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Cartagena is a vibrant, historic city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and it definitely holds a special place in our hearts. We actually fell so in love with this place (especially the gorgeous Old City) that we decided to live here for a couple of months!
We quickly discovered that one of the best things about spending time in Cartagena was all the amazing day trips you can take from the city. From relaxing on the beautiful Rosario Islands to swimming in a mud volcano, there are so many fun experiences within easy reach of Cartagena. It’s no wonder Cartagena is one of the best places to visit in South America!
Although there’s a ton to do in the city itself, you should definitely plan some day trips from Cartagena. We’ve listed our top 10 picks and included everything you need to know about visiting so that you can enjoy traveling around Colombia just as much as we did.
Don’t have time to read the full article? Our absolute favorite day trips from Cartagena include:
- Visiting the Rosario Islands – you’ll need a boat and this tour takes you via a luxurious catamaran!
- Taking a mud bath in El Totumo Mud Volcano, it’s full of minerals that are great for your skin!
- See the stunning Tayrona National Park, but it’s a bit far to drive, so we recommend this guided tour so you can sleep on the way.
Day Trips From Cartagena
1. Rosario Islands
- Distance from Cartagena: 37 kilometers (23 miles)
- Time needed: 8 hours
- What you need: Boat tour
You really can’t miss the Rosario Islands while you’re in Cartagena. This chain of picture-perfect Caribbean Islands has clear blue water, white sand, and fantastic snorkeling. Basically, they’re the kind of place you see on a postcard or a desktop screensaver!
Luckily some of the best tours from Cartagena visit this piece of paradise. You’ll need to take a boat tour and we chose this one and had an amazing day sailing around on a luxury catamaran. We stopped to snorkel near Isla Grande and Isla Baru and had lunch on the boat, which was actually really yummy.
There was also music and free soft drinks on board. We did have to arrange our own transport to the pier as hotel pickup wasn’t included, but that was super easy. It costs $90 USD per person and we would definitely recommend booking a spot on this tour to anyone who wants a relaxing day on a boat with beautiful views.
If you want more of a party atmosphere, this tour to Isla Cholón is perfect, albeit less luxurious. But for $75 USD including hotel pickup, drinks, lunch on the beach, and time to relax in the overwater huts in front of Isla Cholón, it’s really good value! The boat has a maximum of 20 people and 3 crew, so it’s not too crowded. Plus it’s equipped with speakers and the music is going from the start, so you’ll be dancing!
Or if you’re in a group, you can charter a private boat around the Rosario Islands. Your captain will suggest beaches and snorkel spots to visit but it’s totally up to you. You literally get to design your perfect day! It costs $699 USD to charter the boat for 8 hours, and you can have up to 10 people on board. So if you have a bunch of friends, this VIP experience actually ends up being cheaper than a lot of other tours. The tour has dozens of 5-star reviews and you can easily book right here!
2. San Basilio de Palenque
- Distance from Cartagena: 50 kilometers (31 miles)
- Time needed: 6 hours
- What you need: Guided tour
San Basilio de Palenque is an absolutely fascinating place to visit and so we highly recommend a day tour to this small village while you’re in Colombia.
Located just an hour’s drive from Cartagena, San Basilio became known as the first free African town in the Americas after it was liberated from Spanish rule in 1691. It’s an amazing place to learn about Afro-Colombian heritage and culture, and the hardships that the community has endured.
Technically, you can visit San Basilio de Palenque independently but it’s definitely best to take a guided tour. The whole point of visiting San Basilio is to learn about the Palenque history, language, and culture, so you really do get so much more out of it by taking a tour.
We booked this private freedom tour of Palenque because we wanted to learn as much as possible, and we definitely got our wish! We heard so many stories, discovered traditional Palenque music and dancing, and even learned about traditional medicine from a local doctor.
It was such a fun day and the 6 hours just flew by. The tour is really enjoyable, but we also believe that it’s so important because it teaches you a lot about the history of slavery in Colombia and the Palenque community’s fight for freedom.
The tour costs $110 USD per person including private round-trip transport from Cartagena, all activities, and a traditional lunch with rum. It’s offered daily and you can reserve a spot in advance.
Related Read: Fill up your bucket list here with a full guide on the 50 BEST things to do in Colombia!
3. El Totumo Mud Volcano
- Distance from Cartagena: 64 kilometers (40 miles)
- Time needed: 5 hours
- What you need: Car, guided tour
There are lots of reasons to love the city of Cartagena, one of them being that there’s a mud volcano just an hour’s drive away! Yup, that’s right, you can jump into the El Totumo mud volcano for the ultimate skin treatment. And if you like, you can even get a mud massage for around $3 USD.
