Colourful colonial architecture, majestic hilltop castles, enchanting wildlife and golden beaches – coastal Cartagena and Tayrona National Park are an eclectic and magic mix
Head to northern Colombia for a pair of Caribbean coast gems. UNESCO-listed Cartagena is known for its rich colonial heritage and walled old town; it’s also a bit of a dark horse when it comes to bars and beverages. Further along the coast is Tayrona National Park, a vast natural and archaeological playground packed with beautiful wildlife and unspoilt beach landscapes.
Cartagena & Tayrona National Park holiday highlights
Cartagena is an absolute must-see on a holiday to Colombia. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed city on the Caribbean coast is famous for its Spanish colonial heritage, and its historic old town – El Centro. Browse enchanting cobbled streets and pretty plazas, rake in Instagram likes with a visit to the stunning pastel-coloured houses and take a walk along the 16th-Century walled city – they’re particularly pretty at night. You can also visit Las Bóvedas, a structure built into the walls of the old city between the forts of Santa Clara and Santa Catalina. They were originally dungeons but today you can head here to buy handicrafts and browse art shops. Cartagena is known as the ‘Best Fortified City of the Americas’, and this will come as no surprise after a visit to the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. This multi-tiered masterpiece was built by the Spanish in 1536 (and then later extended in 1657) to defend the former trade hotspot from pirate attacks, hence the sweeping 360-degree views. The fort is decorated with cannons and has open stone windows that you can peep through for snippets of the Caribbean coastline in the distance. Slightly further inland on the way to El Centro you’ll come across Cerro de La Popa, a beautiful white-washed old convent; it’s on a 150-metre-high hill, the highest point in Cartagena, and we recommend taking a taxi up before admiring the panoramic views over the city below.
On top of all the old-world charm, you’ll also find lively al fresco cafés, buzzing restaurants and a thriving cocktail scene. Cartagena is known for its excellent bars; lap up the cool sea breeze at laid-back and open-air Café del Mar on the Baluarte Santo Domingo, a bastion in a prime corner of the city with wonderful sea views. Café Havana is Cartagena’s most famous bar, set in a former warehouse in the party district of Getsemaní – immerse yourself in the Cuban vibes alongside locals and fellow travellers with a first-class cocktail in hand – famous names including the Clintons have been spotted here. Gold museums are popular in Colombia, and Cartagena’s Museo de Oro packs a punch despite its small size; explore the fantastic gold and pottery collection of the Zenú (or Sinú) people, an Amerindian tribe who inhabited the departments of Bolívar, Córdoba, Sucre and northern Antioquia before the Spanish Conquest. Enjoy guided tours in either Spanish or English and look out for exhibitions, too.
Cartagena is also blessed with some glorious white-sand beaches, and around four hours’ drive away you’ll find even more at Tayrona National Park, one of the most famous in Colombia which is located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The park covers 12,000 hectares of land and 3,000 hectares of ocean over four entrances (Concha Bay, Palangana, Calabazo and Zaino) and is home to some breathtaking scenery – think rugged yet calm golden beaches, coral reef and tropical forest. Head to stunning El Cabo San Juan, a crescent-shaped cove with emerald waters where you can go snorkelling and bathing; discover the incredible biodiversity of the area, including over 300 species of birdlife, iguanas, black howler and titi monkeys, and the secretive jaguar; and if you’re up to it, challenge yourself to the three-and-a-half-hour uphill hike to the ancient ruins at El Pueblito – this town and archaeological site provides a fascinating insight into how pre-Hispanic indigenous communities lived.