Colombia's Caribbean Coast Guide and Information


Costeños Culture: The Caribbean Coast is steamy, colorful and lively, and the entire region moves to thSe rhythms Vallenato, Salsa, merengue, reggaeton and many other Afro-Caribbean rhythms such as porro and mapale. Costeños may be snubbed by their more “serious” Bogota counterparts, who feel that they lack the proper work ethic and urban sophistication, but Costeños certainly know how to enjoy themselves. They are warm, friendly and easygoing people that seem to celebrate almost endless fiestas and holidays, with the Barranquilla carnival being by far the most popular. The carnival is often cited as second only to Rio in energy, color and size - but is far less commercial.

Aside from all the partying, there is fine colonial architecture, a long and colorful history, and an impressive literary legacy emanated from the coastal regions, particularly in Cartagena and Santa Marta. Cartagena is a fairy-tale city of romance, legends and sheer beauty – often called the “Jewel of the Caribbean.” Like most of Colombia’s Caribbean Cities and towns, you can enjoy fantastic fresh seafood dishes, a lively nightlife and crystal clear marine waters lapping against gorgeous white sandy beaches.

Islas de San Bernardo: traveling a little over an hour south from Cartagena is Santiago de Tolú. The town itself is not much to look at but is surrounded by beautiful white-sand beaches and provides a nice base for exploring Islas de San Bernardo – a far "less touristy" version of Cartagena's’ Islas de Rosario.

Mompox:  South from Golfo de Morrosquillo we encounter Santa Cruz de Mompox, a colonial town where the clocks seem to have stopped a few centuries ago. One of the reasons it remains so well preserved is because hundreds of years ago the city was cut off by the Magdalena and Cauca Rivers, turning it into an island in the middle of the two rivers.

Gulf of Uraba:  On the northern part of the Gulf of Uraba, towards the Panama border are the towns of Acandi, Capurganá and Sapsurro, all three boasting pristine tropical shorelines, coral reefs and the mysterious and impenetrable rainforests of the Darién.

Santa Marta:  Travel east from Cartagena along the coast toward the frontier of Venezuela and you’ll reach Santa Marta, Colombia’s oldest city and jumping-off point for spectacular Tayrona National Park. Rising up from the shores are the majestic Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world.

Tayrona National Park:  Located in the department of Magdalena, and just a 30-minute drive from Santa Marta, lies the Tayrona National Park – a national treasure with a diverse range of environments, flora and fauna species and archaeological remains. Within the park's boarders exist coral reefs, mangrove swamps, marshland, thorny scrubland and dry, humid, and cloud forests all housing a surprising diversity and concentration of plant and animal species. Before the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, this land was inhabited by the Tayrona indigenous people, who left significant evidence of their way of life in Pueblito and other sites. Average temperatures in the park are 30˚C year round. There are two rainy periods; May to June and from September to November.

Minca:  Near Santa Marta and only about a 30-minute drive along a poorly paved mountain road with breathtaking views of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains you will find Minca. The first thing you will notice is the town is very small - less than 1000 residents live there. Second, the air is fresh and relatively cool – much more comfortable than the humid coast. Popular activities in Minca include nature treks and horseback riding, mountain bike riding, and touring La Victoria Coffee Farm - at 200 years old it’s the oldest continuously operating organic coffee farm in Colombia.

La Guajira:  East of Santa Marta is the arid landscape of the Guajira Peninsula, home to the indigenous Wayuu and enormous flocks of flamingos. Like many of the most pristine and least touristy locations in Colombia, Cabo de la Vela is a little difficult to reach, but well worth the effort.


Cartagena de Indias

Cartagena is one of the most vibrant and beautiful cities in all of South America and combines the best of hot sunny weather, the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea, fresh seafood and plenty of tropical fruit. The city is practically dripping with history and charm. Here you will enjoy walking along streets lined with colorful balconies, beautiful churches, immaculate court-yards, colonial mansions and world-class museums. It is a rare place where it seems in every direction, around every corner and down every narrow cobblestone street is the perfect photo opportunity.

 

Cartagena

 

The following is a brief tour of sorts highlighting our favorite landmarks within the historic city:


Torre del Reloj: One of the most visible landmarks in Cartagena and often considered a symbol of Cartagena is the yellow Torre del Reloj . Walking under the Puerta de Reloj and the Tree Arches, the principal entrance into the city, we come into the Plaza de Coches , which has a dark historic claim to fame as being the main slave market of the Caribbean – and later being a place to catch horse-drawn carts, which is where its current name is derived (Coche – carriage). Just in front and to the left are the arched store fronts of Portal de los Dulces – which as the name implies (dulce - sweet), is a good place to purchase delicious homemade Colombian sweets and pastries of all kinds. This plaza is also surrounded by great restaurants and bars and is a popular place for both tourists and locals.


Plaza de Aduana: Head east one block and you will arrive inside the Plaza de Aduana (Originally named Antigua Real Contaduría), with a statue of Christopher Columbus in its center and Casa de Aduana, originally the cities tax office, on the South-side, and Casa de la Premio Real, once the residence of the delegate to the King of Spain. In the corner is the Museo de Arte Moderno de Cartagena de Indias, featuring a collection of primarily Latin American artwork of the 1950’s.


Plaza San Pedro de Claver: Heading northwest, just past the art museum is Plaza San Pedro de Claver , with its many interesting wrought-iron sculptures by the Colombian artist Eduardo Carmona. The plaza and Iglesia Convento San Pedro Claver were originally named San Juan de Dios, but were later dedicated to San Pedro Claver, a monk who was glorified for helping the slaves who were brought to the city during the 17th century. The dramatic facade of the church is one of the most photogenic sites in the city. The church’s interior is absolutely magnificent. It boasts some beautiful stained-glass windows, and a high altar made of Italian marble. Several rooms on the second floor were turned into a museum exhibiting; among other things, the throne where Pope John Paul II once sat on during his visit to Cartagena in 1986, and the casket containing the bones and skull of San Pedro de Claver himself.


Baluarte de San Francisco Javier: Following the wall and turning left, we recommend you take the stone stairs up the Baluarte de San Francisco Javier for a great view of the city and surroundings. Baluarte de San Francisco Javier was one of the most important strongholds in the defense of Bocagrande. The walls were built by Cristóbal de Roda around 1617. Directly in front of the stone wall is the Museo Naval del Caribe, which features models of ancient ships, Cartagena forts, scale models of local waters, and historical information about the Colombian Navy. On the corner of Calle Ricuarte is the Claustro de Santa Teresa. Inside there is a small museum and the rooftop terrace provides great views of the historic city below.

 

El Convento de Santa Teresa: This monastery has experienced many changes since it was founded in 1609. Originally the structure was a convent for Carmelite nuns, later a charity hospital, poorhouse for women, a prison, a shelter for the troops in defense of the city under siege of Gaitán Obeso in 1885, and more recently it was converted into a beautiful boutique hotel.


Baluarte de San Ignacio: If we continue to walk north along the wall we pass by the white walls of Alcaldía de Cartagena and come to Baluarte de San Ignacio, which overlooks Plaza de las Armas. The name Plaza de Armas was given to the plaza in 1775 when the artillery corps established the parade grounds in this place.


El Bodegón de la Candelaria: This historic building houses a beautiful colonial interior and well preserved period furniture. 300 years ago, the building was an elegant residence of Father Fray Alonzo de la Cruz. Legend has it that he saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, and the result was that he later commissioned the construction of the mountain top Convento de la Popa.


