With the Galapagos to the west and the Caribbean islands just north, Colombia seems perfectly sandwiched in terms of scuba diving. While Providencia may make the bucket list, the waters skirting Colombia’s northern coast also offer up surprising options for underwater explorers. Though not “aquariums” teeming with big marine life, there’s still a lot of colorful, local fauna to get chummy with.
When it comes to taking the plunge within Barranquilla’s reach, you can go about it one of two ways: the cushy, well-oiled system that caters to tourists in Cartagena; or the less popular and cheaper version off the shores near Santa Marta. Both have their advantages and provide equally enjoyable experiences.
As a newbie to Colombia, but not to diving, I decided to first experiment with Cartagena’s Diving Planet, a 5-star dive center raved about on TripAdvisor. Booking can be arranged online and is accompanied with very explicit, professional directions. When I showed up at 8am on the morning of, the team quickly took care of the necessary business before we hit the docks. It took a 45-minute boat ride (partly escorted by playful dolphins) to reach their base in the Rosario Islands— Cartagena’s outer archipelago famous for turquoise waters (weather-dependent) and drunken boat cruises.
Both dives were within easy distance of Isla Grande, the largest island in the archipelago and one that happens to be surrounded by extraordinary coral reefs. Though the wildlife was not very diverse, I found myself most impressed by the alien world of underwater formations, with nicknames like “the pyramids of Giza.” Nevertheless, an occasional moray eel or pod of lobsters poked out to greet us. Visibility was sufficient and splashes of color existed here and there despite the overcast day. If anything, we were alone in our undersea adventure, far from the throngs of tourists on the mainland.
On the other side of Barranquilla exists the scuba world of Taganga, within reach of Santa Marta. Diving here runs for about half the price as Cartagena, with Octopus Dive Center being one of the more reliable companies in the area, catering to small groups of divers with significantly less hand-holding. The equipment may not be as brand-spanking new and the boat may be a bit rustier, but the shop is run by professional marine biologists. Plus, most of the dive sites are within Parque Tayrona, giving you the chance to bypass a muddy hiking route and see the park from a unique angle. Similar to the Rosario Islands, the conditions can vary but expect to see a lot of coral, colorful schools of fish, crustaceans, and the occasional turtle.
Whether you choose to go east or go west, Barranquilleros are fortunate to be stuck in the middle. Why not escape the other gringos and head to a different kind of dive.
- Diving Planet offers 2-boat dive day trips for about $300,000.
- Octopus Dive Center offers the same for about @150,000.
- Open Water Certification and other courses are available at both shops, as is gear and tank rentals.