From the cobbled streets of Cartagena to the sparse desert of La Guajira, Colombia’s Caribbean coast is diverse and dazzling
1) Cartagena: cobbled streets, colours and celebrations
Cartagena is awash with colour. Sun-drenched yellow, pink, orange and pale blue colonial mansions, churches and cathedrals provide the backdrop for an eternity’s worth of romantic strolls, caffeine-boosted literary discussions and extravagant family celebrations.
With landmark birthdays, proposals, weddings, honeymoons and anniversaries taking place on a daily basis the Old Town’s cobbled streets and majestic plazas are imbued with a celebratory energy. Within the centuries-old city walls exists a dreamlike world devoted to leisure.
I spend my time in this iconic city sampling some of Colombia’s celebrated speciality coffee, browsing book stores, eating ceviche in the sun and reading Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude.
2) Santa Marta: the place where disillusioned libertadores come to die
Founded on July 29, 1525 by the Spanish conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas, Santa Marta is the oldest colonial town in Colombia and one of the oldest cities on the American continent.
It’s a loud, bustling port town where every grain of sand is cherished. Where taxi drivers compete with cargo ship captains to have their horns heard. Where stacks of coloured containers and exotic palm trees throw striking shadows during vivid sunsets. Where cocktail sipping salsa dancers line the bars and fill the town squares deep into the night.
It’s also the death place of Simón Bolívar, the great libertador who helped Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru gain independence. At the peak of his power Bolívar ruled over an enormous territory from the Argentine border to the Caribbean Sea. But, having betrayed his principles and amid accusations of becoming a dictator, the man whose statue graces town squares all over South America died, powerless and penniless, of tuberculosis on December 17, 1830.
Santa Marta: the place where disillusioned libertadores come to die.
3) Paso Del Mango: a slice of nature
Less than an hour outside of Santa Marta lies the world’s highest coastal mountain range: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This incredibly diverse landscape ranges from bone-dry deserts to 20,000ft high snow-capped mountains, with almost everything in between.
The secluded hamlet of Paso Del Mango—named after a prominent local mango tree—is situated in a dramatic valley surrounded by evergreen forest and gushing mountain rivers. Woodland trails, of varying difficulty, lead to numerous natural swimming pools—usually at the foot of fast-moving frothy waterfalls—a cacao farm and a nature reserve.
At the cacao farm I learn that there are three main varieties of this prized fruit. Criollo: the rare, difficult to grow, “prince of cocoas”, forastero: the versatile tree that accounts for 80 per cent of the world’s chocolate production and trinitario: the natural hybrid class occurring from cross-pollination.
Eaten raw, the pulp of each variety has a fruity, distinctly tropical flavour. When fermented, sun-dried and ground the 100 per cent raw cacao has an almost unrecognisably bitter taste, although it does feel wonderful when applied as a face mask!
It’s not until 10-20 per cent milk and sugar are added that the paste takes on that rich and indulgent chocolatey taste. The feel-good flavour that persuades farmers to produce 4.5 million tons of cocoa per year.
"The lights of Santa Marta twinkle and roaming troops of howler monkeys make an awesome racket"
After washing my face in a particularly foamy pool of water, known locally as El Jacuzzi, I visit the Caoba nature reserve. Created by a biologist couple from Germany and Colombia back in 2007—when the area was still significantly affected by the civil war—the reserve features a library’s worth of Latinate medicinal plants, menacing looking caiman, lazy tortoises and smiling Amazonian pirarucu.
I spend the evening gazing across the valley as clouds rise over the rocky face in the distance like a reverse waterfall, later to be replaced by a bulbous, howl-inducing moon.
4) Minca: a new world
Not far, but certainly not fast to get to, from Paso Del Mango lies the popular village of Minca, and about one million miles up a steep dirt road from Minca sits the organic farm and eco lodge of Mundo Nuevo.
The gruelling one-and-a-half-mile climb turns out to be worth it as the views from the top of the mountain are unforgettable, as is the food, which is 100 per cent organic, vegetarian and grown onsite.
Each night guests gather at the mirador lookout point to watch a glorious display of peach haze, stretching over the rolling mountains to the Caribbean Sea. When the sun finally bows out the silhouettes of the valley grow starker, the lights of Santa Marta twinkle and roaming troops of howler monkeys make an awesome racket.