Plaza de Bolivar: Heading east along Calle Teresa, then south on Calle de la Inquisición we come to Plaza de Bolivar, The Plaza was named after General Simon Bolivar, who liberated the country in 1811.  This is a very picturesque plaza with lots of trees and beautiful landscaping.  On the left side of the plaza is the Museo Palacio de la Inquisición .  The site served as a place to punish and torture non-catholics and about 800 individuals believed guilty of crimes such as black magic were killed there.  It now serves as a macabre, yet interesting museum showcasing torture equipment and other historical artifacts used at the time. The building is great example of late colonial civil architecture.

Entrance to Palacio de la Inquisición Museum photo by Eduardo Serje

Museo del Oro Zenú: On the east side of the Plaza de Bolívar is the Museo del Oro Zenú. The Museum is located in a well preserved colonial mansion and boasts priceless golden artifacts and offers an insight into the pre-Colombian Caribbean Zenú culture.

 

Fortunately plenty of the pre-Colombian Zenú gold and artifacts escaped the Spanish colonial plunder of the region and some of the best examples of intricate gold-work are showcased here. Displays explore the traditions of the Zenú and other tribes throughout the country focusing in particular on the traditional methods of burying their dead in mounds that resemble the stomachs of pregnant women. In addition the museum exhibits replicas of the advanced drainage systems the Zenú used to cultivate the lands to the north of the country.


Palacio de la Proclamacion: Next to the Museo del Oro Zenú is the Palacio de la Proclamacion. Originally the Plaza was called Plaza del Cabildo. Later is was renamed on the historic day of November 11, 1811, when the citizens of Cartagena gathered in the square in support of the declaration of independence of the State of Cartagena.


Catedral de Cartagena: >One block east of the Museo de Oro Zenú is the Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Santa Catalina de Alejandría (aka the Catedral de Cartagena). The Church, with its beautiful stone entrance, its high balconies, and cloisters and patios is one of the best examples of colonial Baroque architecture in the Americas.

Work on this majestic cathedral began in 1575 and was scheduled to be finished ten years later. However, in 1586, when it was almost completed, pirate Francis Drake attacked the city, and the cathedral was nearly destroyed. It was’t until 1612 that the rebuilding of the church was finally completed. Currently, the church is the Episcopal seat of the Archbishop of Cartagena de Indias, one of the oldest Episcopal seats in the Americas.


Plaza de Santo Domingo: Heading north from Cartagena Cathedral we come to the lively Plaza de Santo Domingo . The plaza is dominated by the white-washed facade of Convento de Santo Domingo, nicely accented by a Bolero sculpture and colored in between by several charming outdoor café style restaurants. Legend says that touching the breasts of Bolero’s portly “Gertrudis” and women will have long loving relationships.

The Bolero statue’s placement is interesting because it is meant to juxtapose the austerity and purity of the church’s teachings with the lavish and sinful lifestyle of the rich.

At night, the Plaza fills up with tables from surrounding bars and restaurants. This is one of the favorite corners of Cartagena, with popular restaurants, bars and cafés. This is a welcomed contrast to the historical function of the Plaza - in the seventeenth century it was used for executions during the Spanish Inquisition.

The Monastery of Santo Domingo, built in 1539, is the oldest in the Cartagena. It has a simple whitewashed coral stone interior, bare limestone pillars, a raised choir, and an adjacent cloistered seminary. Local lore says the bell tower's twisted profile is the work of the Devil, who, dispirited at having failed to destroy it, threw himself into the plaza's well.


Casa del Marqués de Valdehoyos: North of Santo Domingo at Calle de la Factoría we come to Casa del Marqués de Valdehoyos. In its day it was the largest house in Cartagena and originally belonged to the famous Marqués de Valdehoyos, who oversaw the importation of flour and slaves to the city. The abode stands out for its idyllic colonial style, original facade and color, its finely carved wooden windows and balcony and floors and ceilings. Today the building is used for cultural events, museum expositions, conferences and receptions.

In one of the rooms of this house Simón Bolivar is thought to have spent the night on his way to Santa Marta.


Teatro Heredia Adolfo Mejia: A short walk northeast of the Casa del Marqués de Valdehoyos we come to beautifully ornate Teatro Heredia Adolfo Mejia. The theater was constructed in 1911 to celebrate the centennial of the country’s independence, replacing the Iglesia de la Merced that once stood in the same location. The Theater, (named after the founder of Cartagena) is one of the most beautiful theaters in all the Americas.

Teatro Heredia Adolfo Mejia Eal Magro

Convento de San Augustin: Two blocks east is Calle de la Universidad is the Convent of San Agustín. Construction of the building was completed in the late sixteenth century. Visitors can admire the building's stunning original structures including its arches, retaining walls and the beautiful and prominent Florentine tower that adorns one side of its facade. Furthermore, inside there is a large garden and courtyard where you can enjoy a pleasant time in the company of friends or family. Today, and since 1827, the Convent of St. Augustine has housed the University of Cartagena, one of Colombia’s most important Universities.

From its chapel, now occupied by a printing press, the pirate Baron de Pointis stole an intricately worked sepulcher of solid silver which weighed approximately two hundred and fifty kilos. It was later returned by the King of France, who denounced the robbery as sacrilege. However, a little less than one hundred years later, the contested treasure was melted down by Cartagena’s own citizens in order to help finance the war of independence.


La Casa Museo de Simón Bolívar: One block along Calle de San Agustín is La Casa Museo de Simón Bolívar, which houses a collection of memorabilia and is the site where Simon Bolivar wrote the Cartagena Manifesto.


Santo Toribio de Mongrovejo: One block along Badillo (Carrera 7) is the church of Santo Toribio de Mongrovejo. Construction of this church began in 1666 under the name of Santo Tomás de Villanueva. The church exhibits a very interesting piece of history. During the attack on the city in 1741, a cannon ball fired by Admiral Vernon punched a hole in the church's wall and lodged itself in a stone pillar. Because none of the dozens of church attendees were hurt, the church felt divine intervention must have been at work. Eventually, the cannon ball was immortalized under its present glass case.


Plaza de las Bóvedas: Beyond Santa Clara is the Plaza de las Bóvedas. The arcade's walls are 15 meters thick and were originally designed as storage vaults but were instead used as prison cells during the civil wars in the 19th century; and at high tide, the unfortunate internees were up to their knees in seawater. The land has since been reclaimed so flooding no longer happens, which is nice since presently the site is a popular tourist attraction because of its traditional Colombian merchandise and great selection of souvenirs.


Castillo San Felipe de Barajas: Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas was named in honor of King Philip IV, king of Spain (originally called Castillo de San Lázaro). The fortress is one of the greatest and strongest fortresses ever built by the Spaniards in Colonial times. Construction began in 1536 on top of the San Lázaro hill. The location was highly strategic and dominated approaches to the city by land or sea. The guns of the castle commanded the whole bay, so that any suspicious vessel attempting to dock could be attacked - and yet still remained out of the range of ship fired artillery.

In 1697, during the War of the Grand Alliance, the castle fell to the French privateer Baron de Pointis. The castle was later repaired by José de Herrera y Sotomayor in 1739, and then in 1762 the fortification was expanded significantly. The result was an even more formidable and powerful bastion.

The outer part of the fortification consists of a series of walls, wide at the base and narrow toward the parapet, forming a formidable pattern of bunkers and cannon turrets. Inside, a complex system of tunnels connected strategic points of the fortress for underground galleries, gunpowder warehouses and a design that facilitated distribution of provisions and evacuation during an attack.

