Santa Marta Colombia Travel Guide

Dear Reader

My name is Frank and I run a travel agency based in Bogota, Colombia. If you have any feedback or suggestions, please write them in our comments section. Thank you and have a great trip to Colombia!

1. Introduction

Santa Marta

Santa Marta is the capital of the department Magdalena and has about 500.000 inhabitants. It is one of Colombia’s main tourist destinations at the Caribbean coast. It was founded 1525 by the Spaniards and is one of the oldest cities in South America. Indigenous tribes lived in this region long before the arrival of the Spaniards and you can see their descendants from time to time: The Arhuacos (or Ikas), the Wiwas, the Kogis and the Kankuamos count for around 30’000 habitants. Santa Marta has an area of 2,4 km2 (0.9 Square miles).

The historic center of Santa Marta is well conserved and offers many restaurants, hotels and bars. It is quite small and consists mostly out of 2 streets that cross in the Park Los Novios. Although the colonial city center of Santa Marta is small and nice, whole Santa Marta is quite big.

2. What to see in Santa Marta and Activities

Santa Marta is one of the main destinations for national tourism on the Caribbean coast. Therefore, you need to be aware that you also can be confronted with mass tourism and all its aspects. During weekends, public holidays and high season some spots can become very busy. Also on some destinations the services are targeted on Colombian customers. This can mean monopolies and high prices on, for example, remote beaches, unsafe transportation (especially boats) or other irritating concepts. My recommendation therefore is to check the sites you want to go in beforehand online and if you are looking for quality, do tours with a quality provider.

2.1 Tours in Santa Marta

There are a bunch of tour operators in Santa Marta as Santa Marta offers a variety of activities in and outside the city. Locally I work with Baquianos and I can recommend them.

2.2. Inside the City

Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino

This is the house where the big liberator and general Simon Bolivar died. Today it is a monument embedded in a huge park. From a historical perspective this is a very important site. You not only find his house but also some other exhibitions.

You can get there by bus (Bus to Mamacoto), which is enjoying slow, hot but cheap. or by taxi, which is fast, comfortable and also cheap. The entrance is around COP 20,000.–. If you are no Spanish speaker and interested in history, I recommend you booking an English Tour in advance.

Tairona Gold Museum – Casa de la Aduana

The Tairona Gold Museum is right next to the Simon Bolivar Square in a very nice colonial building. It is not only about Gold but explains the whole history and development of the region of the Sierra Nevada and the department of Magdalena. It consists of 4 thematic galleries. It is free so if you are close, just walk by and have a look.

Cathedral of Santa Marta

The Basilica of Santa Marta clearly stands out, as it is a big, white and high building. Construction began in 1765.  If you like churches, this is the place to go to in Santa Marta. There is also a square in front of it and in the morning or later in the day a good place to have a coffee with this beautiful church in front.

Parque de los novios

Especially during evenings life awakens at this park. You will see break dancers showing their stuff in the little pavilion or other people just hanging around. If you are in for the nightlife, you will get there any way.

2.3. Outside the city

El Rodadero

Different than stated in other online sources, this is not a nice place and far away from a great beach. This is where the whole Colombian mass tourism heads. If you want to go to a busy and noisy beach, this is the place to be. Families, crying children, drunk men, obese visitors, banana boats, food, garbage, drinks, beach vendors, massage ladies, loud music on every corner, dirty water… if you are looking for this, this is the place to go for you. Also you will find boats to Playa Blanca and the Aquarium, which is even worse after my opinion. Right behind the beach you will find all the restaurants and bars serving to this kind of audience which can be interesting especially during night time.

Further towards the airport you will find more luxury hotels with good services but, the beach will not increase a lot in quality. If you are familiar with the mass tourism in the Canary Islands, this is the Colombian version of it.

Minca

Some years ago Minca was only a secret insider tip but that changed a lot. As the main entrance to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Minca has become a go to place for many Backpackers and also attracted many foreigners to invest. Therefore you will find providers from many different nationalities, from hotels and hostels, to tour operators, coffee and food.

It is very easy to get there from Santa Marta. Close to the public market you will find Jeeps that bring you there for a very reasonable price. They start trips from 7 am departing when the jeeps are full . You also can take a taxi or an organized transport. Some also rent a motorbike or a scooter in Santa Marta and drive up by themselves. It will take you around 40 Minutes uphill to get there. Until Minca the road is paved. If you need to go somewhere from Minca, the best way to get around is by Mototaxi. Young guys take you everywhere on their backseat for no money. I also took a Mototaxi with my obese dad who is 70 years old, therefore no excuses. During rain season the dirt road gets really dirty and you might too.

Natural pools and little waterfalls

National tourism is brought there by the busload and accordingly those places close to Minca look like a trash dump sometimes. There are places more remote where you need to hike or you even have places with their private waterfalls. Best is to get the information on site.

