Sun soaked and rich in culture, Colombia's dramatic Caribbean coastline is its dazzling crown, capping the country with myriad ecosystems, from the dense jungles of the Darién Gap on the border with Panama to the hauntingly atmospheric desert of La Guajira near Venezuela.
The jewel along the coast is Cartagena, known for its multifaceted culture and extensive colonial-era architecture. Journey inland to find gorgeously isolated Mompós, a quiet hamlet in the forest whose star is truly in the ascendant. Other attractions are more natural: the PNN Tayrona, a wonderful stretch of perfect beach and virgin rainforest, and the thrilling and arduous Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) trek, which will satisfy adventurers keen to learn about the remnants of an ancient civilization against a stunning mountain backdrop.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Caribbean Coast.
Cartagena's old city is its principal attraction, particularly the inner walled town, consisting of the historical districts of El Centro and San Diego. It's one of finest examples of preserved colonial architecture in the Americas, packed with churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces and mansions with their famous overhanging balconies and shady patios.
The greatest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in any of their colonies, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas still dominates an entire section of Cartagena's cityscape. It should definitely be the first fortress you visit. The original edifice was quite small. It was commissioned in 1630, and construction began in 1657 on top of the 40m-high San Lázaro hill. In 1762 an extensive enlargement was undertaken, which resulted in the entire hill being covered with this powerful bastion.
This hacienda is where Simón Bolívar spent his last days in 1830 before succumbing to either tuberculosis or arsenic poisoning, depending on whom you believe. The hacienda was owned by a Spanish supporter of Colombia's independence who invited Bolívar to stay and take a rest before his journey to exile in Europe, but Bolívar died before he could complete the journey.
Cabo San Juan del Guía is a beautiful cape with a knockout beach. It's also by far the most crowded area of the park, although lack of road access deters casual day-trippers. The area has a restaurant and a campsite, with hammocks and cabins, in a spectacular lookout on a rock in the middle of the beach. It's possible to spend a very atmospheric night here. Swimming is also possible most of the time, but don't go in too deep.
Oro (gold) is only half of what this fabulous museum is about. Housed in the impressively renovated Casa de la Aduana (Customs House), which features in the Gabriel García Márquez novel No One Writes to the Colonel, the displays lure you in with ceramics and jewelry from the Nahuange and Tayrona periods, backed by a comprehensive history of metalwork in the pre-Columbian Sierra Nevada.
This dazzling slice of mountainous jungle, vast boulders and golden-white sand makes up one of Colombia's most stunning national parks and is a popular destination for backpackers as well as local day-trippers. Sealed off the main road by steep mountains, the park is only accessible on foot, on horseback or by boat, which makes it an exciting and sometimes challenging place to visit. Day trips are perfectly possible, but many visitors overnight at one of the beachside campsites.
The most developed of the islands, Isla Grande is indeed also the biggest. There's a large lagoon perfect for swimming in the unbelievably blue waters, and several sleeping options.
The Palace of the Inquisition may today be one of the finest buildings in the city, but in the past it housed the notoriously grisly Inquisition, whose bloody task it was to stamp out heresy in colonial Cartagena. The palace is now a museum, displaying the inquisitors' instruments of torture, some of which are quite horrific. The museum also houses pre-Columbian pottery and plots a historical trajectory of the city using armaments, paintings, furniture and even church bells.
Founded by Jesuits in the first half of the 17th century as Convento San Ignacio de Loyola, this convent later changed its name to honor Spanish-born monk Pedro Claver (1580–1654), who lived and died here. Called the 'Apostle of the Blacks' or the 'Slave of the Slaves,' the monk spent his life ministering to enslaved people brought from Africa. A series of lucid paintings inside the building relates his life story.