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Tolu

Introduction: Tiny, sleepy Tolu is a seaside Caribbean town of about 50,000 people in the northwestern department of Sucre, sandwiched in between Bolivar to the east and Cordoba to the west. Its economic survival is based on tourism, and the difference here between high season and low season is pronounced. While the town itself offers little by way of activities, it is pleasant enough. The real draw here in the region is the 10 San Bernardo Islands, located to the west in the Golfo de Morrosquillo.

For backpackers and budget tourists, the real draw here is the price; it is far cheaper than its nearby neighbor Cartagena. The town is packed with reasonably priced hotels, restaurants, and tour companies offering day or overnight trips to the nearby islands, which are about an hour away by boat. On the southern side of the island you'll find the small port, and while the city lacks beautiful beaches, there are several beaches located along the coast. There are also numerous stone piers jutting out into the water, many of which offer bars and restaurants. They're a great place to enjoy the sunset. 

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Orientation and Location: Tolu is located just three hours south of Cartagena, by way of a decent major highway. The city is arranged by a numbered grid of streets, as in most cities in Colombia, with the streets running east/west, and the carreras running north south. Carrera Primera runs along the coast, while the numbered streets increase as one goes northward. Most of the tourist activity is concentrated between Calle 15 and 20. The northern parts of the town should be avoided at night, while during the day the city is reasonably safe.

How to Get There: Most tourists here will arrive by way of Cartagena. Buses leave more than every half hour from Cartagena's bus terminal, which is located one hour from the Centro by bus, or $15.000 by taxi. From the Cartagena terminal, it's a 2.5 to 3 hour bus ride. Upon your arrival, you can walk to the downtown, which is about 10 minutes to the west, or for $4.000 you can take a bicycle taxi.

There are also domestic flights to nearby Sincelejo, the capital of Sucre, or Monteria, the capital of Cordoba. However, given price and typical backpacker routes, Cartagena's Rafael Nunez International Airport is almost certainly your best option.

Tolu is also readibly accessible from Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Medellin, by bus. It's about 5 hours from Barranquilla, 7 from Santa Marta, and 10 to Medellin. Bogota is about 20 hours away by bus. To the west of Tolu, there are few typical tourist areas, although theoretically, if you're arriving by boat from Panama, you can take a bus from Turbo that will pass through Tolu.

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What to See: Tolu is a place where the real attractions are outside of the city. Unfortunately, there is virtually nothing by way of architecture of history in the city. The main plaza is located between Carrera 2 and 3 and Calle 15 and 16. Here you'll find a Super Exito, a Bancolombia ATM, and the town church, really the only building of note in the city.

All along Carrera Primera you'll find numerous hotels, mainly of the budget variety. Here, at least during the low season rooms go for $25.000 with a fan and $35.000 with AC. One of your best bets is to sample the various seafood options. You'll find a variety of fish, shrimp, lobster, and squid options.

You'll also want to check out the interesting shops selling souvenirs: it's a great place to find cheap polished shells, baby alligators, starfish, windchimes, t-shirts, and all manner of things related to the sea. However, make sure you don't purchase anything dervived from any endangered species, such as several kinds of sea turtles.

There are swimming options in Tolu. A quick stroll up and down la Primera will reveal a couple of sandy beaches. Some of these spots are actually quite charming, with picturesque boats lining the shore, and stone piers jutting out into the waters of the Golfo de Morrosquillo.

And, of course, at night, the most popular activities include watching the sunset and enjoying a delicious cold beer or cocktail.

Tolu, at most, justifies a stay of a couple of days; perhaps one day to explore the town, another day to check out neighboring Covenas, and another to take a tour (or possibly spend the night) on the nearby Islas de San Bernardo.

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Ambience: The Colombian costenos are a laidback bunch, and Tolu is no exception. It's a mix of mestizo and Afrocolombian populations, with little commerce or industry apart from that derived from tourism. People will certainly be grateful for your presence, especially in off-season.

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