Coffee farm and brewery La Victoria

This is kind of must visit. You can just go there and ask for the tour. It is very informative and I liked it. If you go to the huge spiders, take them into your hand, they look very scary but are harmless. You can either hike there or take a mototaxi.

Hiking

There are some great routes for hiking. Depending where you are staying, you will have some offers from your Hostal or Hotel. My best advice is to book on site.

If you would like to make a longer hiking trip into the Sierra Nevada, surely you should organize that in advance. Important to know is that you will walk on indigenous land and an according guide needs to be familiar with the tribes. Illegal access to indigenous land already led to issues in the past in whole Colombia. For example the indigenous in the Park in Cocuy in the Department of Boyaca just shut down any access after tour operators did not respect their territory.

Birding

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is one of the most important birding spots in Colombia and you can find many endemic birds. Tour guides also can be found in Minca. If you are a birder, you can contact me directly as I have a brand specialized in birding in whole Colombia.

Finca Vista Nieves

If you want to experience something extraordinary, go up to Finca Vista Nieves, which is an active Coffee Farm. The main house is 160 years old, food is great, standard is very good and you will have your private waterfall. If you are interested, you can contact me directly.

Cuchilla San Lorenzo

On 2,500 m.a.s.l. on the Cuchilla San Lorenzo you will find not only endemic birds. Also, you have a spectacular view over the ocean to one side and to the snow covered peaks on the other side. Getting up there is an adventure, especially during rain season and it takes around 90 minutes from Santa Marta. If you go there please respect the birding tourism and keep quiet as this type of tourism is highly important and brings lots of value to the region.

You can also sleep up there in the Hostal Moncho, it is very basic and cold in the night but it is a good option.

Night Safaris

Further you can go on night safaris and find animals like the crystal frog. Depending on where you stay, those tours are offered in house.

My advice anyway is to not stay in Minca (unless you like backpacker crowds) and look for a place further up the mountain. Usually tours and activities can be easily booked in hotels and hostels. Also you should be aware that during rain season the road gets very bad. Also if you plan to drive up the mountain with a scooter during rain season, just forget about that plan, you will push your vehicle up through rivers of mud.

Tayrona Park

First I have to explain that there is no video or picture of the Tayrona Park I can show, as I would need to go through quite a process with the Park authorities. And as I am based in Colombia I would risk getting fined when using multi media material without according permission. I hope in the future that will change.

The Tayrona Park is probably the most important and one of the most visited in Colombia. It offers some of the most spectacular beaches of Colombia and is just an experience you should not miss when coming to the region.

From Santa Marta access is very easy. Probably all local operators offer either private or group tours. Also going by your own is very easy. You can take a taxi or the bus which leaves on the corner of the market. There are also tours by boat available where you will visit specific beaches.

Important to know is that the park and beaches have a maximum visitor contingent. Therefore you should avoid public holidays, high season and weekends. Also the park is closed for one month each year for recovering.

Tickets can be bought at the entry point or also in advance online.

There are different types of accommodations available inside and around the park. From a hammock to the luxurious bungalow, most people needs will be served. Saying that, you actually don’t need to stay in the park, I just made a day trip with my dad and that was fine.

Also if you are looking for every last detail you can learn about the park before going there, I recommend reading the following blogs:

Lost City / Ciudad Perdida

The lost city trek is a great experience and compared many times to the Inka Trail. Yes and no I have to say, as I did both. This activity is not only for backpackers, but also for everybody who wants to have a great experience. Walking up the Sierra Nevada and experiencing the change in climate and vegetation is just awesome. Arriving to the lost city is a great feeling and a wonderful experience.

There are offers for 4, 5 or 6 days. After my opinion, 4 days is just fine. The camps where you sleep over are very basic but usually food is good. Don’t be surprised if bed bugs will bite you or if you will get sick. In my group like half got stomach eggs and one guy had to ride his way back on a donkey. Sanitary installations are not the best and hygiene questionable. You can only go with one of the 7 licensed operators and with a guide.

My tips bring some good shoes and prepare yourself for high humidity and rain and travel with little luggage. In the last camp before the lost city, the night can become a bit chilly.

Taganga

I usually call this town Sodom y Gomorrah of Colombia as it is known for drugs, prostitution, child sex and parties. Especially Israeli males made themselves an unflattering reputation. Why then should a mental healthy human go there?

Taganga was once just a simple fisher village. Its location although is great. Just 15 minutes from Santa Marta it lies in a bay with hills rising behind it. Early in the morning or for sunset you really can enjoy a great view. There are restaurants not only on the shorefront but also on the way down, where you can overlook the whole bay.

