Practical Travel Tips: Colombia’s Caribbean Coast (Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta)

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Cartagena is a place everyone should visit. We’ve traveled there and can tell you that the experience in Colombia is not necessarily what is portrayed on TV. It has, in fact, changed a lot for the better. The exchange rate is very favorable right now so it is very affordable as well. Angie, who previously wrote about Norway, is back with her practical travel tips for this part of Colombia.

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Many airlines have great deals to Barranquilla, Colombia. A group of friends took this flight deal over Labor Day weekend in September 2015 from Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Boston to Barranquilla, Colombia, and have put together the following guide to Colombia’s Caribbean Coast (Barranquilla, Cartagena, and Santa Marta).

Practical Advice

  • Exchange your money ahead of time, if possible, as many flights [on Copa specifically] arrive into Barranquilla either late at night or early in the morning, when currency exchange counters are not open.
  • In Colombia, it is fairly common to exchange currency at shops or stands that typically sell food, drinks, cigarettes, etc. The exchange rate was officially around 3,000 Colombian Pesos (COP) to 1 USD when we visited, and the food and drink stands we originally exchanged our currency at often charged a premium for the exchange (~2,800 COP to 1 USD). (Editor’s Note, the current exchange rate is about 3,500 COP to 1 USD)
  • Renting a car is impractical as driving is difficult and buses are often cheaper. However, with a large enough group of people, taking taxis or renting out a private van with a driver can be in the same price range as some buses.
  • Adapters are a must in Colombia as many places do not have universal outlets or USB charging stations.
  • Agreeing on and/or negotiating a cab fare upon entering the cab is common practice.
  • “Uber Pool” Colombia: oftentimes, taxi drivers will pick up additional passengers in a taxi along a route if the vehicle is not full.
  • Many vans and buses will stop periodically along the route to pick up packages along routes as they drop off passengers, serving double duty as a passenger vehicle and makeshift postal service.

Barranquilla

As many others have noted, there is not much to do in Barranquilla but the city is pleasant and in close proximity to both Cartagena and Santa Marta. Cabs from the airport (BAQ) to the city are usually around 10 USD (30,000 COP). As a general rule, cabs within the town itself should never be more than 5 USD (15,000 COP). Local bars and restaurants generally take credit cards with chips and there are plenty of ATMs.

Among the notable things to see around Barranquilla are the Antiguo Edificio de la Aduana (the customs building, which has a beautiful exterior and a museum), the Iglesia de San Nicolas de Tolentino (a neo-gothic church that is often closed on Mondays), and the Zoo of Barranquilla. The Castillo de Salgar is a former Spanish fort that is especially beautiful at sunset and a 30-minute drive from the center of Barranquilla – the castle’s beauty is evidenced by the fact that Colombians will often get married there.

Santa Marta

It is a one-and-a-half hour bus or taxi ride from Barranquilla to Santa Marta. The bus/van generally costs around $10 per person and leaves fairly regularly starting at 7 or 8 in the morning; a taxi will be in the range of $30 to $50 per person and will need to be arranged ahead of time. The drive goes along the coast and is fairly scenic as it passes by smaller towns and coastlines.

Santa Marta itself is a city on the beach, noted for being the oldest city in Colombia, with a beautiful old center and fantastic sunsets. The town is also popular for its nightlife and has a reputation for being a home base for backpackers going into the surrounding areas of Parque Tayrona, Minca, and Taganga. ATMs and currency exchanges were readily available in Santa Marta, but generally harder to find than in Barranquilla. In general, taxi fares were negotiated ahead of time.

Taganga

A sleepy little dive town, Taganga emerges from the unassuming mountains and shrubs to be a delightful little beach cove full of backpackers and divers. From the center of Santa Marta (the closest nearby city), Taganga is about a 15-20 minute taxi ride (which costs about $30). Taganga is a good place to go for a swim, learn to scuba, eat some lunch, and lounge around on the beach. ATMs and currency exchanges were much harder to find in Taganga, as cash was commonly exchanged in small shops and stores.

Parque Tayrona

A place that is reminiscent of paradise, the Tayrona National Park is a protected area that is just under a one-hour ride from Taganga/Santa Marta, depending on where one is picked up or dropped off. There is a bus that will go from the market in Santa Marta to the entrance of the Tayrona park for a few U.S. dollars. However, if one is in a rush, taxis and vans are more expensive but still available to get to the park entrance. There are many hikes of moderate-to-difficult intensity throughout the park, and getting to some of the further beaches and campsites can involve some arduous trekking. That said, visitors can pay to have horses carry their gear on these treks for ~$20/horse. Once inside the park, it feels like a tropical paradise with many beautiful beaches.

Beach at Parque Tayrona, Colombia - Photo: (c) 2016 - Angie

Beach at Parque Tayrona, Colombia – Photo: (c) 2016 – Angie

There is a one-time entry fee into the park that is ~$20 for non-Colombians and ~$7 for Colombians. Bringing alcohol into the park is generally not allowed (but alcohol can be purchased inside); many people bring their own water into the park as water is expensive to purchase once inside. There are three main areas to lodge within the park – Canaveral, Cabo San Juan del Guia, and Arrecifes. The latter two are great camping sites, where the fee per tent is much cheaper than many of the more upscale ecohabs in Canaveral. That said, the entire park is astoundingly beautiful – whether one is sleeping in an ecohab, tent, or hammock on the beach, the lack of lights at night produce a stunning darkness that lets the stars shine through brightly.

Parque Tayrona, Colombia - Photo: (c) 2016 - Angie

Parque Tayrona, Colombia – Photo: (c) 2016 – Angie

Cartagena

The ancient walled city of Cartagena is a charming city on the northern coast, about two hours driving from Barranquilla and four hours driving from Santa Marta. The city has an old-world charm to it while being fairly modern (ATMs and air conditioning almost everywhere).

One of the best things to do in Cartagena is walking around the old city and enjoying all of the colors and sounds – from popsicle stands to local artists, everything about the city is colorful.

Cartagena, Colombia - Photo: (c) 2016 - Angie

Cartagena, Colombia – Photo: (c) 2016 – Angie

The famed walls surround the city and line up with the coast quite often. Visitors can walk on top of the walls and enjoy a drink overlooking the town center and coastal waters while watching the sunset. Nearby, there are many things to enjoy, such as taking a boat to the nearby Rosario Islands or going tunneling in the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, where the hidden underground tunnels feel endless. The new city feels more modern, but no less colorful, with many fantastic restaurants such as La Cocina de Pepina, an unassuming small restaurant with fresh takes on Colombian classics.

Cartagena is a unique blend of old and new. Whether one is relaxing in the heart of the city in the Plaza Bolivar, enjoying a world famous gin basil smash at El Baron, taking in local dance music at a modern club, or simply soaking in the sunset with feet dangling over the walls of the old city, Cartagena is full of charm and sentiment.

The trip video:

 

About the Author:

Angie is a born and raised Midwesterner, who has spent the last five years living on the East Coast. She spends her time running, hiking, and traveling with her “Flight Deal Friends,” who have a pledge to purchase tickets for each other if there is ever a deal (there is an implicit trust amongst the group). Internationally, they’ve been to Chile, Colombia, Kenya, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway in the past year on flight deal trips.

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One Response to "Practical Travel Tips: Colombia’s Caribbean Coast (Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta)"

  1. James10 says:

    I’ve never had a taxi pick up extra passengers or have a shop exchange USD… They’re probably counting on you being a gullible gringa.

    Reply

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