The volcano is only around 15 meters tall (49 feet), so you don’t need to hike up, and there are even wooden steps going up the side. There’s a wooden pool at the top so there’s not a big drop to get in, so you can just relax and enjoy your mineral-rich mud bath. You feel weightless as you float on the thick mud – we loved it!
If you’re renting a car in Cartagena, then you can drive yourself to El Totumo. You’ll need to pay the entrance fee of 20,000 COP (around $5 USD), and then tip the locals if you want a mud massage and for them to help you wash all of the mud off after (which you definitely will!)
Or, if not, you can book this private tour like we did. Not only was it super convenient as it included round-trip transport, but we also loved the fact that our guide taught us so much about the history of the volcano and just made the whole day so much fun.
Plus, we also got to visit the Pink Sea, aka the Salinas de Galerazamba. However, the pink sea isn’t always pink, as it depends on the weather conditions and the time of year (more on that later). Still, the tour is definitely worth it just for the mud volcano!
Prices start from $95 USD per person, but the cost does vary by group size. If you book for 4 or more adults, it’s $75 USD apiece. The price includes snacks along the way and you should also bring some cash to tip locals for mud massages, photos, and washing off the mud. Around 12,500 COP ($3 USD) each tends to be the going rate, but your guide will help you with this.
The private tour we took is available to book right here so you can visit the mud volcano on your trip!
4. Pink Sea
- Distance from Cartagena: 71 kilometers (44 miles)
- Time needed: 5 hours
- What you need: Car, guided tour
The Galerazamba salt mines – aka the Pink Sea – are a series of man-made lakes about 15 minutes down the road from El Totumo Mud Volcano.
We’ll be honest, the Pink Sea is not always super pink! The color is caused by microorganisms living in the water, so the hue is affected by the rain and the time of year. The best time to go is on a dry day in either January, February, August, or September.
Often, outside of these months, the water doesn’t actually look pink at all, and to be honest, many of the pictures you see on Instagram are heavily edited.
You also can’t swim in the water at any time of year, because the salt crystals are way too sharp!
But with that being said, we still think that the Galerazamba salt mines are worth a visit, even if you don’t get to see them at their most vibrant. Since they’re so close to the mud volcano, you can easily tick off both of these natural attractions in one day if you’re driving. And if you’re taking the same mud volcano tour that we did, a visit to the salt mines is included after your mud bath.
5. Playa Blanca
- Distance from Cartagena: 29 kilometers (18 miles)
- Time needed: 5 hours
- What you need: Car, ferry, shuttle, taxi, guided tour
Playa Blanca is a 5-kilometer (3-mile) long, white sand beach on Isla Barú. Now Isla Barú is, somewhat confusingly, not an island but a peninsula, so you can actually drive or take a shuttle here!
It’s a gorgeous beach but its beauty, coupled with the fact it’s only a 45-minute drive from the city center, means that it gets super busy here. We found that the vendors were also super pushy and often tried to rip tourists off.
However, Playa Blanca is still worth visiting. Those crystal-clear waters are too hard to resist!
You can book a shuttle to the beach for $17 USD return per person. Meanwhile, the taxi fare is 85,300 COP ($21 USD) each way, so it can work out fairly cheaply if you’re splitting it between 3-4 people.
If you’re worried about being ripped off and hassled a lot, but are still keen to spend the day on this stunning beach, then we recommend booking this full-day guided tour. Your guide will take you away from the crowds and help you negotiate with vendors if you do want to buy something to ensure that you pay a fair price.
The tour costs $75 USD per person or $90 USD including lunch – which is typically a yummy fried fish, plantains, and coconut rice. We think this tour it’s definitely worth it in order to enjoy this beach in relative peace and quiet. Plus, you’ll learn about the neighborhoods and fishing villages that you pass through along the way, so you get a deeper insight into the local area, too. The tour is only available on weekdays and you can book a spot right here.
Related Read: Heading to Bogota next? Don’t miss checking out a Bogota Graffiti Tour – it was one of the top things we did while in the city.
6. Tierra Bomba
- Distance from Cartagena: 10 kilometers (6.2 miles)
- Time needed: 6 hours
- What you need: Boat, guided tour
Tierra Bomba is an island just off the coast of Cartagena. It’s best known for its beach clubs, but there are also two 18th-century forts here since Cartagena was often subject to pirate attacks in those days.
The beaches here are really pretty and since the island is so close to the city, it’s the perfect place to escape for a day! We loved Cartagena, but we love beach days even a little bit more.
It’s pretty easy to get to Tierra Bomba. All you need to do is head to the old port and from there you can arrange a boat ride for around 25,000 COP ($6 USD) each way. You can also choose your preferred drop-off point on the island. The only problem is this can be tricky to arrange if you don’t speak much Spanish!
