Santa Marta, Colombia may not be as popular, colorful, or tourist-friendly as the more popular Cartagena, Colombia, but you’ll find that it has its own gritty charm. While there may not be an endless list of things to do in Santa Marta, the real draw of staying here is that it provides an excellent home base for a number of incredible eco-attractions that lie within quick reach of the Santa Marta city center.
Table of Contents
- About Santa Marta
- Things to Do in Santa Marta Colombia
- Where to Stay in Santa Marta
- Popular Day Trips from Santa Marta
- Santa Marta Tours
- Visit Santa Marta Colombia
About Santa Marta
The first time I visited Santa Marta, I’d been in Colombia for less than a week and was eager to escape the touristy Cartagena, Colombia so I quickly made my way here. I found a much more laid back vibe in Santa Marta, where my buddy and I ultimately settled in for two weeks as we studied Spanish and adapted to a new country.
Santa Marta is hot and sticky. It sits sandwiched between the sweltering Caribbean waters and the towering Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range — which is the tallest coastal mountain range in the world, with peaks reaching as high as 18,950 feet which is also the highest mountain in Colombia.
Thanks to the mountain range on the backside, the city gets an incredible breeze almost every night which makes things a little more bearable, if you don’t dig the hot, hot, heat.
Here we’ll talk about a few of the best things to do in Santa Marta, and the most popular day trips you can take in the vicinity while using Santa Marta as a home base.
Things to Do in Santa Marta Colombia
Parque de los Novios
This park is sort of the central-area of attraction for travelers, where you will find tons of restaurants, bars, clubs, and historical monuments. There are a few pedestrian-only streets that skirt the area, which makes it great for an evening stroll before or after grabbing a drink or bite to eat.
Rodadero Beach is not just one of the best beaches near Santa Marta, but one of the best along the length of the Colombian Caribbean. Here you will find a popular white sand beach surround by gleaming towers and towering green mountains.
It’s a place to see and be seen, where you can hang out on the beach, practice water sports, or just work on that tan. The beach is located south of the town of Santa Marta, so you will have to visit by cab if you are staying downtown. There are ample hotels and a lot of nightlife here too if that’s of interest.
El Rodadero is also a particularly popular place for tourists (locals or foreigners alike) to base themselves if they are looking for a bit more luxurious lodging. There are also other options, like the incredible Santa Marta Marriott Resort Playa Dormida where I stayed on a follow up visit thanks to travel hacking and points and miles.
Nestled beside the rugged hills between the Santa Marta city center and Rodadero, you’ll find Playa Blanca, which is one of Santa Marta’s most cherished beaches. This is actually a pretty inaccessible place that you have to travel to by boat.
The short trip from Rodadero will cost you about 12,000 pesos round trip, which is totally reasonable. While you’d think the beach wouldn’t be crowded because of this, it can get amazingly crowded during high season, so keep that in mind (but that’s true everywhere along the coast).
Read More: When is the Best Time to Visit Colombia?
You’ll also find a really cool dive center here near the aquarium if you want to get out into the water and see some fish and coral. Be sure to also hike up onto the hill above the beach for an excellent view!
Eat Fresh Seafood
This is the coast, so there’s no better place to grab some fresh street food. Grab a ceviche, which is a prepared in the Colombian-syle, or rice with mixed seafood (like arroz con camarones or arroz marinero) which is absolutely delicious.
Go to the little places where you see lots of locals congregating, rather than touristy places with hamburgers and pizza.
Visit Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino
The Quinta of San Pedro Alejandrino is a large estate or hacienda located on the outskirts of Santa Marta and is famous for being the place where Simon Bolivar died in 1830.
If you aren’t familiar with Simón Bolívar, now is the time to do so, because you’ll be hearing about him across a grand chunk of Latin America, as he was instrumental in the establishment of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama as sovereign states, independent of Spanish rule.
Check out the book Bolivar: American Liberator for a better appreciation of the “George Washington of Latin America.”
La Quinta includes the original hacienda and rum production facilities dating back to 1608, a modern monument to Simon Bolivar, an art museum with six galleries, and a large botanical garden full of local flora and a ton of iguanas! Be sure to bring some bug spray though.
Where to Stay in Santa Marta
There are tons of backpacker-friendly hostels throughout Santa Marta, but be sure to grab a reservation (I recommend via Booking), which is especially important if you’ll be traveling there during high season (December or January) when many Colombians make the visit to the coast from the interior of the country, especially from cold Bogota.
If you’re looking for something more upscale or oceanfront, then you will want to look toward El Rodadero or Bello Horizante.
Popular Day Trips from Santa Marta
While I enjoyed my two weeks in Santa Marta as I settled into life in Colombia (my first time in South America), the real attractions are what lays in the immediate vicinity, with a number of incredible places that are often among the highlights while traveling in Colombia.
Tayrona National Park is undoubtedly the main attraction for any visitor to Santa Marta, where you will find a rugged jungle that meets pristine white beaches that affords one the opportunity to hike or trek and see some of the incredible biodiversity.
The park isn’t cheap, and nothing inside is cheap either, so be sure to bring plenty of food and water for your stay. The park can be reached by boat or by transport and then walking a few hours. This park is an absolute dream for those who love taking photos and you’ll probably fill up half your camera memory here.