There are also various dive companies offering services for very competitive prices. Boats bring you to different places in the Tayrona Park. During my last visit, locals confirmed that theft and robbery still is an issue, the above stated ugly aspects of Taganga have been reduced since the booming of Palomino and shifted there accordingly.

3. Accommodation in Santa Marta – Hotels and Hostels

Following some of my personal recommendations. I also recommend you to check the pages of www.hotels.com, www.booking.com and/or www.tripadvisor.com.

Also there are always good options on https://www.airbnb.com

*💰: Price Range

Placita Vieja

Historic Center
Calle 19 No. 2A-09
Very Good
💰💰💰
Best boutique hotel in Santa Marta after my opinion.

Casa Mia

Historic Center
Calle 20 # 3-60
Very good
💰💰
Very nice hotel for a good price.

Don Pepe

Historic Center
Calle 16 No. 1C – 92
Good
💰💰💰
Most famous boutique hotel but lacks details.

La Calzada del Santo

Historic Center
Calle 16 No. 2 – 43
Good
💰💰
Best for the buck.

Hotel Villa María Tayrona

Troncal del Caribe Km 34, Via Parque Nacional Tayrona, Santa Marta
Very good
💰💰💰
Very nice place.

Ecohabs Tayrona

Tayrona Park
Very good
💰💰💰
Best in the Park.

Hostal la Brisa Loca

Calle 14 #3-58
Good
💰
Party hostal since a long time.

4. Nightlife

There are plenty of bars and clubs in the colonial part of Santa Marta and you can enjoy a great party. If you are not satisfied you also can try Rodadero, which is a totally different type of nightlife.

5. Cultural Agenda

  • Caiman parties (Ciénaga) – January 2020
  • Mamatoco carnival – February 2020
  • Festival of the Sea – July 2020

6. Neighborhoods

6.1. Where to Stay

To me there is only one place to stay in Santa Marta and this is in the historic colonial part of Santa Marta or at least very close to it.

7. Where to eat in Santa Marta

Donde Chucho

This is a classic and non brainer. Donde Chucho is an institution in Santa Marta. Right on the Square Los Novios you might need to line up to get a table, especially outside. Seafood is great.

Burukuka

http://www.burukuka.com/en/

Rocoto

If a restaurant says Peruvian food, usually nothing can go wrong. Especially on the coast with great fresh seafood, Rocoto offers you delicious dishes (Facebook page).

Mañe Cayon

You would like to eat like the locals. This is the place to go. Great seafood for great prices. Portions are big. Come early or you will not have a table (Facebook page).

8. Best Time to Visit Santa Marta

Santa Marta can be visited throughout the year but you need to take into account that it is one of the main national tourist destinations and that there is rain and dry season. Rain season usually starts in May and ends in November.

High season are after Christmas until mid of January, Easter week and all public holidays which usually are on a Monday and we count 19 of them throughout the year.

Also check in advance that Tayrona Park and the Lost City Trek are open as they usually close every year for one month for recovery.

9. Airport in Santa Marta

The airport of Santa Marta is still a national airport but there are plans to receive international flights in the upcoming years. The direct connections are as following:

10. Transportation in Santa Marta

Arriving at the airport you will have a taxi stand and driving to Santa Marta cost COP 30,000.—and from Santa Marta back to the airport 25,000.–.

Within Santa Marta you have buses where you have to pay in cash around COP 2,000.— per person and transport. The buses have no air condition and can get very packed.

Taxis have a minimum tariff of COP 6,000.—and although they have a taximeter, they usually do not use it. Negotiate your price before starting your passage.

Santa Marta is well connected with buses. Just go to the Terminal de Transporte to book your bus wherever you would like to go. There are also other companies that offer fast transfers for example to Cartagena in mini vans. Those do not start in the bus terminal but at the station of those companies.

Some of the most important bus companies are Berlinas del Fonce, Bolivariano, Expreso Brasilia and Copetran, among other small ones.

11. What I like about Santa Marta and What I don’t like

To me Santa Marta is a great destination because it feels small and familiar. Although I am not the heat guy, there are many activities for cooling down. And this is also where I think the value of Santa Marta lays. So many different activities around the city are offered. One easily can stay in Santa Marta and will never get bored.

Santa Marta can get really hot and combined with the humidity I sometimes just want to stay in my air-conditioned room. Also, reliability of the coastal population has room for improvement. Although I am fluent in Spanish, I sometimes have difficulties to understand them as they eat the words and mumble. The security situation has been better but with the difficult situation in Venezuela, the crime rate has increased.

Dear Reader

I hope this guide was useful and helped you a lot. We are more than happy organizing your trip to Colombia. If you require more information, just follow the following link to the main page www.pelecanus.com.co.

If you have feedback or suggestions on how to improve our guide, we would be very thankful if you leave a note below in our comment section.