Santa Marta, Colombia, may not be the most famous Caribbean coastal city, but it might be the most captivating. The region abounds in natural beauty, as it’s between the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains and the Caribbean Sea, plus it’s located near two of Colombia’s most beloved national parks. Meanwhile in the city, curious travelers can find a wealth of cultural treasures, from a real Museum of Gold and the estate where Simón Bolívar spent his final days, to a lively central malecón, or waterfront, and plenty of great restaurants.
Santa Marta may not be the Colombian city that attracts a multitude of international tourists. But if you’re up for some exciting adventures, you will find many incredible hidden gems in and around Santa Marta. Here’s all you need to know about how to plan your own extraordinary trip to Santa Marta.
Where Is Santa Marta, Colombia?
Santa Marta, Magdalena, Colombia, is located on the northern end of the country, on the country’s Caribbean coast. It’s about 105 kilometers (or 65 miles) east of the larger port city of Barranquilla, about 226 kilometers (or 141 miles) east of the popular tourist hub of Cartagena, and about 953 kilometers (or 592 miles) north of the nation’s capital of Bogotá.
While Santa Marta regularly attracts Colombians seeking an easy, breezy beach vacation, it hasn’t been drawing in the larger crowds of international travelers that have become customary in Cartagena and Medellín. Though that comes with some downsides, such as fewer people who speak English, it also comes with certain benefits, such as lower costs, fewer “tourist traps,” and more laid-back vibes.
What’s also great about Santa Marta’s location is its topography. More specifically, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range runs to the southeast, while the Caribbean Sea borders Santa Marta to the north and west. This makes Santa Marta the ideal spot for nature lovers. And in fact, Santa Marta is conveniently located near two of Colombia’s most popular national parks: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Natural Park and Tayrona National Natural Park.
What Can You Do in Santa Marta?
No matter what your favorite interests are, you will find plenty of interesting places across Santa Marta. Whether you’re a seasoned outdoor adventurer or a savvy urban explorer, Santa Marta has what you’re looking for and so much more.
What to Do in Town
We can’t talk about Santa Marta without discussing the city’s famed Museum of Gold! Yes, the Museo del Oro has a wealth of gold artifacts, some of which date as far back as 2,500 years. But in addition to all that gold, this museum has an impressive collection of pre-European colonization artifacts (including indigenous-made pottery and statues) that share the story of the people who called Colombia’s Caribbean coast home long before Spanish conquistadors arrived.
When you’re up for an exhilarating walk and you’re looking for a lively window into everyday local life, head to the Malecón de Bastidas. The name comes from Rodrigo de Bastidas, Santa Marta’s founder, and the seaside promenade continues to serve as the city’s top gathering spot. It has plenty of green spaces, exercise stations, and vendors to shop for souvenirs. This malecón also opens up to some beaches; They’re not the cleanest for swimming, but they’re still nice to stop and enjoy the views, especially at sunset. (If you want a nicer beach without the drive, head to Playa Los Cocos on the other side of the marina.)
When you can use a nice escape from the bustling city without actually leaving town, head to Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino. This hacienda was first built in 1609, and it continues to sport some of the city’s finest Spanish colonial era architecture along with beautifully manicured gardens. However, this estate is now best known as the last place where Latin American revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar stayed, and the place where he died in 1830. Not only can you come here to see the house where he stayed, but you can also check out the Bolivarian Museum of Art on campus that houses exciting postmodern art from some of Latin America’s most talented artists.
Which Hidden Gems Are Worth the Drive?
About 14 kilometers (or 9 miles) south of Santa Marta’s downtown, you will find the Mamancana Reserve. This 600 hectare (or about 1,480 acre) private park has hiking trails, birdwatching, paragliding, and even horseback riding on site. It also has a set of infinity-edge swimming pools that make for an idyllic place to cool down on a scorching hot day. It even has an outdoor spa where you can book a massage and other treatments. Make sure to book your day pass in advance, and check their calendar for special events like concerts and local markets.
