Enter a Prehistoric World Just a Short Drive from Cartagena: Jardín Botánico de Cartagena
We took a step back in time, like to prehistoric times, when we visited the Jardín Botánico de Cartagena located just a short drive from downtown Cartagena. Our first experience when we arrived was reminiscent of a scene right out of Jurassic Park. From the parking lot at the entrance to the property you look out onto jungle and see remnants of abandoned cement buildings that are overgrown with vines and trees and resemble the dinosaur pens from the movie. And even more strikingly, there is this constant low guttural growl that radiates through the trees. Spooky much? We quickly learned that the source of the sound is the park’s famous red howler monkeys making their claim to the prized fruit perched high up in the trees. Apparently one group of monkeys thought the fruit was in their domain, and another group disagreed with their assessment.
The entrance to the park is gated, so we simply drove up and waited for an attendant to open the gate. You’ll need to hang a right just inside the gate and park in the small parking lot and then walk back to the booth just inside the gate to pay the park fee. We were met by a Comfelnalco employee, who now manages the property, who spoke perfect English and explained to us some of the history of the site and the future plans. We visited during the week and were the only car in the parking lot, although we were told that a school group would be shortly behind us.
From the parking lot we were led by an attendant, who did not speak English, down a series of cement steps to the café area. The walk takes you past more of the cement buildings which were once a school. In fact, one of the walls still has the painting of a train across it.
Once at the café we decided to grab a few small drinks and snacks. In the café, we met our guide. A guide is not necessary, but it was recommended to us to use a guide to be able to learn more about the property and actually observe the animals as they are known to be a bit elusive. Our guide did not speak English, but there is at least one guide at the property who does.
Our tour guide clearly loved and respected the property as he had lived on or at least been associated with the property for decades. In fact, he actually attended the one-room schoolhouse that we came across during our tour of the property.
The tour takes about 45 minutes to an hour and leads you over a cement-block path that somewhat forms a figure 8 across the property. While it was fine the day we visited, we have been told that the path can become quite muddy and slick after it rains.
The stars of the tour are the red howler monkeys. The constant rumble of their growls is remarkable. And they are so fun to watch move through the trees, hanging on with their tails and taking daring leaps from limb to limb. But, a word of caution, do not stand underneath the monkeys. They have a tendency to suddenly pee down on you, or knock fruit onto your heads.
The other star of the garden in the sloth (or lazy bears as they’re called in Colombia). It’s another reason that you need to have a guide, or else we’re told that you’ll never see him. Unfortunately, even with a guide we did not see him the day we visited. Our guide shared that the sloth is known for sleeping long hours, so he is difficult to find.
An unexpected treat was the trails of leaf cutter ants that were marching through the garden. They form long lines of worn paths, holding bright green tree leafs above their heads. Our guide even placed his hand down in the middle of one of their trails to show us how they were first confused, then found a way to march around his hand.
The tour also whips up a fair share of lizards to chase. Plus, they have a very clear pond full of small fish and a koi or two. During one stretch, you walk up along a small waterfall. And there are plenty of odd plants and trees to observe, some over a century old.
The Comfelnalco employee we met at the entrance informed us that there are plans for major expansion of the garden and its facilities in the next two years. So, it was great to visit, the howler monkeys were spectacular to see, and we’re interested to see what they have in store for their expansion.
Location: In Sector Matute in the municipality of Turbaco, about 40 minutes southeast of Cartagena, Colombia.
Hours of operation: Open 8am to 4pm. Closed on Mondays. If Monday is a holiday, then they are closed on Tuesday.
Cost: The entrance to the garden is managed by Comfenalco. The entrance fee is $17mil COP per person (approximately $6 USD). Credit cards are accepted. We recommend that you tip your guide too.
What to bring: Bug spray as there are many mosquitos and bugs.
Contact information: I contacted them via their Facebook page using Facebook Messenger. They responded within an hour.