Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Caribbean Coast
Take the wooden steps up the 15-meter mud mound that is Totumo Volcano (Volcán de Lodo El Totumo) then look down to be greeted by a mud bath big enough to fit dozens of bathers. A popular day trip from Cartagena, it's said that the volcano goes hundreds of meters deep, but when you dip into the warm mud you'll find that it's so dense it's impossible to do anything but bob about at the top. While wallowing, it’s possible to pay one of the attendants for a personal massage.
Legend has it that Totumo Volcano used to spew out fire and lava, but a local priest, believing such hellfire to be the work of the devil, used holy water to turn it all to mud. After the bath, everyone heads to the next-door lagoon to wash off the gloop, which local women will help you wash off with buckets of water, for a small fee, if you wish.
The Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida, is the archaeological site of an ancient indigenous city in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Thought to have been a commercial center for trade around 700 A.D., its population probably ranged between 1,400 and 3,000 inhabitants. Hidden in the jungle for over a thousand years, the Lost City was found in 1972 when treasure hunters followed a series of stone steps leading up to an abandoned city.
The Lost City is open to visitors, but the trip is not for the faint of heart. The nearly 30 mile trek takes visitors through farmland and jungle on an unforgettable six-day journey. Part of the adventure includes trekking over mountains filled with exotic plants and animals, climbing stone paths through dense jungle, bathing in waterfalls and sleeping in indigenous villages.
Upon arriving at Lost City, climb more than 1,000 stone steps to the top of the site for incredible views of the surrounding mountains and jungle.
A leisurely walk through the narrow streets of Old Town Cartagena, with bougainvillea spilling off second-floor balconies and brightly painted Colonial houses, invites visitors to escape into the past. The bustle of daily life mixes with the historical architecture of this walled city by the ocean. In addition to the beautiful boutique stores, numerous restaurants, and colorful street vendors, there are many treasures to see around town and just outside the city walls. The leafy Plaza de Bolivar serves as a good place to start a tour in Cartagena and to see some of the local culture and buy fruit from the colorfully dressed women known as palanqueras. Next to the plaza, the free Gold Museum (Museo de Oro) displays pieces that tell the history of the Zenú indigenous tribe. The nearby Palace of the Inquisition (Palacio de la Inquisición) provides a rather gruesome look at Colombia’s past and the Spanish Inquisition -- some of the torture devices used on the accused are on display.
Tayrona National Park, just 34 km from Santa Marta in northern Colombia, has abundant natural and archaeological attractions. Named after one of the most important indigenous tribes in Colombia’s history, the Tayrona National Park was established in 1969 with an area of 19,000 hectares. Eco-tourism is popular in this complex biological ecosystem. There are over 300 bird species, including the endangered Andean condor and woodpeckers. Puma, deer, bats, howling monkeys, iguanas, jaguars and marine turtles also call this forest home. Hikers can spot multicolored land crabs, reptiles and butterflies on the trails. To get to the beaches, visitors walk along marked trails or hire a guide with horses. Explore the many golden sand beaches and snorkel near coral reefs and underwater treasures hidden around the huge rock formations. The largest archeological remains in the park are found in Pueblito, an ancient commercial center used by the Tayrona Indians of the Sierra Nevada.
Simón Bolivar is viewed as the Liberator of much of northern South America and is considered one of the most important Latin American political figures who ever lived. He was born in Caracas, the son of wealthy landowners, and led the independence movement, eventually achieving independence from Spain for what was then called Gran Colombia, covering most of northern South America.
Simón Bolivar spent his last days at La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino near Santa Marta, a quinta (large house) and hacienda (farm) built in the 17th century. At that time the estate produced rum, honey and panela, a sugar cane product. Bolivar died of tuberculosis in one of the rooms there on December 17, 1830. Now the Quinta is a tourist site, museum and historical landmark. The main house, painted a deep yellow color, is where Simon Bolivar breathed his last breath.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a unique natural ecosystem along the of the northern coast of Colombia. This majestic mountain range is the tallest coastal mountain range in the world, with the snow covered Simón Bolívar and Cristóbal Colón peaks rising 18,700 feet above sea level.
