Things to Do in Caribbean Coast
With brightly-colored buildings, colonial landmarks, and bougainvillea-covered balconies, Old Town Cartagena is known for its beauty and its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Highlights include the leafy Plaza de Bolivar, the striking Clock Tower (Torre del Reloj), and the Gold Museum (Museo de Oro).
As well as offering respite from Cartagena’s Caribbean heat with its leafy trees, Bolivar Square (Plaza Bolivar) is home to both the Palace of the Inquisition museum and the Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Zenu). In between museums, sample Colombian coffee and snacks from street vendors and admire the eponymous statue of Simon Bolivar at the square’s center.
Totumo Volcano (El Totumo) ranks among Cartagena’s most popular day trips. A small volcanic caldera has become a top attraction—a naturally heated bath of grayish brown silt. After bobbing around in the soupy mix, head to the lagoon next door to wash off the mineral-rich mud, thought to have therapeutic properties.
Shoppers, barhoppers, and photography enthusiasts flock to picturesque Las Bovedas, located at the northeastern corner of Cartagena’s old walled city. Dozens of archways—stretching from Santa Clara to Santa Catalina Fortress—are home to souvenir shops, jewelry stores, small bars, and galleries.
Located at the base of San Felipe Castle, the Old Shoes Monument (Los Zapatos Viejos) is a giant sculpture of a pair of old boots. A popular spot for a selfie, the monument was created by Hector Lombana Piñeres in response to the poem “Mi Ciudad Nativa” by local poet (and one of South America’s most respected writers) Luis Carlos López.
Built in 1911 to commemorate a century of Colombian independence, Cartagena’s Teatro Adolfo Mejia (Teatro Heredia) was designed by Luis Felipe Jasper and based on the Italian-Caribbean design of Havana’s Tacon Theater. Restored in 1970 and again in 1988, the grand theater is famous for its Italian marble stairs and sculptures, and on the ceiling you can see artwork by the famous Cartagenan artist Enrique Grau.
Located in the Plaza de la Merced in Cartagena’s Old Town, the theater’s performance hall is known for its acoustics and shaped like a horseshoe, with Portuguese wooden balconies looking onto the stage which hosts local and international acts.
Officially named the Teatro Heredia Adolfo Mejia, on the second week of January each year, Teatro Heredia hosts the Classical Music Festival of Cartagena.
At the main entrance to Cartagena’s Old Town, La India Catalina Monument is a bronze rendering of the Doña Marina of Colombia — India Catalina.
The daughter of a local chief, in 1509 Catalina was abducted, aged 14, from her home in Galerazamba. Once she’d learned Spanish in the Dominican Republic, she was thereon required to accompany the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia as an interpreter and pacifying presence in interactions between the Spanish and indigenous groups.
The local Calamari people were decimated in the Spanish conquest, and that was in part due to Catalina’s collusion with the Spanish. In that sense, it might seem strange that the sculpture of her has become so iconic, but really, it’s a tribute to the indigenous people who inhabited this land before the Spanish conquest.
Sculpted by the Spanish artist Eladio Gil Zambrana and unveiled in 1974, the monument has become so well-known around Cartagena that small-scale replicas are handed out as awards at the Cartagena Film Festival.
In Cartagena's Old Town, every evening the Plaza de San Diego becomes lively with street performers entertaining the crowds. Vendors sell everything from jewelry to Cuban cigars to paintings, and as the day ends, the traffic gets blocked on two sides so that more outdoor seating can be laid on outside the restaurants lining the square.
Surrounded by ice cream-colored buildings and bougainvillea-covered balconies just outside the Old Town’s core area, the Plaza de San Diego is a lasting relic of the wealth Cartagena held during the days of the gold, sugar, and slave trade's peak. Home to the famous Hotel Santa Clara, the square is a popular place to sit down, order a drink or a bite to eat, and watch the world go by while listening to live music by the local street performers.
Opened in 1982, Cartagena's Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Zenu) is dedicated to Colombia's indigenous Zenu people. Housed in a grand colonial building facing the Plaza Bolivar, the first room greets visitors with a pre-Hispanic golden jaguar and an ornate gold filigree butterfly. In fact, there are 538 gold pieces to see, as well as 61 carvings, including bone carvings, which you'll find in the next room — La Sociedad — dedicated to the body painting and textile traditions of the Zenú.
The final exhibit, La Epoca Hidráulico, profiles the Zenú people's hydraulic engineering feats. It's estimated that, up to 2,500 years ago, half a million hectares of Panzenu land was cultivated with the aid of a vast network of hand-excavated canals that ran up to 4km long and 10 meters wide, making them some of the largest man-made features in the Americas. Cartagena’s Gold Museum also has an onsite bookshop and auditorium.
Sitting atop the highest point in Cartagena, Convento de la Popa is a 17th-century convent characterized by graceful stone arcades and an interior courtyard filled with flowers. History and architecture aside, the biggest draw of the convent is the scenery: from the 500-foot (152-meter) perch, travelers are rewarded with sweeping views of the Caribbean coast and colonial city.
More Things to Do in Caribbean Coast
Cartagena’s Cathedral of San Pedro Claver (Iglesia de San Pedro Claver) immortalizes the life of Saint Pedro Claver, one of the first human rights pioneers in the Americas. The austere stone facade of the cathedral alludes to a peaceful interior, where visitors can pay their respects to the remains of the saint, which are visible through a gilded glass case.
