North Colombia – Cartagena, Isla Grande and Santa Marta

When we originally planned our trip we didn’t include Colombia – we only had 6 weeks in South America and the last two were blocked out for Peru, as we had the Inca Trail booked. But everyone we have met along the way has told us how much they loved Colombia, the emerging jewel of South America.

So – we decided whilst in Panama to take some time to explore their neighbouring country. We flew from Panama City to Cartagena to start our Colombian adventure, for just £120 each.


Cartagena is colourful, with a mixture of colonial and republic buildings (I learnt the difference on our tour). It’s also a big tourist hotspot so mixed in with the authentic cultural experiences you’ll find some tourist traps. For example – the fruit bowl ladies in their beautiful dresses will take a photo with you for $1 each, that’s each lady you have in the photo. However – I watched 2 ladies get ready for their day of modelling in the local barbershop where Frazer had his hair cut. They arrived in regular clothes, took the supermarket stickers off the bananas that they were topping their fruit bowls up with, and then changed into their colourful dresses before heading out to pose with holidaymakers.

Sightseeing – Cartagena Walking Tour

On our first day in Cartagena we did the free walking tour starting from Santa Teresa Plaza at 10am (there’s also one at 4pm, and it’s available in both Spanish and English). Our guide was Enrique and he was brilliant at delivering local and national history along with some giggles too. You’re invited to tip the guides at the end of the tours, and if you decide not to do this then you are a bit of a frugal fool.

Hostel – Castillo de Marquez

This was actually a really beautiful hostel, set in a national monument building. The artwork was cool, the dorms have double beds and air conditioning, and at just £6 each a night including breakfast it was great value for money. However – I woke up on both mornings with lots of insect bites and although the owner assured me it must be mosquitos, I think it might have been bed bugs. Frazer was fine and didn’t get bitten so I may have been unlucky, but it ruined our stay in what was otherwise a really nice hostel.

Rating – 1/5

Hostel – Casa del Pozo

Most of the blogs you’ll read about Cartagena will advise you stay in the Getsemani area, and I totally agree. Casa del Pozo is a “boutique hostel” in a fantastic location. Boutique in this context just means a regular hostel that costs slightly more – it was about £10 each for a bed in a 6 bed dorm, including breakfast. The dorms were clean and comfortable, with privacy curtains and plug sockets for each bed. Plus the bathrooms were clean and showers were good pressure albeit only room temperature.

Rating – 3.5/5

Café – Stepping Stones Cafe

Australian owned Stepping Stones is a “social enterprise” cafe, providing year long paid positions for people from Cartagena’s indigenous afro communities, offering them hospitality training alongside educational programmes in budgeting and other life skills. The menu is brunch based – expect smashed avo on toast and a delicious hot chocolate (which is a little hard to find in this part of the world). Service is a little slow but, as explained on the menu, all of the people working here have had no prior experience in these roles so you’re asked to be patient with them as they learn.I really enjoyed the food here, and the project they’re running seems like a great way of giving something back to the local area. Each week they add voluntary donations to the bill to support the 4/5 projects they’re running currently – from donations for a local school, to giving a fair price to ladies making artisanal products for their on-site shop.

Rating – 4/5

Laundry / Food – Beer & Laundry

As the name suggests, this is the place to come if you have some laundry to do. Not only do they offer a decent value for money laundry service, but they’ve had the ingenious idea of adding a small restaurant to the front. So whilst your delicates are being freshened up, you can enjoy a pizza (and a beer). The pizza was fantastic value and actually very tasty, but the real star of the show was the “brownie”. A delicious hot brownie/waffle with caramel and chocolate sauce, and vanilla ice cream that cost just £3.50.

Rating – 4/5

Colombian Food – Caminante Street Food Kitchen

This is a very small restaurant in Getsemani that serves the staple Street food of Colombia – arepas for between £3.50-£4.50 each. The menu also features other street food inspired dishes such as sandwiches and plantain canapés. Just note that it’s a very small place with an open kitchen, so it was pretty warm in there when we went in the evening – not sure it would be very comfortable during the day.

Rating – 3.5/5

Beer – BBC

We were in Cartagena at Superbowl time so needed to find a spot to enjoy the sport Shakira and J-Lo. We met some people for a drink at the BBC (Bogota Brewing Company) bar, where there was a range of beers that were reasonably priced. You can buy beers and ales by the bottle, pint or pitcher.

Rating – 3/5

Rosario Islands – Isla Grande

If you’re looking for good beaches in Cartagena you’ll need to head a little out of the city on a day or overnight trip. We opted to go to Isla Grande and stay overnight, partly to give us a little more time and partly because we had heard of the bioluminescent plankton visible at night in the ‘Enchanted Lake’.