Amazingly, all the climatic zones and biomes present in Colombia can be found within the 6,600 square miles of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. That makes it an excellent place to come into contact with animals and plants from around the country in just one park. Jaguars, tapirs, páramo deer, condors, endemic parrots and important groups of endangered wildlife call the Sierra Nevada home. The Sierra Nevada and Tayrona parks have a combined 300 recorded archaeological settlements along the coast and in the highlands. The largest is the Teyuna Archaeological Park, known as The Lost City (Ciudad Perdida), testimony of the country’s most important ancient Indian civilization.
Cartagena’s strategic significance as Europe’s conquest of the Americas intensified cannot be overstated. Some say that if the British had won the 1741 Battle of Cartagena, that South America would now speak English. They didn’t, largely because of massive El Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the largest and most formidable Spanish colonial fortress in the hemisphere.
Begun in 1536, almost immediately after the conquistadors arrived, the massive megastructure sits atop San Lazaro Hill, with flawless views across the harbor. Bristling with cannons and other armaments, it was enlarged and re-fortified in 1657 and 1763 as part of an ongoing arms race against other European powers. A marvel of military engineering, the compound’s angles and parapets offer maximum coverage, and are connected by a warren of secret tunnels threading the mountain of stone.
On the edge of Tayrona National Natural Park and the northern coast of Colombia, Crystal Beach is one of the most picturesque white sand beaches in South America. Its clear turquoise waters provide ideal conditions for swimming and snorkeling. Many come to relax on the soft sand shaded by coconut palms or to eat fresh seafood caught right off the shore. It is also a great base for exploring the Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most important protected ecological areas, for the day.
Marine life in the waters off Crystal Beach includes sea turtles, dolphins, and several species of fish. Even without spotting one these creatures, the coral and sponges of the reef provide colorful underwater scenes. The Caribbean reefs offshore also attract those seeking scuba diving and other water sports.
Less than an hour southwest of Cartagena’s port is a fragile archipelago of some 30 picture-perfect islands, wrapped in shimmering white-sand beaches, and strung like rosary beads through the deep blue Caribbean Sea. They sit atop the world’s third-largest barrier reef, which has protected as Islas del Rosario National Park since 1977. Though this clearly remains a mixed-use area, the designation has helped conserve 1300 species of flora and fauna present on and around the islands.
Dozens of operators offer day trips to the Islas del Rosario, which lie between 45 and 90 minutes southwest of the city, depending on the type of boat you’re on. As you cruise past Boca Chica and out into the open sea, don’t miss the 18th-century Spanish fortresses of of San Rafael and San Fernando.
More Things to Do in Caribbean Coast
This shady park, centered on a trickling fountain and statue of Simon Bolivar, is a more local hangout spot than the upmarket cafes taking over Plaza Santo Domingo. The benches are full of pensive-looking old men, and wandering baristas make their rounds, selling sweet sips of “tinto,” black coffee, for a few pesos. The afternoon entertainment might well be an itinerant preacher saving souls for centavos.
Of course, it’s a fine place for travelers just looking for a shady spot to relax. The square is surrounded by some of the city’s prettiest buildings, and you’ll be able to buy the same shell jewelry, woven hats, beautiful watercolors, and Botero knockoffs from Plaza Bolivar’s vendors as you would anywhere else within the city walls.
Gleaming white in its vantage point, high above Cartagena’s protected bay, the Convento de la Popa is visible from almost anywhere in the city. Though it’s a bit of a chore to get here—you’ll need to hire a taxi (to avoid walking through poor, rather unsafe neighborhoods) or book a city tour—it’s worth the effort.