Founded in 1534, Santo Domingo Church (Iglesia Santo Domingo) is the oldest church in Cartagena. As well as being notable for its marble altar and imposing central nave, the church boasts a prime location on Plaza Santo Domingo, where street vendors and al fresco cafes create a vibrant atmosphere.
Some historians say that if it weren’t for San Felipe de Barajas Castle (Castillo San Felipe de Barajas), South America would now speak English. The 14th-century fortress protected the coastal city of Cartagena from English invasion, allowing the Spanish to maintain their rule. Besides the role it plays in Colombia’s history, the castle attracts visitors with its panoramic harbor views.
Sandwiched between picturesque beaches and lush mountains, Santa Marta is both the oldest surviving city in Colombia and a gateway to Tayrona National Park. Explore the UNESCO-recognized historic center on foot, making time to visit highlights such as the 18th century cathedral, Tayrona Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Tairona), and Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino.
Home to around 190 different species of bird, the National Aviary of Colombia harbors diverse flora and more than 2,000 birds. The 17-acre (7-hectare) park categorises birds according to three Colombian ecosystems—tropical rainforest, coastal zone, and desert—and promises an enriching experience for wildlife lovers.
The Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida, is the archaeological site of an ancient indigenous city in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Thought to have been a commercial center for trade around 700 A.D., its population probably ranged between 1,400 and 3,000 inhabitants. Hidden in the jungle for over a thousand years, the Lost City was found in 1972 when treasure hunters followed a series of stone steps leading up to an abandoned city.
The Lost City is open to visitors, but the trip is not for the faint of heart. The nearly 30 mile trek takes visitors through farmland and jungle on an unforgettable six-day journey. Part of the adventure includes trekking over mountains filled with exotic plants and animals, climbing stone paths through dense jungle, bathing in waterfalls and sleeping in indigenous villages.
Upon arriving at Lost City, climb more than 1,000 stone steps to the top of the site for incredible views of the surrounding mountains and jungle. Take time to explore the more than 250 stone terraces that were carved out of the mountainside, each of which was a space for living and working. The different areas of the city were joined to the fields by a network of cobbled paths and stairs, and an irrigation system channels rainwater downhill to avoid damage and erosion.
Members of local tribes, including the Arhuacos, Koguis, and others, continue to maintain many of their ancestral beliefs and customs. They visited the site regularly before it was widely discovered, and gave it the name Teyuna. This trek takes you through some of their villages where life has remained unchanged for centuries.
Ruins, reefs, mangroves, and beaches make up the 37,000-acre Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most popular ecotourism destinations. Visit to hike along the coast, relax on the beaches, snorkel among the coral reefs, or simply disconnect from daily life.
The final resting place of South American liberator Simón Bolívar, the 17th-century Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino is now a historical landmark, museum, gallery, and botanical garden containing over 200 works of contemporary South American art. See where Bolívar took his last breath, marvel over antique artefacts, wander the expansive gardens, and admire artworks from the countries that Bolívar liberated.
On the edge of Tayrona National Natural Park and the northern coast of Colombia, Crystal Beach(Playa Cristal) is one of the most picturesque white sand beaches in South America. Its clear turquoise waters provide ideal conditions for swimming and snorkeling. Many come to relax on the soft sand shaded by coconut palms or to eat fresh seafood caught right off the shore. It is also a great base for exploring the Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most important protected ecological areas, for the day.
Marine life in the waters off Crystal Beach(Playa Cristal) includes sea turtles, dolphins, and several species of fish. Even without spotting one these creatures, the coral and sponges of the reef provide colorful underwater scenes. The Caribbean reefs offshore also attract those seeking scuba diving and other water sports.
Housed in the restored 16th-century former Customs House—itself one of the oldest buildings in the Americas—the Tayrona Gold Museum (Museo del Oro Tairona) offers an insight into the region’s history. Admire a vast collection of pre-Columbian gold and pottery, while learning about the indigenous Tairona people.
Just off the coast of northern Colombia, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park is home to a wealth of endangered flora and fauna as well as the world’s highest coastal peak. Dominated by mountains and popular among hikers, this UNESCO-recognized national park is home to bird reserves, archaeological ruins, and indigenous villages.
Former Colombian football player Carlos El PibeValderrama is known for his athletic ability and his outgoing personality, and this 22-foot-tall bronze statue of him in his hometown conveys both qualities. He is known as “El Pibe” or “the kid” and for his blond curly head of hair. His distinct personality has made him one of the most recognizable figures in football worldwide. Part of the Colombian national team in the 1990s, he represented Colombia in several international tournaments and became known for his skills in passing and accuracy in assisting. He is one of few foreign players who joined Major League Soccer in the United States.
His statue is the work of Colombian artist Amilkar Ariza, standing tall outside the Estadio Eduardo Santos in Santa Marta. It was erected in 2006 in honor of his contributions to Colombian national sports.
Backed by verdant mountains and lined with swaying palms, Playa Blanca is a tropical paradise situated just outside of Santa Marta. Go for a swim in the calm waters, enjoy a fresh seafood lunch, and relax under a thatched roof palapa for a quieter alternative to El Rodadero Beach.
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