The best beaches on Tierra Bomba are generally found on the south side of the island, and weekends are a great time to visit because this is when locals head to the island to party.
The Ibiza-inspired Blue Apple Beach Club is one of the most popular places to go. A day here means a private beach, fun activities like snorkeling and kayaking, or just time to lounge in the sun (yes, please!). Plus, there’s a flag system to signal if you need food or want to buy from local vendors, which cuts down on interruptions. If you want to spend the day here, you can book a package deal for $160 USD which includes the boat rides to/from Cartagena, entry fees, towels, and a 3-course lunch.
We also like this tour of Tierra Bomba, because you get to visit the San Fernando Fort and learn more about its history, and then get entry to the Playa Morena Beach Club. For $39 USD, the tour includes transport, admission, lunch at the beach club, and a tour of the fort. It lasts for 7 hours and we definitely think it’s worth doing since you get a great overview of the island and plenty of time to relax at the beach. You can book a spot on this budget-friendly beach tour here!
Why We Book Tours with Viator
Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! We almost always book our tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:
- Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
- Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
- Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
- Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.
7. Drumming and Dancing La Boquilla
- Distance from Cartagena: 15 kilometers (9.3 miles)
- Time needed: 3 hours
- What you need: Guided tour
La Boquilla is a fishing village located just outside of Cartagena. It’s surrounded by mangroves and, like San Basilio, is known for its Afro-Caribbean heritage, as well as for having one of Colombia’s only Blue Flag beaches.
It feels miles away from the big, buzzing city of Cartagena, so it’s an awesome place to witness a different and authentic side of Colombia.
One of the best ways to experience La Boquilla is to immerse yourself in its culture via drumming and dance classes! This guided tour picks you up from Cartagena and takes you to La Boquilla to learn about the rich cultural traditions of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. You’ll partake in a dance class where you’ll learn classic styles including champeta!
After all that drumming and dancing you’ll probably be pretty sweaty, which is why the tour concludes with a dip in the ocean before you head back to Cartagena.
We think that this tour is an awesome way to support local artists in their mission to preserve their culture, and it’s so much more fun than just driving to La Boquilla by yourself. It costs $198 USD per person and when you book online, there is a range of start times to choose from, so it’s nice and flexible.
8. ATV tour
We love Cartagena but it’s so nice to get out of the city and explore the countryside – especially on an adrenaline-fuelled ATV ride!
This popular ATV tour takes you racing along dirt trails in the Colombian countryside, and it’s so much fun. You’ll get to visit hidden beaches and explore the quiet coastline, so you really do get off the beaten track with this half-day trip.
One of the things we like the most about this tour is that you get to enjoy barbecued seafood on the beach at the end. Bring some small change for this as it’s not included in the price of the tour, but it’s such a nice way to wrap up the experience.
You’ll also have a chance to swim at the beaches and you’ll have a local guide to show you all of the secret pathways. There’s also a maximum of 11 people per group, so it’s a close-knit experience and a good way to meet some other travelers.
The tour costs $135 USD per person and you get to ride a single ATV. Participants need to be at least 16 years old, so this isn’t well-suited to families but it’s great for solo travelers, couples, and groups of friends.
It has hundreds of 5-star reviews and you can see why by booking a spot on this ATV tour online here!
9. Tayrona National Park
- Distance from Cartagena: 242 kilometers (150.3 miles)
- Time needed: 17 hours
- What you need: Guided tour
While Tayrona National Park is one of the best places to visit in Colombia, we’ll preface this by saying that it’s a VERY long day trip from Cartagena to get here. It’s definitely better to stay overnight in Tayrona National Park or visit from Santa Marta, but if you’re pressed for time then you can do it in just one day.
Tayrona National Park is fast becoming one of Colombia’s most popular tourist destinations, and we’re really not surprised. We’ve been here twice and we can confirm that it really is beautiful, diverse, and has clean beaches (sometimes these can feel hard to come by in Colombia!). There are scenic hiking trails and a protected coral reef to explore with more than 400 types of fish!
Again, we’ll level with you: visiting Tayrona National Park can be pretty complex and there are lots of rules. Plus, it’s a 4.5-hour journey each way. So really, it’s only worth visiting if you go as part of a guided tour. Otherwise, you may just collapse with exhaustion.
With this guided tour, someone else will handle the driving for you while you can sleep in the back of the bus. They’ll also handle all of the details and make sure that you get to see the park’s most scenic spots and best beaches. All you need to do is bring your passport and some cash (and preferably some sunscreen and bug spray, too).
The tour runs on Tuesdays and Fridays, and costs $130 USD per person, including lunch and all entry fees. So for a hassle-free way to see Tayrona National Park, reserve a spot on this tour!
