Cartagena is located on the gorgeous Caribbean coast of Colombia. From the city and her surrounds you can visit some stunning cultural locations – amazing beaches and pristine tropical escapes. Explore the striking region from Cartagena, find a perfect beach, an island escape or explore more of the culture and history of the area. Even take a little longer and hike to lost worlds, all within easy reach of Cartagena. You’ll find the best day trips from Cartagena here, from our own list and the advice of seasoned travellers who recommend their favourite trips to take from Cartagena.
How to Visit Palenque from Cartagena
Palenque, or more correctly San Basilio de Palenque, is one of the first freed slave cities in the Americas. However, many of the inhabitants remain very poor in this site of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Here you’ll find a wealth of history and customs that have shaped the area.
The Palenque Fruit ladies that you’ll see walking around Cartagena hail from here and its well worth a visit to take a guided tour and understand more about the history and culture.
Visiting Tayrona as a Day Trip from Cartagena
Elisa from France Bucket List recommends visiting Tayrona National Park to relax and explore the region.
Parque Nacional de Tayrona is a national park located in the north of Colombia, on the Caribbean Coast. This park, nestled between the ocean and the mountain chain of Sierra Nevada, has accommodation and activities for every budget so it’s impossible not to have a great time in Tayrona.
Tayrona is usually visited during a day trip from Santa Marta but a side trip to Tayrona from Cartagena de Indias is also possible, perhaps starting earlier in the morning. People looking for a relaxing day will choose a nice corner on the beach, perhaps close to a beach bar or juice stall, while more adventurous people will opt for one of Tayrona’s beautiful hikes through the jungle.
Visitors without time to do the fantastic 3-4 day trek to the archaeological site of La Ciudad Perdida have the opportunity to get a glimpse of the Tayrona culture in the small village of Pueblito, located inside the boundaries of the park. Pueblito is like a small version of Ciudad Perdida, with more than 200 terraces and some archaeological remains, and is not that far from the coast but visitors need to climb a steep path to reach the village.
Bathing is possible in Tayrona but not everywhere as in some places the currents are too strong, with fatal accidents in the past. However, the park has clear signs of places safe to bath and places where bathing is forbidden.
Tayrona is located 250 km northeast of Cartagena. There is a bus service connecting Cartagena to Tayrona (4hr 39 min, twice daily) but we recommend traveling by car. > Book your transfer now and save!
The Mud Volcano of El Totumo
You’ll find this tour in every hostel and on the advertising board of every tour company in Cartagena. This 15 metre high “volcano” is accessed via the Santa Catalina area of Colombia towards Baranquilla and once you arrive you’ll enter El Totumo via a staircase. Sink into the skin temperature mud along with a heap of other people and “enjoy” the apparently health giving qualities that the mud is coating your skin with.
You’ll want to be wearing your swim clothes and bring a change of clothes. Each additional extra – like getting clean and having photos taken will cost you extra, although the local ladies who will scrub you clean in the nearby lagoon appear to enjoy their job.
Leave Cartagena’s crowds behind and visit Palomino
Barbara from Travel Gear for Kids recommends heading out of the city and finding the chill village of Palomino.
As beautiful as Cartagena is, the beaches are nothing to write home about. And although the surrounding islands do have stunning coastlines, they are so overrun with tourists that you will hardly get that relaxing beach vibe.
Fortunately, about 6 hours away lies the very chill village of Palomino (take the Marsol bus for the shortest trip, otherwise you have to transfer in Santa Marta). In fact it is hardly more than a dirt road lined with charming hostels, cozy restaurants, sheds filled with handicrafts and little stores.
The journey is too long to consider this a day trip, but it is perfect as an overnight stay. Palomino is a great place to escape Cartagena’s heat as well. To be fair, it is still hot, but a lot less sticky and sweaty than the colonial city.
