Discovering The Magic Of Santa Marta, Colombia

Last Updated on 24 Apr 2024 by Fiona Perisone

Established by the Spanish in 1525, Santa Marta, Colombia, is among the oldest cities in South America. It still serves as a bustling port town today, but it's also a great destination for backpackers, tourists, and anyone looking for a coastal getaway!

There's something for everyone in Santa Marta. The historic roots can be seen in the architecture throughout the city, but you can also enjoy delicious cuisine, beautiful beaches, and many outdoor recreation opportunities! Indigenous, Spanish, and African cultures blend to create a vibrant coastal city.

Whether you're just passing through on your way to other destinations or have a week to soak in the Santa Marta vibe truly, we've got you covered. We'll tell you about the can't-miss attractions, some lesser-known spots, and our top tips for a perfect getaway on the Caribbean coast!

Best Time To Visit Santa Marta

The best time to visit Santa Marta, Colombia, is between December and March. Although the temperature in Santa Marta doesn't fluctuate much - hot and humid year round - it has a regular rainy season that makes many outdoor activities difficult. December through March is the dry season.

However, this is also the most popular time to visit Santa Marta, and the price of everything goes up! From lodging to food, the local economy fluctuates to match the tourism boom each year. December and January are the months when prices are the highest. Book your tickets online for a visit in February or March to take advantage of the dry season while avoiding the peak prices.

Top Attractions

Lost City

Lost City, Santa Marta

The Lost City is one of the main attractions in Santa Marta and is a unique experience for hikers and backpackers. The 4-day guided hike takes you into the depths of the jungle and up into the mountains. The climax of the hike is the Cuidad Perdida, or "Lost City." These ancient ruins will take your breath away as you literally stand on history!

Parque de Los Novios

Parque de los Novios

This is the historical center of Santa Marta, Colombia. Colorful houses and boutique cafes are connected with cobblestone streets. You can book a walking tour of this area so that you are sure not to miss a thing. Try not to come during midday, as it's so hot that not much will be going on. The Parque de Los Novios comes alive around 5 pm!

Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park is the jewel of Colombia and isn't far at all from Santa Marta! It's about 45 minutes to an hour's drive from the city center. Here, you can camp in the park overnight, book a day tour that takes you to the main parts or schedule a longer 6-day tour. Tayrona National Park is an incredible blend of beaches and mountains, and you'll be amazed at the landscape and wildlife found here. Remember that there is an entrance fee, which varies based on the season.

Taganga

Taganga

This tiny fishing village is only a couple of miles away, and a local bus from Santa Marta heads there regularly. It's a great way to get away from the hustle of the Santa Marta city centre. There are many amazing restaurants there and a beach area that is great for fishing.

Museo del Oro

Museo Del Oro

The Gold Museum in Santa Marta is free and worth a visit! For a city with such historical roots, you'd think there would be more museums here. Thanks to pirates, there isn't. However, the ancient artifacts and exhibits in the Museo del Oro paint a fascinating picture of the history and landscape of Santa Marta!

Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino

Quinta De San Pedro Alejandrino

The most famous museum in Santa Mart pays tribute to Simon Bolivar, who led Colombia to independence from the Spanish empire. He died in the very building that houses the museum.

Minca

Minca

Another small town worth a day trip to is Minca. Located in the jungle mountains, only 45 minutes from Santa Marta, this town has unparalleled views, a coffee tour, chocolate farms, and waterfalls you can swim in.

Things To Do

Santa Marta beach

Explore The Beaches

Santa Marta is situated right on the Caribbean coast, so spending a day at a beach is a must! Some of the beaches are cleaner than others, but all of them have something to offer.

  • Playa Grande - Not far from Taganga is Playa Grande, so take a day trip to enjoy both! This is a beautiful bay with clear, calm water. It's perfect for swimming, scuba diving, and snorkeling among the coral reefs.

  • Playa Blanca - Playa Blanca boasts calm water and white sand. It's busy, but it's a great place for swimming and sailing!

  • El Rodadero - This beach borders the nicer part of town, and the boardwalk is vibrant and colorful! The beach is busy, but clean.

  • Playa Cristal - To avoid the crowds, head to Playa Cristal. The number of daily visitors is limited, so you can enjoy relaxing on the beach without the bustle.

Santa Marta local food

Enjoy Good Food

There is so much good food in Santa Marta! The street food is cheap and delicious. The seafood restaurants serve incredibly fresh dishes. And there are so many different cultures! Go on a food tour to enjoy Spanish, African, and Caribbean cuisine. Make a point to enjoy a dinner at Restaurante Burukuka, where you'll enjoy delicious food on a hill overlooking the El Rodadero beach at sunset.

Parque Tayrona

Go hiking in Parque Tayrona

Going hiking in Parque Tayrona is a must-do activity for nature lovers and adventure seekers. The national park is home to a variety of hiking trails that wind through lush jungle landscapes, offering stunning views of the Caribbean Sea and the surrounding mountains.

One of the most popular hikes in Parque Tayrona is the trail to Cabo San Juan, a beautiful beach nestled in a bay surrounded by towering palm trees. The hike takes around two hours and offers plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife, including monkeys and colorful birds.

For more experienced hikers, the trail to Pueblito is a challenging but rewarding option. This trail takes you through the heart of the park's jungle, past the ancient ruins of an indigenous Tayrona village, and up to a stunning viewpoint overlooking the sea.

Boat Tour To Taganga

Take A Boat Tour To Taganga

Boat tours to Taganga typically depart from the marina in Santa Marta and take you on a scenic journey along the coast, with stunning views of the Caribbean Sea and the surrounding mountains. Along the way, you may spot dolphins, sea turtles, and other marine life.