The Lost City or Ciudad Perdida is the Machu Picchu of Colombia if you will. The site itself is older than Machu Picchu, and they sit deep in the middle of a hot and humid jungle. Visiting the Lost City is not for the faint of heart, as you will have to trek five days through the jungle in order to visit.
You must go on a tour, as self-guided trips are not allowed, and it will cost you a few hundred bucks. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the budget to do it at the time, but those who have say it is amazing: check out this post on the Ciudad Perdida trek.
|Ciudad Perdida: 4- or 5-Day Trek from Santa Marta – $626.00
Trek through the jungle to Ciudad Perida, Colombia’s ‘Lost City’ in the Sierra Nevada, the mountain range outside Santa Marta. This ‘into the wild’ experience will have you trekking over rivers and alongside waterfalls for four, five or six days as you make your way to the ancient archaeological site, founded by an indigenous culture around the 9th century. This outdoor adventure can be tough — you’ll walk up to several hours each day — but worth it for the amazing experience of getting ‘lost’ in the jungle and finally arriving at the extraordinary Ciudad Perdida, surrounded by lush mountain foliage.
Taganga was once a small and sleepy fishing village, but it has become a spot super popular with the backpacker crowd, where you will now find expensive and overpriced falafel, parties that rage all night, and all that sort of stuff.
Honestly, I didn’t come to Colombia for this sort of thing, so I didn’t bother visiting. It is, however, one of the cheapest places in the world to get a scuba diving certification, if that’s of interest to you.
Escape to Minca
If you’re tired of the coastal heat, then you can quickly escape to the mountains above Santa Marta and visit the little town of Minca, tucked into the rugged green mountains and overlooking the shimmering blue waters of the Caribbean Coast far below.
The town is touristy, of course, but it’s a worthwhile escape where you can hike along gurgling rivers, lounge by waterfalls, visit coffee farms, or just hang out in a hammock.
While Minca is only about an hour away from Santa Marta, it’s worth hanging out here for a few days.
We camped at the Hostal Casa Loma located high on the hilltop, which requires you to climb up 200 some stairs to reach it… It definitely had us sweating and complaining as we hiked up in the humid air with our overstuffed backpacks.
Santa Marta Tours
- Santa Marta Sightseeing Tour
- Price: $36.25
- Scuba Diving Day Trip from Santa Marta
- Price: $162.92
- Snorkeling - Day Trip from Santa Marta
- Price: $49.26
- 4 Day Lost City Small-Group Tour in Santa Marta
- Price: $370.00
- Private Speedboat from Santa Marta to Tayrona National Park
- Price: $356.00
- Santa Marta Favela Walking Tour
- Price: $70.00
Visit Santa Marta Colombia
So there you go! I hope that gives you a good idea of what to do in Santa Marta Colombia. Honestly, as far as cities go, Santa Marta was my favorite place along the Colombian coast. It is unpretentious and a little gritty, but a good place to settle in. I’d definitely recommend it as a base if you need to work on your Spanish in between exploring some of the nearby nature.
Traveling to Santa Marta soon?
Book your lodging on Booking.com now to save, or if you plan to stay longer, I highly recommend looking for a place on Airbnb. And don’t forget to purchase travel insurance for Colombia that will help protect you against illness, injury, and theft. I recommend World Nomads or SafetyWing which are both made for backpackers or digital nomads, and provide great coverage at an affordable price.
Read Next: Guide to Traveling to Colombia
Colombia Travel Tips
Important tips and resources for planning an amazing trip to Colombia, based on my years of traveling and living in Colombia.
Colombia Trip Planning
- Book a cheap flight to Colombia with Momondo, or better yet, start travel hacking so you can fly for free. Traveling between major cities is much better by flying, trust me.
- Plan a rough itinerary and how long you will spend in each destination. Use an itinerary planning service for custom recommendations and pick up Lonely Planet Colombia.
- Work a little every day to teach yourself Spanish, you'll want to know as much as possible before you arrive.
- Book cheap accommodation in advance, at least for the first destinations -- For hostels use: Booking, for cheap hotels use: Hotels.com, for apartments use: Airbnb.
- Reserve your on the ground tours and activities through Get Your Guide.
- Purchase travel insurance for Colombia with World Nomads or SafetyWing to protect yourself from illness, injury, and theft while in Colombia. VERY important. And be sure to read my article: "Is Colombia Safe?" for my honest opinion and safety tips.
- Sign up for my free emails about planning a better trip to Colombia, and be sure to check out my comprehensive guide about traveling to Colombia.
- Learn more money-saving tricks with my top budget travel tips.
- Put together your Colombia packing list.
- Enjoy this incredible country!
I hope this helped you plan your travels in Colombia! I know it can be a struggle to find accurate and on the ground information when traveling to a new place like Colombia, which is why I started writing so extensively about it!
If you have any questions about Colombia, budget travel, or anything else shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(I love getting questions! That is how I get ideas for my blog posts and what to write about!)
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Thanks for this series on different place in Colombia. I’ve only been once and it was a long time ago when things were dangerous, so I hope to get back there now that travel is safe!