The tunnels were laid out in such a way that noises reverberated all the way along them, making it possible to hear the slightest sound of the approaching enemy's feet, and also making it easy for internal communication. Much of the network of tunnels is lit and are open to visitors – an eerie and fun tour not to be missed. In 1984, UNESCO listed the castle, along with the historic center of Cartagena, as a World Heritage Site.


Convento de la Popa: On a 150m-high hill, the highest point within the city limits and only a few km from the historic walled city is Convento de la Popa. Its name literally means the Convent of the Stern, after the hill's apparent similarity to a ship's back end. Legend has it that then Fray Alonso de la Cruz Paredes, a monk of the Order of Augustine, was in the desert section of Ráquira (Boyacá ), and received a vision of the Virgin Mary and so was inspired to erect the monastery near Cartagena.

Originally the monastery was called Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria. Initially, it was just a small wooden chapel, but was replaced by the version we have today when the hill was fortified two centuries later, just before Pablo Morillo's siege.

In the church is a beautiful image with a golden crown of the Virgin of La Candelaria, reputed as a deliverer from plague and a protector against pirates. The statue was blessed by the Pope on his visit in 1986. There is an attractive and beautiful flowery courtyard at the center of the building. In addition, there is a museum with illuminated manuscripts, old maps, books and religious relics. The panoramic views from atop the hill are outstanding – one can see the entire city of Cartagena, the Caribbean and much of the surrounding countryside.

Cerro de la Popa Cartagena Colomba Convent Museum

Rosario Islands

Located 35 kilometers south west of Cartagena, about 45 minutes by boat, this magnificent idyllic archipelago consists of 27 islands - some so small there is only room for one house. These coral islands were declared a national park and are one of the best places to visit in the Colombian Caribbean. The waters are so clear and pristine that coral reefs, countless fish, dolphins and sea turtles can be viewed right off the side of your boat.

Due to its beautifully intact ecosystem, the archipelago was declared a national park in 1977. Before it was a national park, local families from Cartagena used the islands to build vacation homes, and the government allowed them to retain rights to these homes as long as they pay a yearly “rent” and obey certain conservation rules to protect the environment of the islands. Even Pablo Escobar owned one of the Islands and built a lavish mansion on it.


St. Martin de Pajares: Most tours make a brief stop at St. Martin de Pajares to visit the Oceanario Aquarium. Here you relax as you watch a dolphin show, play with sea rays, laugh at the seals' playful performance, and admire the majestic sharks. Most people would consider the small island overcrowded and too touristy, but it's still worth a visit as part of the Rosario Islands Tour. Swimming is permitted in the crystal clear waters surrounding the island and not too far from the island are nice sites to scuba and snorkel.

Rosario Islands Aquarium photo by Carlos Andrés Restrepo Vergara

Barú and Play Blanca: Playa Blanca is a nice white sand beach surrounded by warm turquoise waters located on Cartagena's Isla Barú and is extremely popular with Colombians and international visitors alike. As part of an Island tour, this is a must-visit island. The only complaint we have of Playa Blanca is that the vendors there are more annoying and incessant than flies. However, we will do our best to keep them out of your hair as much as possible.

Isla Barú actually isn't an Island at all. Geographically it is a peninsula in the bay of Cartagena, which was isolated from the mainland some 400 years ago when the Spanish built the Canal del Dique to facilitate navigation between Cartagena and the Rio Magdalena. Not only does the peninsula have beautiful beaches, but it also holds several valuable mangrove ecosystems including Mohan, Pelao and Cholón.

 

The Rosario Ecosystem contains 5 of the 7 species of known mangroves. These mangrove forests are extremely important ecosystems to the surrounding Caribbean because within their roots many species of fish, crustaceans and mollusks find protection and food to develop in their early years. Mangroves also serve as a habitat for other plant and animal species, improves the water quality of the neighboring seas and helps to guard against beach erosion. Barú and several of the other Islands also contain important dry tropical forests ecosystems that are home to a number of plant and animal species.


Isla Grande: >As its name implies Isla Grande is the largest island of the Islas del Rosario archipelago. Besides being an idyllic Caribbean island, it contains three important characteristic island ecosystems, including coastal lagoons, mangroves and dry tropical forests. The majority of the island’s shoreline is covered with private homes but further inland there is a nice bird sanctuary and several hiking paths where visitors can learn about the unique dry tropical forest ecosystem. The island also contains brackish coastal lagoons that support many marine species of fish, crabs, shrimp, snails, and jellyfish and is a resting and feeding site for migratory birds.

Isla Grande photo by Lizz Giordano

Diving and Snorkeling the Rosario Islands: The beaches and Islands of the Rosario Archipelago are amazing and beautiful, but the magic of the “Archipiélago de Nuestra Señora del Rosario” national park happens below the surface of the water. El Parque Corales del Rosario has an important set of ecosystems that are inhabited by many species of coral and hundreds of species of marine animals. Few places around the world can compare to the spectacle of extraordinary beauty and species diversity of this national park. Among the best dive spots include Bancos de Salmedina, Bajo Burbujas, and the “submarine mountain," with a predominance of candlestick, feather, and black corals; the nearby banks of Ferrocemento, El Faro; Octubre Rojo, Pendales, and Isla Tesoro, at the north cliff; and to the south, El Aparecido and La Coca, where whip corals are common and the sea bottom is covered by lettuce corals.

Scuba Diving Parque Corales del Rosario Cartagena Colombia

Tolú and Islas de San Bernardo

Tolú:  La Villa Tres Veces Coronada de Santiago de Tolú” is a Colombian municipality located on the Caribbean coast facing the Gulf of Morrosquillo, in the department of Sucre. It’s leading tourism attractions include Playa del Francés located 20 minutes from the main town and the beach areas of La Caimanera, Puerto Viejo, Guacamaya, Alegría, and the nearby Islas de San Bernardo. The town is a great place to practice various water sports, including sailing, kite surfing and scuba diving – or just relax on the beach, drink some coconut water and enjoy fantastic fresh seafood.

 

Islas de San Bernardo: The San Bernardo Archipelago is located on the crystal clear waters of Golfo de Morrosquillo, just off the cost from the towns of Tolú and Coveñas. The Archipelago is composed of 10 small islands; Boquerón, Cabruna, Palma, Mangle, Panda, Ceicen, Tintipán, Islote, Múcura and Maravilla. The islands are part of the same national park system as Islas Rosarios (Parque Nacional Natural Corales del Rosario).


Isla Palma: This Island is famous for its excellent Aquarium and Ecological Park. On guided tours, you can learn a lot about the marine life of the Archipelago. Within the park you can view turtles, barracudas, flamingos, toucans, monkeys - even an ostrich. There is also a small museum with artifacts from old ships. The island itself is drop-dead gorgeous and surrounded by an amazing coral reef system.


Isla Múcura: This island is the largest of the San Bernardo Archipelago and is home to several nice resorts, some of the best beaches in the archipelago and is a great place for scuba-diving, wind surfing, kite-surfing and kayaking.


Tintipán: The island's biggest claim to fame is its extensive mangrove forests and the coral reefs that surrounding it. The mangroves form a series of labyrinthine channels that provide shelter to numerous species of fish, crabs, shrimp, snails, and jellyfish and are a resting and feeding refuge for migratory birds. A great way to explore the extensive network of mangroves is on one of our guided kayak tours.


El Islote: The Island is one of the more interesting islands of the San Bernardo archipelago. In a nutshell, it is the most densely populated piece of real-estate on the planet with a record density of over 1000 people living on one square hectare, 60% children, packed on top of less than one hectare of land. Based on the statistics, life on the “artificial” island would seem unbearable, but in reality this is a happy and healthy community of primarily fisherman of African descent – the island has schools, a hospital, pharmacy, shops, restaurants and even a small power plant.


Mompox

Mompox or Mompós, officially Santa Cruz de Mompox is a town of about 30,000 people located inland from the Gulf of Morrosquillo on an island delta where the Magdalena River joins the Cauca River.

 

Mompox is known for the preservation of its colonial architectural that features a combination of colonial, Spanish and indigenous architectural styles. Mompox’s history is inextricably linked with Colombia’s past, with many people here claiming that Colombian independence was achieved in Mompox, rather than Bogota. Bolivar himself once said “If to Caracas I owe my life, then to Mompox I owe my glory."

Calle Real del Medi is an important street that concentrates the most captivating architectural sites of Mompox. UNESCO designated the historic center of Mompox as a World Heritage Site in 1995. Few Colombians, however, seem to know about this place, and being on an island without any bridges reaching it makes it rather inaccessible which is one of the reasons the city retains much of its original colonial architecture.

In colonial times, the town was an important trade center thanks to the navigability of the Magdalena River and its remoteness from the Caribbean Sea, which enabled the city to remain free from the attacks of pirates and corsairs. Today, most of the colonial buildings are still used for their original purposes, which provides an excellent window of into the city's vibrant colonial past. The town is also well known of the excellent wrought iron work that decorates many of the doors, railings and window grills along the streets, notably on Calle de la Albarrada, Calle Real del Medio and Calle de Atrás.

There are several gorgeous colonial churches, of which the Iglesia de Santa Barbara (built 1613) is the most famous and most photographed site in Mompox. The church is unusual in that it has a Moorish-style tower with a balcony. Other important churches in the city include San Agustín (built 1606), San Juan de Dios and there is a museum of colonial art which displays many gilded colonial period religious works of art.

 

Arboletes

About a 3 ½ hour drive west of Tolu is the town of Arboletes. The town itself doesn't have much to offer. Its main draw is its Volcan de Lodo (mud volcano) that is located in San Jose de las Platas just outside of town. The mud density allows people to float and even swim on the surface. This place is visited by tourists from around the world, and the mud is renowned for its medicinal benefits. After the muddy wallop, visitors walk a short distance down to the beach and rinse off in the warm waters of the Caribbean.

Mud Volcano at Arboletes photo by Mauricio Agudelo

Gulf of Urabá

In Katía language, Urabá means "The Promised Land". The gulf is the department of Antioquia's primary access to the sea and beyond and the most important banana and plantain region of the country.

 

Culturally, the people on the shores of Urabà are a wide mixture of Afro-Colombians, Caucasians, and Mestizos (a mixture of all of the above). In addition, the area is home to indigenous populations of the Guna (Cuna) and Emberá Katíos. It is possible to visit their villages and learn about their beautiful handmade clothing, artwork and culture.


Acandí: This small fishing village located on the western side of Gulf of Urabà. The town is bordered by dense tropical jungles on one side, white-sand beaches and crystal clear turquoise waters on the other. The main economic activities of Acandí are agriculture, livestock raising, artisan fishing and tourism. The municipality also covers the tourism hub of Capurganá located near the border with Panama.

Every year in April, thousands of leatherback turtles come to lay their eggs on the beach. Because of the migration and nesting of the Hawksbill and the leatherback turtle, the Colombian government established Acandi Playona park. Both Hawksbill and the Leatherback turtle are considered some of the world’s most endangered species so the new park will go a long way in helping to preserve the species.

The communities near Acandi have adopted the Hawksbill turtle as the symbol of the region and its cultural, ecological and tourism-related heritage. Since 1993, awareness activities with the aim of conserving the species have been undertaken. That same year, the “Festival of the Hawksbill Turtle” was launched.

Acandi photo by Alejandro Valencia

Capurganá: The name Capurganá means the "land of chili" in the language of the indigenous Guna (Cuna) who lived in the region until the early 20th century. The town is small, less than 2,000 friendly inhabitants mostly dedicated to fishing, agriculture and tourism. Still considered one of the best-kept secrets, it is among the remotest and difficult to access areas in all of Colombia. This little village is a fascinating place - a glistening, untouched shoreline of crystal waters and coral reefs backed up against the virgin tropical rainforest of the Darién. It seems to be one of the last places on earth where its people, and even its visitors seek to live in harmony with nature - protecting and preserving her. At night, the jungles come alive with the sounds of frogs, insects and howler monkeys. Just as in Acandi, every April Leatherback and Hawksbill turtles arrive in droves to nest on its white-sand beaches.

Beaches: Bahia Aguacate, Soledad, La Caleta and Playa de Los Pescadores are four of the prettiest and most popular beaches near Capurganá. Aguacate is a great place to snorkel and kayak but Playa Soledad is considered the most attractive beach in the Gulf of Urabá. Just down the beach from Aguacate is La Piciana de Los Dioses. This is a ruggedly beautiful natural j formed by a wall of rocks blocking the force of incoming waves. If you like, y can climb down into the warm pool below with the help of a rope. Would be bathers must be careful; the coral rocks are here are slippery and very sharp.

Scuba Diving: Diving is also a very popular activity in Capurganá. There are over 70 places to enjoy fantastic diving near Capurganá. Some of the best spots include Cabo Tiburon, Punta del Faro and Bahia Sapzurro. Here the reefs are intact and sprawling with life, hosting a myriad of brightly-colored fish and other marine life. In addition, you are likely to see nurse sharks, moray ells, spotted eagle rays, Hawksbill turtles and dozens of species of coral, including unbroken Elkhorn and giant Brain Corals. There are several PADI certified dive operators in the village, and the best time to visit is between April and November when the sea is calmer and visibility at its best.

Horseback riding and Trekking:  A great day trip from Capurganá is to El Valley de Los Rios. Along the way, you will cross many sparkling clear rivers and beautiful waterfalls. The old-growth rainforests are full of wildlife, including sloths, several species of monkeys, hundreds of species of birds, and reptiles. In fact, the Darién is known to be one of the most biologically intense places on earth, so you are more likely to spot wildlife there than just about any other place on earth.

Acandi photo by Diego Cupolo

Sapzurro: This is the last Colombian village before the border with Panama. Sapzurro is a quiet but colorful village of about 1000 people. Located in the Darién, it’s the last outpost before Panama and Central America. Surrounded by coral reefs and the jungles of the Darien, there are no roads here, just narrow pathways that lead from house to house. Thus far it has no chain hotels, only a couple of outstanding little hostels and some good restaurants serving up home-cooked seafood. The bay is excellent for snorkeling and scuba diving, with a couple of underwater caves to explore.

 

From Sapzurro, you can make a day trip to the small village of La Miel over the border in Panama by walking for 20 minutes up the steep forested hill behind the village. This could qualify as the most relaxed border crossing in the world. You’ll need your passport - but they will not stamp it. The town of La Miel is nothing special, but the town's main beach, Playa Blanca, is spectacular. A picture-perfect strip of curving white sand and aquamarine waters teeming with tropical fish.


Santa Marta - Taganga - Tayrona National Park

Before Spanish Colonialists arrived, the indigenous Tayrona peoples occupied the land. They formed mid to large-sized population centers consisting of stone pathways, terraces, protected waterways, and spaces dedicated to agricultural produce. Their economy was primarily agrarian, cultivating corn, pineapple, yucca, and other local foodstuffs. The Tayrona were considered quite advanced for their time period.

