cartagena Colombia travel guide

My whole life I grew up hearing about the feuding drug cartels and cocaine trade of Colombia. I had the fear of God put in me by my mother to never go there and that it was too dangerous, especially for a single girl to travel around.

I’m all about creating my own opinions firsthand by just GOING to a foreign country. I find that most Americans make up their minds about places and cultures without ever experiencing them firsthand and I have always vowed to personally break that pattern and to educate myself. I realized that the best way for me to get over my fear of traveling to Colombia was by… traveling to Colombia.

cartagena colombia travel horse and carriage

At first, I started planning this trip with my girlfriend and fellow photographer Jodee. We figured we should see Cartagena, the jungle, and end our trip with some Caribbean islands off the Northern Coast…basically we wanted to get a sampler of the different regions of the country.

With our Spanish skills, we booked hotels and rental cars with no problems…until my mother heard of our plans. She was very upset that we planned on traveling alone as two women AND especially that we planned on driving. After some convincing and due to our limited time there, we decided to invite my boyfriend Winston and another friend Markus to come join us to have some “guardaespaldas” with us, AKA bodyguards in Spanish.

At first, I thought having two men on the trip would ruin our “Thelma and Louise-vibe”, but the addition of the boys proved to be so much fun and a lot more safe when taking some of our photos and trekking around in some more off-the-beaten-path areas. So many Colombians are exhausted of the dark, complicated legacy that Pablo Escobar left for their country. Especially for this reason, I want to share what I found to be some of the best-hidden secrets of Colombia.

cartagena colombia colorful buildings

Cartagena to me is the most beautiful city in all of Colombia and one of the easiest for tourists to visit. Many people spoke English there where we did not find that to be the case in the rest of the country, so it was a lot easier to get around if you are a tourist. Located on Colombia’s northern coast on the Caribbean Sea, it used to be a Spanish colony and one of the first sanctuaries for freed African slaves.

Now, you can find colorful Spanish colonial style buildings, cobblestone streets with quaint horse carriages that serve as taxis, and many fancy restaurants, clubs and hotels. The nightlife and vibe of Cartagena is that of the Caribbean and has awesome local cuisine and cumbia and salsa dancing. It’s definitely MY kind of city; vibrant and alive with color and culture. It was a photographer’s paradise to walk around the old part of the city.

cartagena colombia city

The beauty about Cartagena is that if you get tired of the hustle and bustle of the city, you can jump in a car and in a few short hours find yourself deep in the jungle. Tayrona National Park is about a 4-hour drive from Cartagena on the Northern Caribbean Coast of Colombia and has some of the most beautiful private beaches in South America.

The Majority of the park is in the jungle with hiking trails that lead to ancient ruins of a lost city, waterfalls where you can spend days swimming and cliff jumping, or even private beaches where you can rent a hammock for the night or camp out and swim or surf.

cartagena colombia islands travel

We stayed at Villa Maria Tayrona, an eco-lodge up in the canopy of the jungle where some of the villas you have to walk across a suspension bridge to get to. We saw all kinds of wildlife from monkeys to tropical birds and it was a perfect relaxing getaway from the chaos of the city.

One of my favorite days of the entire trip was hiking through the jungle to La Piscina, a private beach inside of the national park. Along the hike, the indigenous Kogi people would cut open coconuts for you to have fresh water while you were hiking and you could stop and eat a delicious lunch at a local restaurant that you can only get to by hiking in 2 hours through the jungle.

cartagena colombia travel national park

On our drive back from our jungle Eco Lodge, we decided to take a pit stop to El Totumo Mud Volcano to rest our sore bodies. I had never even HEARD of a mud volcano till I came to Colombia, but it’s a real thing!

