The oldest city in the country, Santa Marta, Colombia was founded in 1525 by Spanish Conquistadors. However, most of its colonial heritage was destroyed over the centuries that followed by English and Dutch pirates.
For Colombian holidaymakers, Santa Marta is one of the most popular getaway destinations in the country. ostocal city-dwellers come here to revel in the sea, sun, rum and ‘Brisa Loca’ (Santa Marta’s warm Caribbean breeze).
Backpackers, on the other hand, mainly use the city as a base to explore the surrounding area. Just a stone’s throw away you’ll encounter some of the country’s most amazing coastline at Parque Nacional Tayrona. Santa Marta is also the most popular jumping-off point for treks to Ciudad Perdida, the prehispanic Lost City – essentially Colombia’s answer to Machu Picchu.
Santa Marta Map & Resources
Santa Marta, Colombia – Budget Travel Guide
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Is Santa Marta Safe?
When it comes to safety in Colombia, Santa Marta has a reputation among backpackers. Although Colombians rave about the city, travellers often report it’s the place they felt least safe in the country.
Santa Marta and the surrounds boast a buzzing nightlife scene but street crime is common and everything from bag snatchings to assault and even armed robbery can happen. In case the worst happens, make sure you are covered by travel insurance!
SafetyWing is the travel insurance of choice for scores of backpackers!
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When booking a hostel, check reviews in advance and make sure the hostel has good security – especially if it is in a dodgy area. When you arrive, speak to the staff and ask them which streets are safe and which to avoid.
While some neighbourhoods are definitely safer than others, crime can happen anywhere, even in more upmarket spots like Rodadero. As with any big city, visitors are advised to avoid flashing valuables and keep money concealed in a money belt or alternative. You should avoid walking the streets alone, particularly after dark.
As with anywhere in Colombia, travellers are strongly advised to avoid getting involved with drugs. While not the Narcos-esque place of a couple of decades ago, cartels are still very much present in Colombia and drugs spell trouble.
With all that said, we had no problems when we visited the city (except for a few conniving taxi drivers!). If you have your wits about you and avoid the no-go areas, chances are you will have a trouble-free visit to Santa Marta.
Best Time to Visit Santa Marta
Santa Marta has a well-earned reputation for being hot and humid year-round. December to early March marks the dry season, making this an ideal time to visit if you are hoping to do the Lost City trek. However, December and January also see an influx of Colombian tourists, hiking up prices. July, August and September are the rainest months – hiking to the Lost City at this time of year is sure to be a muddy (yet adventurous affair)!
Where to Stay in Santa Marta, Colombia
The main tourist area of Santa Marta is its historic centre. As you’d expect, you are within walking distance of many of the city’s main attractions here, including museums and cathedrals. Lodgings offer fairly good value for money, however, it isn’t the safest area. You should avoid walking the streets after dark if possible, especially if you are on your own.
10 minutes from the city centre, this upmarket area is popular amongst high-class, rich Colombians who prefer to stay in the classier resorts for their beach holiday.
With high-rise 5* hotels, all-inclusive resorts, luxury spas, restaurants and private clubs – this is certainly a very different (manicured) side to Santa Marta than most backpackers see! As you’d expect from an area attracting wealthier tourists, it is much safer than the historic centre.
Originally a small fishing village that has seen its popularity spiral somewhat out of hand, Taganga has gained a reputation as Colombia’s diving hotspot. It’s located in an undoubtedly beautiful setting with golden beaches surrounded by green mountains.
However, many travellers recently have reported that the town itself has become rather shabby.
There are plenty of dive schools here and a range of hostels, notably La Tortuga Hostel and Hostal Palohe Taganga. There are also plenty of restaurants, bars and late-night discos making it a good spot for those who want to party.
One thing to mention… We’ve heard quite a lot of rumours recently about crooks targeting foreigners in Taganga. Crime can and does happen (see the comments at the end of this article!) so if you do travel here, always be careful.
Best Hostels in Santa Marta
Within Santa Marta city, there are a few really good hostels that will enhance your travel experience, help you to stay safe and assist you to book onward trips to nearby destinations.
Check out the famous Brisa Loca Hostel located in El Centro Historico. It’s home to probably the best social scene for travellers in Santa Marta. The inner courtyard comes complete with a swimming pool but the pool table is where all the best chats happen. Dorms and privates are available.
OUR PICK! Masaya Hostel
Our pick for the best Santa Marta Hostel has to be the ridiculously plush Masaya Hostel. It has two swimming pools, a cinema room, an open-air kitchen, nightly events, comfortable and clean pod-style bunk beds and a rooftop terrace making it feel more like a 5* resort than a backpacker hostel. The downside? If you want a private room, the price puts it firmly in the flashpacker category.
Smack bang in the historic district, this centrally located hostel benefits from being in the thick of things while still only a couple of minutes’ walking from the area’s main beach. This is a great place to catch one of the city’s beautiful sunsets! Home to a range of dorms, including female-only options, Republica is known for its welcoming staff and incredibly high levels of cleanliness. The best thing? The swimming pool which sits at the heart of the action!
One of the best hostels in Santa Marta, The Dreamer is located a little way out of the city. This modern flashpacker hostel is very popular amongst travellers of all ages. There is an outside social area with a bar, swimming pool and pool table. They have dorm rooms and privates but be warned… in true Colombian style the music pumps on into the early hours! Bring earplugs if you want a restful night’s sleep.
Getting consistently good reviews from backpackers is Hostal Kaia. Although not centrally located, it sits close to the main street where you can catch buses to Minca, Tayrona and Taganga. A true oasis within the city, there is a swimming pool and two kitchens for guests to use – ideal if you need a break from empanadas! There is also a pool table, darts and cinema area to enjoy with like-minded travellers.
Another offering by the popular Viajero chain, their Santa Marta branch is located a little way out of the city, offering some respite from the hustle and bustle of the centre. They offer a range of private rooms and dorms and have great facilities – including a rooftop bar and swimming pool! Activities are run by the hostel daily and range from salsa dancing to karaoke.
If you’re all hostelled out, don’t miss the budget-friendly yet luxury offering of Hotel Mandalas House. This whitewashed hotel offers light and spacious rooms with a spa-like feel. Although close to bars, restaurants and, of course, the beach, the hotel sits away from the noise. To recoup your energy, book a stay in one of the superior suites and take advantage of the massage service!
Things to Do in Santa Marta, Colombia
1. Check Out the Beaches
Beaches in Santa Marta
Like many city beaches, Santa Marta’s main beach, Playa de Bahia, is certainly nothing to write home about. In fact, it’s pretty dirty and the sea is rather polluted. You won’t find anyone swimming here apart from the occasional enthusiastic child. The factories and power stations on the shoreline don’t make for much of a scenic backdrop either!
A bit further up the coast, just a short walk from Plaza Parque Simon Bolivar, Playa Los Cocos is a much better option for a city beach. Here the water and sand are cleaner and the atmosphere is much friendlier.
El Rodadero is a much more upmarket side of town and has a better beach to prove it. Just a five-minute taxi journey from Santa Marta centre and you’ll find yourself in this swankier neighbourhood. El Rodadero Beach is clean and well-maintained, but again, don’t expect a tropical paradise. For that, you need to go a little further…
Beaches Close to Santa Marta
If you’re looking for the best beaches in Santa Marta you’re going to have to head to Tayrona National Park! Here you’ll find an abundance of beautiful, clean and tropical beaches, of which Playa Cristal is the most famous. Here, the lush green mountain backdrop and turquoise waters, as well as great snorkelling, will make you feel very far away from the city!
To get to Playa Cristal, catch a boat from Taganga and if you don’t want to leave, you can stay overnight in one of several campsites and eco-lodges in the park. Other famous beaches in the national park include Costeno Beach, Cabo San Juan and La Piscina. More on Tayrona NP later!
Just 30 minutes from Santa Marta, the fishing village turned backpacker-hub Taganga, used to have one of the best beaches in Colombia, Playa Grande. Now many reports say the beach is overcrowded, littered and not worth the journey. By all accounts, there are nicer beaches elsewhere.
2. Hang Out in Parque de Los Novios
This park is a small but bustling hangout in the historical centre of the city where locals and backpackers come to enjoy a drink in the quirky bars and open-air restaurants.
In recent years, along with a revival of the city, the courtyard has become the most vibrant spot for nightlife in Santa Marta. It’s also a great place to sit, rest in the heat of the day and people-watch. The park is safe, close to many backpacker hostels and even has free WiFi!
3. Visit Plaza Parque Simon Bolivar
Located right on the waterfront, this is another bustling spot to hang out in the city. With sea views and (plenty of) statues of Simon Bolivar, you’ll find street vendors here selling all sorts of street food and trinkets. Grab yourself a little cup of tinto (Colombian black coffee) to give you a boost for your onward sightseeing!
4. Visit the Place Simon Bolivar Died
Perhaps the most famous hero in South America’s history, liberator Simon Bolivar was the main character in the continent’s eventually successful struggle for independence. He led Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Peru to independence from the Spanish, forming the first union of independent nations in a republic called ‘Gran Colombia’.
He died in December 1830 at the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, a grand hacienda about half an hour outside the city. Although not super interesting, especially for those who do not understand Spanish, it’s worth a visit for history buffs, and even just to see the huge lizards who are making the grounds their home! Just don’t tell the Colombians you were bored! 🤫
5. Museo Del Oro Tairona
The Museum of Gold is located in the house known as ‘Casa de la Aduana’, which has always been a notable building in the city. There are displays of gold jewellery, tools and instruments used by ancient tribes throughout Colombia.
If you have done or plan to do the Lost City Trek, the artefacts here will inform your journey as many of them were found in the vicinity of La Ciudad Perdida. The museum is free to enter and therefore, it’s definitely worth a browse on a hot day! Signage is in both Spanish and English.
6. Visit Tayrona National Park
The beautiful Tayrona National Park is easily accessible from Santa Marta, located about 30 minutes from El Rodadero. Once inhabited by the Tayrona people, the area comprises 15,000 acres of mangrove swamps, rugged scrubland and gorgeous beaches and brilliant blue sea.
Accommodation in the national park is very basic (usually hammocks and huts) but some like to splash out and have the natural experience with a little more style. Trips into the national park can be arranged via the hostels in Santa Marta or you can organise a visit there independently.
7. Go Scuba Diving in Taganga
As well as being a party hub, Taganga is also a hugely popular spot for scuba diving, with schools taking divers out to parts of Tayrona National Park, specifically near the small island ‘Aguja’. Many of the schools here can assist you with anything from Discover SCUBA Dives to PADI Courses or Dive Masters Internships. So whether you’re a newbie or a pro, you have many options!
Diving is relatively cheap here compared to in other parts of South America and some people have suggested that certain schools are more safety conscious and have better equipment than others, so take care when choosing your dive school.
8. Organise a Lost City Trek
A four or five-day trek through the jungle to uncover the ancient city is a highlight of many backpackers’ trips to Colombia! While this trek isn’t for the faint of heart, (you’ll be trekking for up to seven hours some days in the sweltering heat!), it is an incredibly rewarding experience.
Much less touristy than Machu Picchu, and some say equally as impressive, the Lost City is an archaeological wonder that predates its Peruvian counterpart by some 650 years! Known by the Native Americans as ‘Teyuna’, some say that the area was widely known amongst the local tribal people such as the Kogis, Arhuaco and Asario – yet was only found in terms of ‘modern day’ discoveries in 1972.
La Ciudad Perdida was the heart of a network of indigenous pre-hispanic villages and a political and manufacturing hub which housed up to 8,000 people before the invasion of Spanish conquistadors. The trek is a sweaty, arduous journey over steep paths, under jungle canopy and through rivers – yet the reward is absolutely worth it!
Not all tour companies are created equal when it comes to La Ciudad Perdida hikes so make sure you do your research! You’ll need to check reviews of the company you intend to trek with, clarify that there will be an English-speaking guide or translator and finally, find out whether they work closely with the indigenous communities in the area. Responsible travel is important guys! We recommend Expotur, a locally-run tour company with excellent reviews and a responsible ethos.
9. Get Off-the-Beaten-Track on a Motorbike Adventure
If you’re feeling adventurous, travel company, Adrenaline Addicts offer 1-12 day off-road motorbike tours that take you to some amazing off-the-beaten-track places in Northern Colombia. From the mountains of Minca, right up to the northernmost point of Colombia, La Guajira, these motorbike adventures promise to show you a side of the country that most backpackers don’t see.
10. Take a Day Trip to Minca
Santa Marta acts as the nucleus of several very cool destinations in and around the area. One of the best is Minca, a mountainous paradise full of coffee farms, birdwatching and hiking. A surprising haven for hippies, you’ll find everything from yoga classes to ‘happy’ brownies here. Although we’d definitely encourage staying longer in Minca if you can, a day trip is still worth it if you are limited on time.
11. Visit Santa Marta Market
With more than 500 vendors, you can find practically everything you could ever need at Santa Marta Market. Best known for trinkets and handicrafts made by the local indigenous people, it is a great place to pick up souvenirs for friends and family back home. Don’t miss a cheap meal at one of the many food stalls too – they sell everything from ceviche to empanadas.
12. Party in Taganga
Let’s be honest, us backpackers can sniff out a party anywhere. While there certainly are spots to enjoy a few bevvies in the city, by far the best place to rave it up, Club Colombia in hand, is nearby Taganga. Head to one of the many party hostels for a night you won’t remember but likewise, won’t forget!
Food and Drink in Santa Marta
There are a number of delicious eateries in Santa Marta, here are a few of our favourites!
- Lulo Cafe: Best known for its refreshing juices, this café also offers a range of quick and tasty eats, including arepas, paninis and wraps.
- Oh La La La Puerta: Located in the historical centre, this popular bar/club is a great place to sink a few drinks and have a dance. Come with friends or make them while you’re there!
- Donde Chucho: A more expensive option but one that is well worth the cost is Donde Chucho. Specialising in seafood, this is commonly agreed to be the best place to try the local ceviche.
- La Muzzeria: If you’re looking for comfort food, look no further than La Muzzeria. This cute restaurant serves up a mix of Colombian and western cuisine which comes highly rated.
Getting Around Santa Marta
Getting around Santa Marta is easy by walking or by taxi. The taxis in the city do not run on meters so agree on a price before you start your journey.
Beware that there are a lot of scammers about who will offer to secure you a taxi, claiming that you’re in a dangerous area. Once they’ve flagged one down, they agree to a much-inflated price with the driver and take a cut. It’s always worth checking how much a taxi should cost with your hostel first so you know when you’re being ripped off.
How to Get to Santa Marta
By Bus: The journey to Santa Marta from Cartagena takes between 4-6 hours. Most of these services go via Barranquilla. Two companies service the route, MarSol and Berlinas. Tickets with the latter cost approx. 60,000COP per person.
Bus services regularly depart from Palomino for Santa Marta. The journey takes a couple of hours and costs around 9,000COP.iBy Air: Flights from Colombia’s big cities (Cali, Medellín, Bogotá) arrive at Simon Bolivar International Airport (SMR). These generally take under two hours and are a much quicker option than the bus! If booked in advance, flights can cost as little as $20USD, depending on the route and ticket inclusions. Santa Marta’s airport also receives international flights.
Good to Know!
Where to Go Next:
Palomino: Located just a couple of hours from Santa Marta, this coastal surf town is popular with backpackers and hippies. Tube down the river, soak up the sun, laze the day away in a hammock or sample coconut seafood rice – paradise!
Minca: A mountainous haven just 30 minutes away from Santa Marta – you won’t believe how different this feels to the city! With amazing landscapes, bird watching, hiking, waterfalls and a real hippie town feel, be prepared to stay longer than you thought in this backpacker paradise.
Cartagena: An unmissable colonial walled city – it is the tourist jewel of the Caribbean coast for good reason! Colourful colonial architecture, tree-lined plazas, a Caribbean vibe mixed with Colombian sophistication, great restaurants, chic coffee shops, pumping nightlife and the white sands of Playa Blanca just a boat ride away!