The Caribbean -done differently

It's got charm, sun, fun and astonishing beaches but Colombia's version is more affordable


It didn't start brilliantly, when we missed our connecting flight from Bogota to the coastal city of Santa Marta, and ended up running around Colombia's main airport, frazzled and grappling with paltry information and appalling Spanish, to secure a later one. "The departure times on the board are not accurate," an airport worker scoffed, surprised we'd expect it to be any other way.

As the trip went on it soon became apparent that coastal Colombians, or costeños, are unfazed by timetabling, taking instead a rather more "mañana" attitude. An hour's journey quickly becomes two, a restaurant serves food long after the stated closing time. Even on the return trip, dutifully arriving at the airport with more than an hour spare saw us swapped onto an earlier flight.

But then, what does keeping on schedule matter when you've got the glorious Caribbean coast to distract you, all photo-perfect coves and clear azure waters, or when there is striking architecture to enjoy, and delicious fresh white fish and fragrant coconut rice to attend to? When the cocktails are flowing, the locals are friendly, and the dancing infectious?

By the end, after a week that combined soaking up the sun on a tropical island with touring a music-infused city and a dawn hike through the jungle, I wasn't sure it did.

The Caribbean coast of Colombia, hot and welcoming all year round save for hurricane season, may not be a secret to those who flock there from across the South American continent, but I can see why they'd be keen not to let on. For, put simply, this is the Caribbean done differently.

Getting there

Flights with British Airways and fly from Heathrow to Bogota via Madrid.
Internal flights are with Avianca,

In a region that conjures up images of Richard Branson and Leonardo diCaprio living the good life, and of all inclusive resorts with private beaches, tourist-friendly menus and five star luxury, it offers laid back charm, good food and good fun, and generally more affordable adventure. The climate is the same and the beaches as astonishing as Barbados or Antigua, the coconuts as bulbous and the rum as free-flowing, but the atmosphere is its own.

Nor is this the Colombia of foreign news articles or documentaries about the cocaine trade, a place ingrained in people's minds as dangerous, plagued by drug cartels and guerrilla fighters in trees.

Perhaps Bogota, or Medellin, where the notorious cartel was based, bears more scars. Yet I saw little trace of Colombia's strife-filled century, beyond the fact that the tourist infrastructure was clearly in its infancy. Instead, I found a country picking itself back up and inviting in the world.

We headed first - after recuperating at one of the pleasant beaches south of Santa Marta, which is a stop-off rather than a destination in itself - to Tayrona National Park. A vast rainforest at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains (this is the rare place where snow-capped peaks essentially meet golden sands), it is a protected area, home to countless species, from monkeys to condors and birds of prey.

Arriving at the main entrance at Cañaveral, you trek for 45 minutes (a challenging walk, in reality, but you can also travel on horseback) taking in Jurassic-style scenery, until the trees and rocks give way to a series of remote, truly spectacular coves and bays, perfect for lazing on or a spot of snorkelling. The park closes at five, so we hired a tent and camped, rising with the sun to hike back, but you can also rent smarter "ecohab" huts or stay nearby at Villa Maria Tayrona, where the unfeasibly well-kitted out rooms resemble sturdy tree houses and are reached by a perilous footbridge over the jungle.

From there, we travelled a few hours down the coast to the walled city of Cartagena, founded in the 16th century and with a history of pirates, priests and marauders, and certainly a contender for one of the most colourful places on the planet.

It's a Unesco world heritage site, and there are plenty of cultural sights to enjoy both in and around the city walls, from churches to castles and more. If you have time, bathe in the natural muds of nearby Volcan Totumo, which is not a volcano, but more akin to an extreme no-frills spa, and tremendous fun.

Cartagena, though, is a place that draws you in, not somewhere you tick off museums visited or statues seen. It's a city to get lost in as you wander the cobbled streets, from the bustling Gethsemane neighbourhood to the smarter piazzas in the centre. Every house is a unique, often clashing shade, with layers of paint peeling off to reveal earlier palettes and set against striking balconies and impressively carved doors. In other historic cities, the oldest, most beautiful buildings are viewed as treasures not to be tampered with; in Cartagena they remain alive and vibrant, used for every purpose imaginable.

Cartagena is a hive of activity, from top-end shops to tourist tat to horsedrawn carriages circling the streets. Rather than soulless Bocagrande, stay within the walled city, where you can't move for the sound of music (including Vallenato from the nearby town of Valledupar) which makes you want to dance in the streets.

You could spend days there, and should, but Cartagena is a port (watching the sun go down from the ramparts is a must) and the gateway to the Rosario and San Bernardo coral archipelagos, both a couple of hours boat-ride away. We stayed on Isla Mucura and marvelled at scenery that seemed photoshopped, from absurdly clear sea to sand that melted between our toes. Undoubtedly less showy than some of its more notorious Caribbean island neighbours, I doubt I could find a tropical paradise to better it.

Sipping a cocktail in the sea, miles from anywhere and far from any worry, I could see the appeal of the mañana' attitude after all. It might not be Sandy Lane or Necker Island, but Caribbean Colombian has everything going for it. Get there before it loses its personality.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive