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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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).
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.
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…
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.