When people think about South America, they often depict crystal clear water with palm trees and white sand. We guarantee that beaches like this do exist in South America, although less often than we would have thought. In any case, some of the best beaches are definitely in Colombia. There are many places one can hit for a few days of beach life on the Caribbean Coast. Apart from the few famous places there are also less expensive spots with less people. This guide aims to help backpackers with all kinds of budget and those seeking off-the-beaten path experiences to choose from a number of options on the Caribbean or the Pacific coast. All the info that is not first-hand comes from locals we stayed at through Couchsurfing; or from fellow travellers we met on the way.
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Does Colombia have nice beaches?
Some of the nicest beaches we’ve seen on our 11-month trip in South America were in Colombia, no doubt. Various look like paradise or like the beach scene from the Bounty chocolate ad (do you remember?). Even non-beach people like us loved and were truly mesmerised by them.
So if you are a beach lover who happen to travel in Colombia, you should definitely make sure to include some of these spots in your itinerary.
For great beaches on the other side of the continent, read about Brazilians’ beach paradise, Florianopolis
Be a responsible traveller on the beach!
At times, the plastic, glass and other types of waste scattered on the beach is to such an extent, that I started picking up rubbish while waiting for our boat – just to find out that the public bins were already overflowing!
With this in mind I can not promote enough the principles we also follow: REDUCING and REUSING plastic containers; and showing a good example. So bring your own:
- water in a water bottle
- reuse cup for your coco loco cocktail
- container and cutlery for your food
- produce bag or used plastic bag for any fruit / veggie / bakery that you purchase
Of course there are many other things you can do to be sustainable on your travels. Read all our essential eco-friendly ideas for your trip here.
If you don’t have such items yet, we recommend to take with you on your travels this full lightweight (and beautiful) responsible travellers’ kit from (RE)collective, an eco conscious startup from Austria. This fantastic kit includes all the items that we have on our trips: cutlery set, a bottle (that is a thermos actually!), cup, shopping bag. Use GREEN as a coupon code at the checkout for an exclusive 5% discount for Green Mochila readers!
Where to find the best beaches in Colombia?
After gearing up as a responsible traveller, you’re ready to go! So where are the best beaches in Colombia?
The most famous beach towns are on the Caribbean Coast: Santa Marta and Cartagena primarily. But besides these there are plenty of other places which are less busy.
Apart from enjoying the many mainland beaches, you can hop on a private boat and cruise to one of the islands that dot the sea along the coast. Some of these islands are private but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit them: rather the contrary. There are less people there so in that sense they are more relaxed.
It’s important to note, that places on the shore are more accessible, less expensive to get to and the accommodation is more affordable too, compared to the islands. On the other hand there are more people, more crowds and they are definitely dirtier.
Colombia’s other coast is on the Pacific, which is harder and more expensive to get to. In return you’ll get wild beaches and no crowd compared to the Caribbean Coast.
Along the Caribbean Coast
The Caribbean Coast stretches long. In fact it takes up the whole northern part of Colombia. Therefore, it’s good to choose your beach wisely if you want to avoid long-long hours of travelling around. To help locating the places I split this section geographically:
- Eastern coast around Santa Marta
- Santa Marta beaches
- Cartagena beaches on the central coast
- Islands around Cartagena
- Western coast, after Cartagena
The best beaches in the Northeast of Colombia, around Santa Marta
On the far east on the coast Palomino starts the line of the best beaches of Colombia. It’s situated at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve site. It makes for an equally beautiful but less travelled mountainous coastal area compared to fellow Tayrona Park. If all you want is lie in the sun, bath in clear water and take gorgeous pictures, you’ll love Palomino. Apart from the beautiful scenery this pricey beach town is full of foreigners (who come here to ease their soaring legs after the Lost City trek) and nationals alike. There’s plenty of accommodation and relaxed vibes. It’s easy to reach Palomino with a direct bus from Santa Marta; take it from the central market.
