Captivating Cartagena stands as one of Colombia's top tourist destinations owing to its unique style and culture, wrapped up in a disarmingly beautiful package of well-preserved historic architecture.
After absorbing the sights and sounds of the vibrant "walled city,” take some time to travel further along the Caribbean coast for the day, or longer if you can swing it. The surrounding region offers an opportunity to bask on white-sand beaches, hop from one coralline island to another, dive deep into local customs and traditions, and experience unusual geologic phenomena. Here are our picks for the best day trips from Cartagena.
1. Feel the rhythm of African-Colombian culture in San Basilio de Palenque
Travel time: 90 minutes
The most important reason to visit San Basilio de Palenque is to experience the rich cultural heritage of the first free settlement in the Americas established by formerly enslaved Africans in the 16th century. Unesco recognized the town’s unique culture, music and distinctive Spanish-Bantu language called Palenquero as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.
There are few notable landmarks to see there, other than street art and a statue of founder Benkos Biohó breaking free of the shackles of enslavement in the main plaza. Taking a tour with a local guide is the key to unlocking the highlights of a community that survived by hiding beyond Colombia’s coastal swamps, far from the Spanish crown’s reach. In its isolation, ancestral customs related to gastronomy, medical practices, funeral rites, dance and music thrived.
During a visit, you’ll be introduced to some of the well-known locals who have inherited these traditions, such as a healer, drum instructors, dancers, singers and members of the band Sexteto Tabalá and the hip-hop act Kombelisa Mi. Visitors can't help but be moved, whether it’s the rhythm of the music or the town's resilience in overcoming centuries of oppression.
How to get to San Basilio de Palenque from Cartagena: From Cartagena’s Terminal de Transportes de Cartagena, take a bus heading to San Juan or Mahates and ask to be let off near the town, where a moto-taxi can take you the rest of the way. Alternatively, sign up for an eight-hour group tour from Cartagena, which includes a typical lunch.
2. Fish with locals in La Boquilla’s mangroves
Travel time: 20 minutes
Since the 17th century, the seaside village of La Boquilla has been home to African-Colombian families earning a living from the abundant seafood pulled from a maze of coastal mangroves bordering the Caribbean Sea. In recent years, though, the area’s expansive patch of sand has become a low-key alternative to Cartagena’s crowded Bocagrande beaches. Known for its steady winds and shallow flat water, you can try your hand at kitesurfing with outfitters such as La Boquilla Kite School.
A big part of La Boquilla’s appeal is to connect not only with nature but also with the local community and its cultural traditions. At the far end of the beach next to the mangroves, Ecotours Boquilla offers a variety of experiences, such as dance or drum workshops, nature tours and a fishing excursion. The latter combines a scenic boat ride with instruction on casting fishing nets and catching crabs in artisanal traps. Afterward, you’ll dine on a fresh seafood lunch at a local home with your catch of the day.
How to get to La Boquilla from Cartagena: R52C, SB100 and R44B buses depart from the Monumento India Catalina, just outside the walled city, and head to La Boquilla beach. However, it’s quicker to take an Uber, taxi or sign up for a tour with Ecotours Boquilla, which includes transportation from Cartagena-area accommodations.
3. Find paradise in the Islas del Rosario
Travel time: 1 hour
If you have time for only one excursion from Cartagena, a visit to the Islas del Rosario (Rosario Islands) should be at the top of the list. The crystal-clear turquoise water surrounding the palm-fringed coral islands more than makes up for the lack of paradisiacal views from the city. The archipelago has one of the most important underwater national natural parks in the country with an immense variety of coral and multi-colored tropical fish. The best way to see this underwater world is with Cartagena-based Diving Planet, which leads snorkeling and diving excursions to the reef’s edge. A portion of the trip cost goes toward reef restoration and marine research projects.
