Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Caribbean Coast
The Rosario Islands(Islas del Rosario) are a highlight of Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, famous for their vibrant marine life, pristine white beaches, and sun-soaked beach resorts. A cluster of 28 idyllic islands dotted offshore of the port city of Cartagena, this archipelago sits atop the world’s third-largest barrier reef and makes up Islas del Rosario National Park.
Totumo Volcano (El Totumo) ranks among Cartagena’s most popular day trips. A small volcanic caldera has become a top attraction—a naturally heated bath of grayish brown silt. After bobbing around in the soupy mix, head to the lagoon next door to wash off the mineral-rich mud, thought to have therapeutic properties.
Some historians say that if it weren’t for San Felipe de Barajas Castle (Castillo San Felipe de Barajas), South America would now speak English. The 14th-century fortress protected the coastal city of Cartagena from English invasion, allowing the Spanish to maintain their rule. Besides the role it plays in Colombia’s history, the castle attracts visitors with its panoramic harbor views.
With brightly-colored buildings, colonial landmarks, and bougainvillea-covered balconies, Old Town Cartagena is known for its beauty and its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Highlights include the leafy Plaza de Bolivar, the striking Clock Tower (Torre del Reloj), and the Gold Museum (Museo de Oro).
Deep within the Sierra Nevada, the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida is an indigenous archaeological site accessible only via a challenging multi-day trek through the surrounding jungle. Prepare to wade through waterfalls and climb more than 1,000 stone steps to reach the secluded ruins, where you’re rewarded with panoramic views.
Ruins, reefs, mangroves, and beaches make up the 37,000-acre Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most popular ecotourism destinations. Visit to hike along the coast, relax on the beaches, snorkel among the coral reefs, or simply disconnect from daily life.
Sitting atop the highest point in Cartagena, Convento de la Popa is a 17th-century convent characterized by graceful stone arcades and an interior courtyard filled with flowers. History and architecture aside, the biggest draw of the convent is the scenery: from the 500-foot (152-meter) perch, travelers are rewarded with sweeping views of the Caribbean coast and colonial city.
Just off the coast of northern Colombia, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park is home to a wealth of endangered flora and fauna as well as the world’s highest coastal peak. Dominated by mountains and popular among hikers, this UNESCO-recognized national park is home to bird reserves, archaeological ruins, and indigenous villages.
Founded in 1534, Santo Domingo Church (Iglesia Santo Domingo) is the oldest church in Cartagena. As well as being notable for its marble altar and imposing central nave, the church boasts a prime location on Plaza Santo Domingo, where street vendors and al fresco cafes create a vibrant atmosphere.
Shoppers, barhoppers, and photography enthusiasts flock to picturesque Las Bovedas, located at the northeastern corner of Cartagena’s old walled city. Dozens of archways—stretching from Santa Clara to Santa Catalina Fortress—are home to souvenir shops, jewelry stores, small bars, and galleries.
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The final resting place of South American liberator Simón Bolívar, the 17th-century Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino is now a historical landmark, museum, gallery, and botanical garden containing over 200 works of contemporary South American art. See where Bolívar took his last breath, marvel over antique artefacts, wander the expansive gardens, and admire artworks from the countries that Bolívar liberated.
As well as offering respite from Cartagena’s Caribbean heat with its leafy trees, Bolivar Square (Plaza Bolivar) is home to both the Palace of the Inquisition museum and the Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Zenu). In between museums, sample Colombian coffee and snacks from street vendors and admire the eponymous statue of Simon Bolivar at the square’s center.
Cartagena’s Cathedral of San Pedro Claver (Iglesia de San Pedro Claver) immortalizes the life of Saint Pedro Claver, one of the first human rights pioneers in the Americas. The austere stone facade of the cathedral alludes to a peaceful interior, where visitors can pay their respects to the remains of the saint, which are visible through a gilded glass case.
Home to around 190 different species of bird, the National Aviary of Colombia harbors diverse flora and more than 2,000 birds. The 17-acre (7-hectare) park categorises birds according to three Colombian ecosystems—tropical rainforest, coastal zone, and desert—and promises an enriching experience for wildlife lovers.
Housed in the restored 16th-century former Customs House—itself one of the oldest buildings in the Americas—the Tayrona Gold Museum (Museo del Oro Tairona) offers an insight into the region’s history. Admire a vast collection of pre-Columbian gold and pottery, while learning about the indigenous Tairona people.
Part of Tayrona National Park, Crystal Beach (Playa Cristal is a white-sand haven that provides ideal conditions for swimming and snorkeling. Marine life off Crystal Beach (Playa Cristal includes sea turtles, dolphins, and several species of fish. Even without spotting one of these creatures, the coral and sponges of the reef provide colorful underwater scenes.
Backed by verdant mountains and lined with swaying palms, Playa Blanca is a tropical paradise situated just outside of Santa Marta. Go for a swim in the calm waters, enjoy a fresh seafood lunch, and relax under a thatched roof palapa for a quieter alternative to El Rodadero Beach.
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.
Located at the base of San Felipe Castle, the Old Shoes Monument (Los Zapatos Viejos) is a giant sculpture of a pair of old boots. A popular spot for a selfie, the monument was created by Hector Lombana Piñeres in response to the poem “Mi Ciudad Nativa” by local poet (and one of South America’s most respected writers) Luis Carlos López.
Opened in 1982, Cartagena's Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Zenu is dedicated to Colombia's indigenous Zenu people. The collection, displayed in a colonial mansion in Plaza de Bolivar, includes more than 530 gold pieces (including a pre-Hispanic golden jaguar, as well as bone carvings and textiles from Colombia’s indigenous peoples.
At the main entrance to Cartagena’s Old Town, La India Catalina Monument is a bronze rendering of the Doña Marina of Colombia — India Catalina.
The daughter of a local chief, in 1509 Catalina was abducted, aged 14, from her home in Galerazamba. Once she’d learned Spanish in the Dominican Republic, she was thereon required to accompany the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia as an interpreter and pacifying presence in interactions between the Spanish and indigenous groups.
The local Calamari people were decimated in the Spanish conquest, and that was in part due to Catalina’s collusion with the Spanish. In that sense, it might seem strange that the sculpture of her has become so iconic, but really, it’s a tribute to the indigenous people who inhabited this land before the Spanish conquest.
Sculpted by the Spanish artist Eladio Gil Zambrana and unveiled in 1974, the monument has become so well-known around Cartagena that small-scale replicas are handed out as awards at the Cartagena Film Festival.
Built in 1911 to commemorate a century of Colombian independence, Cartagena’s Teatro Adolfo Mejia (Teatro Heredia is based on the Italian-Caribbean design of Havana’s Tacon Theater. The creme-and-yellow theatre reigns over the Plaza de la Merced and is famous for its frescoes and marble staircase imported from Italy.
Former Colombian football player Carlos El PibeValderrama 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.
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