Today, Santa Marta is the capital of the department of Magdalena and third largest urban city of the Caribbean Region of Colombia, after Barranquilla and Cartagena. Founded on July 29, 1525, by the Spanish conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas, it was the first Spanish settlement in Colombia, and is the oldest surviving city in that country, and second oldest in South America. The city sits alongside busy white-sand beaches with its back drop to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and its many historical locations. The city is a great place to visit and a jumping-off point to nearby Minca, Taganga, Tayrona National Park and Ciudad Perdida.

Santa Marta is an important commercial port and hub for culture, history and tourism. Large sections of the population are employed by the travel and tourism, biofuel manufacturing and transportation industries. Incidentally, the biofuel sector here is Colombia's largest.

Fairly recently, the Colombian government has also spent plenty of money to revamp the city’s parks and converting the streets into pedestrian-friendly zones. However, what the government started investing money into the city, and investors started coming in droves – pouring money into restaurateurs, hotels, real estate, bars and clubs. Investments have also been made to restore the city's charming colonial architecture.

Plaza de Bolívar:  Among the streets off Parque Simón Bolívar, visitors will find the picturesque whitewashed Santa Marta Cathedral, which claims to be South America’s oldest church, and many other historic sites including Casa de la Aduana and Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino. In addition, located here is Simon Bolivar Park, which contains a statue of the liberator himself and was a gift from the Government of Venezuela in 1953. Close to this park is the Santa Marta Bay and the Gold Museum.   

 

Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino:  On the city’s west side, this park was founded back in 1897 and is a great starting point for a tour of this fascinating city. The park has plenty of tall shade trees and benches to relax on, or have a picnic lunch on the grassy area at the parks center.

The early 17th century villa, once part of a plantation that produced rum, honey and panela, is where the Great Liberator, Simón Bolivar live out his last days. The villa still contains some of his personal belongings.   

 

Rodadero:  Rodadero is a popular area located in Santa Marta and is the most visited city's nearby beaches. Only 5 km from the city center this collection of white-sand beaches is a symbol of the city as it is nationally known as a high-quality beach and resort area. Lining the beaches, there are several high-end hotels and great restaurants serving fresh sea food and traditional Colombian cuisine.    


Taganga: A ten-minute drive up a narrow windy road and over a little mountain from Santa Marta puts you in what many believe is the most beautiful fishing villages in the Americas. This small town of about 4,000 or so very laid-back friendly souls is a favorite of back packers and has accommodations of all ranges – from expensive (but very nice Bahia Taganga), to several low cost (but very clean) hostels. The beach front is four blocks long with restaurants, hotels, dive shops, mini-super markets, bars, fruit and juice stands, and plenty of "relaxed" people selling handmade jewelry and souvenirs.   

The little town is still just a fishing village to many, (a little too gritty for others) but becoming more and more popular every day. It's a great place to party so at night is when this little town really shines. Like Santa Marta, it is also a jumping-off point for Ciudad Perdida and visits to Tayrona National Park, as well a nice diving location and an inexpensive place to become scuba certified.

Due to Taganga's unique location, it offers exceptional dive sites. Some of the best dive sites include Remanso and Punta Venado, which are ideal for beginner divers, and also is the nice place for doing night dives. The Granate is a well-protected bay near Tayrona National Park and offers deeper dives, and because it is well protected from trade winds, the waters tend to be very clear and support an incredible number of fish species. Lastly, La Pecera has an exuberance of hard coral and is often visited by Hawksbill turtles.

Other sports available from Taganga include mountain biking day trips into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, sea kayaking, kite and wind surfing, sport and artesian fishing and even paint-ball.

The waters of Taganga Bay are calm and warm and definitely invites a nice swim, but nicer beaches are nearby. Playa Grande is only a scenic 25-minute walk across the bluffs (the path behind Bahia Taganga Hotel). This is a nice hike with amazing views of Taganga Bay and Caribbean beyond (just try to pretend all the trash strewn about this trail does not exist). Another option is to take a 5-minute boat ride to Playa Grande.  

 

Bahía Concha:  This beach is even more beautiful than Playa Grande. From Taganga it's a bit far to walk, but inexpensive transportation to the beach is available. Because it's among the most beautiful beaches in the area, it's also one of the most crowded (especially on weekends). The snorkeling here is quite good so don't forget your snorkeling gear.


Tayrona National Park

The beaches of Tayrona National Park are the veritable poster child for a tropical Caribbean Beach paradise; thick forests teeming with wildlife, giant boulders, white and golden sands and protected bays that are perfect for soaking up the rays, swimming and snorkeling. Although the park is pristine and even seems primordial in places, it does have great tourism infrastructure, including well maintained nature trails, three camping sites complete with showers and bathrooms and several restaurants (serving nice cold beer).

Fauna:  TEl Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona is an incredibly rich natural habitat with an amazing diversity of flora and fauna. Among the 108 mammal species found in the park, you may encounter are five species of felines including Jaguar, Ocelot, Tigrillo and the Jaguarundí, several species of deer including two species of Red Broket, Agouti, Paca, Collared Peccary, Crab-Eating Fox, Giant Anteater, several species of primates including Spider Monkeys, Cotton-top Tamarin, Capuchin and Squirrel Monkey., among many others.

This area of Colombia is one of the best places in the world to bird watch. The park has 300 species of birds, including the Military Macaw, Montane Solitary Eagle, and the Lance-tailed Manakin. There are also approximately 31 species of reptiles, including Green Iguanas, Caiman, Basilisk, Coral Snakes, and the Boa Constrictors. Fifteen species of amphibians, and in the seas 202 species of sponges, 471 species of crustaceans, 700 species of molluscs, 110 species of corals and 401 species of sea and river fish.

Flora:  There are 350 algae species within the park, representing only part of the area’s total vegetation, which is considered the richest in the Colombia Caribbean by virtue of its 31 types of plants. As to terrestrial fauna, there are over 770 plant species, ranging from cacti to trees that may reach heights of 30 meters or more.

Ecosystems:   The terrestrial ecosystems that make up the park include the thorn scrub, dry, wet tropical and cloud forests. The park in addition has extensive river, stream and lake environments. Among the marine and coastal ecosystems are coral formations, sandy beaches, rocky shores, tidal pools, mangrove forests and sea grass beds.

Cañaveral Beach:  Just a 5 minute walk from the Tayrona parking drop off point, but in the opposite direction from the rest of the parks beaches is Cañaveral. The famous Ecohabs are located here (expensive, but most think worth the price). The rooms look like indigenous huts spread along the mountainside overlooking the Caribbean. In fact, many are quite luxurious. There is a nice restaurant and bar and many rooms have telephones, hot water and plasma TVs.

Arrecifes: From the entrance there a one-hour trek along a well-maintained path to Arrecifes. On the trail you are likely to see many different species of birds, including parrots and macaws, also reptiles, monkeys, including Howlers, Capuchins and Tamarin. Arrecifes itself is a gorgeous beach of light golden sands, drift wood, palm trees, spectacular huge rock formations, which have been shaped by rolling waves, and a small rocky island just off the beach the beach. Near the shore are warnings that swimming here is prohibited because many people have drowned due to the rough seas and strong rip-currents. Arrecifes has excellent camping facilities with nice showers, clean bathrooms, and great places to set up tents - both covered and under palm trees and stars. At night, the sound of the ocean is very relaxing. There is also an excellent, but a little overpriced restaurant that serves decent food and nice cold drinks.

