My most memorable experience in the tiny fishing village of Tolu was during the World Cup match between Colombia and Uruguay. The game was fabulous, especially watched from a local bar next to the ocean, crowded full of Colombians in yellow jerseys, drinking beer and cheering.
What was even better, however, was the celebration afterwards, as everyone in town flooded the streets, driving their motorcycles, horse carriages and ubiquitous bicycles up and down the beachfront. Those without a ride danced salsa on the sidewalk.
The mood was contagious, and I have been going back to Tolú ever since, not necessarily to watch soccer but to celebrate life by the beach, Colombian style.
While I enjoy visiting Cartagena and Santa Marta, Tolú on the Morrosquillo Gulf, in the department of Sucre, is a chance to experience the other side of the Atlantic coast. This is where the Colombians vacation, complete with a laid back Caribbean feel, stereo-outfitted group bicycles and ocean views that are perfect for sunset watching.
Tolú is also the gateway to the San Bernardo Islands, where white sand and clear water await. There are a number of tourists offices located on the main boardwalk where it is easy to sign up for a day trip. Along with suntanning, the excursion includes a visit to an aquarium and a look at the most densely populated island in the world, Santa Cruz del Islote.
A lunch of coconut rice and fried fish is generally included in the package. If you are interested in snorkelling the reef surrounding the island, bring your own gear instead of chancing the equipment provided on site.
The mainland beaches aren’t bad either, but when I get tired of the waterfront in town and don’t want to spend time on a boat, I seek more private options. Head down to the main plaza to in front of the Éxito grocery story, where every 20 minutes blue buses leave for the nearby town of Coveñas. Ask to get off at the Puerto Viejo and walk along the dirt road until you find a deserted strip of sand to call your own.
For fruit and vegetables lovers, I recommend bringing a lunch, but other than that, all the food will pass by as the day goes on. Women carrying buckets of cocadas on their heads, a coconut candy cooked over wood fires, offer a selection of treats. Vendors tote ice cream, which stays miraculously cold in styrofoam coolers through the long walk up and down the beach. And of course, costeño ceviche is always available, a strange yet delicious mixture of cooked shrimp and oysters mixed with ketchup and mayo in plastic cups, served with soda crackers on the side.
When ready for a break from the beach altogether, stay on the bus about 10 minutes more until you reach the mangrove swamps. There are a variety of options to explore the wetlands, so negotiate well with a local guide. But they all involve rickety canoes, raw oyster tastings and jumping off the floating dock hidden in the middle of the mangroves.
Back in town, it’s time for dinner. Gourmet dining is not Tolú’s speciality, but there are still a variety of food options in town. Especially on weekends, the street from the plaza to the beach is lined with vendors, selling everything from pizza by the slice, hot dogs with pineapple sauce, grilled kebabs, and salchipapa french fries topped with deep fried hot dog pieces and eaten with a toothpick. If you don’t mind the wait, I recommend the stuffed arepa stand, where you can pick your toppings and watch as the women grill your arepa to order.
And those giant bicycles? After eating something greasy and salty, it’s time for the nightlife to begin. It’s impossible to miss the cacophony of sounds as 10-seat passenger bicycles outfitted with stereos compete for passengers and soundwave domination, blasting out traditional vallenato and urban Afro-Colombian champeta beats. Grab a beer and hop on board for a unique ride around town and don’t forget to take that “selfie”!
Tolu is about four hours by bus from Cartagena or one and a half in a taxi from the Monteria airport. There are a number of hotels and a charming hostel, the Villa Babilla. As a sign of the laid back nature of the town, reservations are not needed and the owners don’t answer the phone anyways. Feel free to just show up and they’ll help find another place if no beds are available in the hostel.
Enjoy your stay and take advantage of Tolú while you can. Experts are predicting that in the next few years high rises and condominiums will come to dominate the town and surrounding beach, so its unique laidback charm may not be around for much longer.