What to do in Santa Marta, Colombia
Go to Santa Marta if you like: Laid back cities, sunsets, hot temperatures, beaches and mountains on your doorstep.
How long to spend there? A night or two to relax and enjoy the cafés, bars and restaurants and branch out to the surrounding beaches. You may find yourself using Santa Marta as a base for all the trips you can do from the city.
As this review became quite long, here are the contents - scroll down to find:
Check out my YourGrapevine.com list too for it the majority of these Santa Marta places mapped.
For the full collection of areas I was lucky enough to explore in Colombia, head to Over to you: Tips for Travel in Colombia
1. A BIT OF CONTEXT
Santa Marta, the oldest remaining city in Colombia, is located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. It's a special city in that it bridges the sea and the mountains, in fact the highest mountains in the world so close to the sea. Santa Marta is a popular stopover for travellers making their way to the beachy park of Tayrona, the Sierra Nevada mountains and further along the coast into the Guajira desert.
With temperatures that don’t vary much from 29°C year round, the city comes alive when it’s cooler in the evenings. Parque de los Novios is the focal point for nightlife, with the pedestrianised streets - Calle 19 and Carrera 3 - off it offering the mainstay of bars and restaurants.
While it's got a certain energy to it, Santa Marta is a great place to take it easy and catch up with life for a few days. Spend your days relaxing in the cool cafés, bars, hostels and hotels - the wifi is pretty good, particularly in the cafés I mention below.
The city, currently with an estimated 500,000 residents, has grown considerably in the last 10 years due to tourism and people displaced during the armed conflict. As a result it has its issues with water, drainage and security every now and again but in general it's a friendly and easily navigable city. Tourism tends to stick to the small historic centre, Rodadero - 8km to the south - and Taganga - 5km to the north.
Having spent 5 weeks living there prepping for the Colombia International Marathon in 2016, I explored the city a fair bit. Here are my top tips for a one/ two day stay in Santa Marta, as well as its surroundings. Hopefully all still present and correct when you get there too!
2. BEST CAFES WITH WIFI IN SANTA MARTA?
- Ikaro (Calle 19 #3-60): a vegetarian café & restaurant with delicious Asian curries, banana pancakes and coffee. With its living wall, trickling water and day beds, Ikaro wins for relaxing vibe
- Amaneunse (Calle 16 #3-43): an endearing little book shop café with top notch filter coffee
- La Canoa (Cl. 18 #3-75): a French patisserie & café. La Canoa’s fresh bread and pastries, décor and photography made it one of my favourite places to pass the day
- Arborigen Cafe (Cra. 3 #16): great quiet courtyard out back
3. WHERE TO EAT IN SANTA MARTA?
Follow the locals for cheap and cheerful
- Lunchtime ‘menu del día’ or ‘menu ejecutivo’ gets you a soup, plate of meat/fish, rice, the inevitable patacón (smashed fried plantain) and a juice for COP 7-15k. Just pop your head into any place that has locals.
- Street vendors by the Éxito supermarket on Calle 5a offer arepas and salchicha. My go-to pop-up stand for carimañola (yuka with cheese), and all other deep fried delights is on Calle 20, on the right as you walk from Parque de los Novios to the sea. Calle 17 has juice stands. Try buy your fruit and veg (and anything) from the street vendors – good ready-to-eat quality and helps support families.
- Restaurante Vital (Cl. 15 #3-114): Simple vegetarian café. Pick a combo from the counter
- Las Hamacas (Cl. 15 #3-52): a busy lunch time venue with filling menus of the day
- Donde Juancho (Cra. 1c #22): street ceviche - has opened a restaurant further down the road if you want to eat in
- China Town (Cra. 1 #18-53): a Chinese restaurant on the bay with HUGE portions (a COP 14k portion of veggie fried rice is enough for 3 people) and some of the best fruit juices I tried in Santa Marta
Restaurants with an international menu:
- Carambolo (Calle 19 #3-105) is the place to go for pita wraps; the falafel wrap was my staple
- Lulo (Carrera 3, - no. 1 on Tripadvisor) - serves Colombian fusion food
- Entre Cuates (Cl. 20 #3 - 10) – brightly coloured Mexican restaurant with swing seats
- Bienvenue Crepes (Carrera 3 #18-57) – recently opened by a French couple from Brittany, the savoury and sweet crepes are authentic and delicious
- Uozo (Parque de los Novios) – Greek cuisine and pizza
- DiVino (Calle 6 #1-26, Rodadero - 10 mins drive from central Santa Marta) - scrumptious food with an Italian theme
- Rocoto (Carrera 2 #19): upmarket Peruvian restaurant – it has linen table clothes and everything!