Cabo San Juan: From Arrecifes, walking along the beach and passing through forests and groves of coconut palms and plantain trees, you arrive at Cabo San Juan. It is often the most crowded of Tayrona’s beaches for good reason - it is breathtakingly beautiful. Its huge boulder outcroppings offer great vantage points for photos and surveying the surrounding beaches and the turquoise Caribbean beyond. The beach area is large so if you want more solitude, just a few minutes from the main beach and you can avoid most of the crowds. Offered here is camping, bathroom and shower facilities, a restaurant and place to get something to drink.

La Picina: A 20-minute trek from Cabo San Juan through some nicely maintained zig-zagging shaded paths brings you to La Piscina. Its name literally means “the pool," and that is exactly what it looks like. It is gorgeous horseshoe-shaped cove sheltered behind a natural coral reef. There is a large span of narrow beach with lots of giant rocks to climb and explore. The gradual incline of sand into the sea makes for a great place to swim or take the kids without having to worry too much. When the conditions are right, it’s also a decent place to snorkel - so bring your own gear or rent from the people working on the beach. Some snacks may be available but otherwise best to pack your own food and water.

Pueblito: From the San Juan del Cabo beach, you can hike up to the village/ruins of Chairaima Pueblo via a rock-strewn path that takes 1-1.5 hours to reach the summit. You are not permitted to start the hike after 1 pm as it is dangerous to be on the path when it starts to get dark. You should allot for a 3-4-hour round-trip, including your visit to the ruins which, though small, are interesting to visit. The hike itself is part of the fun. After walking through the forest for about 1 km you will begin climbing very large rocks with smaller, sometimes uneven and unstable rocks in between. Many of the stones and rocks were placed by the Tayrona when Pueblo was inhabited to provide a safe and rapid way to travel to the coastline. It takes some balance and coordination to traverse the trail, especially when it is slippery after a rain, so try to have your hands free so you can get hand holds on branches and rocks before stepping.

Tayrona National Park is famous for its abundance of birds, reptiles and mammals, and one of the last places on earth to spot the endangered Cotton-Top Tamarin (Saguinus Oedipus). At only .5 kg, the animal is among the most diminutive off all primates so you must keep your eyes peeled to spot one. On the trail, you will see many species of birds, reptiles, and it's likely you will spot many Squirrel Monkeys as they scamper from branch to branch overhead.

This "mini Ciudad Perdida" is among the oldest indigenous established towns in the Americas, previously inhabited by the Tayrona's and later inherited by the Kogi. The two cultures have a long and beautiful history, but their legacy on the Caribbean coast ended tragically when they were brutally forced from their land and/or murdered by the Spaniards. After the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, the Tayrona tribal culture became completely extinct. The Kogis now sparsely inhabit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Most of the ancient village of Pueblito is now buried beneath dense jungle, but enough remains visible to imagine how it may once have looked and wonder what life was like more than 500 years ago. Because the ancient town sits at 500 meters above sea level, the air is a bit more comfortable than the steamy coast. The ruins contain at least 254 terraces and once supported a population of roughly 3000 people.


Minca

Minca is only a 30-minute drive from Santa Marta through the Sierra Nevadas de Santa Marta. At almost 2000 ft. above sea level, temperatures are cooler and more comfortable. The road getting there is a "little" rough but nevertheless, the incredible views of the mountains will help you ignore the jarring pot holes. Interestingly, the residents of Minca voted "not" to fix their road in order to preserve the peace and tranquility of their town. The town is still a hidden gem but once the road is fixed perhaps thousands more tourists will flock there to enjoy the place's magical beauty.   

 

El Pozo Azul: About 45 a minute walk beyond the village is El Pozo Azul, a local swimming spot with a beautiful waterfall. Not only is a very refreshing place for a swim (if not downright cold), the rocky ledges over the natural pools are great diving. On the weekends, you can often find locals jumping and somersaulting into the water from the 15 meter ledges (some are quite good). Long ago, El Pozo Azul was a sacred indigenous site where purification rituals were performed. On occasion, the site is still used by the Kogi people of the Sierra Nevada for that purpose.

 

Cascadas Marinka:  A walk to Las Cascadas is a beautiful start to any day. On the way there you pass along the river, walk among giant bamboo (or “Guadua”). Once there you can take a natural shower and swim in the pool beneath the falls.

 

Cascada Perdida:  Another gorgeous waterfall is Cascada Perdida. These falls are much more difficult to get to than Pozos Azul but they are much higher and majestic so its worth the effort. From the Minca Café you can rent inner tubes and a guide will march you along some very slippery but breathtakingly gorgeous rainforest paths; much of the journey takes you right into the river. Starting from the base of the waterfall, you can tube down through the rocks and rapids. This activity is exciting and great fun, but you can expect a few souvenir bumps and scrapes by the end of the trip.

 

La Victoria Coffee Finca:  20 minutes up the steep bumpy road to San Lorenzo you arrive at the 120-year-old La Victoria coffee finca (the oldest coffee farm in Colombia). The farm is a beautiful place, nestled between lush green and misty mountain slopes. Tours are offered where you can learn about coffee's fascinating journey from seed to sapling plant, the husking and roasting process, all the way to your favorite cup of steaming java - which they will happily serve you at the end of the tour.

 

Other Activities: Minca is also a great place to arrange for trekking tours into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, horseback riding, mountain biking and bird watching tours.


Ciudad Perdida (Lost City)

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve, is a triangle-shaped mountainous area that rises from the Colombian coastline to a snow-capped altitude of approximately 5700 m, all within just 20 miles of the Caribbean Sea.

Although the upper section of the Buritaca River is currently uninhabited, From A.D. 200 and until A.D. 1600-1650, the northern portion of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was inhabited by indigenous Tayrona. Archaeological research that has been going on since the 1920’s has uncovered 250 stone masonry towns spread out through a 3200 km2 area, of which, Ciudad Perdida is the largest and most impressive. Its size and complexity is the main reason it is believed to have been the center of political, social, and economic power throughout the region for the Tayrona Peoples. At one time, the ancient city was the heart of a network of smaller settlements along the ridges and valleys of the highest and most ecologically diverse coastal mountain range in the world.

Once the Spanish conquistadors invaded Colombian shores in the 1500's, Ciudad Perdida was abandoned by the Tayrona only a short time after. Besides constant attacks from the Spanish, the introduction of smallpox and syphilis dealt an even greater blow to the Tayrona Nation. The previously formidable city disappeared further up into the mountains and jungle quickly reclaimed and swallowed whole the once great city.

In 1975, the ancient city was accidentally discovered by “guaqueros” (grave robbers), the same people that were responsible for the destruction of many archeology sites throughout the Sierra Nevada, came across hundreds of stone steps that inevitably led them to the site deep in the jungle. Before that, members of local tribes—the Arhuaco, the Kogui's and the Asario regularly visited the ruins before it was widely discovered (but understandably they kept quiet about it).

After gold figurines from the city began to appear in the local black market, the Colombian Institute of Anthropology got wind of the discovery. Finally, in 1976, after 350 years hidden beneath a thick green blanket of jungle, the History-ICANH launched an expedition. Since then, they have been handling all research and conservation activities the site. After 30 years of research at the Park, archaeologists have located 250 structures covering an area of approximately thirty hectares (80 acres).

Ciudad Perdida lost city Colombia

Pure gold was the only metal that has been found in La Ciudad Perdida, and like the Incas after them, the Tayrona left no written records. Thus, it's still a mystery how they managed to carve all that stone from the mountain side. The structures include dwellings of various sizes, terraces, stone-lined paths and staircases, plazas, ceremonial and feasting areas, canals and storehouses. Well engineered bridges and drainage systems allowed the structures to withstand a variety of crumbling forces, including torrential tropical rains, the constantly encroaching jungle, and time itself.

