A surfer off the coast of Colombia

Colombia's Caribbean Coast Has Beautiful Beaches — and a Fascinating Mix of Cultures

Along Colombia's Caribbean coast, discover the buzz of Cartagena, see the wild beaches of the Magdalena region, and explore the region's rich Indigenous history.

I floated on my back in the lapis-blue pool at Casa Bambú Tayrona, a hotel in the Magdalena region of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, searching for the North Star in the equatorial sky. A chorus of frogs and toads sang in the surrounding jungle as my husband joined me in the water. The pool, like the eight thatched-roof cabins around us, was elevated just a few feet above the forest floor, where blue crabs nestled amid the bamboo roots. In the distance, I could hear waves crashing on the beach. 

With a splash, our teenage daughter dove into the pool. I remembered myself at her age, when, in the 1990s, I first began to examine my heritage. I had always been embarrassed that I was born in Colombia, that my father was from the South American country infamous for its civil war, drug cartels, domestic terrorism, and kidnappings. I grew up with an American mother in Minnesota, where my surname prompted probing questions and my classmates teased me about cocaine and coffee. When I first returned to visit my father in 1995, Colombia was one of the most dangerous countries on earth. 

Now at Casa Bambú, amid the banana trees and birds-of-paradise, the only threats were the strong currents at the beach and the three caimans said to live in the river behind the hotel. Placards near the riverbanks warn guests to avoid the area, but when we asked the hotel manager if anyone had been attacked, she said — ominously, but with a smile — “Not yet.”

Two views of the hotel at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara in Cartagena, one showing a doorman in silhouette, and one showing guests in the pool
From left: A doorman at Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena, built as a convent in 1621; a view of the pool at Sofitel Legend Santa Clara.

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Today, these natural wonders (or dangers, depending on your perspective) are attracting travelers to the area, a five-hour drive from Cartagena. The four-year-old Casa Bambú sits in the jungle at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. It’s one of a handful of resorts that have popped up to cater to ecotourists visiting Tayrona National Natural Park, a five-minute drive away. The park — 60 square miles of protected mangrove swamps, rain forest, and tropical beaches — is home to animals like howler monkeys, poisonous dart frogs, and jaguars.

Even in the tropical heat, a chill went up my spine. I was ready to rediscover my country, too.

Our local guide, Cristián Sierra, a tall, 30-something Costeño (the local expression for a person from the coast), said he credits the 2016 peace accords, which won then president Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Peace Prize, for addressing the violence and drug trade in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region. Not all of Colombia has benefited equally from the government’s demilitarization efforts — some rural and Indigenous communities still suffer unrest. But many places, particularly Cartagena and the more touristed spots along the Caribbean shore, are welcoming places to visit.

Now that the region has become safer, the people who live there are experiencing a greater sense of pride in their culture, Sierra noted. “We’re rediscovering our country,” he said. 

Even in the tropical heat, a chill went up my spine. I was ready to rediscover my country, too.

Pair of photos from Colombia, one showing a tour guide, and one showing traditional Palenquero drums
From left: Tour guide Victor Alfonso Miranda Salgado, in San Basilio de Palenque; traditional drums at the studio of Kombilesa Mi, a well-known band from San Basilio de Palenque.

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Colombia is made up of six regions, their borders naturally formed by mountains, rivers, and jungle. Each area has its own distinct culture, ecosystem, and climate. I was born in Popayán, a southern city in the Andes; this was the first time my family and I had explored the northern coast along the Caribbean Sea. 

After waking to the sound of the sea the next morning, we were served a substantial but slow breakfast poolside at Casa Bambú — so slow, in fact, that Sierra, who had come to take us on an excursion, had to wait while we finished our eggs and arepas, fresh passion-fruit juice, and strong black coffee. This didn’t bother him; he told us that this leisurely pace is part of the local culture.

At last, we loaded into the van, and our driver headed east on the Troncal del Caribe highway. About 40 minutes later, he stopped at a dirt road that disappeared into the jungle: we were at the entrance to Katanzama, an Arhuaco village. In Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta there are 42 separate communities of Arhuaco, one of the 102 Indigenous groups in Colombia, many of whom live on reservations like Katanzama.

“We call them the Elder Brothers,” Sierra explained, “because they’ve been in the area for so long.”

Our guide in Katanzama was Jason Arroyo, who is Arhuaco. A slight man with a trim black beard and soft curls, he was dressed in a traditional white cotton tunic and hat. Like many Colombians, particularly Indigenous people, Arroyo carried a mochila, a traditional bag crocheted in wool or cotton in distinct patterns that vary by region. 

Pair of photos from Colombia, one showing seafood at a market, and one showing a vendor with hats stacked on his head
From left: Fresh-cooked seafood at Cartagena’s open-air Bazurto Market; a hat vendor on Marbella Beach, in Cartagena.

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I remember, when I was growing up in Minnesota, being embarrassed by the lanolin smell of the scratchy brown wool mochila my mom sometimes carried; now I have one of my own. Unlike mine, though, Arroyo’s bag was filled with dried coca leaves, which locals legally cultivate and chew. In the same way the Arhuaco people have done for generations, Arroyo dipped a stick into his popóro, a hollowed-out gourd that held crushed seashells, and added it to the leaves in his mouth. Lime from the shells activates the coca, giving a mellow high. It was a reminder that, though the plant has been responsible for so much conflict in Colombia, it remains an important part of Indigenous culture.