4. BEST BARS IN SANTA MARTA?
Caribbean Team (Calle 22 #1 by the Marina)- Watch sunset here with a Bogota Beer Company beer. Thanks to its open air, wooden décor, friendly staff and awesome music it’s by far my favourite hangout in Santa Marta. The menu provides a respite from arepas, rice and patacón, instead featuring mac n cheese, hot dogs, burgers and salad).
- Charlie’s Bar (Calle 19 #4-12) serves cocktails in jam jars…didn’t expect the hipster vibe in Santa Marta!
- Iguanas (Calle 19 No 4-58) – live music
- Brisa Loca (Calle 14 #3-58) – a hostel bar and Santa Marta's best open air dance venue - great terrace with chilled club vibe.
- Festivalshots (Calle 19 #3-40) – a tiny bar dedicated to shots. They have a vast menu full of creative drinks of the mini shot glass size variety
- La Puerta (Cl. 17#2-29) – more of a club - you can salsa and boogie the night away to Colombian music
- El Mirador (on the way to Taganga) – a big club with Colombian and electro music on different floors
5. WHERE TO STAY IN SANTA MARTA?
- El Habitante Hotel (Calle 12 #4-23) – a great friendly hotel. Your stay supports their social enterprise that works with kids in Santa Marta: Tiempo de Juego Foundation.
- Mango Tree Hostel (Calle 12 #4-38) – based around a traditional courtyard complete with hammocks to relax in
For flat-share feel:
- Hostal Santa Morena (Calle 18 #6-47) – run by the lovely Sophia, I lived here during my time in Santa Marta and loved the homely feel.
- Mango Hostal (Calle 11a #16c-28) – a bit out of the centre but with good access to Taganga, Tayrona, Minca etc.
For party vibe:
- Brisa Loca (Calle 14 #3-58) – a big hostel with bar and party nights hosted. Twinned with Brisa Tranquila out on the beach beyond Tayrona (KM 39)
- Mulata Hostel (Cl. 19 #326) – on the main bar street of Santa Marta, this is a basic but friendly hostel with a plunge pool.
- The Dreamer (Cra. 51 #26D-161) – a big and fun hostel on the outskirts of the city, positioning you well for public transport to Tayrona, Rioacha and Minca.
For smarter travellers:
6. BEST DAY TRIPS FROM SANTA MARTA?
- Minca: Hop up into the mountains for a cooler climate, jungle, trekking, waterfalls and swimming holes - read here for details
- Scuba dive in Rodadero at Casa de Buceo (Whatsapp Maria on: +573205311089), or Scuba Master in Taganga
- Taganga - see below
- Rodadero - see below
- City beach of Santa Marta is a good place for a sunset stroll but not really a beach for sunbathing and swimming
- Taganga: Head to the fishing town for a beach day, backpacker town with good food and dive shops. 15 minutes drive away (COP10k taxi, or COP 2k bus - catch the one that says Taganga on the front from Carrera 5)
- Playa Grande: From Taganga you can get a COP6k return boat (lancha) to Playa Grande. Good beach with no road access, restaurants and beach chairs on the beach.
- Rodadero: Nice city beach, 10 minutes south of Santa Marta towards the airport
- Playa del Ritmo: a beachfront hostel between Rodadero and the airport
- Playa Los Angeles: is a 1h15 bus from Santa Marta, just beyond the main Tayrona entrance. There is a nominal day rate but it's out of the park so no need to pay Tayrona Park entry. Stay the night there at Camping Los Angeles (hammocks and cabins, with an onsite restaurant and cooking facilities) for a relaxing beach break. Surf potential for experienced surfers but best to check the break ahead of time.
- Costeño Beach: Another 10 minutes on past Playa Los Angeles. Another place it's worth spending a night - has surf courses and generally a popular place for backpackers. Estereo Beach Festival is held there at the end of March if you happen to be around.
