As you've probably heard from friends and a thousand travel articles, Cartagena is an incredibly charming colonial city located on Colombia's Caribbean coast. It's true! I was there as part of a small group tour with Intrepid Travel and I had a blast, ate extremely well (ceviche!) and salsa-danced my butt off. We finished the trip at a gloriously deserted beach, Playa Koralia, an hour northeast of Santa Marta. From there, the rest of the group went home—but my explorations had just started.
Over the next 10 days, I lived out my fantasies from the movie The Beach at glorious Tayrona National Park, relaxed in the cooler climate of the Sierra Nevada mountains above the coast, and made the rough trip all the way to the country's northernmost tip, Punta Gallinas, an otherworldly desert surrounded by the turquoise sea. If you have Cartagena in mind and a week or two to spare, I'd recommend exploring north. Here's how.
Tayrona National Park, about four hours northeast of Cartagena, is home to some of the loveliest beaches I've ever seen. The turquoise water laps around giant prehistoric-looking rocks, for a feeling that's somewhere in between the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach and Jurassic Park.
Most people access the park's best beaches by hiking in a few hours (though you can take a boat ride from the towns of Santa Marta or Taganga, too), and most spend at least one night in the park. The best plan is to leave your large bags at a hotel in Santa Marta, an hour away, and bring just a small backpack with the essentials, including plenty of cash, since there aren't any ATMs. If you don't mind camping, hammocks and tents are available for 20,000 to 25,000 pesos (about $6 to $7.50 U.S.) at breathtaking Cabo San Juan, which also has a restaurant serving three meals a day, and there are also some eco lodges in the area. Bring serious footwear in case you opt to make the trek to Pueblito, a ruined indigenous city hidden deep in the park.
2. Beach it up in Palomino
If it's beach-town chill you crave, head to up-and-coming Palomino. The village was a no-go zone ten years ago, but concerted clean-up efforts have allowed low-key tourism (not big resorts) to flourish. Grab a hammock, dorm, or private room at Finca Escondida, which has a fun, social bar and restaurant right on the sand. The the surf can be rough for swimming too far out, but the location makes up for it by being walking distance from two rivers, which are great for a cool dip or an inner-tubing excursion (which you can book at your hotel). There's also horseback riding and hiking nearby. Since it's a five-hour trip from Cartagena, coming here only makes sense if you're planning to head farther north. (For close-to-Cartagena beaching, take a day trip to Isla Rosario.)
3. Cool off in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
No joke: The coast is super hot. When you need a break, head inland to the beautiful, green Sierra Nevada mountains, which the indigenous Kogi and Arhuaco people consider highly sacred. There are definitely good vibes going on near the town of Minca, 45 minutes uphill from Santa Marta (again, it's a good plan to leave big bags in Santa Marta and just bring the essentials). Casa Elemento, 45 minutes or so on a motorbike taxi from Minca proper, has some of the loveliest views on the mountain—and some of the largest hammocks in South America. You can rent cabins, dorms or hammocks (ask about sleeping in the treehouse!), all with shared bathrooms. Delicious meals are served communally three times daily, which is a great excuse to mingle with other guests—and there's a bar for further socializing.
All the way north on Colombia's coast sits La Guajira, a remote desert region flanked by the turquoise Caribbean. The views alone of this odd and otherworldly landscape are worth the trip. Most towns in the departamento, or state, are wild and dusty places with little to recommend about them except the availability of cheap smuggled Venezuelan goods. Not so in Cabo de la Vela, a fishing village home to the native Wayuu people, which has emerged as a world-class kitesurfing destination. It's worth a visit to experience what must be one of the most remote places anywhere—assuming you don't require full-time electricity or running water, or any internet at all. Jarrinapi is a good, if rustic, place to stay, or a nice spot to grab a meal of lobster al ajillo (in garlic butter). From Cabo you can hike across the desert to breathtaking beaches like Playa Pilon de Azucar, where you can climb a small mountain for the best views of the orangey cliffs that jaggedly frame the green water. Again, no ATMs here, so bring plenty of cash. Getting here from Palomino or Riohacha is an adventure involving buses, share taxis, and a bumpy ride in the back of a truck; it's not a seamless journey, so unless your Spanish is pretty good, traveling with an outfitter like Magic Tours Colombia is a good option.
5. Make a pilgrimage to South America's northernmost point, Punta Gallinas
If Cabo de la Vela feels remote, Punta Gallinas is even more so. There's not much going on up here (no towns to speak of), just glorious nature and beaches, and soaring birds of prey. Lodging is at rustic rancherias, the traditional desert homes of the Wayuu people, where you can rent a capacious traditional hammock known as a chinchorro for 20,000 pesos or opt for your own room. Once there, you can arrange island hopping in breathtaking Hondita Bay or a tour to the El Faro lighthouse (which marks South America's true northern point) and the incredible Playa Taroa, where a Lawrence of Arabia-worthy sand dune leads to a gorgeous deserted beach. To get here from Cabo de la Vela, ask around to book a seat in a 4WD vehicle leaving before sunset, or book with a tour outfitter.