Mud volcanoes do not produce lava, but it is a fissure in the ground that continuously exudes a heated mud-like substance from deep within the Earth. The locals believe this mud to be healing and good for your skin, so it has become sort of a spa activity to do where you can float in the mud and get a massage.

cartagena colombia mud baths

When you first arrive you have to climb up a 50-foot staircase and then climb inside of the volcano in the mud. What was so cool about this mud was that it was so dense, that similar to the Dead Sea you can’t sink in it if you tried. You just float on the surface making it easy to just lie there while someone massages your legs and feet!

The muddy, volcanic experience then is followed by a scrub down by local women in a nearby lagoon to remove the mud. Even with that, we were still finding mud in our ears for days afterward, but it was SO worth the experience!

cartagena colombia travel mud baths

When we returned to Cartagena it was blazing hot, so we decided to escape Cartagena for the day and take a trip to the Rosario islands. The Rosario islands are a group of 27 islands about 1 hour off the Caribbean coast and you can rent a wide array of local boats to get out there for the day and even stop at the local grocery store on the water to grab snacks and beer.

This magnificent archipelago of islands is their own little private community where some of the islands are literally just large enough to have a small house on them floating out in the middle of the ocean and only accessible by boat.

cartagena colombia rosario islands

You can rent a house and stay out there or do as we did and take a day trip. As you approach the islands, local fisherman row up to you and hold up live lobsters and seafood that they just pulled out of the ocean to sell to you. You can jump off your boat and snorkel some of the many coral reefs around there in clear, turquoise waters and do a wide variety of water activities.

One of my favorite parts was stopping on one of the islands for a traditional Colombian lunch, where while you waited for your meal to arrive you can lay down on a sarong and get massaged on the sand by local women. It was the ultimate day of relaxation and pampering under the Caribbean sun!

cartagena colombia rosario islands massage

If visiting the local islands doesn’t quench your thirst for being out on the water, just a short jumper flight from Cartagena can bring you to San Andres Island, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and a scuba diver’s paradise. We came here to explore this island and all of its natural beauty that has been fought over for centuries by Spain, Colombia, Panama and Peru.

cartagena colombia san andres islands

We went kayaking through the mangroves, scuba diving, and rented a scooter to explore the island, but our favorite adventure was taking a boat to El Acuario to find their favorite local hang out, Bibi’s Place.

El Acuario is a tiny island that once you get off the boat, you then have to walk through the ocean waist deep and carry your bags military style to get to another island that is only 2 acres large. It’s just large enough to have a private beach and a small reggae bar haven called Bibi’s Place. Here you can relax in the sun, listen to a live band, and eat fresh seafood. It is one of the Caribbean’s best kept secrets and such a magical place to spend the day.

cartagena colombia el acuario bibis place

cartagena colombia el acuario

What added to this island’s vivid and multi-ethnic history was that it was the haven for the Welsh Pirate, Captain Morgan. Yep, this guy actually existed and isn’t just a character on as bottle of Rum. Captain Morgan used to live on this island and wait for the Spanish Armadas to sail by on their way back to Spain for South America laden with jewels and gold and raid the galleons.

San Andres is a coral made island with many hidden coral caves, which made for perfect hiding places for all of that pirate booty. While we were there we climbed into some of Captain Morgan’s caves and local legend has it that there is still buried treasure somewhere on the island. So just a tip for all of you treasure hunters out there!

cartagana colombia capitain morgans caves

I started this trip having no idea what this country had to offer. I had fear about going to Columbia and especially had trepidation about going to Pablo Escobar’s home base where he hid out for many years. It’s hard to believe that only 15 years ago it was voted one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

Instead, now I found a country rich with beauty and kind people who are working hard to rebuild their homes and lives after such violence that they grew up with.

cartagena colombia street woman fruit vendors

I found love, adventure, culture, and so much natural beauty. I found people who traded their complicated lives to live out their days on one of the many small islands off the Caribbean Coast. But mostly, I changed my entire attitude and opinion about Colombia and would love to come back again and explore even more.

I love that I can share my photos and adventures in hopes that I can change a few more attitudes of Americans out there that I am sure, feel the same way I felt before.