As far as charming, well-preserved colonial cities go, Cartagena, also known as the glittering “Jewel of The Indies,” is an undisputed contender for one of the very best in the world.
Gorgeous, vividly painted buildings line pretty, cobbled streets inside the walls of the Old City, an area full of colour, music, history, flavour and excitement.
You can spend days wandering around “La Muralla” without getting bored, either taking guided tours around the points of interest or heading out on your own.
However, given Cartagena’s location on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, it’s within easy reach of some of the most culturally significant destinations in the whole of Colombia, not to mention some of the most pristinely beautiful tropical locations on Earth.
Let’s have a look at the best day trips from Cartagena:
1. San Basilio de Palenque
A village that’s been declared a site of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, San Basilio de Palenque is only an hour away from Cartagena and holds a huge cultural significance for Colombia.
It’s one of the first freed slave cities in the Americas and the resulting explosion of music, customs and flavours shaped much of the country’s cultural scene today, particularly in terms of music.
The town is a simple place, many of its inhabitants being very poor, but there is plenty of low-scale tourism cantered on learning about the area and its history.
You’ll be able to book tours with small agencies and tourism initiatives that can include guided walks and the chance to meet some famous musicians.
2. La Boquilla and Mangrove Swamps
Nestled in between the ocean and a swamp, La Boquilla is a tiny fishing village on the road heading northeast from Cartagena and is the perfect day trip to experience rural Colombian life while getting up close and personal with some fascinating wildlife.
The pace of life here is very different than the city, and the fishermen or boatmen are always more than happy to give short tours and share their knowledge of the local flora and fauna, for a small fee.
Paddle in dugout canoes through the network of canals that were previously used for fishing purposes, but have now turned into mangrove swamps, and experience the unique slice of nature you’ll find here.
3. Playa Blanca
Widely hailed as the best beach near Cartagena, Playa Blanca does get busy, as bars and restaurants built in beach-shack style have begun popping up, but it’s still a beautiful escape from the city for the day.
Relax in a hammock, enjoy delicious fresh fried fish on the beach, sip an ice-cold beer or get a massage, all in the Caribbean sun.
True to its name, the sand on the beach is beautifully white and fine, a postcard perfect example of prime Caribbean coast.
You can catch a boat to Playa Blanca from the Bazurto Market docks in the early morning; generally considered the fastest and easiest way to arrive.
Suggested Tour: Playa Blanca Full-Day Trip from Cartagena
4. Volcan el Totumo
Rather than being an active, lava spewing volcano, el Totumo is a curative mud volcano containing over 50 different minerals that are said to be incredibly restorative for skin and hair.
Climb up the 15-meter high anthill-like mini-volcano and then descend the staircase within to sit in the soothing mud bath below.
With a capacity of 10 to 15 people, the novel, spa-like treatment is a great way to spend a few hours away from the city; having fun and meeting new people as everyone bonds while coating themselves with mud.
Available tour: Totumo Volcano and Mud Baths: Day Tour from Cartagena
5. Tierra Bomba Island
Visible from the shores of Cartagena is the huge but rarely visited island of Tierra Bomba.
It is home to 9000 residents who welcome visitors to their beaches and form a community of fisherman and artisans who dwell primarily on the coast.
The sandy white beaches are the perfect way to detach from city life, and various basic bars and restaurants have been erected where you can enjoy locally cooked, traditional dishes while taking in views of the close by Bocagrande.
You can reach the island by boat from the main ports in Cartagena.
6. Mercado de Bazurto
For a real taste of local life in the buzzing urban sprawl outside of the tranquil Old City, wake up early in the morning and head to the legendary Mercado de Bazurto, the generally tourist-free market only 15 minutes from the center of town.
Here, you’ll be swallowed up by the heaving crowds and begin to feel like a local as you wander past stalls selling incredibly diverse varieties of fruit, organic produce and all the seafood you could ever wish for.
The beautiful chaos of Bazurto Market is not to be missed, particularly for those who want to immerse themselves in authentic local culture.
One of the oldest towns on Colombia’s Atlantic coast, dating back to 1533, Usiacurí is a beautiful little colonial village that can be reached in less than two hours from Cartagena.
