudad Perdida.
While the vast majority of travellers come straight to Cartagena by night bus from Medellín, it’s possible to break your journey in the appealing beach town of Tolú and do a day-trip to the Islas de San Bernardo archipelago.
Popular with holidaying Colombians but practically undiscovered by overseas travellers, the seaside town of TOLÚ is a pleasant spot to break your journey from Medellín to Cartagena. The laidback vibe is exemplified by the proliferation of bicycles rather than cars, though the brightly decorated bicitaxis, each one blaring its own choice of upbeat music, make up in volume for the lack of motorized traffic. While Tolú’s beaches are nondescript in comparison to the ones in Parque Nacional Tayrona, you can reach those 20km south, near Coveñas, by colectivos from the corner of Cra 2 and C 17 in Tolú. The town’s malecón, lined with restaurants, craft stalls and bars, makes for a nice stroll, but Tolú’s main attraction – the Islas de San Bernardo – lies off the coast.
The ten archipelagos of tiny islands that make up the Islas de San Bernardo are wonderfully tranquil (when not overrun by Colombian holidaymakers), and their teal waters and blinding-white beaches make for a great day-trip. Tours take in Santa Cruz del Islote – an island populated by fishermen – Isla Tintípan, the largest of the islands, and mangrove-fringed Isla Múcura, where you get to linger the longest – around three hours – to have lunch, sip a cold beer or go snorkelling. Tours finish on Isla Palma, which is the best of the lot when it comes to snorkelling, with greater visibility and an abundance of fish.