Colombia features gorgeous and deserted coastline, both on the mainland and islands. Nearly all the beaches, with a couple of notable exceptions, remain completely unspoiled.
By far the most popular visitor spot on the coast is Cartagena. Set right on the edge of the sea and surrounded by a stone wall, its setting is unbeatable. The colonial architecture here is among the best-preserved in Latin America and, coupled with the laid-back Caribbean atmosphere, food and music; it’s easy to see why so many people – foreigners and Colombians alike – come here for their holidays. Despite Cartagena’s popularity, however, it’s rarely overcrowded with tourists, even in high season and it’s never a problem finding somewhere to stay. There are some hotels in the historic centre, but generally the more comfortable ones can be found in Bocagrande, the huge, built-up resort area to the south of the town. The beaches close to Cartagena aren’t the best.
Serious beach-lovers, divers and snorkellers head to the Islas de Rosario, with their wide, sandy bays, palm trees, and off-shore reefs teeming with colourful sea life. There are a couple of places to stay on the islands, but they’re so close that most people just go over on a day trip. Just up the coast from Cartagena, the fishing village of Boquilla makes a good day trip from Cartagena, It’s very quiet during the week, but livens up at weekends, when little wooden huts open up to serve up the catch of the day, accompanied with rice and plantain.
Further north, Santa Marta is reachable in a day from Cartagena. There’s not much to do in the town itself – most people come to gain access to Parque Nacional Tayrona, which has Colombia’s arguably best beaches. Most are set in deep bays surrounded by forest; there’s a good chance you’ll have one all to yourself. Santa Marta is also a good base from which to organise trips to Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), an ancient pre-Columbian town that remained hidden deep in the thick rainforest until it was discovered by accident in 1975. There are no roads, and the city can only be reached on foot; it’s a six to seven-day hike there and back.
Colombia also lays claim to two Caribbean Islands, San Andrés and Providencia, each of which has a completely different feel. San Andrés is the more tourist-orientated, with a resort atmosphere attracting sun-seekers and water-sport enthusiasts, many from South America. The beaches are good and the diving is said to be the best in Colombia. In contrast, Providencia is not nearly as well-developed for tourism, which, for some, is the best thing about it. It is far quieter, the beaches are pristine, and there are plenty of good dive spots here too.