Though some of the beaches by the city’s historic center might not be the cleanest, you don’t have to drive too far to find some clean and spectacularly beautiful beaches to explore. Less than 6 kilometers (or 4 miles) south of the Malecón de Bastidas, you will reach Playa Los Rodaderos, an oasis with long stretches of white sand, plentiful palm trees, lovely mountain views, and calm water that’s great for swimming. Farther south you can reach the Malecón del Aeropuerto and Playa Dormida. The waves here are fun for bodysurfers and swimmers to navigate, and this beach’s proximity to the Simón Bolívar/Santa Marta Airport makes it perfect for aviation geeks to enjoy some quality plane-spotting.
Meanwhile, to the northeast of Santa Marta, you can go to the town of Taganga to experience a different side of this region. It’s a fishing village that continues to cherish long-standing local traditions, and it’s more recently gained traction as a great place for scuba diving. Don’t come here if you’re expecting a lot of creature comforts, but do come here if you love to spend time at the beach and in the water. (It’s also a great place to find good deals on vacation rentals.)
Where to Go in the Mountains
Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains lies the charming village of Minca. If you want to do some mountain hiking, this is the place to go. It even has a gorgeous waterfall that local indigenous communities hold sacred. But even if you’re not super outdoorsy, this is still a great place to visit. In fact, Minca has several coffee and cacao farms that are open for tours, and they’re the perfect places to learn more about two of Colombia’s most delectable homegrown products.
If you seek a much more challenging adventure, you can do a multi-day hiking tour to Colombia’s Ciudad Perdida, or Lost City. It’s over a millennium (1,000 years) old, so it’s actually older than Peru’s Machu Picchu, yet this Tairona tribal village is quite well-preserved. In order to keep the Lost City well-preserved and available for future generations, it can not be reached by car, train, or plane. Rather, you can sign up with Lost City Tours for a four, five, or six-day hiking tour to reach the archaeological site and stop at some local indigenous communities along the way.
Let’s Talk About Tayrona National Natural Park
Can we talk about Santa Marta without mentioning Tayrona National Natural Park? No, I don’t think that’s possible. After all, this is Colombia’s second-most visited national park (only behind Corales del Rosario near Cartagena), and it’s one of the finest natural treasures of the entire Caribbean.
Tayrona has plenty of exhilarating mountain and jungle trails, and you can witness much of Colombia’s most remarkable biodiversity: the mantled howler monkey, the oncilla (or northern tiger cat), the jaguar, the puma, the armadillo, the red deer, the montane solitary eagle, military macaw, four sea turtle species, and 40 bat species are all among the animals who call Tayrona home. In addition, Tayrona also has Colombia’s largest coral reef, which provides a habitat to over 400 fish species at sea.
Many adventurous travelers love to venture to Tayrona for the beaches: Bahía Concha, Cabo San Juan, and Cañaveral are probably the three most famous beaches, but Playa Cristal, Chengue, Gayraca, Cinto, Neguanje, and Guachaquita are also fantastic beaches worth visiting. While Santa Marta and Taganga have plenty of their own lovely beaches, the beaches of Tayrona are incredibly pristine, and they possess a unique natural beauty that easily rivals the picture-perfect scenery of the likes of Bali, the French Riviera, and Big Sur.
If you want to extend your stay at the park—as in, stay inside the park overnight—you can. Tayrona does have camping spaces and Ecohab cabins available. Regardless of whether you’re planning a day trip or an extended camping excursion, it’s always a good idea to check availability in advance, as the park usually closes three times a year to protect the ecosystem from overtourism.
Which Santa Marta, Colombia, Hotels Are Worth Checking Into?
For a great hotel at the heart of the action, it’s hard to beat Hotel Boutique Don Pepe. With only 12 rooms, you’re virtually guaranteed personalized service with great attention to details. At the same time, they have their own full-service spa, in-house restaurant, and lovely pool area, plus they’re less than a block away from the Malecón de Bastidas.
Another wonderful boutique hotel in the city is Placita Vieja. Originally built by Cuban architect Manuel Carrera in 1925, this historic structure exudes charm alongside classic Caribbean character. Inside each and every one of Placita Vieja’s eight rooms is unique and inspired by a special landmark in or near Santa Marta. Placita Vieja also has their own boutique spa, plus they offer tour packages for Minca and Tayrona National Natural Park.
