Aug 10

5 Amazing Day-Trips from Cartagena

San Basilio de Palenque

La versión de este post en castellano aquí: “5 escapes de un dia desde Cartagena”

Let me start of by saying this: I love visiting Cartagena. Sure, it’s busy and there are a few too many street vendors hawking questionable souvenirs, but the so-called ‘Jewel of the Indies’ is a magical place to visit on any trip to Colombia.

However, even the most romantic Garcia-Marquez-ophile (NB. Not a real word) needs a bit of respite from wandering the cobbled streets of the walled city. If you’re planning a 3-day visit to the city, for example, it might be worth considering taking a day-trip from Cartagena to explore the surrounding sights of the region.

So here are 5 amazing day-trips from Cartagena to help you maximize your time in the Colombian Caribbean:

Sexteto de Tabala
Meeting legendary Rafael Cassiani Cassiani of the Sexteto de Tabala in Palenque

1. San Basilio de Palenque

This UNESCO-recognized village a couple of hours drive south of Cartagena was the first freed-slave city of the Americas, and retains many of its old traditions, along with its own unique language. The birthplace of many great Colombian musicians, as well as several whole genres of popular Colombian music, such as Palenque and champeta; a visit to Palenque is a unique chance to learn about a slice of Colombian history.

It’s still a very poor place, but low-scale tourism is an important part of their economy, so please, be sensitive to that. You can either get there by public bus from Cartagena (which will drop you at the road turnoff; get a mototaxi from there) or organize a visit with a driver or an agency. When I visited, I was shown around the town by Diover, whose small tourism initiative is named Benkos (after the town’s founder, Benkos Bioho) – you can contact him at 

A tour includes a guided walk, a history lesson on the town, and the chance to visit the local recording studios and meet some of Palenque’s legendary musicians and hear their stories.

If you want to visit San Basilio de Palenque, quote here.

Mangroves Cartagena
My Dad enjoying a tour of the mangroves

2. La Boquilla and Mangrove Swamps

On the road heading northeast from Cartagena towards Barranquilla lies a tiny little fishing village, balanced precariously on the spit of land between the sea and the swamps: this is La Boquilla, a great place to visit to experience a way of life very different from the city.

You can also take a tour (most hostels or hotels have contacts who can arrange this) on a paddled dugout canoe into the surrounding mangrove swamps. It’s a unique ecosystem and the boatmen and knowledgeable and well-informed. The birdlife is amazing, and there are many species of crabs and plants to be seen also, along with the elusive crab-eating raccoon! Check out JL’s visit to the mangroves in one of our ‘3 Travel Bloggers’ videos (2:24).

Reserve your tour here!

Playa blanca
Playa Blanca seen from the boat (image: Wikicommons)

3. Playa Blanca and the Rosario Islands

The classic Cartagena day-trip: head down to Bazurto Market docks first thing in the morning and get yourself on a boat to Playa Blanca, generally recognized as the best beach near Cartagena.

It’s more touristy now, but for a day (or a night extra in a hammock if you have spare time) it’s pleasant to escape the city, enjoy fresh fried fish on the beach, and relax in the warm Caribbean waters. For those with a bit more time or a sense of adventure, you can head a few hours further along the coast to the Rosario Islands for amazing diving and snorkeling.

This is an unmissable destination if you want to relax and enjoy the sea.

Volcan del Totumo
The Volcan del Totumo

4. Volcan del Totumo

The backpacker favorite! This ‘volcano’ is a 15 m high mound filled with bubbling hot mud and is said to have curative and healing properties! It holds about 10-15 people at a time and is accessed by a solid wooden staircase to the top. For a little extra, you can enjoy a massage by an attendant at the same time as enjoying your relaxing, muddy soak. 

Once you’re done, you head over to a nearby lagoon to bathe and remove all that lovely mud! It’s an odd experience, and maybe not one of those ‘bucket list’ traveler ticks, but it’s a diverting day-trip nonetheless…

Don’t leave without trying the ‘Volcano’, we take you there.

Anthony Bourdain
This guy loved Tierra Bomba…what more do you need!

5. Tierra Bomba Island

This is the closest of these 5 day-trips to Cartagena, but you wouldn’t know it, as it’s arguably the least visited of the lot (except perhaps Palenque). A large, sparsely populated island directly opposite the fancy new developments of Bocagrande, Tierra Bomba is so distinct from the main city that you might find yourself thinking you’re in another country entirely!

A great place to relax by the sea with a cold beer, a plate of freshly cooked seafood, and a panoramic view of Cartagena, Anthony Bourdain came here when he filmed in Cartagena and loved it! You can watch the episode here.

Or you can see it with your own eyes, reserve here!


8 thoughts on “5 Amazing Day-Trips from Cartagena

  1. Maria on

    Playa Blanca is awful. The beach itself and the water are beautiful, but it’s incredibly crowded and you will be constantly — and I mean constantly — harassed by vendors. I started counting, and during my afternoon there, I did not once go more than 6 minutes without being approached by someone who wanted to sell me beads or hair braiding or a massage or something else. I get that the areas is poor and people are trying to make a living, but I see you. If I want to buy something, I’ll let you know. It completely ruined the experience, and I will definitely not go back.


    Dawn Davis on

    I’m visiting Cartagena with my kids (16 year old twin boys and a 19 year old daughter) from Dec 24th until the 30th. Do we need reservations for any of these day trips?


    Ron on

    Hey Chris – This is terrific. I plan to do at least a couple or three of these in October while there. But I want to make the Pelenque overnight. Info on the web on Pelenque is hard to come by. Are there housing options other than Hotel San Basilio de Pelenque, which seems to be a couple of miles out of town? Also I’ve contacted Diover (thx for that tip!) — but wondering if he speaks English (I’ve asked a couple of times and no answer). My spoken spanish is fairly basic. THX


      Chris on

      Hi Ron,

      I haven’t stayed in Palenque overnight, but there are some basic posadas options in the town, I just think it’s a case of turn up and ask around. Diover doesn’t speak English, but he has a friend in the town who does and can do the tours in English. Be aware that between the 12-16 of October is the Palenque drum festival: it would be an amazing time to visit, but accommodation could be harder to come by.


    Dan on

    Hi! I’m making my first trip to Colombia this summer, and I’ll be in the Cartagena area for around 2 weeks. Do you have any suggestions on what agencies I could contact in order to set up a tour of San Basilio? I know you provided an email of someone above, but is there anyone else with a website or other contact information besides the one mentioned? Thanks for your help!


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