Related Read: Once you’re at Tayrona, you are SO close to one of the most beautiful beaches in the country. Read our ultimate guide on visiting Costeño Beach, Colombia so you can go to!
10. Colombian National Aviary
- Distance from Cartagena: 34 kilometers (21 miles)
- Time needed: 4 hours
- What you need: Car, bus + colectivo, or guided tour
A half-day trip to the Colombian National Aviary is a must for nature lovers. It’s about an hour south of Cartagena on Isla Barú, and it’s super impressive. There are over 135 species of birds here, living in their natural habitats, and the aviary does a lot of important conservation work, which we’re all for.
At the aviary, you’ll find a coastal zone where you can see birds like storks, cormorants, flamingos, and scarlet ibis. There’s also a tropical zone where you can see toucans and harpy eagles, as well as a lake and a desert area. In short, this place is huge!
It only takes a few hours to visit, but it can take a while to get here without a rental car or guided tour. If you want to visit independently, you can take the bus from the Centro to Pasacaballos, and then take a motorbike taxi or colectivo the rest of the way. Altogether, this should cost somewhere around 13,000 COP ($3 USD) each way, and it will take around 1.5-2 hours.
Or, you can take the easier route and book this private tour, including round-trip transport, entry fees, and a guided tour of the aviary. Not only is this a lot easier than taking the bus, but you also get to learn so much more about all of the beautiful birds and habitats that you see along the way. It’s $158 USD each for two people, but the cost drops the more people you book for. So if you have a group of birdwatchers, booking this tour is a great idea!
Where to Stay in Cartagena
I have no doubt you will love Cartagena as much as I do, so you’ll want to plan to stay here for a while so you can take a few tours, day trips, and have some free time. Save yourself the hassle now and trust me on booking a few days here to enjoy.
I highly recommend staying in the Old Town just to soak up the history and have all the best sights within walking distance. All these hotels are in that part of the city and are for a variety of budgets, so you can find the right one for you.
Maloka Boutique Hostel – $
Right in the heart of the walled part of the city, Maloka Boutique Hostel is an affordable option that still puts you in the best area. It’s nice and quiet too as it isn’t right next to any clubs or bars.
Don’t let the word “hostel” discourage you – there are rooms with a shared bathroom or completely private rooms too. This place feels like a little home away from home – especially with a yummy breakfast and fantastic Colombian coffee included in your room price starting at $50 USD! Book your room now with Booking.com.
Ayenda El Viajero #2 – $$
Perfect for families or couples who want more space, the rooms at Ayenda El Viajero #2 are so spacious they feel more like tiny apartments! You’re in the middle of the action of the Old Town, so it’s a great place to crash after a busy day of exploring or a full night of dancing!
The rooms are air-conditioned for a nice break from the heat and all include a flat-screen TV. Some even have a little balcony or patio to enjoy your coffee on. I found the best price (under $100 USD!) for this hotel on Booking.com.
Casa Claver Loft Boutique Hotel – $$$
Calling anyone who wants a stay that feels luxurious from start to finish – Casa Claver Loft Boutique Hotel has you covered. The stylish lofts here are huge and inside a restored 17th-century building. You’ll have AC, a kitchenette, a dining area, and plenty of seating.
If that hasn’t sold you, one look at the heated rooftop swimming pool will! It has stunning views of the city and is just one of the two pools this property has. Breakfast is included in the room price starting at $269 USD and the location means you’re only steps away from exploring the best part of Cartagena. Check availability and book your getaway to this hotel here.
Don’t get Caught without Travel Insurance!
We never travel without travel insurance! We’ve had a few instances during our travels when one of us has ended up in the hospital, and travel insurance has saved us thousands of dollars over the years!
SafetyWing is our go-to insurance, we both have policies with them whenever we travel.
They offer travel medical insurance that’s super affordable (only $45 USD per 4 weeks!)The only thing to note is that the insurance must be purchased once you’ve left your home country – we typically buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
We’ve personally used SafetyWing for many different trips, and we’ve been reimbursed for countless expenses when we’ve fallen ill. SafetyWing even covered our flights back to Canada in full when the pandemic first happened (when last-minute flights before the borders closed were super expensive!) While most travel insurance companies left people stranded, SafetyWing fully reimbursed us for our last-minute, pricey flights!
Also, because it is so affordable, there really is no excuse not to take out a policy. Check prices and get a quote online here with SafetyWing (you can even take out a policy if you’re already traveling!)
Thanks for reading!
While you’re planning a trip to Colombia, I hope this blog has helped you see all the potential in Cartagena! It’s a fantastic city to explore on its own and with so many great day trips nearby, it’s worth basing yourself here … or moving here for a while like we did!
If you’re looking for more tips or travel inspiration, leave us a comment below or check out our other blogs about South America including a few of these popular ones: