Santa Marta, Colombia is a city along the Northern coast and is South America’s oldest city! However, this city (which I loved) tends to get a bad reputation with travelers and therefore most travelers use it solely as a jumping off point to more popular spots such as Minca and Tayrona National Park. While Santa Marta, Colombia is useful as a base for exploring its surroundings, I also found that it has a lot to offer on its own. I spent four nights in this city discovering amazing street performers, beaches, seafood, gorgeous building, and cheap shopping!
In this post I will not only write about how to get to Tayrona, Minca, and Taganga, but also why Santa Marta has a lot of charm on its own.
How to Get to Santa Marta, Colombia
I would recommend spending a couple of days in the city of Santa Marta, however if you are set on only trying to get to Minca or Tayrona National Park then it is still necessary to bus or fly to Santa Marta first (unless you have organized a direct shuttle which is only possible on the journey from Cartagena to Santa Marta.)
Here is how to get to Santa Marta from other popular spots in Colombia (this is also works in reverse for leaving Santa Marta):
Cartagena to Santa Marta – By bus Cartagena to Santa Marta is only about 5-6 hours so flying would just be a waste of money. I would recommend taking an organized shuttle as opposed to taking a local bus. The bus terminal in Cartagena is 45 minutes to 1.5 hours’ drive from the city center (depending on traffic), and will cost you 20,000 to 40,000 COP (if you can even manage to find a taxi driver who is willing to take you.) A shuttle can easily be organized through your hostel or any tour company which will take you directly from your hostel in Cartagena to Santa Marta, expect to pay about COP 50,000 per person.
Medellin to Santa Marta – By bus you are looking at 15+ hours and about COP 120,000. Buses leave several times throughout the day and will take you directly to Santa Marta. If you are happy to spend a few dollars more then flying would be a good option, the airport in both Medellin and Santa Marta are easily accessible by taxi and shouldn’t cause you too much of a headache with traffic.
Bogota to Santa Marta – By bus this route will take about 20+ hours and cost about COP 160,000 – flying would definitely be comfortable and less time consuming. However, if you are interested in going to Colombia’s adventure capital San Gil for a couple of days then you can bus for about 9 hours and COP 75,000 to Bucaramanga (and then a short shuttle to San Gil), then bus from San Gil to Santa Marta for 10 hours and COP 60,000.
*Tip, once in Santa Marta taxis are pretty reliable, they actually have a set chart for pricing between all areas and do not use meters. Most of the taxi drivers follow this chart to a T, but some do ask for too much to start when they see a traveler, just simply ask to see the chart and the driver will adjust the price accordingly. Always ask “cuanto cuesta” before getting in a taxi to find out how much the ride will cost.
Things to Do in Santa Marta, Colombia (and surrounding area)
Walk the City Streets
Some of the buildings in the city center are absolutely gorgeous and deserve a look. The city feels very safe, so we took our camera out for a couple hours and spent an afternoon taking photos. There are also a ton of street vendors selling cheap goods so it is a good place to do a bit of shopping as well.
Experience the Nightlife
On the weekends Santa Marta, Colombia can be quite lively. We went out on a Friday evening and found ourselves in the middle of a food festival, parade, and street party. Drinks and food are also much cheaper in Santa Marta than Cartagena, so it is a cheaper option to have a good night out here. All of the surrounding street of the Plaza de la Catedral Basilica have great bars and nightclubs.
Go to El Rodadero Beach and Area
Here is an amazing place to go for a swim, watch the sunset, and then eat street food and drink cocktails out of coconuts. It is a super lively, yet relaxed, place to hang out. The hostel I stayed at (Casa del Ritmo) was just a five minute walk from El Rodadero Beach so I spent a lot of time there.
Coming from Cartagena to Santa Marta one will notice seafood is much cheaper here, so I took advantage of this and tried some seafood restaurants. The seafood in this city is fresh, high quality, and prepared perfectly. I found two restaurants (both in slightly different areas) that were incredible:
Restaurante Karey – Located at El Rodadero which a beach view, this place has all the seafood you could imagine at a reasonable price (and 2 for 1 cocktails from 6pm!) The portions are actually huge and the menu has everything you could imagine to choose from. I recommend the Kerry Style Shrimp which was incredible. Expect to pay between COP 30,000-45,000 for a main and the two for one cocktails are only COP 16,000.
LamArt – Right smack in the middle of the city, this family run restaurant produces gourmet style dishes which will not disappoint. The pasta is homemade and the seafood is all prepared to perfection (my salmon was to die for!). The restaurant offers some outdoor seating on the walkway where there is lively street music and performers on the weekends. Definitely some of the highest quality food I have had in Colombia was at LamArt.
Go on a Day Trip to to Bahia Concha
A day trip should cost around COP 50,000. This beach is not very busy and has crystal clear water. For those that don’t have time to make a full trip to Tayrona (or who prefer less people), this is a great easy alternative. “The Day Trips” offer regular tours here.
Visit Tayrona National Park
Tayrona National Park is one of Colombia’s most famous attractions, and for good reason as it is absolutely incredible! I recommend spending a night in the park, just leave your big backpack at your hostel in Santa Marta and bring on the essentials.
Getting from Santa Marta to Tayrona National Park
There is a local bus from Calle 11 and Carerra 11 in Santa Marta city center which goes directly to Tayrona National Park.
Minca is a small town up on mountains only about 45 minutes from Santa Marta, Colombia. Tourists come here to check out the views, coffee and chocolate farms, and swim in waterfalls.
Getting from Santa Marta to Minca
I did a day trip to Minca, which I recommend, but it is possible to spend a night or two in a hostel in Minca. Direct shuttles can be organized with hostels or local buses leave from the main bus terminal regularly.
Visit the village of Taganga
Taganga is only a COP 12,000 taxi ride from the main bus terminal in Santa Marta or COP 10,000 from the city center. Taganga is a pretty cool backpacker oriented area which deserves a day or two stay at least.
Hostels in Santa Marta
There are a ton of hostels in Santa Marta and for really good value. I stayed at “Casa del Ritmo” and it was great – it had a small pool, vegetarian restaurant (super affordable lunch for only COP 10,000), and was a five minute walk to a beach that was swimmable. It was only a COP 12,000 taxi ride to the city center which was easy enough whenever we wanted. This hostel even had lockers to store our big backpacks for us while we went to Tayrona National Park.
Santa Marta and all of the attractions near this city was a treat. We spent about ten days total exploring and really got to see everything from crazy street parties to pristine beaches. Just remember to pack sunscreen and bug repellent and you will be set to go!
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