Santa Marta is located on the Caribbean coast, 4 hours north of Cartagena. Although frequently visited, the city itself is not that much interesting. However, its geographical location and accessibility make it a strategic destination.
You will be able to discover the Sierra Nevada, explore Tayrona Park, organize the Lost City Trek, or meet indigenous communities. Next, you can head straight for Cartagena or the desert of La Guajira.
I spent more than 2 months in Santa Marta. Thanks to this guide, you will have all the practical information you need to organize an ideal stay.
Santa Marta is a colonial city located on the Eastern Caribbean Coast of Colombia. Founded in 1525 by Rodrigo de Bastidas, it is the first Spanish settlement in Colombia. With more than 500,000 inhabitants and an important harbor, Santa Marta is the capital of the Magdalena department and the third largest city on the Caribbean coast after Barranquilla and Cartagena.
In my opinion, the interest in this destination lies in the surroundings of Santa Marta. Less than an hour to the south is the Ciénaga Grande. A unique ecosystem mixing fresh and saltwater on which stand the famous palatito towns. The city is also located at the Sierra Nevada and Tayrona Park’s door, where some of Colombia’s most beautiful beaches are hidden.
When to visit Santa Marta
The temperature in Santa Marta is warm all year round. Some months are rainier, but this should not prevent you from enjoying your stay. Most of the time, it will rain briefly and heavily.
Even if it is not as touristy as Cartagena, I suggest you consider the high peak season and book your hotels and experiences in advance. You should also check the annual closure dates if you want to do the Lost City trek or go to Tayrona Park. They might change from year to year.
Visiting Santa Marta from December to April
It’s the dry season. There is a pleasant breeze, and the heat is more bearable.
The months of December to February are considered the high season. Try to book your accommodation in advance so that you have a choice. Secure your reservation in advance if you plan a multi-day trek, such as the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City).
The number of tourists drops in March and April, and it rains more frequently.
The sea is rough in the afternoon.
Visiting Santa Marta in May
It rains almost daily. You just have to take shelter :). The winds are declining, and the sea is getting calmer.
Visiting Santa Marta from June to August
Days of rain decrease slightly, and foreigners return in July. Many Colombian students are on vacation in June.
The Festival ”Fiestas Del Mar” happens for ten days at the end of July. Try to anticipate your reservations during this period.
Visiting Santa Marta from September to November
In September, tourism declines again. The rainy season is coming.
October is usually the rainiest month, and rainfall decreases during November. Daily showers are the norm, but it is manageable most of the time.
There are fewer tourists during this period, and you’ll get better prices.
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How to get to Santa Marta and around
The Simón Bolívar International Airport is located in the Bello Horizonte neighborhood. The cab ride to the historic center of Santa Marta takes about 25 minutes. It takes about 45 minutes by public transportation.
Many national flights land directly in Santa Marta: Medellín, Cali, Bogotá, Pereira, Neiva.
The Bus terminal is located on the outskirts of the city. It takes 20 minutes to reach the city center by cab. Local buses run to the following tourist destinations: Tayrona, Palomino, Riohacha, Cartagena, Medellín, Bogotá, San Gil.
The ”Mercado Publico” also works as an additional terminal for some destinations like Palomino, Tayrona, or Minca. It takes 5-10 minutes by cab to reach it from Parque De Los Novios.
Door-to-door shuttles allow you to get to Cartagena or Tayrona faster. The companies are Berlinastur and Marsol.
We always recommend taking a cab to and from the airport or bus terminal. It’s much more convenient when you have all your stuff, and it will save you a lot of stress, especially if you don’t know the city.
It takes about 30 minutes from the airport to the historical center. About 20min from the bus terminal to the city center.
You can also use taxis to reach nearby destinations, but fares increase quickly.
Renting a car in Santa Marta can be a great option, especially if you want to maximize your time there. The main roads along the coast are in good condition, and there is a lot to visit.
If you want to rent a car to get around the Caribbean coast, AVIS at the airport or Localiza in downtown Santa Marta has a good reputation. Be careful; Colombians have a driving style that can frighten foreigners.
