Do you know that you can go hiking in Cartagena?
Most travelers come to Cartagena de Indias to walk around the walled city and visit the Rosarios Islands.
It’s pleasant, but this will not be enough if you’re an active traveler looking for off-the-beaten-path experiences.
I recently stayed more than 45 days in Cartagena de Indias to discover the best activities and put you in touch with reliable local agencies.
Today I would like to introduce you to Olinto, a former engineer who fell in love with Isla Barú and the Montes de María.
👉 Want to know everything about Cartagena To learn where are the best places, and avoid tourist traps and beginner’s mistakes? Nothing could be easier. I put it all together in our guide to Cartagena de Indias.
Cartagena hiking: Overview
- Price: 120 – 150 USD/pers
- Duration: 8 – 10 hours
- Difficulty: Easy to moderate.
- Where: outside of Cartagena.
- My opinion: an excellent way to hike in nature and share with local communities, in the company of a local guide passionate about his job.
- 👉 Pick your hike
1# Hiking in the Montes de Maria
Moderate/easy day trip – 11 hours
At 5h59 am, a white 4×4 shows up around the corner. Olinto is like a Swiss clock. He is never late.
-Ok, Tom. One more stop to pick up Marina (Oli’s girlfriend) and the breakfasts, and we’re good to go.
After 30 min, we’re outside of Cartagena. A landscape of pasture and agricultural fields passes before my eyes. Immense and solitary trees stand out from the flat topography, their broad leafy branches providing shade for the cattle.
Today’s day trip has two goals:
- Learn about a tropical dry forest ecosystem that is little studied globally and in danger of disappearing.
- Understand this region’s culture, through petroglyphs and music, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.
Before explaining my adventure with Olinto, I must tell you about Montes de Maria.
The history of Montes de Maria
When I told Alejandra that we would make a day trip to Montes de Maria, her face immediately froze.
–I won’t go, she said
–What’s wrong? I asked
–Lots of bad things happened over there, she whispered.
I didn’t know until I checked online. For many years, illegal armed groups fought over the Montes de María, an area stretching between Sucre’s departments and Bolivar. Hundreds of people died, and thousands more had to find a new place to live.
Fortunately, things are gradually changing in Colombia. Today, the inhabitants came back to recover what was stolen from them. Daily life is returning to its usual course.
Olinto organizes this tour with a local guide and has never had any problems. He has been doing this hike for the last 6 years!
Fauna and Flora Of the Tropical Dry Forest
After two hours of driving, we stop at a Finca on the side of the road.
–It is from here that we start our walk, announce Olinto.
Rodrigo, our local guide, is patiently waiting for us, his machete hanging from his belt. He has been running this farm with his wife and daughter for about ten years. The area has no secrets for him.
-Every time I walk this path, the experience is different, says Olinto
The tropical dry forest is characterized by a long dry season (very little rain) and is below 1000m of altitude. To survive, plants and animals must adapt over the months.
Trees lose their leaves during the hot summer months to avoid wasting energy. The paths are covered with thick red-orange foliage. Then, when the first rains finally arrive, the bare branches turn into a forest of a thousand colors.
I watch Olinto run around like a child playing Pokemon Go. His enthusiasm is contagious. He wants to show us everything, and don’t hesitate to ask Rodrigo if he doesn’t know the answer.
We regularly stop to observe beautiful trees and medicinal plants.
-This enormous tree is a Caracoli. People used it to make drums and canoes. And over there, it’s Ceiba Colorada. Its trunk has many spikes to defend itself and capture moisture. And this cactus is used to make the Gaita! —I’ll explain later in this article what it is.)
Suddenly, I see two black shapes moving quickly in the trees.
– Look! A mother howler monkey and her offspring!
After 2 hours of walking on relatively flat ground, we arrive at a new site of interest.
In front of us, on a wall of 3m by 3m, strange forms were engraved in the rock. I clearly distinguish eyes, noses, and fingerprints.
And you, what do you see?
Olinto sees sheep, spiders, and jaguar footprints.
For the moment, there have been no important studies on these petroglyphs. Everything is subject to interpretation.