Tayrona Park is a gorgeous national park with the most beautiful and secluded beaches of Colombia. Visiting Tayrona shouldn’t be labelled as “a day at the beach”; but rather “a few days camping in the wilderness. With beaches”. The territory has numerous paradise-like beaches but not all of them are safe to swim. Some are more easily accessible than others and thus attract more people. But even on the busiest beaches, the crowd is nowhere near that of Rodadero beach in Santa Marta, for example. To enjoy the amazing beaches, hike through the surreal palm tree forest and jump rocks. Accommodation is in camping tents or in hammocks; there is a limited number of wooden houses too. The area is home to 4 indigenous groups (Kankuamo, Kogui, Wiwa and Arhuaco), who have sacred sites within the park; it’s forbidden to visit them. In February the park is closed by the indigenous groups to maintain the land; there might be other closed periods that you can check here. Check also Tayrona’s website for price updates, since it increases fast as demand rises. There are several entrances to Tayrona. You can reach the main one by taking a bus from Santa Marta downtown market to El Zaino. Bus ticket should cost 7000 COP.
Santa Marta beaches
Santa Marta is one of the three big cities on the northern coast, along with Barranquilla and Cartagena. Foreign tourists usually just spend here an odd day or two while resting before or after the Lost City trek or visiting the Tayrona Park. It offers several beaches within city limits, which are rather crowded but easy to get to – a good choice when you want to spend an odd day or so on the beach. The more well-known beaches are Taganga and Rodadero.
Postcard-perfect Cartagena doesn’t have a city beach right in the centre; but there are beaches nearby that can be reached by taxi. Travellers who are short on time might rejoice; they can see the most popular city of Colombia AND have (certainly sub-ideal) beach days without travelling far. However, judging from Cartagena’s constant tourist crowd, you can’t expect quiet and peace on its beaches either. So in case that’s what you’re after, we recommend to travel to smaller towns in the west; or consider spending more money on beach days on the nearby islands. The more well-known (and therefore not the best) city beaches in Cartagena are: Playas Bocagrande and El Laguito, Playa Castillo Grande, and La Boquilla.
Beaches on the islands near Cartagena
Just like in most parts of the world, city beaches are not worth much, honestly. Instead, the real jewels that are accessible from Cartagena are those on the islands. If chilling on a pristine, clean and paradise-like beach with Instagram-worthy beach umbrellas is important for you, and if you don’t mind paying a higher price,, head to one of the islands we list below. It was interesting to find out that some of these islands are private; it actually means little difference from the accessibility point of view. The entrance fee is usually included in the package tour that you need to book to visit them. Still, the most important thing is that they are usually quieter and more pristine.
We didn’t visit the beaches on the islands; the boat transportation and the accommodation were more expensive than what we were ready to pay. So instead of enjoying island life, we headed to the dreamy Tolú (see our experience about it further down). All the information we gathered about the islands are from our local Couchsurfers in Cartagena, the info desk at Cartagena port and research mainly on Tom Plan My Trip fellow blogger.
Isla Tierra de Bomba
The biggest and most famous island is only 10 minutes away from Cartagena, so it’s ideal for a day trip. Join a boat at Bocagrande to get to one of the 4 lovely towns; all with white sand, turquoise water and shades for rent. The biggest beach on Isla Tierra de Bomba is Punta Arena with palm trees and the occasional beach vendors. Many people come here with a package tour that includes the boat transportation, food and beach umbrella.
It’s another famous beach with a lot of people and when you see postcards of this paradise, you’ll understand why. The most popular beach is Playa Blanca, with even more pristine white sand and turquoise water. If you want and are able to spend, it’s worth staying more days on Isla Baru to avoid the biggest crowds on the beach. The other advice we got is to avoid weekends & bank holidays when locals hit the beach. In fact, many of the street sellers who work in Cartagena live on Isla Baru; so there might be interesting, local places to explore as well. Before setting off though, ask your accommodation or at the police about safety.
An archipelago of 30-odd islands provides a lot of options for beach goers. Some of the beaches are private, but it’s always possible to book a package tour. These beaches are definitely quieter and probably more immaculate. The most popular of all are Playa Azul and Playa Grande, with apparently the best snorkelling spots. You’ll make the most of your time and money there if you stay at least a couple of nights.