More Trip Ideas: These Small Towns in Colombia Are Glamping Hot Spots With Igloo-shaped Tents, Refurbished Wagons, and Panoramic Domes Overlooking the Andes

Arroyo led us to a field of plantain, yucca, and cocoa (to be one day transformed into milk, dark, or white chocolate), the main crops of the Arhuaco. He explained how the communities live and farm in a sustainable, self-sufficient way — just as their ancestors have done for centuries. He talked slowly, a rhythm we were becoming accustomed to. Looking at the slope of Arroyo’s nose, I wondered if my DNA carried any Indigenous code. 

After a tour of a handful of homes and meetinghouses in Katanzama, we stopped on the beach under the lacy shade of the Gliricidia trees and snacked on local plums and granola bars while blue waves crashed on the sand. Arroyo’s wife, also carrying a mochila, showed us how to make a bag. When our needles got tangled in the yarn, she chuckled and unpicked our mistaken stitches.

Pair of photos from Colombia, one showing bird sculptures in a hotel lobby, and one showing a man in a pool
From left: Décor in the Sofitel Barú Calablanca’s lobby nods to the nearby National Aviary of Colombia; a guest cools off in the pool at Casa San Agustín, in Cartagena.

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I felt simultaneously Colombian and American when we arrived at the Sofitel Barú Calablanca Beach Resort, where the attentive staff switched back and forth between addressing me in Spanish and English. My husband, daughter, and I were among the few Americans at the resort. It’s one of the newest luxe additions on Isla Barú, a curve of sandy beach that faces Cartagena, which is a breezy 25-minute catamaran ride away. 

The only other time I had stayed at a South American resort was when my father and his wife took me on a vacation to a small fishing village in Ecuador in the late 1990s. We had been the only guests, and the hotel restaurant had served nothing but fish and eggs at every meal. The beach where my stepmother and I attempted to sunbathe turned out to be a thoroughfare for trucks hauling fish.

This mix of magic and legend is what I love about Colombia. It’s one thing about this country that hasn’t changed — and probably never will.

Calablanca is nothing like that. We sipped mango mojitos and ate fresh fish tamales at Bahía, the resort’s casual beachside restaurant, and ordered room service in our ocean-view suite. When we weren’t eating, we alternated between the manicured beach and one of three infinity pools. 

From Isla Barú we drove an hour and a half north to our next hotel, the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, in the heart of Cartagena’s historic center. The district, still known by locals as Cartagena de Indias (named after a port city in Spain), began as a conquistador colony in 1533 and was fortified by seven miles of wall that still stand today. As we approached the hotel, our driver wound through narrow streets and open plazas and between pastel houses with second-floor balconies, every sight a distillation of the neighborhood’s colonial history. 

View of rooftops in Cartagena, Colombia
A view from a rooftop in Cartagena’s historic center. The San Pedro Claver monastery is on the right, and the Bay of Cartagena and modern Bocagrande district are in the distance.

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The city’s architecture may remind travelers — especially those with young children — of the Disney film Encanto, which has helped spur a shift in the public perception of Colombia. We heard the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” blasting out of a house and saw advertising with the characters from the movie. The Colombians we talked with were proud to have their country’s culture, music, food, and landscape represented in popular American culture. Hearing the pride in their voices, I found myself wishing such a film had existed when I was young.

The Santa Clara was built as a convent in the 17th century. Now recast as a luxury resort, the building has retained much of its original architectural charm. When it was converted to a hotel in 1995, the initial restoration preserved a crypt that was, the story goes, the inspiration for Nobel Prize–winning author Gabriel García Márquez’s novel "Of Love and Other Demons."

As we walked into the hotel, a white-suited butler pointed out a wall in the hotel’s French restaurant, 1621. The room, originally the nuns’ dining hall, is elegantly appointed and painted gold — except for that one wall. No matter how many coats of paint are applied, he told me, mysterious patterns seep through the paint in turquoise splotches like a Rorschach test. As with many things in Colombia, there may be a logical explanation for this — or not.

“Even we don’t know what’s true anymore,” the butler said.

This mix of magic and legend is what I love about Colombia. It’s one thing about this country that hasn’t changed — and probably never will.

Two photos from Colombia, one showing a beach, and one showing a portrait of a hostess in a restaurant
From left: The beach outside Casa Bambú Tayrona hotel, on the Caribbean Sea; hostess Maria Del Carmen at Restaurante Candé, in Cartagena.

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That first time I visited my father in Colombia, in 1995, we rode along the Pan-American Highway between the cities of Cali and Popayán. I remember being startled to see towns segregated by race and culture: one would be home to Indigenous people, the next populated solely by Afro-Colombians. Colombia’s 1991 constitution recognized the country as multicultural, granting territorial and cultural rights to Indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups, a move that was then strengthened by the 2016 peace agreement. These protections, and the physical isolation of many Indigenous and Afro-Colombian towns and reservations, continue to preserve communities like Katanzama, where people live in much the same way as they have for centuries.

Related: In Colombia's Eje Cafetero, Coffee Is Just the Beginning

On our second to last day, we visited another of these preserved places. San Basilio de Palenque is an Afro-Colombian community about an hour inland from Cartagena. Recognized by unesco on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (a designation that honors living cultural expression), Palenque credits its origins to Benkos Biohó, a 17th-century African leader who escaped his colonial enslavers and established a hidden hamlet in the countryside. In 1713, San Basilio de Palenque was officially recognized as a free town ­— one of the first in the country to be given that title. 

Pair of photos from Colombia, one showing thatch roofed guest villas at a resort, and one showing a hotel staff member carrying drinks on a path
From left: Guest cabins at Casa Bambú Tayrona; a waitress delivers cocktails at Sofitel Barú Calablanca Beach Resort.

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Our Palenquero guide, Nuno Bembelé, led us across the hot, dry central plaza, which features a statue of Biohó, his arm stretched eastward toward Africa. Chickens, goats, and children in school uniforms stepped around the construction on the main dirt road that is only now being paved. As we crossed the square, we passed another group of tourists. “We’re happy when visitors come,” Bembelé told us. The community of 3,500 has perfected the art of catering to outsiders, who help to support the economy. Women on their verandas waved, greeted Bembelé, and worried aloud about my husband’s pale complexion in the midday sun.

I gazed up at the blue sky beyond the red tiled roofs. Potted plants hung over wooden balconies and trailed across whitewashed walls — the scene looked like it could have been the inspiration for the magical house in Encanto.

Bembelé, along with a drummer and dancer, invited us to stop in the shade for ice water and fresh-cut pineapple. “Kumo kusa ta,” our hosts taught us to say, in a kind of call-and-response folkloric rap song. How are you? The people of Palenque still speak Palenquero, the traditional local language born from a mix of African and European dialects. They use songs like this to teach both Colombian and international visitors. “Kusa ta bien” (I am fine), we repeated clumsily. My husband and daughter took turns attempting the drumming patterns of the chalupa, an upbeat traditional rhythm. Our hosts laughed along with us — or maybe at us.

Before we left Palenque, we met two healers who gave us a lesson on medicinal plants and herbs, then served us shots of a strong homemade tonic made with rum. They sold us beaded bracelets, which they blessed with drops of scented oil, which they said promised safety, good luck, and long life. I didn’t mind exchanging a few pesos for a little Colombian magic. 

A dish of fried fish and salad at a hotel in Colombia
Salad and the fish of the day (red snapper) at Sofitel Barú Calablanca.

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That afternoon, we arrived at our last hotel of the trip, Casa San Agustín, also in Cartagena. I plunged into the L-shaped pool and skimmed through the water, rinsing away the heat of the day. The pool is located in a courtyard between what had been three 17th-century homes built for wealthy colonial families, and as I floated on my back, I gazed up at the blue sky beyond the red tiled roofs. Potted plants hung over wooden balconies and trailed across whitewashed walls — the scene looked like it could have been the inspiration for the magical house in Encanto.

Later, we ate at the hotel’s award-winning Alma restaurant, where we ordered cocktails made with dark rum and coconut and scooped up tangy ceviche with plantain chips. 

Cartagena comes alive when the sun sets, and after dinner we wandered through the narrow streets. Near the Plaza de Bolívar, we joined a crowd watching a group of buskers breakdance under the yellow streetlights. My daughter stopped in a shop to buy a locally made white cotton sundress — and her own brown mochila. She’s proud of her Colombian heritage.

And so am I. 

See Colombia’s Caribbean Side

Where to Stay

Casa Bambú Tayrona: This peaceful, eight-cabin property is surrounded by tropical foliage and located two miles from the entrance to Tayrona National Natural Park.

Casa San Agustín: The architecture at this sophisticated boutique hotel in Cartagena includes 17th-century frescoes and exposed-beam ceilings.

Sofitel Barú Calablanca Beach Resort: On the Isla Barú peninsula, 187 rooms face the Caribbean Sea. Perks include four pools and a childcare center.

Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena: With impeccable service, colonial-style décor, and a rare full-size pool, this is the largest and oldest hotel in Cartagena’s historic center.

Where to Eat

Alma: One of the best restaurants in Cartagena. Try the fish-and-coconut-milk ceviche and the short ribs posta negra cartagenera, which are marinated in a sweet, dark sauce.

Bururake Parrilla Fusión: At this casual, weekend-only spot in the town of Minca, in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, cooks whip up local dishes like lomo tamarindo (pork tenderloin with tamarind sauce) in an open-air kitchen.

Restaurante Candé: In Cartagena, this place serves upscale cuisine and cocktails and has live music and folk dancers performing among the tables.

How to Book

Amakuna: Helmed by T+L A-List travel advisor Boris Seckovic, this Medellín-based agency can arrange itineraries that include a tour of La Victoria Cafetería, a working coffee farm in Minca; a visit to the town of San Basilio de Palenque; or a walking tour of Cartagena.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Thicker Than Water."


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