-We know that the Zenu natives lived in the area. Many gold and ceramics have been found around San Jacinto. This place must have been sacred to them, affirm Olinto.
San Jacinto, a village of craftsmen and musicians
After 4 hours of instructive walk in the dry tropical forest, it is time to eat. The village of San Jacinto is 10 minutes away by car. It allows me to drink my “agua de coco” slowly.
I walk through the front door and come upon a large interior patio filled with trees and flowers.
-I love these houses on the Caribbean coast. It reminds me of my grandfather’s home, says Alejandra.
After a delicious lunch, a group of 5 young musicians arrive with their instruments.
In addition to being known for its hammocks and handicrafts, San Jacinto is famous for its musicians.
Andres Landero is considered the father of the cumbia -a musical style- with accordion. Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto is a musical group from 1940 that is still touring the world! They even got a Latin Grammy Award in the category of Best Folk Album for the album “Un fuego de sangre pura”.
These 5 young musicians take the time to explain the various instruments and the significance of their music.
Los Gaiteros plays traditional music whose notes express the hidden and unchanging beauty of the hills of Montes de Maria. The diverse origins of the instruments invite people to live together without prejudice or hatred. The gaita and maracas come from the region’s indigenous people, the percussion from Africa, and the singing reminds Spain.
As a demonstration, they play us a small private concert, presenting us the different rhythms:
The sound of Gaita’s flute transports me beyond San Jacinto. Oh, I’m already back in Cartagena.
TPMT TIP: The Autóctono Festival of Gaitas takes place annually in the first days of AUGUST.
2# The Howler monkey Trail
Moderate/easy day trip – 8 hours
Los Montes de Maria is not the only hike you can do from Cartagena. Olinto also offers to take travelers to the Santa Catalina area (near the mud bath volcano).
It’s another area where it is possible to discover the tropical dry forest ecosystem.
Compared to Montes de Maria, the main advantage of this tour is that the beginning of the trail is only a 1-hour drive away from Cartagena. The activity will be shorter and less expensive.
Moreover, this dry tropical forest shelters many monkeys, of which the famous Cotton Top Tamarin, a squirrel-sized primate that ranks first among Colombia’s cutest endemic monkeys.
Olinto cannot guarantee that you will see all these monkeys. Nature is not a zoo 🙂
3# Hiking in the South of Isla Barú
Easy day trip – 10 hours
Technically, I’m unsure if we can call this tour a “hike.” But that’s no reason to put this experience aside!
Isla Barú is a popular tourist destination with beautiful beaches and is part of the Rosario Islands archipelago. Unfortunately, the white sandy beaches are most of the time invaded by tourists.
Instead of leading you to Playa Blanca (like every other local agency), Olinto wants you to discover the locals’ culture.
Aboard his 4*4, accompany him to visit the village of Barú located in the south of the island.
You will discover a strong culture proudly defended by the descendants of enslaved people who came to seek refuge from their persecutors.
After an exciting city tour and a boat trip through the mangroves, Olinto will show you secluded beaches known by a handful of people (although they attract more and more visitors).
4# Exploring the Canal del Dique
Easy day trip – 7.5 hours
The Canal del Dique connects the Magdalena River to the Bay of Cartagena for 115 km through an ingenious system of artificial canals dug in the 16th century. It was considered an engineering jewel of the Americas.
The construction of the Dique Canal significantly impacted the surrounding area, which led to the development of new ecosystems.
During this experience, follow Olinto to the village of Rocha (1h15 drive) and jump on a tiny (and safe) boat to admire the local flora and fauna around the Canal del Dique. It will also be an opportunity to meet the local fishers working in the middle of the lagoons.
It is a calm and soothing experience that will remain in your memory forever.
5# Hiking to Tayrona national park
At least a 2-day trip from Cartagena
Some travelers would like to visit the Tayrona National Park from Cartagena in one day. It won’t be possible.
You will need 5 hours to travel from Cartagena to Tayrona by private vehicle in the best scenario.
Then, you’ll need a full day to enjoy the national park.
