Although Cartagena is a popular and beautiful city, people who arrive there in search of white sand beaches and Caribbean blue water are often a little surprised and disappointed. For, although there are a few beaches in Cartagena, they aren’t great, they aren’t picture-postcard worthy, and they aren’t what you’ll have been dreaming of when planning your South American adventure.
The great news is that there are some stunning beaches and authentic experiences just a few hours away from Cartagena, which can easily be reached on a day trip tour or independently! And whilst time constraints may mean that travelling around a lot of Colombia during your holiday is not a possibility, that doesn't mean that you have to be confined to the city for the duration of your stay.
From several Caribbean islands to a mud volcano and two unique villages, here are our pick of the best day trips from Cartagena.
San Basilio de Palenque
If you are only in Colombia for a short time, this day trip to a village which has been declared a site of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO is the best way to get more insight into day-to-day life and the history of the country.
San Basilio de Palenque is just a one hour drive from Cartagena, and it was one of the first freed slave city of the Americas. It’s from this village which the famous fruit-selling and vibrantly dressed palanquera ladies of Cartagena have their name. The traditions, language, and culture of the village remain strong, and it is renowned as the birthplace of several important musicians in Colombia.
Do it independently | It is possible to get to the village turnoff by bus, but we feel you are best to take a guided visit.
Take a tour | This full-day tour to the village of Palenque, includes hotel pick-up, lunch, and various cultural visits and activities.
Playa Blanca + Isla Baru
The classic Cartagena day trip.
Isla Baru is now connected to Cartagena by road, and many visitors to the city pair exploring its beautiful colonial streets with a morning and afternoon on the narrow white sand beach on this island. Playa Blanca’s water is a gorgeous blue, and though the beach does become very busy with locals and tourists on weekends and in high season, during the week it’s still a decent option if you want to enjoy a fresh fish lunch, sip on a cocktail or cold beer or two, top up the tan and have a dip in the ocean.
Do it independently | You can find instructions on how to reach Playa Blanca with public transport here. If going it alone, then consider leaving your bags back at the hostel in Cartagena and spending a night at one of the basic hostels on the beach so you can enjoy it after the crowds leave.
Take a tour | If you're short on time, then check out this day trip to Playa Blanca which includes hotel pick-up, round-trip transport, and lunch.
Tip | It took us bloody ages whist in Cartagena to work out that Playa Blanca is on Isla Baru were one and the same, so we thought we’d save you the confusion! A day trip to Playa Blanca from Cartagena is the same as a day trip to Isla Baru! Also, the beach does attract a lot of people but Colombians hate walking - walk further to find a more tranquil section of beach.
The Rosario Islands
If Playa Blanca doesn’t tempt you, then perhaps one of the other islands a little further from Cartagena will (however lots and lots of people also get mixed up and think that Playa Blanca is part of the Rosario Islands - it’s not).
The Rosario Islands archipelago was declared a national park in 1988, and its 28 islands are a mixture of those open to the public, those left to nature, and those owned by wealthy Colombians. However, the two largest islands - Isla Grande and Isla del Rosario - are arrival and jump-off points for tours and independent travellers. As well as being home to a few resorts and hotels, these verdant palm-tree islands in the Caribbean Sea are perfect for snorkelling in the clear blue, a more secluded peaceful beach experience than on Playa Blanca, and a slice of nature.
Do it independently | Unlike Playa Blanca + Isla Baru, you have to take a speedboat to the Rosario Islands. If you’re going for a day, it’s possible to book a place at various resorts which allow you to take their boat shuttle to/from Cartagena and use the facilities whilst on the island - however this seems to be something that’s more popular with Colombians. Alternatively you can arrange your own transport and pay to use them for the day.
Read Next | 21 Things To Know Before You Visit Cartagena
The journey takes about 45-60min with the lancha rapida (speed boat) or an hour and a half with the slow boat. All boats leave from El Muelle La Bodeguita (not far from the Walled City’s clock tower), and your best bet is to arrive for a departure between 8 - 9 a.m. A one-way ticket from Cartagena to Isla Grande costs 40.000 COP + 17,500 COP for port fees, so a total of £13.5 / $17.6. Make sure you tell them where you’re going on the islands so you get dropped off at the right point, and note that the last public boat leaves at 10 a.m.
There will be many people at the Muelle trying to sell packages etc, or to offer you the boat ticket - avoid them and got straight to the ticket agency for the boat company. Also, your best bet is to only buy a one-way ticket as it’s not uncommon for boats to leave without people who have paid.
If you have a longer trip in Colombia, then spending a few nights on Isla Grande is a really great idea as there are various beaches, trails, and things to do which aren’t possible on a day trip - take a look at some of the accommodation on Isla Grande.
Take a tour | Day tours involve a 45-minute morning boat ride to the Isla Grande from Cartagena before a return at 4 p.m. Note that most tour prices do not include the 17,500 COP port fee. This full-day Rosario Islands Catamaran experience is a popular option.
Those with a passion for nature will find a trip to La Boquilla’s mangrove swamps fascination.
The small fishing village is only 20 minutes away from Cartagena by car, and it offers insights into how pivotal fishing has always been to the rural Afro-Colombian communities who reside here. On a day trip tour, you will gain an insight into a different side of Colombia, paddle in wooden canoes through the protected mangrove swamp canals, and learn some of the old fishing techniques still used before enjoying a fish lunch.
Take a tour | This 3-Hour Canoe Trip in Boquilla tour includes round-trip transport from Cartagena.
El Totumo Mud Volcano
If you’re a fan of Suits, then you have to do this. After all, this day trip offers you the chance to “go mudding in Cartagena” just like Louis Litt!
Though it’s pretty small, there’s no doubt that this is a really fun and a unique experience. Where else are you able to immerse yourself in dense skin temperature mud in an active mud volcano mound and come out looking like swamp monster?! Go with friends or a few other travellers in a tour group and you will definitely to know each other quite well and quite quickly by doing this!
Take a tour | Lots are offered in Cartagena, but you can book in advance with this half-day tour which includes hotel pick-up.
Tip | Bring swimming stuff, a change of clothes, towel, and a bit of extra money in small notes - you essentially are expected to tip 5,000 COP for every single little thing here, like someone taking your photo or washing you down after. Mud massages obviously cost extra too. Leave the rest of your valuables back at the hostel (although there are lockers).
One final island to visit on a day trip from Cartagena is Tierra Bomba. Formerly a key strategic defence point for the Spanish, it is home to several old forts and structures which were once used ward off pirates and other colonial invaders.
Now jome to under 10,000 people, Tierra Bomba’s sandy white beach (Punta Arena) and local seafood lunches served in the sunshine are more inviting than those you see just across the water in the Bocagrande city beach.
You can reach the island by boat from the main ports in Cartagena.
Do it independently | A 10-minute water taxi from Bocagrande for 15,000 COP (one-way).
What About Tayrona?
The beaches of Tayrona National Park are famous for good reason, and have become the poster child for Colombia. Although we don’t think a day trip from Cartagena or even Santa Marta is the best way to experience them, we know that some of you may be keen to try and squeeze in a visit during your time in Colombia.
Do it independently | From Cartagena, it’s not possible or advisable to visit Tayrona on an independent day trip. If you’d like to know more about alternative options and how to reach Tayrona with public transport, read this guide.
Take a tour | This full-day Tayrona tour from Cartagena includes a very early morning departure but will bring you to the highlights of the national park.