If you’re planning on coming ashore, Playa Libre on Isla Grande – the largest island of the bunch – has one of the few public beaches. To maximize a day of sun and fun, you may prefer to book one of the many package deals that cater to daytrippers. They include island-hopping tours or pasadías (day passes) to a waterfront hotel, such as Hotel Isla del Sol, Gente de Mar or Bora Bora Beach Club.
The price usually includes transportation, beach access, reserved daybeds or beach umbrellas and delicious fresh-caught seafood for lunch served with a side of flavorful arroz con coco (coconut rice) – a specialty of the Caribbean coast. You can also take advantage of a number of resort activities such as massages, kayaking and boat rides to the aquarium on the nearby island of San Martín de Pajarales.
There are plenty of reasons to extend your stay in the Islas de Rosario. You’ll practically have the place to yourself once the crowds leave in the afternoon, plus have the chance to experience the glow of bioluminescent plankton in the Laguna Encantada.
How to get to the Islas del Rosario from Cartagena: The only way to get to the Islas del Rosario is by boat. Whether you are looking for transport only, or taking a tour, lanchas rápidas (speed boats) depart from the Muelle de Bodeguita between 8 and 10am each morning, then return between 2 and 3pm. Many of the mid-range to upscale island hotels in the Islas del Rosario provide private boat service for guests, whether you’re visiting for the day or staying overnight.
4. Lounge around at a beach club on Tierra Bomba
Travel time: 15 minutes
Tierra Bomba is the nearest and most-accessible island to Cartagena, making it a quick and easy beach escape. Its beaches are a bit cleaner than those in the city, and less crowded than popular Playa Blanca. Shady palapas (palm-covered structures) line the public beach, Playa de Punta Arena, which faces the high-rises of Cartagena across the bay. Here, you can order food and drinks and rent beach umbrellas and chairs, most likely accompanied by a soundtrack of thumping reggaeton, plus a steady stream of vendors wandering by.
It’s worth paying a little more money to spend the day at one of Tierra Bomba’s many beach clubs, which have more amenities for one all-inclusive price that includes transportation, a welcome drink, sunbed, pool access and lunch. Palmarito Beach Club is one of the best value options, while Namaste Beach Club has a more relaxing zen vibe. On the southwest side of the island, Blue Apple Beach is noted for its Ibiza-inspired poolside parties and international cuisine. Each has overnight accommodations if you decide to stay longer.
Apart from its beaches, Tierra Bomba has several historic sites, including the horseshoe-shaped Fuerte de San Fernando (San Fernando Fort), which was designed to protect Cartagena from enemies in the 17th century. While the fortifications aren’t as impressive as the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, they are free and worth visiting if you’re a history buff. The local guides drive a hard bargain, so bring extra cash for a tour that will ultimately benefit those living in the island community of Bocachica.
How to get to Tierra Bomba from Cartagena: Take a taxi or bus R28 to Playa El Laguito next to the Hospital de Bocagrande in Cartagena’s Castillogrande neighborhood. On the beach, you’ll find lanchas offering transportation to Tierra Bomba. Unless you’ve already reserved transportation through a particular beach club, you’ll have to put your negotiating skills to the test before settling on a price for roundtrip transportation. Settle up on the return trip.
5. Bask on Isla Barú's postcard-perfect Playa Blanca
Travel time: 45 minutes
Playa Blanca has long been one of the most breathtakingly beautiful beaches to visit on a day trip from Cartagena. Fine powder-sand beach? Check! Cerulean seas? Check! Located on Isa Barú, which is not actually an island, but a peninsula that was severed from the mainland during the construction of a canal in the 16th century, the beach can be easily accessed by a land bridge built in 2014.
Since that time, Playa Blanca has become a victim of its own popularity, compounded by the ease with which it can be reached by car, bus and boat. It’s still a stunner, but prices have skyrocketed, the beach is overcrowded during the day and pushy vendors deter from what should be a relaxing escape. As long as you manage your expectations, you can still have a great time. To escape the masses, head farther north on the beach to do some snorkeling, visit during the week or opt to stay overnight at one of the rustic guesthouses right on the beach.