Once you arrive in Taganga, there are plenty of activities to keep you busy. The village is home to various seafood restaurants, beach bars, souvenir shops, and several beautiful beaches perfect for swimming, snorkeling, or just relaxing in the sun.

One of the most popular activities in Taganga is snorkeling, and several tour operators in the village offer guided snorkeling tours to nearby reefs. These tours allow you to get up close and personal with various colorful marine life, including tropical fish, sea stars, and even sea turtles.

Santa Marta beach

Scuba Diving

One of the most popular scuba diving destinations in Santa Marta is Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. This beautiful national park features stunning beaches, coral reefs, and an abundance of marine life. The park is home to a number of dive sites, including La Piscina, a shallow dive site with clear waters and a variety of colorful fish, and Los Morros, a deeper dive site with larger marine creatures such as rays and barracudas.

Another popular scuba diving site in Santa Marta is Isla Aguja, an island just off the city's coast. The island features clear waters, coral reefs, and abundant marine life, including seahorses, crabs, and various fish species.

There are several scuba diving tour operators in Santa Marta that offer guided dives and courses for beginners, as well as more advanced dives for experienced divers. These tours typically provide all necessary equipment and transport to and from the dive sites.

Cacao Farm

Visit Cacao Farms

Visiting cacao farms in Santa Marta, Colombia, is a unique and educational experience for anyone interested in learning about the process of growing and harvesting cacao, the plant from which chocolate is made.

Cacao farms in Santa Marta are typically located in the lush, tropical forests surrounding the city. Visitors to these farms can take guided tours that explain the history of cacao cultivation in the region and the various stages of the harvesting and processing of the beans.

Where To Stay When Visiting Santa Marta

Santa Marta is a popular destination for hikers and backpackers, so hostels are plentiful and affordable! This is the most budget-friendly option. Some of these hostels offer swimming pools and private rooms!

However, having the basic amenities in the Santa Marta hotels is nice. In the hot and muggy climate, air conditioning is very welcome! If you rent a car, the secure private parking lot provides peace of mind.

Hostels and hotels are found all over Santa Marta. Since many of the city's main attractions are found in its historic center, you'll find many lodging options here. However, this area isn't the safest at night. Ten minutes away is the upmarket El Rodadero area, where you'll find many of the higher-end hotels, resorts, and spas.

Where Is Santa Marta Located

Santa Marta is located in the Magdalena province of Colombia. It's one of the northernmost cities in Colombia and in all of South America. It's uniquely positioned, with the Caribbean Sea on one side of the city and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountain range on the other. Cartagena is the largest nearby city, around a 3-hour drive to the west.

How To Get To Santa Marta

You can get to Santa Marta, Colombia, by airplane, bus, or car.

Santa Marta has its own airport, named Simon Bolivar International Airport. Although officially recognized as an international airport in 2007, it still mostly operates on domestic flights. To get to Santa Marta by air, you'll need to fly into a larger airport, such as in Cartagena or Bogota, and transfer to a domestic flight into Santa Marta. This small airport is only 20 minutes from downtown Santa Marta. If you are coming from the U.S., there are no direct flights to Santa Marta, and you will need to transfer.

If Santa Marta is just one stop among many on your Caribbean getaway, you're more likely to take a bus. The closest bus station is in Cartagena, and it will be a 4-hour ride. The ticket price is similar to the cost of airfare from the same location, so it's up to you. Do you prefer to get to Santa Marta quickly, or would you rather take in the sights on a ride?

You can also get to Santa Marta by car. Private shuttles and transfer cars are available from many cities in Colombia. Although you'll be more comfortable than if you were riding a bus, these private shuttles come with a higher price tag. Another option is to rent a car and drive yourself.

Transportation Within Santa Marta

The historical center of Santa Marta is compact, and you'll be able to walk to most of the main attractions. If you're on a tight budget, this can save money - and you'll enjoy the ancient cobblestone streets!

However, there are public transportation options for a reasonable price. The public bus system connects all of the malls, beaches, and other main locations. The drivers are very flexible and friendly and will help you get where you need to go.

Taxis in Santa Marta are pretty cheap, but you need to be prepared to negotiate your price before starting your ride. Some taxis operate without a meter and can take advantage of tourists.

Because Santa Marta isn't a large town, renting a bike is a great way to get around. You can also rent a car, but then you have to mess with parking, acquiring an international driving permit, and worrying about break-ins (which are pretty common).

Golden Tips When You Visit Santa Marta

Safety First

Many people are concerned about crime in Colombia, and drug cartels have indeed done a number on this beautiful country. However, Santa Marta is a generally safe place to visit. You don't need to worry about kidnapping or other major crimes, but petty theft is pretty common. Here are some tips for staying safe during your stay!

  • Keep everything in your bag when you're walking around. This means nothing in your pockets, and avoid having your phone in hand!

  • Be sure your bag is secure. Always keep a firm grip on it. Backpacks are handy, but be sure to keep one hand grasping a shoulder strap at all times! When you're sitting down somewhere, put your bag on your lap or place a chair leg through a strap if you set it on the floor.

  • Avoid street ATMs. Instead, use an ATM within a bank. This lets you put your money away in a secure location.

  • Stay off the streets at night, particularly if you are walking alone. This is when theft is most common.

Prepare for the weather

Keep in mind that Santa Marta is hot! It is incredibly muggy, so don't forget to bring a refillable water bottle, ample sunscreen, and airy clothing. Also, do not forget to pack your insect repellent.

Do Reputable Tour Operator

Use a reputable tour operator when booking activities like scuba diving or trekking in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

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