Hostel – Paraiso Secreto

This is a hostel that appears all over other travel bloggers’ posts and is one of the only places you can stay on Isla Grande. It’s a site with 7 beautiful houses that have been converted to private and dorm rooms, a pool and a small private beach. It was once owned by Emerald Barons, then a sort of co-operative of 7 privately owned hostels working together, and is now run by one company. For what it is I felt it was very expensive (£18 a night for a bunk bed in an 8 person dorm), but these guys really have a monopoly on the island. There’s almost no other food options either – apparently if you walk far enough you’ll find a place run by locals but it’s equally as expensive for a fish and rice dinner. The hostel itself is nice enough, and it’s good to have a pool (with a slide!), but we felt that one night here was plenty for us.

Rating – 1.5/5

Sightseeing – Snorkelling Tour

Our hostel offered a daily snorkelling tour each morning, run by a local freediver. We went first to a sunken plane – rumoured to once belong to Pablo Escobar but actually put there to train divers. Then we went to an area of coral reef where we could swim and explore, and it was beautiful. Some patches of the coral were bleached but for the most part it was alive and brimming with wildlife. We saw squid, puffer fish, a plethora of tropical fish, eels and lots of jellyfish the size of a fingernail. They stung us intermittently for the whole time we were swimming, but luckily when they’re that small the pain only lasts 10 seconds or so. It was one of the best snorkelling trips we have done (probably beaten only by snorkelling in the Red Sea in Egypt, or the Gilli Islands of Indonesia).

Rating – 4/5
Yes I wear a swimming top to protect myself when snorkelling, all the cool kids do.

NB: We didn’t get to visit the bioluminescent lake because of the full moon which would have meant limited visibility, which was disappointing because we had heard great things.

Santa Marta

We originally headed to Santa Marta to visit the Tayrona National Park. We had learnt just before flying to Colombia that the national park is closed annually in February, so changed plans around to make sure we got here before the end of January. However, when we arrived we were told first that the park was already closed, then that tickets were sold out, then that tickets are available on the website only, then that the website is broken and we would have to buy tickets on the door. After looking in to it and becoming slightly confused, we actually decided that it was a little expensive (at $20 each). Plus, we have already been to some stunning national parks in Costa Rica and have some more planned in so it wasn’t a priority for us.Instead we took some time to relax, explore the city and catch up on some blogging.

Hostel – Faro de Alejandria

We found this hostel on HostelWorld where we paid £5.50 each a night for a bed in a 14 bed dorm, with breakfast. When we extended for an extra night directly with the hostel we paid just £4 each a night for the same bed so that’s worth considering. It was just us and two other Colombian ladies in our dorm, and we had an ensuite with a toilet and 2 showers. Breakfast was decent, and the hostel had great WiFi, a pool and a very cute kitten. The pod-style beds were also very comfy, and there was air conditioning.

Rating – 4/5

Café – Ikaro Cafe

A nice little cafe in the centre of town serving lots of vegan and vegetarian options. The sandwiches are great value for money, and delicious. I had a homemade mozzarella and pesto one, Frazer had chickpeas with a spicy peanut sauce and hummus. Both cost around £3.50 each. The smoothies were also delicious but the coffee and hot chocolate were disappointing (a bit bitter and watery).

Rating – 3.5/5

Looks great, tastes bad.

Restaurant – Maharaja Indian Restaurant

Maharaja is the number one cheap eat restaurant on Trip Advisor, and many of the reviews are from fellow Brits stating that they know a good curry when they see one. So of course we had to check it out. They do a good vegetarian set menu offer (called a Thali) which includes a main dish, rice, side, chapattis, salad and small dessert for just £5.60. The food was good (not as tasty as Indian restaurants in the UK), and the prices were great so it’s well worth a visit.

Rating – 3.5/5

Sightseeing – Museo del Oro

This museum is actually free! It has exhibitions about the native communities of this area of Colombia, gold (of course), Simon Bolivar, and the history of Santa Marta, and Cartagena. The descriptions are in both Spanish and English, and there are two floors to explore. Definitely worth a little visit if you’re in town.

Rating – 3/5

Ice-Cream – Gnam’s Gelateria

Lots of superb flavours to choose from in this little geletaria, including passion fruit, white chocolate and mojito. The ice cream was delicious and only £1.25 a scoop. A tip though – the ice creams have lots of bits in (think Ben and Jerry’s) so it would probably be more enjoyable in a tub as it was a bit tricky to eat our way through our cones without serious spillage issues!

Rating – 4/5

Of Colombia so far…

Best Bit – Cartagena

Specifically walking through the beautiful streets of Getsemani, looking at street art and finding quaint cafés and restaurants hidden along the way.Also, an honourable mention to the buses between Cartagena and Santa Marta – we went with Berlinastur who are apparently marginally more expensive than their competitor Marsol. Tickets were just £10 each and buses had WiFi, air conditioning and comfortable seats.

Worst Bit – Tayrona National Park Confusion

Even once we were actually in Santa Marta it was difficult to get information about visiting the park. Was it still open? Was it closing at the end of the week? Did we need to buy tickets online? Were they all sold out? If you’re hoping to go, just try to check the official website before going there which *sometimes* lists the closures.

Planning a trip to Colombia? Check out my guide to Medellin.