Islas de San Bernardo
The prettiest and most sought-after islands near Cartagena, with many tour operators offering trips there. Actually it’s an archipelago 3 hours away from Cartagena with the most popular islands being Isla Múcura and Isla Tintipán. Accommodation is expensive, but if you can afford it money- and time-wise it’s worth staying for at least 3 days. Again, beautiful beaches, crystal clear water, white sand, paradise feeling from the Bounty chocolate ad… Sounds like the ultimate of the best beaches of Colombia, right? If only it wasn’t so expensive…
The best beaches in central north of Colombia
Leaving the secluded, expensive and maybe a bit too artificial world of the islands behind, we’re back on the mainland. We’re heading to the really interesting, local people’s beaches, where everything will be less fancy, but more authentic. It’s something that Anthony and I are always after when travelling.
Rincón del Mar
Literally meaning “corner of the sea”, this tiny place is nestled into an angle of land that really looks like a corner. In the area between Cartagena and Coveñas locals consider Rincón del Mar the most beautiful and cleanest beach town. It can well be the #1 of the best beaches in Colombia – at least considering value for money. To get here you need to change at San Onofre. Note that there’s no scheduled bus going to Rincón; at San Onofre you need to change to a taxi for the last 16 km.
Our last beaching / resting / blogging place was in Tolú, which we found just perfect for what we needed. There were no high rise buildings, no crowds, only chilled and slow atmosphere. We didn’t even hear English once; there were national holidaymakers, and it gave an interesting peek into how Colombians enjoy their holiday time. Another reason for choosing Tolú over Coveñas or Turbo is that the road to Medellin goes from here.
If you are also travelling south, read why you should definitely visit Medellin, the city that inspired us the most in Colombia
The small town beach looks cute but is a bit dirty; the water is very shallow, and there is a lot of local life on the seafront promenade. In the evenings when the sun is not so strong, people gather on the main square to drink and chat.
If you are there on a weekend or on a national holiday (like we were), you can see a super authentic local dance of African origins performed by people gathering in front of the church. Shaking bodies and lots of sweating! However, in case you decide to escape from Tolú to a more paradise-like beach, hop on a private boat offered on the promenade and head to one of the San Bernardo islands. These islands are served by boats from here too with a 45-minute ride.
It’s a bigger town on the coast with more accommodation options, but more crowds and less small-beach-town feeling. The state of the beach is similar to Tolú’s; but based on pictures we saw when researching, we found it slightly less pretty. The beach is rather grim and high rise buildings are too close – like on any city beach.
A definitely off-the-beaten path place on the far northwest coast of Colombia, Turbo is a town near Panama. For those who don’t head that way, it probably makes little sense to visit it. Even for off-the-beaten path fans like us, it didn’t justify such a detour when heading towards Medellin from the coast. But for those who cross over to Panama, Turbo can be a nice stopover.
Beaches on the Pacific Coast, in the west
I can almost hear you saying “well, great, but what about that vast coastline on the west?” Locals didn’t advise us to go to the Pacific Coast of Colombia as it’s really difficult to access it. There are no roads leading to the Pacific Coast, so you’ll need to take small planes and boats to get anywhere. That’s lengthy and expensive, but therefore it’s far-far less popular with tourists than the warm Caribbean coast. However, if you are desperate for real off-the-beaten track places, you’ll find some of the best beaches of Colombia on the Pacific Coast. It comes as no surprise that the biodiversity, the landscape and the culture are quite different to its northern coastal sibling. The best and wildest beaches in this area are part of national parks. So apart from lounging on the beach, adventure travellers can find their joy in exploring a local piece of jungle. One of the best places to find beaches that couple coast and jungle is around Nuqui; check out Playa Guachalito, Ladrilleros and Playa Blanca. Next time we’ll definitely choose the Pacific Coast over the Caribbean! Read about other great beaches on the Pacific Coast here.
What to expect when staying at a beach town?