The convent itself is quite pretty, particularly the flower-filled interior courtyard of graceful stone arcades. It was founded by an Augustian order in 1607, after Father Alonso de La Cruz Peredes received a divine message to build the chapel in honor of Cartagena’s Patron, Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria. Her lovely gold altar also worth a look.
But you’re really here for the grand views over the city, from atop a 150m (500ft) hill above the bay. You can see almost everything, from the the delicate strand of skyscrapers rising from slender Boca Grande, to the dusty reds of tejas tiles topping the old walled city.
Opened in 1982, Cartagena's Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Zenu) is dedicated to Colombia's indigenous Zenu people. Housed in a grand colonial building facing the Plaza Bolivar, the first room greets visitors with a pre-Hispanic golden jaguar and an ornate gold filigree butterfly. In fact, there are 538 gold pieces to see, as well as 61 carvings, including bone carvings, which you'll find in the next room — La Sociedad — dedicated to the body painting and textile traditions of the Zenú.
The final exhibit, La Epoca Hidráulico, profiles the Zenú people's hydraulic engineering feats. It's estimated that, up to 2,500 years ago, half a million hectares of Panzenu land was cultivated with the aid of a vast network of hand-excavated canals that ran up to 4km long and 10 meters wide, making them some of the largest man-made features in the Americas. Cartagena’s Gold Museum also has an onsite bookshop and auditorium.
At the northeastern corner of the old walled city is Cartagena’s grandest arcade, stretching with imperial purpose from Santa Clara to Santa Catalina Fortress. Behind the 47 painted archways are a string colorful souvenir shops, well stocked with all the emeralds, Botero knockoffs, hammocks, hats and molas that your coworkers and catsitters might desire. These unusually proportioned alcoves are interspersed with equally cramped bars, galleries, and other businesses. It’s a fun place to shop and photogenic spot to enjoy, but the rather oppressive barrel ceilings that overarch each vault (boveda) come with a bit of history. The vaulted alcoves were originally built into the massive sea wall between 1792 and 1796, and at first used to store provisions. They were repurposed during the early 1800s as an incredibly uncomfortable prison.
Iglesia Santo Domingo, founded in 1534, is the oldest church in Cartagena and one of the first in the hemisphere. The original stone structure, finished in 1551, was so badly damaged by Sir Francis Drake in 1586 that a new church needed to be built; the current incarnation was finally completed some time during the 1700s.
The cool, spacious interior, with its imposing central nave lined with massive stone columns and inspiring marble altar are unusual, and certainly worth a look. Most travelers will spend more time on Plaza Santo Domingo, right out front, the spot to enjoy a little rest and relaxation of a premium-priced beverage. Surrounded by some of the city’s finest architecture, and filled with umbrella-shaded café tables, the plaza is also a magnet for souvenir vendors. Be sure to bargain.
At the base of the imposing San Felipe Castle, Cartagena’s Old Shoes Monument (Los Zapatos Viejos) is, you guessed it, a giant sculpture of a pair of old boots. A popular spot for a selfie or ten, the monument was created by the sculptor Hector Lombana as a reference to the popular poem, “Mi Ciudad Nativa,” by local poet, and one of South America’s most respected writers, Luis Carlos López.
In the final line, López compares the love and sense of comfort he feels for his hometown of Cartagena to that which he feels for a pair of worn-in, but familiar and comfortable shoes. And on a plaque in front of the famous sculpture, you can read the whole poem in full.
Former Colombian football player Carlos Valderrama is known for his athletic ability and his outgoing personality, and this 22-foot-tall bronze statue of him in his hometown conveys both qualities. He is known as “El Pibe” or “the kid” and for his blond curly head of hair. His distinct personality has made him one of the most recognizable figures in football worldwide. Part of the Colombian national team in the 1990s, he represented Colombia in several international tournaments and became known for his skills in passing and accuracy in assisting. He is one of few foreign players who joined Major League Soccer in the United States.
His statue is the work of Colombian artist Amilkar Ariza, standing tall outside the Estadio Eduardo Santos in Santa Marta. It was erected in 2006 in honor of his contributions to Colombian national sports.