Many travelers include Santa Marta in their Colombia itinerary. They think they will enjoy a beautiful historical center with its colonial atmosphere and magnificent white sand beaches.
Unfortunately, the most beautiful beaches in Santa Martaare not in the old city but in its surroundings, especially inside the Tayrona National Park. It is an important detail to remember, especially if you plan to spend several days relaxing on the beach.
Allow one day to discover the city center, visit the hacienda Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino (the house where Simon Bolivar died), stroll through the colorful colonial architecture, and discover 1 or 2 museums (Museo del Oro Tairona). After that, you will have all the time to search for your dream beach.
The white sand and turquoise blue water of Bahia Concha and Playa Grande are ideal destinations near Santa Marta. The beaches of El Rodadero are too touristy, and the street vendors are tiresome. The beaches of Pozos Colorados and Bello Horizonte are more pleasant and less crowded.
A 1-h boat ride from Taganga will take you to Tayrona Park’s beaches. The combo of playa Cristal and playa Cinto is a highlight. Finally, you can go to the famous beach of Cabo San Juan, but I suggest you get there by hiking if you plan to visit the Tayrona National Park.
2# Diving in Santa Marta (Taganga)
Taganga is a little fisherman’s village located a few minutes away from Santa Marta. On the main beach, you’ll find the boats that leave for Tayrona’s beaches.
In addition, Taganga is also famous for scuba diving. Many Scuba dive centers offer low-cost packages for those who want to get certified (PADI) or wish to book a fun dive. You’ll dive in Tayrona and around Santa Marta
3# Birdwatching in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
Minca is the most famous town in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Travelers looking for tranquility, lush vegetation, and nature are eager to come here. The lodging offer has risen in the last few years, and you’ll find something for every taste. Most of the accommodations blend perfectly into the mountainous landscape.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a prized destination for birdwatchers and professionals alike. 7% of the world’s bird species are home in these mountains covered by dense rainforest.
Located on the Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, the El Dorado reserve is a paradise for bird lovers. The diversity of the fauna and flora won’t make them indifferent.
I always advise spending several days in the Tayrona National Park. It allows enjoying the site, between sea and jungle. Enter by the “secret” entrance of Calabazo and head towards the beach of Playa Brava. Spend your first night in this beautiful location, which tourists rarely visit.
The next day, hike to Cabo San Juan beach. During your hike, you may hear and see howler monkeys. And be careful not to get eaten by a caiman or a jaguar #joke. Spend your second night in Cabo San Juan and get up early to enjoy the beach without the daily visitors. Then, exit by El Zaino (main entrance) without forgetting to do some snorkeling in “La Piscina.”
5# Meet with indigenous communities
For hundreds of years, the Tairona people have lived in harmony with nature in this area of Colombia. The Koguis, Wiwas, Kankuanos, and Arhuacos are indigenous communities descended from these people. Today, they still inhabit this natural territory between the Caribbean Sea and the Sierra Nevada.
They continue to live in respect of their culture and tradition with the permanent concern of protecting the “mother earth.” Some of these communities welcome travelers wishing to discover their culture, beliefs, and way of life. In some experiences, you will even have the opportunity to spend a night in the village.
These indigenous people have a different and much more spiritual worldview than we do. Keep an open mind and enjoy their wisdom.
6# Hike to the legendary Lost City (Ciudad Perdida)
The Lost City trekis the most famous multi-day trek in Colombia. Yet, I am sure you are hesitating to live this experience. It is not so easy to “use” 4 days of your vacation to explore the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
However, the whole experience is worth it. Hiking for several days, getting out of your comfort zone, and facing tropical weather and mosquitoes to arrive at this archaeological site full of history is a fantastic reward. You will get great personal satisfaction and unforgettable memories.
The trek to Ciudad Perdida is well-organized and accessible to anyone in good physical condition. The agency takes care of everything, and your bag should not weigh more than 5 to 6 kg. You will only need your legs and a strong mind.
The desert of Tatacoa is most often mentioned when talking to travelers. However, the northernmost part of South America hides the desert of La Guajira. It is, in my opinion, much more impressive and spectacular than Tatacoa.