The main attraction of Palomino is evidently the beach, which isn’t particularly tropical – no clear blue waters and white sand – but has a large stretch of sand and enough space to accommodate everyone and still get the desolate feeling – even in high season. The other big attraction in town is tubing on the Río Palomino, where you float through the jungle until you arrive at the beach. If you choose to stay longer, it’s a great starting point for visits to the Peninsula de la Guajira and Tayrona NP.
Explore La Boquilla from Cartagena
If you’re looking for something a little different to Cartagena, then head to La Boquilla and explore the nature of the mangrove swamps there. La Boquilla is a small seaside fishing village found on the outskirts of Cartagena. It’s a basic village, but full of authentic charm and character, with its beach preferred by locals to others in the area. A tour in a wooden canoe will take you out to the mangrove swamps to explore and find animals and birds of the area. Be sure to make time for local freshly caught fish and the local rice with coconut dish.
Explore the Beautiful Caribbean Rosario Islands from Cartagena
One of favourite day trips from Cartagena for Nomadic Boys, Stefan and Sebastien is to the beautiful Caribbean Rosario islands. You can read more about their explorations in their Cartagena Gay Guide.
The Rosario islands are an archipelago, which was declared a national park in 1988 to protect one of the most important coral reefs of the Colombian Caribbean coast. The two largest islands are Isla Grande and Isla Del Rosario which are also the main transport hubs with hotels and restaurants.
The Rosario is located around 100km from Cartagena and takes around 1-2 hours to reach it by boat. As such it can easily be visited as part of a day trip. It’s the perfect places to come to find secluded white sandy beaches and of course to enjoy the warm Caribbean waters. The coral is very much alive, which also makes it ideal for snorkelling. You can book a private speedboat trip to the Rosario Islands now!
One of our favourite discoveries on the beaches of the Rosario Islands is the infamous “Coco Loco” cocktail. This is a Colombian cocktail, meaning ‘crazy coconut’, which is rum mixed with the coconut water. You can find lots of locals only too happy to sell you a few Coco Locos in the Rosario Islands. It’s definitely one of the coolest beach cocktails we’ve ever had!
Explore Santa Marta from Cartagena
Elena Tchijov of Traveling Bytes recommends you take a trip to Santa Marta – South America’s oldest European founded city!
Santa Marta is known for being a starting point for trips into the Tayrona National Natural Park and for guided treks to the Lost City. However, in its glory days, it was a busy port and the first Spanish settlement in Colombia. It is also South America’s oldest European-founded city.
During the past decade, Santa Marta has been trying to revive its historic centre. Some parts of the old town look nicer than others, but overall, it has the captivating character and charisma. The ideal location to start exploring this charming colonial city is the Parque de Los Novios.
The park runs along the water and has an indisputable European touch. Street performers come to entertain on Friday and Saturday nights. Adjacent streets are full of great restaurants and bars. The best cazuela de mariscos (seafood stew) I ever tasted was in Santa Marta.
The old town is a fascinating mix of restored historic buildings and a colourful albeit rundown narrow streets. The Santa Marta Cathedral is a beautiful example of colonial architecture.
The history of Santa Marta is intimately connected with the life of Simon Bolívar, who died there in 1830. Casa de la Aduana (Customs House) had been meticulously restored and is the home of impressive Museo Del Oro (the Gold Museum). The ground floor explains the history of metalwork in the Sierra Nevada. The upstairs is a tribute to Bolívar with a detailed narrative of his life story.
A short bus ride away, the Bolivar’s theme continues in the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino in the outskirts of the city. The estate, built in the early 17th century, was the place where the revolutionary leader spent his last days. There are several monuments and a museum commemorating Bolívar. The Jardín Botánico is filled with iguanas vying for a photoshoot.
Take a Day Trip to Playa Blanca from Cartagena
At around an hour’s drive from Cartagena this the most picturesque beach you’ll find close to Cartagena. You’ll find a long white sandy beach, turquoise water and vendors ready to provide snacks and drinks all day. Want fresh seafood? Another cold beer? Just look up and you’ll find it. Although most people visit for the day there are inexpensive hostels here and the beach quietens down after the day trippers leave, so get a steal on the next morning’s beach life and stay a little longer!