As picturesque as it is old, the village’s architecture has been well-preserved, having maintained many of its original colonial buildings, making it a pleasure to wander around.
The population of 9000 thrives on artisanal crafts, from tapestries to woven bags, so make sure you bring some cash to buy a souvenir.
8. Rosario Islands
Though you can spend weeks exploring the vast archipelago of 27 islands that form Las Islas Del Rosario, you can also spend a single day on one or two of them and get your fill of sun-soaked, palm tree-lined Caribbean beaches.
As part of a national park, the natural beauty of this area is truly incomparable, making it a popular tourist destination without being too overcrowded.
Expect lagoons, coral reefs, swimming, snorkelling, surfing, and some of the clearest, aquamarine water in the world.
9. Tayrona National Park
A few hours away from Cartagena, it might be worth staying the night at Tayrona National Park, though with an early start it’s easily doable in a day.
Boasting UNESCO World Heritage status due to it’s unbelievable natural beauty, the huge park is a treasured sprawl of verdant rainforest, lush mountains and most famously, white sandy beaches with crystalline waters.
Although wildly popular, the park is enormous, so it never feels crowded, and a secluded slice of paradise can be found around every corner.
You can enjoy some spectacular coastal and forest hikes here, or embark on a guided horseback tour run by knowledgeable and friendly locals.
A stone’s throw away from the walled Old Town in Cartagena, you’ll find the Miami-esque city beach of Bocagrande, perfect for those who want to enjoy a day relaxing at the seaside without fully detaching from urban comforts.
Popular with visitors from Cartagena because of its proximity and convenience, you’ll always find tourists here.
Backed by high rise hotels, shops, and lively restaurants, the Avenida San Martin is always an exciting road to stroll down, with Bocagrande’s white sand just steps away.
A hugely popular, essentially obligatory pit stop on the quintessential backpacker’s trail is the former fishing village of Taganga.
Today it is a hotbed of diving activity because of the vibrant coral reefs lying beneath the surface of its turquoise waters.
Here you can get a diving certificate and enjoy the thriving marine life to your heart’s content, and may even be tempted to stay for a few more days.
The town itself is housed in a horseshoe-shaped bay, flanked by rugged peaks and lined with palms.
You’ll discover late night parties, part of a buzzing backpacker scene that has been present here for many years.
12. Isla de San Bernardo
Though it’s over three hours’ drive and a boat ride away from Cartagena, the rewards of visiting the San Bernardo Islands far outweigh the effort of arriving.
This group of 10 archipelagos is truly remote and you get a real sense of being on a deserted island, something that many people are willing to make the trip for.
Flora and fauna thrive here in great abundance and the waters are the clearest on the entire Caribbean coast.
For an overnight stay or just to visit and have a beer, the Casa en el Agua is a paradise hostel built on stilts in the middle of the ocean, just dying to be discovered.
13. El Laguito
Not far from Bocagrande, but somewhat livelier, El Laguito is on the other side of the peninsula to its counterpart.
It attracts a young and bohemian crowd that flock to the calm water’s edge to enjoy electronic music parties and fill the many bars that are found here.
For a calmer experience, arrive early in the day, when families are the primary clientele due to the tranquil waves and lack of current.
14. Santa Marta and Sacred pools at Playa Koralia
Located near Santa Marta to the north of Cartagena, Playa Koralia is a beautiful stretch of coast with rich indigenous history that has been preserved to this day by the locals that still live here.
You can walk here among the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, as well as cool off in springs and waterfalls, but the highlight is the group of sacred pools, imbued with hydrotherapeutic properties that can only be accessed with express permission of the indigenous population.
15. Surfing at Colombia’s prime surf lodge
Though you’ll be tempted for an overnight stay, an early departure from Cartagena will give you a few hours fun at the Costeño Beach Eco Surf Camp, one of the most popular destinations for surfing in the country and home to an irresistible boho-chic vibe that’ll have you feeling like a backpacker in no time.
Enjoy a cold beer in a hammock before heading back to the city and grabbing a delicious seafood lunch to satisfy your appetite.