Apart from enjoying the beach, it’s also interesting to immerse into the very different culture of the coast. On the Caribbean coast, people –called “costeños“– are traditionally descendants of black slaves. By now the population got mixed with people of other ethnicities (mix of black and indigenous), still the majority is of black origins. Life is super slow here, because most of the day the heat is near unbearable. So locals mostly chill in the shade, or in a shop, or on the main square, or at someone’s house. Often with a beer. And in the evenings and on the weekend they hit the water. Costeño beaches and costeño beach towns really cater for both foreign and national tourists. The beaches are sprinkled with sellers of all kinds of cocktails. There are also people doing massage on sunbathing holiday makers. There are places to eat, to buy souvenirs and of course to drink.
Costeño beach towns: big vs small places
Bigger towns like Santa Marta and Cartagena offer the typical touristy scene, at least in a few downtown streets; hype bars, hipster eateries with international cuisine – frequented by the backpacking crowd. If you are, however, interested in a more authentic fun: stop by at one of the less popular towns. We were surprised what sort of evening entertainment nationals liked. Imagine a beer bike without the beer but with loads of Christmas lights and super loud commercial music. Got it? Colombians love hiring these and rally through town even though completely sober! If we were big beach fans, we probably would have been slightly disappointed with locals beach towns, like Tolú; or regretted not choosing the pristine islands around Cartagena. However, the real advantages that we found in Tolú over the islands are:
- The much cheaper prices
- More accessible self-catering possibility
- A very interesting peek into local, Caribbean life
- Seeing what national holidaymakers like to entertain themselves with
- As we paid so little for accommodation, we didn’t feel that nasty pressure of spending ALL our time exploring; a feeling that long-time travellers are surely familiar with.
A day at the beach
So the day has come, you’re heading to one of the best beaches of Colombia! If you are at the Caribbean sea, expect really warm water. You read it correctly, the water is actually luke warm; that really surprised my Mediterranean trained skin. You’ll share the sea and the sun not only with fellow foreigners, but also with sun-seeking Colombians who escape from further cities to their beloved costa. At almost all coastline beaches we were approached by some guy trying to lurk us to his boat en route to an island. Prices are negotiable, so give it a go if you fancy a quieter day. Just make sure you ask about the last boat’s departure time.
Some beaches don’t have many trees, meaning there’s no natural shade. Smart business people use this opportunity to rent deck chairs and umbrellas or plastic chairs under the handful of trees. In Santa Marta’s Rodadero beach we were quoted 15,000 COP (after fierce negotiation) for a deck chair + umbrella combo. Beaches are also frequented by sellers and beggars, mostly from Venezuela. They are harmless, but keep an eye on your belongings. If you speak Spanish, it can be interesting to have a conversation with them and learn their heartbreaking story.
Checklist of what to take to a Colombian beach:
- Swimming suit (most of the beaches are not nudist)
- Sun protection that is harmless for water life
- Water (if you have enough, it’s nice to wash your feet after the sand)
- Cash only for chair in the shade and any food + drink you want, no more.
Is it safe at the Colombian beach?
In general, popular beaches are safe. Having said that, keep an eye on your belongings at all times and avoid taking valuables to the beach, as theft can happen. Since we were just the two of us, we took turns to go into the water, so our things never remained unattended. If you want to go to more secluded beaches, ask patrolling police or locals whether the place is safe. We were turned back from a coastal walk on Playa Grande leading to another beach, as police warned us that crime happens and they are not patrolling there.
Choosing the best beaches in Colombia
There are so many option and it can be a daunting task to pick only one. In general, these are the questions that you should ask yourself.
- Am I ready to spend more money on my beach time? Yes: Go to the islands around Cartagena
- Do I want to stay close to Santa Marta / the Lost City trek? Yes: Go to Palomino or the Santa Marta beaches
- Do I want to see a gorgeous natural reserve with easy hiking and camping? Yes: Go to Tayrona
- Do I want to see authentic local coastal life? Yes: Go to the central north of Colombia
- Do I want to travel completely off-the-beaten-path and don’t mind that it’s not easily accessible? Yes: Go to the Pacific coast
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