7. BEST MULTI-DAY TRIPS TO DO FROM SANTA MARTA?
All of those day trips can be extended into multi-day trips (particularly Minca, Playa Los Angeles and Costeño Beach), plus you have these:
- Ciudad Perdida – The trek there and back from the remote Ciudad Perdida is a four or five day trip through the jungle and up to the vast indigenous city ruin dating back from 800AD, 600 years before Macchu Picchu’s founding. Rediscovered in 1972 by tomb raiders, the hike is tough but accessible. In the humid climate, with undulating terrain, you’ll appreciate the refreshing river swims. Read more on the trek
- Tayrona National Park – hike through the jungle to some awesome beaches including Cabo San Juan. To find out how to get there, and what to take with you
- Palomino – A beach town getting more popular by the day
- La Guajira – Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas. One of my favourite trips in Colombia. From Santa Marta you can head up the coast on a 4 day trip. Go to my favourite region of Colombia
- Cartagena – A four-hour drive between the two cities easily navigated using the Marsol door to door or Berlinas minibus services. Book through your hostel and best to know where you want to be dropped off in Cartagena – they’ll ask for the name of your hostel half way through the journey. For what to do in Cartagena check out my guide
8. CULTURE IN SANTA MARTA?
There’s not a huge amount of fodder for culture vultures in Santa Marta, at least not in the same way as Cartagena, Medellín and Bogotá - it's more a place to relax, take it easy and stroll. Having said that, there are a few places you can visit:
Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino is the site of Simón Bolívar’s death, an old estate complete with monuments, art installations and botanic gardens now open as a museum. Simón Bolívar, the revolutionary independence fighter of the 19th century died in Santa Marta, where he had stopped on his way to European exile when afflicted with tuberculosis.
Museums: El Museo de Oro Tairona (Carrera 2 con calle 14. Parque Simón Bolivar) and Museo Comunitario de Paz (Calle 22 No. 20-49)
9. OTHER BITS AND BOBS
- If you can, buy from smaller shops and street vendors so that you support the local economy with your hard earned cash
- The Exito supermarket chain (not a Colombian company) is huge, with food, clothes and electrical appliances. Exito Centro is on Carrera 5, the main market street, where it meets Calle 19. Exito La 22 is on Calle 22 where it meets Carrera 5 (so just a few blocks away).
- Supermercados Olímpica (Calle 11 #Cra. 8) and Rapimercado (Cl 12 #8-100) are both near the Mercado Central, so good locations to pick up Tayrona supplies.
Clothes and shoes
- 'A la orden' (at your service) will be ringing in your ears but on Carrera 5 you'll find stalls and shops with clothes and shoes.
Telephone sims/ credit
- Just off Carrera 5, on Calle 13, you'll find lots of mobile phone shops where you can buy a local sim card - Tigo is the cheapest for data, but Claro is the best for signal, particularly in La Guajira if you're heading there.
- You can top up your sim card at any stall/ corner shop. I learnt (the hard way) that topping up on Mondays is best as there tend to be deals on.
There are a selection of cash points along Carrera 3 #14, just behind Parque Simón Bolívar and also round the corner in Plaza San Francisco near Hostels Brisa Loca and Masaya.
The Exito supermarkets (the big one on Cra 5 and another on Calle 22) have Banco de Bogotá cash points.
There are several money exchange places around - the one I used was on Calle 13 #5, with a green shop front
10. GETTING AROUND SANTA MARTA?
Taxis best to call them from your hostel if possible but I’ve done lots of hailing down on Carrera 5a, the main market road during the day. Taxi rides have fixed prices during the day: COP5k in the centre, COP 7k for longer journeys in the city, COP 10k to Taganga and Rodadero, COP 28k to the airport. These rise a little at night time.
Mototaxis up to you but from personal preference I avoid them for safety reasons in the busy streets of Santa Marta. Anyone carrying a spare helmet on their arm is a mototaxi.
Santa Marta is, like most Colombian cities, built on a grid system. Street names are given in the format: Calle 19 #3-40: this means the place you are headed is on Calle 19, number 40 on the block between Carrera 3 and 4.
- Calles (also written as Cl.) run perpendicular to the coast line, with 1 being near the port, increasing as you travel south towards the marina end.
- Carreras (also written as Cra.) runs parallel to the beach increasing in numbers the further away from the beach you go.
- The # (also written as No.) refers to the street it crosses with so you can work out what block it is.
- The last street number and house number can be combined into one number, without the dash, so Calle 19 #340 – is Calle 19, on the block with Carrera 19, no 40. just use common sense to split apart.
- Another example: Carrera 2 #6-78 is two roads back from the beach, between Calle 20 and 21, at number 78.
- When saying it: the number after the # you say as the first/ second/ third etc. rather than one/ two/ tree. So carrera dos con sexta, número setenta y ocho.
TRAVELLING IN OTHER AREAS OF COLOMBIA?
For the full collection of notes I collected while exploring Colombia, head to Over to you: Tips for Travel in Colombia
(Includes Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park, Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) Trek, Cartagena, Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Isla Providencia, The Coffee Region, La Guajira and great Colombian music, books and festivals to aim for)
Hope you enjoy!! Please do share with anyone you think might find them useful.
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