Ciudad Perdida lost city colombia

La Guajira Peninsula

La Guajira is a land of pristine desert landscapes, orange canyons reflecting into turquoise Caribbean waters, rare flora and fauna, fresh seafood, delicious goat meat dishes, and rich cultural encounters with indigenous people. This unique desert landscape is located in the northeast region of the country, facing the Caribbean and Venezuela in the northernmost part of South America.

Cabo de la Vela with its beautiful beaches and aqua marine waters, Punta Gallinas with its extraordinary landscapes, Taroa Dunes and La Serrania de la Macuira where you can go on nature treks and view the unique and plentiful flora and fauna of the region, and enjoying sleeping under an amazing blanket of sparkling stars. Visitors can meet with the Wayuu and appreciate their quality hand-made arts and crafts such as vibrant and colorful hammocks and bags (Mochas). You can stay within their communities called and to experience a more primitive way of life.

A journey through the region requires navigating very bumpy dirt roads and rough terrain where roads don't even exist. The rutted journey and isolation from the modern world are among the biggest reasons why this emerging eco-tourism destination is not as popular as Cartagena or the Coffee Region. La Guajira is for those who seek adventure and cultural authenticity, for those who want to take the "road less traveled", don't mind being a little cut off from the rest of civilization, and for those who don’t mind a little effort (and dust) to get to someplace very special. Expect the days to be windy with average temperatures around 32 C (90 f).

The Department of La Guajira contains the largest population of indigenous peoples in Colombia. Deep cultural roots of the Wayuu peoples are very prominent near the municipalities of Uribia (95.9%), Manaure (88.2%), and Maicao (40.1%) having the highest concentrations. In addition to the Wayuu, various other indigenous tribes once populated the vast arid plains, including Guajiros, Macuiros, Anates, Wayunaiki, Cuanaos and Eneales prior to the Spanish arrival to the Americas.

The Wayúu began to inhabit the Guajira peninsula 200 years before the Spanish arrived. They are strong, fiercely independent and were never subjugated despite great efforts by Spanish Conquistadors. Even today they enjoy a fair amount of autonomy from the Colombian government. The Wayúu are one of the more homogeneous and least acculturated ethnic groups in Colombia. Nevertheless, they adopted customs of various occupiers, traded pearls, learned to use fire arms to protect themselves and made a good living fishing, raising goats, and smuggling contraband from nearby Venezuela.

The people of the La Guajira have been mostly influenced by the traditions of the Wayúu culture, European culture, mainly through Roman Catholic traditions, Afro-Colombian and since the mid-20th Century from Middle Eastern cultures, including Islamic traditions. There is also a great influence from Venezuela (especially relating to contraband merchandise) because they share a long common border.

When you travel to Cabo de la Vela you will find women wearing colorful frocks and faces painted black to protect them from the tropical sun. The Wayúu have their own religious belief based on important deities, and for them, life does not end with death – the soul is eternally present. Funerals and wakes are of great importance, in which hundreds of Wayúu gather to accompany relatives.

Today the Wayúu of northern La Guajira live in small settlements called "rancherias" which consist of five or six houses. Here, they are able to preserve a way life that has been passed down through the generations. Culturally, the Wayúu are primarily matriarchal, where the women hold the most esteemed positions in the family group and often regarded as cultural leaders as well. Wayúu children even carry their mother's last name.

Wayúu mothers teach their daughters the fine art of weaving and crocheting, keeping their traditions alive and vibrant as ever. To the Wayuu, the art of weaving is a symbol of intelligence, creativity and wisdom. Legend has it that their art comes from "Wale´kerü", a spider that long ago first taught a women to weave creative patterns. Each design incorporated into everything they weave is original and tells a story through the bag's colors, patterns and shapes. Weavers work with thoughtful precision to make sure everything they create is a strong representation of Wayúu culture.

The Wayúu economy is primarily based on raising livestock like goats and sheep, but many work in the coal mines of Cerrejon and salt mines of Manaure. Others make a living fishing, and an increasing number are finding work in tourism. Even with their other work, women still spend much of their time crafting their world-famous hammocks, backpacks (mochilas), bucket bags and ornaments such as bracelets and necklaces. One Mochila can take up to a full month to complete.

Cuisine of La Guajira Peninsula is primarily stems from the cultural traditions of the Wayúu, which is based on local fauna and flora, as well as some influence from Spanish and Caribbean cuisine. The most representative of the Guajira cuisine is the Friche; a fried or stewed goat seasoned with salt with its own blood and entrails. Rice with shrimp is a common staple along with the more exotic but delicious Iguana stew with coconut milk. Dishes unique to La Guajira include deer and Capybara cooked in a variety of ways and usually served with rice, in soup or stewed. The Wayúu use the fruit of the Iguaraya cactus for making juice and making a type of wine.

The Santuario de Flora y Fauna los Flamencos(Flamingos Fauna and Flora Sanctuary)  is located on the coastline between the village of Camarones and the Tapias River, roughly a 2.5 hours from Santa Marta and a 45-minute drive from Riohacha. The park covers 70 km². The area has four lagoons; Manzanillo, Navío Quebrado, Tocoromanes and Laguna Grande, several rivers and streams which serve as habitat to flamingos and numerous other endemic species, all separated from the Caribbean by a sand bar,

 

The Sanctuary is the ideal place for getting closer to the colorful Wayúu culture and doing some amazing bird watching. The sheer number of flamingos in the sanctuary is mind boggling. There are so many that when they all take to the blue skies at once it looks like a beautiful pink shimmering sunset. The best time to visit the Park is October and November when the flamingos migrate there in plentiful numbers and can be approached more easily.

 

Here on the wide coastal desert plain, salty and brackish lagoons spread out for kilometers in every direction. The elegant birds and their exotic tower-shaped mud nests are the main attraction of the region, but the flamingos share the shallow waters with numerous other birds, including herons, Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets, Scarlet and White Ibis, and many other bird species.


Riohacha is located 160 km east of Santa Marta. Founded by conquistador Nikolaus Federmann in 1535, the city was named after a local legend "The legend of the Axe." Owing to the powerful rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the area is mostly desert predominantly inhabited by the Wayúu ethnic group. Riohacha was formally a port town that became rich because of the vast numbers of peals discovered just off the coast.

Today the town is famous for its invention of one of Colombia’s most popular musical forms, Vallenato. Other than that, Riohacha has little offer beyond strolling through Paseo de la Marina (aka Malecón Riohacha), a nice waterfront promenade fringed with palm trees, street vendors selling a multitude of colorful handmade crafts like hammocks and mochilas, and bordered by the white sand beaches of the Caribbean. However, the town is an excellent starting point for excursions into the rugged and beautiful countryside of the La Guajira Peninsula.


Salinas de Manaure: The town and Salt Mines are located about 53 km outside Riohacha (but takes almost 2 hours because of road conditions) you come to the little waterfront village of Manaure, home to the most important salt mine in Colombia. Salt has been mined from the flats of La Novia Blanca (Manaure’s other name) since before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. More than 700,000 tonnes of salt are mined across 4200 hectares of salt flats. Here is an excellent place to view the contrast between the age-old artesian mining method's of the indigenous Wayuu and the modern-day extraction methods done by gigantic mining machinery.