While you can visit on your own, signing up for an organized day trip has its advantages. Tours include transportation and lunch. Others include additional stops, such as the Islas del Rosario or the Aviario Nacional de Colombia – a nearby bird sanctuary organized by habitat with exhibits in both Spanish and English.
How to get to Playa Blanca from Cartagena: Boats to Playa Blanca depart when full from Avenida El Lago, behind Cartagena’s Mercado Bazurto. Alternatively, take a bus marked "Pasocaballos" from Cartagena’s India Catalina monument. The driver will let you out there, where you can enlist a mototaxi to take you the rest of the way to the beach. A pricier option would be to take a taxi all the way or drive yourself if you’ve rented a car.
6. Get dirty in the Volcán el Totumo
Travel time: 1 hour
The Caribbean coast is dotted with mud volcanoes that develop over pressurized pockets of natural-forming hydrocarbons. Instead of lava, the craters ooze warm mineral-rich mud with therapeutic qualities for the skin and body. Enterprising locals have turned some of these geologic wonders into tourist attractions – the most famous of which is the Volcán de Lodo El Totumo, located midway between Cartagena and Barranquilla.
For COP$20,000, you’ll climb a rickety staircase to the top of the 50-foot-high dirt cone, then climb into its crater and float in a vat of buoyant, pudding-like gray sludge. For a tip, a mud-splattered attendant will give you a rubdown and take photos, before wedging you between a sea of other tightly packed, mud-covered bodies. When you’ve had enough, you emerge looking like a cement statue until washing off in the nearby lagoon with the help of an attendant, who indiscriminately splashes your entire body with buckets full of water.
Tours to the Volcán de Lodo El Totumo usually include a stop at the Salinas de Galerazamba – salt mines found on the Caribbean coast just 15 minutes away. From December to April, the sea develops a pinkish hue as the water evaporates in the dry season. The high salinity and the presence of microscopic organisms contribute to the intensity of the color. It’s great for photography but not for swimming.
How to get to Volcán el Totumo from Cartagena: Volcán de Lodo el Totumo is located along Route 90A, also called the Troncal del Caribe, which travels between Cartagena and Barranquilla and onward. You can get there by private car, tour or a Barranquilla-bound bus from the Terminal de Transportes in Cartagena. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the entrance to the mud volcano.
7. Take extra time to enjoy the natural beauty of Parque Tayrona
Travel time: 5 hours
Isolated palm-fringed inlets with boulder-strewn golden beaches make the Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona one of the most captivating places along Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. The park is a haven for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts willing to put in a little effort to reach its most iconic beaches, found by traversing ancient footpaths through the lush tropical forest. The iconic San Juan de Cabo, with its palapa-capped structure atop a rock outcropping, takes two hours to reach on foot.
While it is possible to visit the Parque Tayrona in a single day from Cartagena, day-trippers barely get a chance to dip a toe in the turquoise water. A night or two is needed to make the 10 hours on the bus worth the trip. However, if you can only spare one day, don’t take public transportation. Sign up for a tour that departs Cartagena at 4am and returns late. Lunch is included, but be sure to enjoy a fresh coconut at Punta Las Gaviotas or the famous chocolate bread at Panadería Bere, both well-earned treats in the park.
How to get to the Parque Tayrona from Cartagena: Samaria Tours offers day-long excursions to the Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona from Cartagena. If you plan to stay longer, take public transportation with one of the many bus companies that travel between Cartagena and Santa Marta from the Terminal de Transportes. Shuttle buses are slightly more expensive but more convenient. Berlinastur has departures throughout the day from its terminal in Cartagena’s Marbella neighborhood. Once in Santa Marta, Tayrona-bound buses depart every 20 minutes from the Mercado Público at Carrera 9 and Calle 11.