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Travelling to Colombia: Explore Cartagena and Tayrona National Park

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Cartagena, Colombia is one of the most fascinating, beautiful and culturally rich destinations in the world. Once considered dangerous and unpredictable, Colombia has transformed into a magnet for curious travelers of all types, including families, solo adventurers and backpackers looking for a unique experience.

With its colourful streets, mouth-watering local cuisine, rich cultural traditions and nearby paradise beaches, it’s no wonder Cartagena is a rising star in South American tourism. This week-long itinerary takes you through Cartagena, surrounding towns and the stunning Tayrona National Park.

Located on the northern coast of Colombia, Tayrona National Park is a slice of paradise that offers a breathtaking blend of lush jungle, pristine beaches and crystal clear turquoise waters. Framed by the towering Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, this natural wonderland is a haven for nature lovers, adventure seekers and those looking to get away from it all. Whether you’re trekking through dense tropical forests, lounging on picturesque beaches or exploring ancient ruins, Tayrona National Park promises a transformative experience that will leave you awed and rejuvenated. It’s not just a destination, it’s a journey into the heart of Colombia’s unparalleled natural beauty.

Day 1: Cartagena

Whether you arrive the night before or on an early flight, use your first day to get settled, overcome any jet lag and start exploring Cartagena. After landing at the conveniently located Rafael Núñez International Airport, take a metered taxi to your hotel and check in before heading out to discover the city.

Consider staying in the walled old town, a stunning area surrounded by 11 kilometres of high stone walls. Here you’ll find vibrant colonial buildings, parks and historic monuments. This is where the action is and arguably one of the most beautiful spots in the country.

Cartagena is easy to navigate, laid out on a simple grid system. Wander aimlessly through the charming streets, sample Colombian cuisine and visit eclectic street markets before resting up for the next day’s adventures.

Day 2: Santa Marta

Spend the morning of your second day exploring Cartagena before heading to Santa Marta in the afternoon. Walk around any parts of the city you may have missed and stock up on snacks for the road. Pack a smaller backpack for this part of the trip and leave your larger luggage in storage at your first hotel (most hotels offer this service free of charge).

Take a private shuttle bus to Santa Marta, which is more comfortable and convenient than public transport. MarSol is a popular option with friendly service and reasonable prices. The journey takes three to four hours and the shuttle will drop you off at your accommodation in Santa Marta (check out Masaya Hostel, which has two swimming pools, a cinema, rooftop terrace and bar, free WiFi and nightly activities including dance classes). Explore the markets and main beaches before dinner near your hotel and an early night.

Day 3: Tayrona National Park

Get to the park check-in early, around 7:00-8:00 a.m. Walk to the Mercado (accessible on foot from most places) and find buses marked “Tayrona”. The bus costs 6,000 pesos (about $3) and takes about an hour to drop you off at the park gates, where you pay a 38,000 pesos (about $19) entrance fee. An optional $1 shuttle will take you further into the park.

Embark on a hike that can take between 1.5 and 3 hours, depending on your pace and fitness level. The trail offers stunning views, rocky mountain paths, secluded beaches and vibrant lagoons. In wet conditions it’s challenging but rewarding. You can also hire a horse for 32,000 pesos ($16), reducing the trip to the campsite to 30 minutes.

Arrive at Cabo San Juan Beach and check into the campground, where you can rent a hammock in the raised hut for 25,000 pesos ($12.50) or one on the ground for 20,000 pesos ($10). The raised hut offers a dreamy setting, perched on a high rocky outcrop surrounded by the ocean on three sides.

Day 4: Tayrona National Park

Spend a second full day at the park. The beach restaurant serves meals from 10,000 to 22,000 pesos ($5-11), with beer and smoothies also available. Explore the nearby beaches or just relax in the paradise of Cabo San Juan Beach. The campground offers amenities such as flush toilets, hot showers, public electrical outlets, lockers and a snack bar.

Day 5: Taganga

Skip the three-hour jungle trek and hop on a boat from Cabo San Juan beach to the village of Taganga for 45,000 pesos ($22). Taganga, just around the mountain from Santa Marta, is a peaceful, charming beach village with a thriving expat community of surfers and backpackers. You can either catch a bus back to Cartagena that day or spend the night in the village, enjoying fresh seafood and a beautiful sunset.

Day 6: El Totumo Mud Volcano

One of Cartagena’s must-see attractions is the mud volcano just outside the city. A geothermal phenomenon creates a soothing hot spring with natural healing properties. Climb a wooden staircase to the top, then slowly immerse yourself in the mud. After an hour of mud and laughter, rinse off in the nearby river.

Several tours offer visits to the volcano, often combined with kayaking through mangrove swamps and a lunch on the beach.

Day 7: Cartagena

Use your last day to experience everything you might have missed in Cartagena. Try more local dishes, learn some salsa, shop for souvenirs or just relax in the main square. For nightlife enthusiasts, tonight is the perfect night to hit the city’s bars and dance clubs. Ask your hotel for recommendations or explore until you find a lively spot. Don’t forget to try some delicious street food before you go to bed.

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