Besides the Salt Mines, near Manaure are several beautiful beaches that are a nice place relax in the tropical sun, or visit the nearby salt water lagoons that are excellent places to view pink flamingos and waterfowl feeding in the shallow waters.


Uribia: All roads heading north, to the primary tourism locations of La Guajira, must go through Uribia. This is a small 100 year old city with a population of less than 120,000 people (96% are Wayúu) and is the cultural center of the Wayuu people.

The Festival de Cultural Wayúu is a big event in the region, with participants arriving from all over La Guajira and Venezuela, in addition to thousands of international tourists. The Festival is held in the last week of May and highlights many aspects of Wayúu traditions and culture. The townspeople start coming out on the weekends two weeks before the Festival to get dressed up in native costumes, dance through the streets and play music on traditional instruments.

In Uribia’s plaza, three-sided huts called enramadas exhibit weaving, traditional artwork and crafts and serve traditional cuisine. After sunset competitive dances are performed that signify socially or spiritually important occasions. Contestants compete against one another in jayeishi, a singing poem that relates various aspects of the Wayúu culture and history. They also dance to the sounds of traditional instruments like the kasha (a type of drum) and washawai (a small flute-like instrument that imitates bird song). The main event of the festival is the election of Majayut, or golden queen) The young girl must demonstrate a profound knowledge of the Wayúu people and their culture in order to be crowned.

 

Although Uribia has much to offer in the way of culture, shopping for beautiful crafts and great food, we must warn that in places there is a great deal of trash thrown about. Apparently, it is not important to the city's residents to pick up the trash or to use appropriate waste receptacles when disposing of their garbage (so when in Uribia please lead by example).


Cabo de la Vela: The most popular destination in La Guajira is Cabo de la Vela, documented as the first point in the South American continent where a European set foot (the credit goes to Alonso de Ojeda back in 1499). Cabo de la Vela is truly an off-the-beaten-track destination and is the reason it is one of our Trailblazer destinations. The most beautiful places at Cabo de la Vela are “Pilon de Azúcar," a small peak from where you will see stunning views of the region, and “Ojo de Agua” a very nice beach to relax, enjoy the spectacular landscape and take a refreshing swim in the Caribbean sea.

The road to Cabo de la Vela crosses the Ahuyama desert requires strong sense of adventure and is not those with back issues or anything that a very bumpy road will aggravate. Initially there is a road that runs parallel with a set of train tracks, but the last 17 km is relentlessly rugged and even hair raising at times. The barren cactus-lined sand and gravel stretches will remind you of traveling through the deserts of Africa or perhaps the deep Australian outback. We strongly advise that you not book this trip in the rainy season (September-October) because much of the path is poorly drained and so becomes much more difficult to traverse.

The road to Cabo de la Vela crosses the Ahuyama desert and requires a strong sense of adventure and is not for those with back issues or anything that a very bumpy ride will aggravate. Initially, there is a road that runs parallel to a set of train tracks, but the last 17 km is relentlessly rugged and even hair raising at times. The barren cactus-lined sand and gravel stretches will remind you of traveling through the deserts of Africa or perhaps the deep Australian outback. It is best not to book this trip in the rainy season (September-October) because much of the path is poorly drained and so becomes much more difficult to traverse.

Popular Locations:  The best places to visit near Cabo include Hoyos Sopladores (beach blow holes) and Ojo de Agua, a very nice beach with a natural pool and caves to explore. Nearby is Pilón de Azúcar, a triangular shaped rock rising out of an otherwise flat landscape. The site is considered sacred to the Wayúu and it’s a great vantage point to get stunning views of the region. Between Cabo de la Vela and El Pilón de Azúcar is Laguna de Utta. This is a seldom visited and very pristine place where you can view multitudes of water fowl, including Flamingos, Heron and Sandpipers, along with a vast diversity of other bird species. If you desire to visit any of these locations on foot, it's best to set out early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat. Pack plenty of water and snacks with you.

 

The Parque Ecológico Jepirachi wind farm, which belongs to the Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), has 15 wind turbines with mammoth 30 meters blades, each producing 1.3 MW each. The Park has a visitor center, various paths and a beautiful botanical garden. At the location, you can learn about one of the largest windmill farms in the world, generating almost 20 megawatts and satisfying a significant amount of Colombia’s electrical needs. The sight of these jumbo wind turbines on flat barren land, reeling their giant blades set against clear azure skies should not be missed.

 

Rancheria de Utta is an eco lodge is operated by a Wayuu family. The little ranch helps support the local traditions and economy by offering for sale a number of Wayuu crafts such as handcrafted Chinchorro (hammocks), mochilas (bag) and manilla (bracelets). Here you can take tours and watch demonstrations that provide an insight into the origins of their beliefs and culture. The ranch serves tasty traditional Wayúu cuisine consisting of daily caught lobster, crab and fish. Furthermore, you can sample more exotic but very typical dishes of the region that incorporate goat, iguana, and lizard meats. The ranch’s generator delivers electricity to a number of Cabañas, complete with beds and private showers. You can also choose to sleep under amazingly bright stars in a traditional hammock, and shower like a Wayuu if you choose, using a bucket of clean water and a ladle for pouring water.

 

Aquatic Sports:  The most popular activities in Cabo de Vela is just relaxing in the sun, swimming in the warm turquoise Caribbean Waters and eating fresh seafood, but there are several more exciting activities available on the peninsula. The North side of Cabo de Vela, towards El Faro (the Light House) has crystal clear waters and a nice coral reef so it’s the perfect place for snorkeling. The waters are warm and the reefs are full of colorful fish and other marine life. Several companies rent snorkeling gear if you didn't bring your own.

 

Because of the desert climate, the Guajira area gets thermal winds year-round, providing it with over 360 days of sail-able wind. Thus it’s one of the best places in the world for windsurfing, kite-surfing and sailing. Although the area is sparsely populated, there are several companies that cater to wind-lovers. You can rent sail boats, kite and windsurfing equipment, take lessons, and there are even windsurfing camps for kids. There are also companies that charter sailing trips to several beautiful locations around northern La Guajira.


Punto Gallinas is the northernmost point in South America and located approximately 75km north of Cabo de la Vela. This place features one of the most dazzling landscapes in South America. Because Punta Gallinas is surrounded by sand dunes, it can only be accessed by boat, usually by passing through Bahia Hondita, a picturesque bay with translucent waters stretching several km’s out to sea. Except for a few hundred ethnic Wayuu scattered across the peninsula, there is little in the way of human occupation; however, you will find multitudes of pink flamingos, dazzling emerald waters, 60 m tall golden sand dunes that fall into the sea, and incredible tranquility and natural beauty.


Serranía de Macuira Parque Nacional:  Nazareth , a small town of about 7,000, serves as the gateway into Parque Nacional Natural Macuira, a unique biological oasis complete with cloud forests surrounded by arid desert landscape. Serrania de Macuira is isolated from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the eastern Colombian andes. The reserve spans 25,000 hectares and consists of three heavily forested mountain ranges.

 

The Park supports an incredibly diversity of flora and fauna. Among the species found in the park include monkeys, Ocelot, several species of deer, rabbit, skunk, 114 species of bird (22 are endemic -including the Gucharaca) and 15 species of snake, including the Coral Snake.

 

The flora of the park includes 350 species including ferns many species of bromeliads. Moisture comes mainly from the northeast, which forms clouds in the evening that disperse in the early morning, and thus many of the plants have evolved ways to remove this moister directly from the air. There are several activities available in the park including trekking, horseback riding, bird watching, nature trekking and mountain bike riding.