Explore Minca’s Nature, Coffee and Chocolate
Minca is recommended by Daniel of Layer Culture – most especially if you have an interest in nature, biosphere reserves and coffee!
When in Cartagena looking for a day trip or things to do close by, Minca should defiantly be on that list. Minca, located in the northern highlands of Colombia holds a very special place for anyone interesting in visiting biosphere reserves, national parks and other protected areas.
In less than one day you can really get a feel for the surrounding of this small village that can be explored in 10-15 minutes. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to visit one of the many delights of this small village. It is known that Minca is one of the best places in the area to visit local farms and learn about organic coffee and chocolate production.
Minca has become more accessible over the years for travellers and backpackers, and by travelling from Cartagena to Santa Marta you just need to get a small shuttle from the market area which leaves very frequently and you’ll arrive at the village in around 45 minutes.
Trek La Ciudad Perdida – the Lost City Trek
We’re seriously glad that Claire Sturzaker from Tales of a Backpacker is writing about the Lost City Trek, we really wanted to, but the humidity of the region just beat us down. However, reading what Clare has to say, I’m almost convinced to go back now!
La Ciudad Perdida or Lost City Trek is one of the best adventures to have in Colombia. The Teyuna people built the city deep in the forest around 800 AD (approximately 650 years before Machu Picchu was built!) but the city was abandoned during the Spanish conquest. The city was ‘lost’ to all outsiders for hundreds of years until it was finally rediscovered in 1972 by accident when some local treasure hunters stumbled across the stone steps leading through the jungle up to the city.
The Lost City Trek takes 4 or 5 days through the jungle, so make sure you have enough time spare to finish. Although the hike is quite challenging, the reward is definitely worth the effort! You will need to arrange the trek through a local company based in Santa Marta, which is about 5 hours’ drive from Cartagena. Some of the tour companies have indigenous guides, descended from the Teyuna people who can teach you all about their culture and traditions along the route. The trek to the Lost City is three days hiking up and down mountains, through the jungle and across rivers, to finally reach the ruins of an ancient city, hidden for centuries in the forest. On the last days of the hike, you retrace your steps along the same route back to the starting point.
Boat Trip through the San Blas Islands
Our final recommendation for trips from Cartagena comes from Katie Diederichs of Two Wandering Soles and is the perfect way to either arrive or depart from Cartagena – by taking a boat trip through the San Blas Islands.
Situated on the Caribbean Coast, Cartagena makes a perfect jumping off point for endless tropical adventures. But if you want to experience true paradise, set your sights on exploring the San Blas Islands. In fact, you might recognize these tiny idyllic islands, as a few of them were used as one of Microsoft’s original desktop wallpapers.
This archipelago off the coast of Panama is best visited on a multi-day sailing or boat trip, beginning in either Cartagena or Panama City, and ending in the opposite. You’ll eat fresh seafood, swim in the clearest waters you’ve ever seen, drink rum on the beach, and meet the indigenous Kuna people who call these islands home.
If you’re planning on traveling in both Central and South American, your only options for crossing between the 2 continents is by plane or boat. An undeveloped stretch of swampland and mountainous rainforest, called The Darién Gap, lies between Panama and Colombia and makes it virtually impossible to cross between the two countries by land. Taking a flight is quicker, but you’ll miss out on an adventure of a lifetime – one that will undoubtedly be a highlight of your travels in this region!
The Best Things to do Near Cartagena
We hope we’ve given you a great list of things to do near Cartagena and some ideas of how and where to spend time close to the city. Did we miss your favourite place? Or do you recommend other spots in the region? Let us know – and don’t forget to check out the great supporting articles from our fellow travellers who helped us put together this article on the top day trips from Cartagena!