The city of Riohacha is the gateway to this desert. It is there where your journey will begin. Board a jeep to discover lunar landscapes, endless yellow dunes, and incredible sunsets over the Caribbean Sea. The more adventurous will push their experience to the oasis present in the Macuira National Park.
Depending on your tour, you can also discover the Wayuu culture. These indigenous people have learned to live in the harshness of the desert. Here again, you will be surprised by a living style different from our habits.
It is the most authentic and pleasant district of the city. The old colonial buildings and historical monuments have been well renovated. There are beautiful luxury hotels, boutique hotels, hostels, and restaurants. This is also where you will find most of the museums.
It is located 10 minutes by cab from the historical center. The accommodation offer is extensive with different price categories. Most of the hotels overlook the beach and its palm trees. This area has become very touristy. Bars, restaurants, and nightclubs are numerous. El Rodadero is known to be a party zone.
Bello Horizontes is a safe and rather upscale neighborhood located between Simón Bolívar airport and El Rodadero, 25 minutes by cab from the city center. The area resembles El Rodadero, with fewer restaurants, bars, and hotels. The beach is pleasant, and there are only a few tourists. Ideal neighborhood for travelers looking for tranquility.
Pozos Colorados is located 3km south of El Rodadero, next to Bello Horizonte. It’s a safe area with several all-inclusive hotels, ideal for family stays. The zone is suitable for water sports. The spot of Aeromar is particularly known for its waves.
Taganga is a small fishing village near Santa Marta. The beach of Playa Grande is accessible by foot from the center. The numerous diving schools offer economical prices to pass your certifications. The accommodations are relatively affordable. I do not recommend walking around at night because of the lack of security.
The boutique hotelCasa Carolinais located in the historical center, a few steps from Bolivar Park. It is comfortable, the rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated. The prices are reasonable for the services offered, which makes it one of the hotels with the best value for money in the city. The hotel is built around a swimming pool with courtyards and outdoor terraces. There is a SPA area that offers massages.
El Cactus is a small boutique hotel ideal for couples. It is located in the historic center of Santa Marta, just a few steps from Parque de Los Novios. Choose the suite that suits your needs and budget. You can cool off in one of the hotel's two swimming pools. Enjoy a refreshing breeze at sunset while sipping a beer on the rooftop.
TheZuana Beach Resortis located just 5 minutes away from the Santa Marta international airport. It sits in a very safe area known as Bello Horizonte. It's one of the best luxury hotels designed for families and big groups, where you have plenty of water and sports activities and guest rooms for several people.
The Santa Marta Marriott Playa Dormida is the perfect spot for a romantic plan or honeymoon trip. It's located in a very safe and tranquil area, away from the noise of other places in Santa Marta. The building is new and comfortable, and the service is excellent.
The boutique hotelCasa Tayronais a good example of a perfect hotel. There are only 5 rooms, two of which have a view of the sea. The terrace and its swimming pool invite you to relax and unwind. A small staircase leads to an almost private stretch of beach. Here you can also enjoy the delicious dishes prepared by the chef's restaurant—ideal for couples who want to rest before and after Tayrona Park.
The hotelLa Mar De Bienis located near Buritaca. The property is large and well furnished. You can go to the beach, sunbathe under the coconut trees, swim in the pool, or sit in a hammock with a book. The rooms are spacious, and the staff is dedicated to helping you. The owner, Sergio, will be able to give you many tips for visiting the area. The restaurant of the hotel proposes delicious dishes typical of the Caribbean coast.
Santa Marta is not considered a dangerous city, but I advise you to be vigilant. And above all, avoid drugs and prostitutes 😉
During the day, you can walk around the neighborhoods mentioned in this guide (but be careful not to show off your valuables). However, I don’t recommend walking from the city center to Ek Rodadero — you’ll be walking through unsavory areas.
In the evening, the area around Parque de Los Novios (downtown) is fine for enjoying the restaurants. The alleys quickly become lonely and scary as soon as you leave this area. Avoid them.
Taganga also has a bad reputation at night. Take a cab and don’t stray outside the bars and clubs.
The safest neighborhoods are Pozos Colorados and Bello Horizontes.