The Mundo Nuevo project is predicated on a desire for self-sustainability and, to this end, the farm offers a range of activities—such as permaculture, bee-keeping, soap-making and eco-construction courses—that are designed to both educate guests and provide a living for staff.
5) Tayrona National Park: tropical paradise
Tayrona National Park is one of the most-visited attractions in Colombia, and for good reason. It boasts a number of picturesque Caribbean beaches—reached only by speedboat, horseback or jungle trek—over 400 species of bird, monkeys, jaguars and remnants from the way of life of the Ancient Tayrona people.
Before reaching the palm-fringed yellow sands of El Cabo San Juan, I walk two hours through humid tropical jungle, stopping only to glug water, spot titi monkeys in the canopy and frighten and get frightened by large iguanas running over crackly dry leaves. The walk is recommended: it’s an adventure.
While many of the park’s beaches have vicious riptides, which have claimed the lives of hundreds of swimmers in the past, El Cabo is blessed with an offshore reef protecting bathers from the Caribbean’s untamed wrath. This paradisiacal beach offers accommodation in the form of tents or hammocks, there is seafood available and the ice-cold tropical fruit smoothies are simply divine.
6) La Guajira: land of the Wayuu people
Green forests dissolve into yellow drylands, tourist numbers dwindle by the mile and pronounced Spanish loses gaps between words and the letter “S”. The transition from tropical Caribbean to desert Caribbean is harsh, as is La Guajira’s climate. On average it rains only 49 days per year—although droughts lasting several years are not uncommon—with temperatures averaging highs of 33°C.
During the Spanish invasion of the Americas a shocking number of indigenous people were murdered, with whole civilisations wiped out. One group that managed to survive the conquest, due to a particularly inhospitable landscape plus training in horse-riding and firearms from Dutch and English pirates, was the Wayuu people.
The Wayuu are the largest indigenous group in Colombia today. With a population of over 144,000, they account for 20 per cent of Colombia’s indigenous peoples and around 44 per cent of the population of La Guajira. They live in small isolated communities to avoid mixing goat herds, comprised of several palm-thatched huts (rancherías) where hammocks and fire pits are located.
The Wayuu people make a living from goat farming, fishing, pearl diving and their famous Mochila bags. Wayuu women have passed down the craft of crocheting these iconic colourful bags for hundreds of years, and they can be bought all over the region in marketplaces such as Riohacha and Uribia but also informally from travelling saleswomen. It is said that the Wayuu originally learned how to make the bags from a spiderlike deity named Wale ‘Kerü.
"This is the raw, isolated Caribbean where whole cooked lobsters cost roughly the same as four large bottles of water"
The notably clean and quiet city of Riohacha, where pelicans struggle against the salty wind, fishermen sell their catch directly on the beach and food trucks selling craft beer can be found, has strong Wayuu influences. But much more can be experienced through a 4X4 tour into the desert.
The journey starts with a pit-stop at an artisanal salt mine, grids of shallow saline pools, before we reach the open plains. Speeding across the desert, plumes of yellow, ochre and white dust in our wake, we head towards a shimmering silver and blue pool of water that can never be reached.
The mirage evaporates as we approach a labyrinth of spiky cacti. Our guide skids around the corners like a rally driver, slowing only to hand out bags of water, fruit and biscuits to young Wayuu children who hold string across the road in a surreal attempt to collect road tax.
The desert meets the Caribbean coast at “rainbow beach”, where huge frothy waves crash into jagged rocks and ethereal rainbows form in the splash. After another stunning beach and a Caribbean sunset, we stop for a fish supper and settle down for the night of stargazing from chinchorro hammocks over the sand.
In the morning we spend hours driving through the desert past Wayuu settlements, endless cacti, child tax collectors and arid trees resembling upside down witches’ brooms. Our destination, Punta Gallinas, where the Caribbean Sea, backed by the might of the Atlantic Ocean, wages war on the continent is the most northerly point in South America.
This is not the romantic Caribbean of Cartagena, nor the bustling port life of Santa Marta and it certainly isn’t the tropical paradise of Tayrona. This is the raw, isolated Caribbean where whole cooked lobsters cost roughly the same as four large bottles of water, petrol stations consist of women sat by the road with grubby plastic jugs and the lack of light pollution in the desert allows for neck-achingly clear galactic sparkles.