The secret’s obviously out: Colombia is the trendy place to visit. Never mind the history, the corrupt politics, or the drug cartels. They may still persist but savvy travelers are now looking beyond the stereotypes and on to Colombia’s deserted coastlines, rainbow-hued plazas, dance-crazed locals, and of course, its damn fine coffee. If you want adventure on Colombian coast, look no further.
Inevitably, most backpackers hit up the extraordinary Caribbean coast, basing themselves in the gringo hotspots of Cartagena and Santa Marta. Both cities offer plenty in terms of history, culinary surprises, and luxury accommodation.
But for some real excitement, reach beyond the cities and check off these five epic adventures:
Budget-friendly restaurant: Caffé Lunático (15,000 peso lunch special)
Splurge: Restaurante Interno (staffed by a woman’s prison!)
Budget-friendly hotel: El Genoves hostel
Splurge: Allure Chocolate Hotel
1. Dive into a mud volcano
Fancy a therapeutic mud bath? How about one inside a natural mud volcano? Although the Colombian coast is actually home to a few of these volcanoes, Volcán de Lodo El Totumo is the most accessible, via a half-day trip from Cartagena. The mud pit isn’t huge— about 15 feet in diameter— and depending on the time of the day, you might have around 20 people sharing your gritty bath (hand check!) Regardless, revel in the sensation of feeling weightless. Or being able to paint your friends’ faces with the mud’s skin-renewing minerals. Post mud, a local lady will treat you to a very thorough and shameless rinse, necessary for those hidden crannies. Pro tip: bring your own GoPro or waterproof camera and avoid paying the photographers hanging around at the top (though they’ll say you have to pay, you don’t).
2. Try Subwinging at Casa en el Agua
It’s a retreat to end all retreats, a hostel atop its own island, stranded amongst the San Bernardo islands. Most hostel guests are content swimming, chowing down on seafood, or simply lounging around while taking advantage of the numerous happy hours. But for something a bit more active, try Subwinging. You hold on to a flat board with wings, as a small boat pulls you along. Tilt the wings to dive under the water or twist them to spin like a gleeful dolphin, like this. To add a bit of luxury to your Casa experience, opt for the El Nido Amor (love nest) private suite instead of one of the wind-prone hammocks. Booking is only available 30 days ahead of time and tends to sells out fast; it’s quite the popular place! Pro-tip: bring lots of cash (no credit cards accepted) and seriously don’t plan to leave or arrive on Sundays as there are no boats that connect to Cartagena that day. The alternative is rather unpleasant.
(Via Santa Marta)
Budget-friendly restaurant: Lulo Cafe Bar
Splurge: Ouzo Restaurante
Budget-friendly hotel: Drop Bear Hostel (once a drug cartel mansion)
Splurge: Placita Vieja Hotel Boutique Spa
3. Motorcycle along the coast to Riohacha
You don’t have to be a hefty tattooed man to embrace the freedom of a motorcycle. Adrenaline Addicts, run out of the Drop Bear hostel mentioned above, offers motorcycle tours spanning one to seven days depending on your interests. If you have never ridden a motorcycle, no worries! A quick intro lesson and you’re off (so as long as you know how to drive manual. Otherwise, you’ll have to opt for the scooter). Once you clear the city limits of Santa Marta, it’s smooth cruising from there. Race past small villages and make stops along popular beach destinations like Costeño and Palomino (check out La Frontera for their epic banana and guava pizza!) For the ultimate adventure, sign up for the 5-day ride which takes you all the way out toward Riohacha, famous for sand sports. Pro-tip: bring face wipes to keep your face clean and pad your butt with a good pair of pants.
4. Trek the arduous Ciudad Perdida
For ultimate thigh punishment, push yourself to trek the 45-kilometer Ciudad Perdida. This four-day jaunt and major bucket list endeavor leads you to the Lost City, a massive archeological structure abandoned at the end of the 16th century. Think pre-Machu Picchu without the hoards of tourists or easy access. Travelers must join a tour group (Magic Tour and Expotur are popular), all of which offer complete room and board, the room being bunk beds or hammocks in established mountain huts. As you hike, soak in the bird calls, the indigenous sites, and vastness of the Sierra Nevadas. The Lost City itself resembles a tiered cake platter, one supporting a history full of mystery, gold, drugs, and looting. Pro-tip: keep your legs and feet covered the whole time— during the hike itself and even when you sleep— or risk mosquito hell.
5. Discover the world’s largest hammock in Minca
Minca is located about 30 minutes from Santa Marta, a cool mountain escape renowned for its coffee plantations and panoramic views. These days, however, backpackers make the journey via bus and motorbike to visit Casa Elemento. It is here that the proclaimed “world’s biggest hammock” is situated, high above the treetops. The hammock itself has seen better days, and users need to watch their step or else risk falling through a few of the oversized holes. However, the Instagram opportunities are worth it. Though most visitors choose to also sleep at Elemento, you can visit on a day pass for a cool 20,000 pesos. This also secures you a cocktail to enjoy whilst hammocking. Pro-tip: for a more exclusive experience, sleep at Casas Viejas, where you can step away from the crowds but still hike to the hammock in less than two hours.
Tam is an American travel writer and educator, who worked in Colombia for a year. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @fresh.coffee.stains or read her blog http://freshcoffeestains.com.