A Trip to Tolu, Colombia

A Trip to Tolu

Rickety buses rumble over rough dirt paths, each side shrouded by the deep green shades of the north Colombian fincas. Old farmers in wide brimmed hats sit by their gates chewing the air, with children scrambling up the trees and down the walls. This sleepy segment of the northern coast is settled in an agrarian stupor, too content to have seen significant change over the years. A sentiment of simple prosperity.

Follow the winding finca paths the whole way to the sea, and find yourself in the small town of Tolu. Made up of a few slim streets in a neglected corner of Colombia, Tolu brims with personality nonetheless. Bicycles drag benches on wheels to accommodate the occasional tourists, lingering, joking, and quarrelling at the corners of the central square. Taking one of these tricycles to the first budget hoetl our driver recommended, he took a brief detour to vaguely intercede in a dispute that broke out in the street. Our driver largely observed, contributing faint admonitions, alongside another local man who had paused to intercede midway through taking his parrot out for a walk. The bird cooed from a large cage hanging from the man’s arm, topping off our bizarre welcoming scene.

Once he had lost interest, our driver carried us on down to the beach. While not particularly inspiring in and of itself, the waterfront is lined with tour agents selling boat tickets to the San Bernardo islands. These are interrupted by the bodegas dotted along the road, selling cheap bottles of beer and blaring salsa to the streets. Grabbing plastic stools, settled along the shoreline, we drank ice cold beers below the fading sun.

Tolu isn’t a spot with a wild list of things to do or see. If you’re looking for sightseeing or spectacular scenes, it won’t be for you. Yet, that doesn’t mean you can’t keep yourself busy. The markets that line the seafront streets grow livelier by night, shifting from selling handmade trinkets to selling drug paraphernalia and t-shirts with Pablo Escobar’s face brandished across them.

Beyond a pleasant day spent at the beach, entertaining interactions with the local men that join in the roadside day drinking culture, and a brief stroll through a market, Tolu is essentially a town in which to buy a ticket. Yet, while making your way along the Colombian coastline, you should stop in this favourite spot of Colombian tourists. A small town with small town charm, costeno culture is alive and well in the spirit of Tolu.

Why should you visit Tolu?

Much of Colombia, particularly around the historic hub of Cartagena, has become a major draw for tourist crowds. Though this shouldn’t deter you from seeing these famously beautiful areas, it is always nice to get away from the crowd and seek out authenticity.

The ‘Gringo Trail’, the well-worn route of the South American backpacker, does hit many of the continent’s key highlights. It tends to stay in safe areas, with good tourist infrastructure. It’s worth dipping in and out of. If you want to meet locals, eat with them, drink with them, lounge around on warm afternoons with them, you have to leave the tourist areas. You have to put yourself out there. Tolu is a perfect spot to do so. With very few foreign tourists in town, locals are friendly and their businesses aren’t geared towards providing novelty entertainment for cruise ship crowds. If you want to leave the gringo trail, you’ll get your wish here. There aren’t the variety of budget hostels, western food joints and English speakers available, instead, you get to live Colombia like the Colombians. Embrace it.

How to get there?

Routes run every day from Cartagena to Tolu, and take around 3 hours. The bus ride itself is beautiful, taking you through the lush countryside of northern Colombia. The bus station in Cartagena is very far from the tourist districts in and around the old town, you should allow around an hour for the distance and the haphazard traffic that you’ll have to cover to get to the main bus station. You can take an uber or a local taxi without trouble.

You can book your journey to the San Bernardo islands from the boardwalk in Tolu. Read more about these islands here.

For more information on the entire Caribbean region in Colombia, check out this article.

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Get off the gringo trail in Tolu, Colombia
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