If you’re looking for a larger resort and a truly great escape, then you should check out the Santa Marta Marriott Resort Playa Dormida. This resort opened in 2019, so they still feel quite fresh and new, plus they’re located inside a very safe guard-gated community. They also have nice in-house restaurants (more on those below), a full-service Seishua Spa, a fully equipped fitness center, and an inviting and spacious pool area. Even better, they have direct access to the Playa Dormida beach, so this is your best bet if you want to stay at an actual beach resort.
As hinted earlier, the area also has a wide array of affordable hostels and vacation rental units. Taganga, in particular, has several hostels and inns that are safe, budget-friendly, and right at the center of the action. In particular, Hostel Nirvana tends to be popular with the party crowd, while La Tortuga tends to offer a more relaxing atmosphere.
How About Santa Marta’s Restaurants?
If you’re staying at the Santa Marta Marriott, 1525 Restaurant is a solid option for all-day dining. While they have some international fare on their menu, they’re really at their best with their Colombian and Caribbean dishes like arepas, tostones, and ajiaco. If you’re staying at the Marriott during the weekend, it’s also a good idea to check out Cayeye by the beach for a wide variety of seafood, barbeque and roasted meats, and live entertainment (mainly music and dancing).
Meanwhile, back in town, Parque de los Novios (near Malecón de Bastidas) has emerged as the major local culinary hotspot. Ouzo is an intriguing restaurant with an exciting Mediterranean-fusion menu that includes plenty of classic pizzas and pastas, but also more inventive fare like Greek-style paella, bass romesco, and vegetarian gyros. Right across the park from Ouzo, Donde Chucho specializes in classic Colombian seafood; Their ceviches are fantastic, but their fish stews and risottos are also quite tasty.
Right around the corner from Donde Chucho, Guasimo is another seafood restaurant that serves fascinating and delectable dishes like barracuda sausage, bass croquetas, and creamy shrimp with cassava. Back near Ouzo and on the north side of the park, Radio Burger offers a fun and playful twist on the typical burger joint experience, as they’re housed at a former radio station. They serve the most mouthwatering gourmet burgers this side of the Gulf of Mexico, and they even curate their own Spotify playlists!
We Need to Address Safety Issues
More recently, Colombia has made international headlines for their ongoing struggles with crime and cartel violence. That led to the U.S. State Department issuing a Level 3 travel advisory for Colombia earlier this year. With this said, I should note that Colombia has made great progress in the last decade to implement peace agreements with regional militias and crack down on criminal organizations. And during my own recent trip to Santa Marta, I felt quite safe wherever I went.
Still, travelers should always prepare for the worst, even while hoping for the best. When you’re out, keep in mind these words of wisdom from Colombian locals: No dar papaya. While that literally means “no giving papaya,” the practical takeaway here is to keep your valuables safely stored away instead of flashing any “sweet papaya” (such as designer clothes, jewelry, and expensive electronics) in public that could make you an open target for thieves.
Also, whenever you want to head out at night, head out with a group of people you know and trust. Before you go out, check with your hotel staff or vacation rental manager on which areas are safe to walk at night. If you use apps like Bumble, Grindr, and Tinder during your stay, please screen your potential matches in advance and designate a safe space to meet. And if you’re in urgent need of help, reach out and contact your home country’s embassy.
Santa Marta Is Quite the Pearl Worth Discovering
Santa Marta, Colombia, may not be the country’s most famous city, but there are many good reasons why this city is known as “La Perla de America.” With such a vibrant arts and cultural scene, a wealth of delicious restaurants, plenty of lovely beaches, and a treasure trove of nearby parks and public lands full of natural wonders, Santa Marta really does seem to have it all.
I hope this helps you come up with your own ideas for your next trip to Colombia. And if you want to learn more about life in Colombia, check out our Meet the Locals profile on Bogotá sports club owner Nicolas Laverde, as well as Leesa’s report on her solo trip to Medellín’s famous Comuna 13 neighborhood.
Interested in visiting other destinations rich in history and culture? Check out this guide to planning the perfect Puerto Rico road trip next.