A DIY option would be to book a door-to-door shuttle with Berlinastur or Marsol as early as possible in Cartagena and ask to be dropped off at Tayrona’s main entrance, El Zaino.
From there, hike through the lush vegetation to Cabo San Juan beach and order a cold beer— you’ve earned it. You can spend the night there.
The following day, leave in the morning and catch your door-to-door shuttle back to Cartagena.
Note that I don’t recommend this option. For me, the best way to visit this superb national park of the Sierra Nevada is to stay there 3 days and to make a much more complete circuit.
Olinto offers a two-day tour that allows you to glimpse Tayrona Park and the Sierra Nevada.
From Cartagena, you will travel by private transport to Bahia Concha, a beautiful beach with crystalline waters in Tayrona Park. After a few hours of sunbathing and snorkeling, you will go to Taganga to watch the sunset and then head to the village of Minca to spend the night. On the second day, you will visit a coffee farm and a refreshing waterfall before returning to Cartagena in the afternoon.
Note: you won’t hike inside Tayrona park.
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6# The lost city trek
At least a 6-day trip from Cartagena
The lost city trek is Colombia’s most famous hike.
For 4 days, you’ll hike with your group and a local guide through the Sierra Nevada, with the only objective of reaching the Ciudad Perdida, a city older than Machu Picchu — today, only terraces remain.
It’s a great experience, especially if it’s the first time you discover multi-day treks’ joys (and pains).
To organize this trek, you will have to sleep the night before in Santa Marta.
You can consider returning to Cartagena on the same day (the 5th day) for the return trip. But I think you will be so exhausted and dirty that you only want to take a good shower.
Read our Lost City trek guide to be prepared for this adventure.
Why book your day trips with Olinto
You must have ants in one’s pants right now if you’re like me. Before you make a decision, let’s see why Olinto would be a good match for you.
Olinto Is Passionate And Friendly
On a private tour, friendly chemistry with your guide is essential. His attitude and experience make the difference between a good and excellent activity.
You can’t not like Olinto.
He speaks passionately about his work and gives clear explanations. And you can talk to him about anything and everything. He will always be curious to listen to you.
The icing on the cake? He’s punctual! Something that is not always obvious in Colombia.
Easy Nature Trips to Plan From Cartagena
These nature trips are by private transportation and are less than two hours from Cartagena.
The mountains in this part of the Caribbean coast are not high. The objective is not to make long hikes to enjoy fantastic views.
During these tours, you’ll enjoy a mix of culture, walking, and relaxation time —beaches, boat rides, and animal watching.
Sharing With Local Communities
During our hike in the Montes de Maria, we stopped several times to have short conversations with locals. Then we discussed with the musicians of San Jacinto.
Olinto wants you to understand the way of thinking of these people whose lifestyle is light years away from the luxury of Cartagena’s old town.
Besides, an important part of the money for the tour is given back to these local communities.
Off the Beaten Path Destination
Nobody offers these experiences. Except for Olinto.
So, why does he do it?
It’s because he wants you to discover places outside the popular destinations of Colombia. Sites you would never have thought of going alone (and very complicated to organize)
Isn’t this the role of a good travel agency? Adding value to an experience instead of just driving you to the super famous and overrated places?
With Olinto, you know that the money spent on these adventures is worth it.
Q&A About Hiking in Cartagena
Travelers contact us every day to help them organize their trips to Colombia. Here are the answers we give about the hikes around Cartagena.
- Is Hiking in Colombia safe?
Yes, you can hike safely in most of Colombia's national parks. However, I recommend always going with a local guide because the trails are unmarked and the weather changes quickly in the mountains.
- Are there mountains near Cartagena?
The only mountains near Cartagena are the Montes de Maria —1000 above sea level.
- Is there any jungle around Cartagena?
There is no jungle around Cartagena. You can either hike in the tropical dry forest or head to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (5h drive).
Hiking around Cartagena: Bottom line
The outdoor activities offered by Olinto are an exciting option to escape the street vendors of the old city of Cartagena for a day. You’ll discover the surroundings of Cartagena, often neglected by tourists, comfortably and authentically.
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