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Traveling the northern Caribbean coastline from Cartagena, Bolívar to Cabo de la Vela, la Guajira you can find an incredible diversity of beaches.
Islas del Rosario (Isla del Encanto), Bolívar
In Cartagena, you can stay on the beaches in Bocagrande and get a taste for the local beach scene, filled with frequent encounters with vendors selling everything from delicious cocadas (coconut sweets) to sunglasses and sarongs. If you’re looking for a calmer, more picturesque beach, take a short boat ride to the Islas del Rosario. There, you’ll find the stereotypical postcard Caribbean beaches with white sand and calm, turquoise waters that are home to brightly colored corals and tropical fish. If you are a snorkeler, these islands will also provide you with ample locations for incredible snorkeling.
Starfish on the Islas del Rosario (Isla del Encanto)
Bocagrande, Cartagena, Bolívar
Heading north, you’ll find more beaches in Puerto Colombia, Atlántico. These beaches are blessed with stronger and higher waves, coffee colored sand, and dark blue water apt for surfing and wind surfing. If you’re not a surfer, you can also enjoy a delicious local meal of fried red snapper, fried plantains, and coconut rice while you watch the surf scene. And, if you don’t mind a medium strength undertow, feel free to take a dip!
Climandiaro Beach, Salgar, Atlántico
If you continue traveling further north along the coast, you’ll arrive to the magical beaches of Parque Tayrona just outside Santa Marta, Magdalena. These beaches are a gift you have to work for. In order to enjoy the rustic beaches of Parque Tayrona, you’ll hike for several hours through tropical rainforest and coconut groves to get to the extraordinary beaches in this national park. The landscape of the beaches in Parque Tayrona is likened to something out of film background where you have an incredible mountain in the background that quickly melts into a beautiful beach in the foreground filled with aquamarine waves and pearl white sand, offering you unlimited time for swimming or soaking up the sun. These beaches are definitely for the more adventurous beach goers—if you’re looking for beach chairs, tropical cocktails, and beachside service head back to the beaches of Bocagrande in Cartagena.
Parque Tayrona, Magdalena
Mountain view from Parque Tayrona
About an hour and a half past Parque Tayrona you’ll cross into la Guajira, perhaps the least visited department on the Caribbean Coast. For a long while it’s been known as the “wild wild west” of Colombia and even Colombians would avoid traveling to this department due to fear of the unknown. However, as Guajira is a beautiful department with a rich indigenous history and hosts of some of the most stunning beaches in all of Colombia. One of the first beaches you’ll encounter is in the small town of Palomino. The beach in Palomino is very similar to those in Parque Tayrona, but is much less touristy and much more virgin. If you are looking for a beach where you can “escape from it all,” this is the beach for you. Although the water is pristine, the undertow can be quite strong, so make sure you take precautions when swimming.
Palomino, la Guajira
About 2 hours north of Palomino, is the small town of Camarones, whose name means “shrimp” in Spanish. The town is adequately named as it hosts a large lake where a good deal of the shrimping for the Caribbean coast is done. In front of the lake, is the beach. This beach is quite different from the other beaches mentioned. The water is beige colored and the waves, although appearing large, are actually quite small as the sandbar running along the beach makes the water fairly shallow. This is a good beach for swimming and enjoying a relaxing day away from other touristy areas. Perhaps the highlight of this beach is seeing the thousands of flamingos that cover the lake early in the morning within the flora and fauna sanctuary.
Shrimpers in Camarones, la Guajira
Walk to the beach in Camarones, la Guajira
Yet another hour north of Palomino you’ll encounter the beach town of Mayapo. Mayapo offers a wonderful beach scenario. Mayapo has turquoise water that is cooler in temperature than most other Colombian Caribbean beaches, has white sand and boasts several local restaurants who will deliver your food and drinks right to you on the beach. If you get tired of swimming or want to take an afternoon nap after a delicious and locally prepared lunch, public or “for rent” hammocks abound.
Mayapo, la Guajira
If you’re looking for the saltiest beach in Colombia, head about 45 minutes north of Mayapo to the beaches of Manaure. These beaches are actually used for salt production—you can tour the official salt production site and see how it is dried and packaged for export, if you want. The beaches themselves are a unique experience because of their salinity. You can’t help but feel the incredibly high level of salt in the water—you also can’t avoid seeing it; the water in Manaure is white because of the salt. You won’t be able to see your feet at all—the water is 100% opaque. Also, be prepared to be covered in salt when you get out of the water—as the water dries off your skin and hair, the salt will be left behind and you will be turned into a white zombie (that is, until you shower with some fresh water). Manaure is definitely a unique beach, and offers a distinct experience.
Manaure, la Guajira
The last beach area to be mentioned is perhaps one of the most beautiful in all Colombia: Cabo de la Vela, la Guajira. Not only is this beach one of the most spectacular, it is also maybe one of the hardest to reach due to the fact that there are no paved roads or official paths for reaching Cabo de la Vela. To get there, you’ll need to find transport in the cities of Riohacha or Uribia. Transport can consist of a private car or local transport such as uncovered vehicles with 4-wheel drive. The choice is up to you. Regardless, prepare yourself for “the journey of a lifetime.” To get to Cabo de la Vela, you’ll pass through amazing deserts full of cactus forests, contrasting colors, and Wayuu (the principal indigenous tribe in this department) communities. When you finally come to the coast, you’ll be amazed at the contrast as your drive with the orange-red desert on your right and turquoise waters on your left. It’s a landscape you won’t easily forget. The beaches in Cabo de la Vela also show a great contrast. The principal beach in Cabo, is extremely calm, and has shallow waters perfect for lazing around. You won’t have to worry about noise pollution, except for the occasional bird or jumping fish.
Cabo de la Vela, la Guajira
On the other side of Cabo, you’ll find el Pilón de Azúcar. The beach in this area is contained inside a unique semicircle of red colored mountainous rock with bright green limestone foundations. You’ll get a work out swimming at this beach, as you’ll have to do lots of jumping or diving to coexist peacefully with the waves. If you’re up for a hike, you can climb to the “peak” of the mountainous rock where you can see over both el Pilón de Azúcar as well as Cabo de la Vela. If you’re worn out from wave jumping, head back to Cabo for a freshly caught plate of golden snapper.
Pilón de Azúcar, la Guajira
Whatever type of beach you’re looking for, Colombia has it. This post only mentions a short sample of beaches from the northern Caribbean Coast. However, don’t leave Colombia’s Pacific Coast and southern Caribbean Coast off your itinerary--they both offer just as much beach and landscape variety as the northern Caribbean Coast!