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Cartagena (Fernando Zuleta)

Cartagena and the north – Colombia Itinerary

From Caribbean charm to Lost City (two weeks Cartagena, Islas del Rosario, Santa Marta, Tayrona Nationalû Park, option to trek to Ciudad Perdida, La Guajira)

Sarah Woods | Issue 110 | March 2010

One of the finest colonial cities in the Americas, Cartagena was once a strategic shipping post for the vast riches amassed by Spanish plunder. Today, much of the original walls (built in 1616) remain, topped by cannons and flagpoles. However, the true magnificence of Cartagena lies within the old Centro Histórico: stroll amid the attractive plazas, grand bubble-gum-hued mansion houses and charming cobblestone streets.

The coral reefs and warm turquoise waters of the Islas del Rosario, 35km south-west of the city, are home to glittering coral, hundreds of fish species and many migratory birds. Join a day-long cruise around the archipelago from Cartagena’s Muelle Turístico. 

The beachfront colonial city of Santa Marta, five hours north of Cartagena, is an ideal staging post for a range of trips, including into the jungle, sands and rugged climbs of Tayrona National Park. Immortalised in Mark Mann’s The Gringo Trail, Tayrona is characterised by deeply contoured bays hemmed by coconut trees and wildlife-rich jungle trails. Once the home of the indigenous Tayrona community, all that is left of this ancient civilisation today are the ruins of the pre-Hispanic town of Pueblito. Explore the rocky ravines, gushing rivers, dense rainforest, beaches and cacti-clad arid slopes on horseback or on foot.

Trips covering the epic six-day mountainous trek to Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta depart Santa Marta regularly. Originally founded around AD 800, but only discovered in 1972, the ancient settlement is reached by an arduous but rewarding slog along muddy trails that weave across a seemingly endless succession of peaks. Despite a chequered history of guerrilla control – the Foreign Office currently advises against travel here – the local people of Santa Marta consider the Ciudad Perdida safe for tourists; certainly there have been no kidnapping attempts since a one-off, short-lived abduction in 2003.

Other excursions from Santa Marta include a day-long drive north along the coast to the lesser-known delights of Cabo de la Vela on La Guajira peninsula. Passing Riohacha, the route dips into barren, gold-sand desert regions: an arid but dramatic landscape sparsely populated by indigenous Wayuu Indians. Punta Gallinas is another highlight: an off-the-beaten-track spot lacking in infrastructure but packed with spectacular views and rustic seaside villages. With unmade roads you’ll need a 4WD.

Saddle up

In Los Llanos, the vast grassland savannah to the east of Bogotá, cattle-ranching is a way of life. Huge herds are driven over thousands of acres in ‘Cowboy Country’ where corralling, roping and lassoing are all-important skills. Many Llaneros (plainspeople) are dedicated cattle-men from the cradle to grave, spending long days in the saddle. These accomplished horsemen are distinctively dressed in poncho, straw hat  and cotizas (rope-soled sandals).

Sarah Woods is the author of the Bradt Guide to Colombia. She enjoys nothing more than a fierce game of dominoes in the Amazon town of Puerto Narino

More like this

Interested in knowing more about Colombia? Then check out our other great Colombia content:

Get the low-down on Colombia with our Travel Blueprint and Destination Guide

Mix urban sights with golden lakes and coffee plantations – Bogotá & around (two days – two weeks)

Meet ancient civilisations – The south of Colombia itinerary (two weeks)

Cross-border connections from neighbouring nations – Colombia in context (as much time as you've got!)

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