Once in Cartagena’s Old Town, I fell in love with the colorful Colonial architecture, tropical climate and savory street snacks. That being said, what I loved even more was the destination’s proximity to a plethora of great experiences beyond the city.
To help you plan your trip, here are three amazing day trips from Cartagena, Colombia.
Homebase: El Viajero Hostel Cartagena
Located in Cartagena’s Old Town, filled with rainbow colored mostly-Colonial buildings inside the city’s historic protective old walls (Las Murallas) — El Viajero Hostel lays a great foundation for a social stay in the city. Along with being one of the only hostels to offer both free breakfast (toast, jam, cereal, fruit and juice) and Wi-Fi, there’s a communal kitchen for saving money on food, onsite bar, TV lounge, cheap bike rentals and an excursion booking desk to help you visit places like Tayrona National Park, Rosario Islands, Playa Blanca, Barú and El Totumo Volcano. One of the biggest draws to this hostel is the fact that all rooms — both private and dorms — have air conditioning, a must when staying in the humid Cartagena. I also loved their nightly activities, like salsa classes, language lessons and live music.
1. Tayrona National Park
If you have a few extra days in Cartagena, allot three of them to making the trip to Tayrona National Park. To get there you can take a shuttle with Sanmar to Santa Marta. Tickets can be purchased straight from El Viajero Hostel for 42,000 Colombian Pesos (about $21 USD), and the journey is about four hours total. You’ll spend one night there — I recommend Masaya Hostel Santa Marta — before getting up early to head to Tayrona the next morning.
What makes Tayrona National Park so special? For one, its mix of landscapes. After hiking through the jungle you’ll camp on a white-sand beach — most visitors opt for Cabo San Juan — and maybe enjoy some boulder hiking to an indigenous village. Days are spent trekking, snorkeling and diving azure waters in search of tropical fish, while nights include beers at a beach bar and games of Man Hunt in the sand. Once its time for sleep, rock yourself in an aerial hammock overlooking the water, the crashing waves singing a paradisaical lullaby.
2. El Totumo Volcano
Located about an hour from Cartagena is El Totumo Volcano. What’s important to keep in mind is this isn’t a lava volcano, but a curative mud volcano featuring 51 different minerals that help with skin and hair. You’ll climb up the giant ant hill-like volcano to be standing above a 15-meter (49-foot) deep volcano tub. Descend down a slimy staircase as your camera man (additional charge) takes fun photos, and plop into a creamy mud pit. If you’ve ever been to the Dead Sea, it’s the same idea where you’re uber buoyant and may find it difficult to keep control of your legs (which also makes for some laughs).
There are a number of extra services also available, like a 10-minute mud massage in the volcano (a bit awkward with 50 onlookers, but relaxing), photo taking (10-15 photos, highly recommended) and a relaxing mud washing, each for for 3,000 COP (about $1.50 USD). My guide for the experience was Ruta Ecologica, who charged $50,000 COP (about $25) for a tour from 9am to 2:30pm, including lunch and swimming on a beach.
A note for solo travelers: it is easy to make friends on this social trip, especially as everyone acts silly and lets their guard down as they cover themselves with mud.
While you could do this trip without a guide, it’s a bit tricky to navigate the bus system as there is no direct route.
3. The Ecological Route
I did this tour as an addition to the above-mentioned Totumo Volcano trip, which really adds some perspective to the local land. After lunch I boarded a canoe to be guided around Colombia’s lush Portonaito mangroves, a (sub)tropical plant that grows in saline swamp areas. The water we paddled through was called Cienaga de la Virgen, home to crabs, mollusks, small fish and a variety of colorful bird species. Enjoy the tranquility of the canals, learning about ancient Colombian cultures at an al fresco museum featuring replica artifacts (including some very graphic sexual statues) and paddle through non-touristy Cartagena neighborhoods.
Note: My guide only spoke Spanish for this portion, so if you don’t make sure to inquire ahead of time if you can get an English-speaking guide. Even if you can’t, the scenery is beautiful. Just make sure to bring A LOT of bug spray!