Cartagena’s Catedral de San Pedro Claver, so close to the sea wall, seems unduly imposing for such a sanctified site. Begun in 1575, when this was a very rough neighborhood, its unfinished fortifications were destroyed in 1586 during a tiff with Sir Francis Drake and his pirate crew, and rebuilt by 1602.
Its namesake, San Pedro Claver Corberó, did not arrive until 1610. The Spanish-born priest arrived in Cartagena, then a slave-trading hub, as a novice priest. Horrified by the treatment of African captives, sold to a motley crew of middlemen on what’s now Plaza de los Coches, the young man became an activist, writing in his diary, “Pedro Claver, slave of the slaves forever (3 April 1622).”
Pedro would not only baptize newly enslaved arrivals right in the cathedral’s courtyard well (which was already controversial), but he would then explain to the newly saved that they deserved all the rights held by other Christian citizens of the Spanish Empire.
In Cartagena's Old Town, every evening the Plaza de San Diego becomes lively with street performers entertaining the crowds. Vendors sell everything from jewelry to Cuban cigars to paintings, and as the day ends, the traffic gets blocked on two sides so that more outdoor seating can be laid on outside the restaurants lining the square.
Surrounded by ice cream-colored buildings and bougainvillea-covered balconies just outside the Old Town’s core area, the Plaza de San Diego is a lasting relic of the wealth Cartagena held during the days of the gold, sugar, and slave trade's peak. Home to the famous Hotel Santa Clara, the square is a popular place to sit down, order a drink or a bite to eat, and watch the world go by while listening to live music by the local street performers.
Santa Marta, surrounded by beaches and mountains, was the first city founded by the Spaniards in Colombia. Due to its cultural and historic importance, the historic center of Santa Marta was declared a national monument in the 1960’s. Five years ago it underwent a costly renovation and is proud to show off its new face and is best explored on foot.
The best place to start is from the center point of all towns in Colombia, the Simon Bolivar Plaza. The nearby Bank of Republic Library presently houses the Tayrona Gold Museum. Take time to see the displays of the fascinating gold pieces made centuries ago by the Tayrona indigenous group. Construction of the white-washed Santa Marta Cathedral was completed towards the end of the 18th century. Some of the features of the cathedral are its dome-shaped bell tower, the floor plan in the shape of a cross, the main area’s vaulted ceiling and the side chapel marble screens.
Taganga is a sleepy fishing village and beach town near the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Tayrona National Parks. The view from Taganga’s coast is spectacular, as are the sunsets. The small town has just a few paved roads and the rest are dusty - or muddy – depending on the season.
Taganga is next to the stunning Tayrona National Park, though it’s a bit of a trek getting there. If you’re interested in visiting the beaches at Tayrona, it takes an hour by bus to get to the park, followed by a couple of hours of hiking through the national park to get to a beach. Another option is to get a boat directly from Taganga to the beaches of Tayrona. Both diving and getting a diving certification are inexpensive, which draws diving enthusiasts to Taganga. Many of the activities that can be booked in Santa Marta can also be booked from Tayrona. This is the place to head out not only to The Lost City and Tayrona National Park, but also farther east to La Guajira.
In Cartagena, the Casa de Rafael Núñez is a mansion that was once home to the famous politician, poet, and lawyer Rafael Núñez. The country's president on four occasions, Núñez' importance in Colombian history cannot be overstated — not only did he write the country's 1886 constitution, in effect until 1991; he also wrote the words to the Colombian national anthem.
A three-minute walk from the Walled City in El Cabrero, the Caribbean-Antillean styled white and green mansion was built in 1858, and today it's a museum where you can see Núñez' documents and personal possessions including furniture, paintings, and art. Just opposite the Casa de Rafael Núñez you'll see the chapel of Ermita del Cabrero, where the ashes of Núñez and his wife rest.
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