[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith several thousand kilometers of coastline split between the Pacific and the Caribbean, Colombia is a privileged beach country. We have windswept archipelagos near Cartagena, the empty coves of Tayrona National Park and the pristine islands of San Andrés, Santa Catalina and Providencia.
What more could one ask for when looking for that beach escape? The diversity of sands – from powdery white to volcanic grey – give us a wondrous vantage point from which to appreciate the ever-changing sunsets of this unique land. And this is where we begin our quest for the most beautiful beaches this side of paradise.
Cabo de la Vela
A challenge to reach for those unfamiliar with sand dunes and adventure driving, Cabo de la Vela lies four hours outside of Riohacha, the capital of the La Guajira department. Cabo de la Vela is a destination for eco savvy tourists and blessed by a 5 kilometer-long stretch of golden sand.
There are no palms in Cabo or five-star resorts serving margaritas. Instead, find a shack and hang your hammock. When the stars do sparkle, explore the lunar landscape nearby and hike to Colombia’s most picture-perfect lighthouse. Lodging is charmingly basic with the option of sleeping under the stars or camping out in the empty desert.
From Cabo de la Vela, travel along the Guajira coastline to the southwest until entering the foothills of the Sierra Nevada National Park, the highest coastal mountain range in the world and home to the ancient Kogi and Arhuaco peoples.
Tayrona National Park
Bordering the Sierra Nevada and hidden behind lush jungles, the pristine beaches of Cañaveral, Arrecifes and Playa Cristal in the Tayrona National Park are an easy day trip from the colonial city of Santa Marta. Cold mountain streams flowing from the summit meet the turquoise sea making Parque Tayrona one of Colombia’s most beautiful natural areas. Enjoy snorkeling in Arrecifes, near the sea-sculpted boulders that form tranquil bays and natural reefs. But beware the strong currents, as the sea in Tayrona can be treacherous.
A network of pre-Columbian footpaths connects the palm-lined beaches of Tayrona, and buses can’t travel right up to the beach, so be prepared to walk under the scorching sun and travel light. Budget conscious traveler can take advantage of limited camping areas within the National Park. For more exclusive accommodations, head for the Ecohabs built into the jungle’s hillside, offering stunning views from thatched balconies.
Check out our Insider’s Guide to Santa Marta’s Hidden ‘Pearls’
El Rodadero and Taganga
Also just outside of town but worlds away from Parque Tayrona, El Rodadero is Santa Marta’s main tourist hub and prides itself for all-inclusive hotels. A popular year-round resort for sun seekers in search of bustling beachside bars, gyms and the perfect tan, it is Colombia’s mini Bali.
If the beach volleyball courts of Rodadero aren’t your style, try the traditional fishing village of Taganga, where backpackers can decompress in vegan eateries and affordable hostels. The half-moon bay of Taganga is an ideal place to watch sunsets and dine on platters of fried fish. Don’t get too attached to the carefree attitude, as you are only hours away from another jewel in Colombia’s travel crown – Cartagena de Indias.
Hemmed-in by ramparts, stone turrets and the relentless surf of the sea, Cartagena, is the gateway to the Rosary Islands and its cluster of 43 coral isles. There are few sandy beaches in the protected marine bio-reserve known as the Parque Nacional Corrales del Rosario. It is possible, however, to strike white sand at the largest island in the area, Barú, and its popular Playa Blanca.
The white stretch of beach is an ideal stop for Cartagena day-trippers, ready to sunbathe in a natural setting complete with crates of cold beers and just a boat ride away from the historic city. Cabins and hammocks are also available to rent for the night, allowing visitors to enjoy a beautiful sunset, spectacular night sky and being lulled to sleep by the sound of waves crashing.
Cartagena also offers several beaches reachable on foot or by taxi, including the popular Bocagrande strip. Don’t expect white sands and crystal blue water, but the whitewashed high-rise condos, beachside cantinas and nightlife in the area echo Miami, for better or for worse.
Visiting Cartagena? Find out how to do Cartagena on the Cheap.
Providencia may well be the best-kept secret in the Caribbean, and although one must fly to San Andrés to reach this island paradise, the experience of a week in ‘Old Providence’ lasts a lifetime.
Once the favorite hideout of Captain Morgan, the British pirate who craved gold, Providencia is inhabited by proud islanders who bask in their European and Creole heritage. The architecture on the island is pure West Indian with brightly painted wooden cottages serving as visitors’ accommodations.
Providencia is also a top dive destination as it forms part of the Belize Barrier Reef – the longest in the western hemisphere. There are many small bays on Providencia, but the largest and most beautiful is Manzanillo Bay. A perfect postcard of the Caribbean, from Manzanillo Bay one can spend the day swimming in South West Bay or Sweet Water Bay: each with its own beautiful scenery and locals shaking the Rum punch.
The Pacific Coast
No beach trip is complete without mentioning Colombia’s Pacific coastline. Vast and with few human footprints, the Pacífico extends across four departments and is covered by largely untouched rainforest. Also one of the world’s wettest places, the Colombian Pacific experiences long tides and its beaches are home to endangered turtles.
Along with the bathing suit, pack the windbreaker and umbrella. When it rains, it pours. The best time to visit is from July to October when grey humpback whales migrate to these temperate bays. From the dramatic coastline of limestone cliffs extending from Buenaventura to Bahía Malaga and the dark estuaries of Utría, Colombia’s Pacific beaches challenge the notion of “having seen it all.” With so much choice and diversity in Colombia, a beach is never just a beach.