Business powerhouse Colombia is a fascinating and amazingly diverse country. Very few other countries can offer both Amazon jungle and snow-capped Andean peaks. The capital Bogotá has both the weather and the attitude of autumn in Europe, while Cali is blessed with a Caribbean vibrancy even though the Atlantic Ocean is hundreds of miles away. But any business traveler fortunate enough to visit Colombia’s actual Caribbean Coast should be sure to take the extra time to explore and enjoy this wonderful region.
One of the oldest cities in The Americas, Cartagena was founded in 1533 and named after the now much smaller Spanish city of Cartagena. With a population of about 800,000, Cartagena is home to many conventions and summits, and is Colombia’s number-one international tourist destination, with direct flights from North America and regular cruise ship visits. US President Barack Obama recently called on Cartagena during the 2012 Summit Of The Americas.
With many world-class hotels and resorts, and an expansive beach, Cartagena has the infrastructure to handle almost any gathering. Boca Grande is Colombia’s primary tourism and expat district, originally developed to house and entertain the high-income expatriates working in Colombia’s thriving petroleum industry. Like Miami Beach, Boca Grande is for the most part a man-made island with an expansive complement of high-rise hotels and condominiums.
Another area not to be missed is the old city, the walled area in the neighborhood of San Diego. Beautiful and well protected — not just by the fortress walls, but by the tourist-aware police force — Cartagena’s colonial zone is a walkable neighborhood of small shops, hotels, bars, and world-class restaurants, such as the author’s favorite, Juan Del Mar. While visiting the old city, be sure to explore the Castle of San Felipe de Barajas.
The port of Barranquilla is the largest city on Colombia’s Atlantic coast and with almost 2 million people, Colombia’s fourth largest, overall. The birthplace of world-famous singer Shakira, Barranquilla is also host to an amazing Carnavál late every winter, and year-round cultural and entertainment activities. It’s hot, so be sure to stop for ice cream at Colombian favorite Crepes & Waffles (also in Cartagena). This writer’s favorite is “helado de mora,” or blackberry ice cream.
To paraphrase former US President Calvin Coolidge, the business of Barranquilla is business. Still, there are sights to be seen. For a taste of culture and education, be sure to visit the Museo del Caribe. The museum covers Colombia’s contemporary and historical place in the Caribbean from cultural, political and natural/ecological perspectives.
Further East, along the coastal highway that eventually leads to Maracaibo, Venezuela, is the much smaller Colombian City of Santa Marta, capital of the Colombian Departamento de Magdalena. With a population of roughly half a million, Santa Marta is Colombia’s oldest city and one of the most popular domestic tourist destinations. While Santa Marta is Colombia’s primary coal exporting port, it has a beautiful, laid back beach with an entirely different vibe from the urban glamour of Cartagena’s Boca Grande. There are many independent hotels offering amazing deals – unless you are visiting during one of Colombia’s national holidays, or Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter.
Santa Marta is the best city from which to launch a visit to the famous Tayrona National Park, a beautiful tropical nature reserve just 34km outside of the city. With amazing biodiversity including over 100 mammal and 300 bird species, Tayrona feels a world away from the bustle of Cartagena and Barranquilla. The seaside campsite on the shore of Playa Brava and the more swimmable beach at Cabo San Juan can only be reached by a horseback or foot trek through the jungle, as howler monkeys watch you from the treetop canopy above.
Once at the campsite, there are a few cabin rooms available for overnight rental, though most trekkers rent either a tent or an open-air hammock. Campers are also allowed to bring in their own tents, but must rent space for a small fee. The money goes toward maintenance of the park. There is an open-air restaurant and modest general store offering common items. It is common to see Arhuaco People in their distinctive white dress passing through or visiting the store; they are the indigenous people who have lived in the area since pre-Colombian times and still inhabit the surrounding mountains.
Cartagena’s Rafael Nuñez Airport and Barranquilla’s Ernesto Cortissoz both host international flights including non-stops from Miami. Santa Marta’s Simon Bolivar Airport is served by domestic flights from major cities in Colombia. A regular bus service runs between Cartagena, Barranquilla and Santa Marta.