Actually the oldest city in the country, Santa Marta, Colombia was founded in 1525 by Spanish Conquistadors. However, most of its colonial heritage has been destroyed over the centuries by English and Dutch pirates.
Although not as glamorous as its neighbour, cool and cultured Cartagena, you can still find pleasant plazas, old churches and tree-lined streets in the atmospheric city – despite the fact that things are a little rough around the edges!
For Colombian holiday-makers, Santa Marta is one of the most popular getaway destinations in the country. Local 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 Caribbean coast, nearby National Parks and trekking adventures…
Just a stone’s throw away you’ll encounter some of the country’s most amazing coastline at Parque Nacional Tayrona. Treks Santa Marta is also the most popular place to organise a trek to Ciudad Perdida, the pre-hispanic Lost City, Colombia’s answer to Machu Picchu.
A Short Note on Crime in Santa Marta: Be careful walking alone at night around the city. Street crime is common in the area including bag snatchings, assault and armed robbery. It’s wise to speak to your hostel when you arrive and ask them to tell you which streets are safe and which you should avoid, particularly after dark. That said, we had no problems when we visited the city. If you have your wits about you and avoid no-go areas chance are you will have a crime-free visit! More on safety in Colombia here.
Where to Stay in Santa Marta, Colombia
Santa Marta Hostels
Within Santa Marta city, there are a few really good hostels which will enhance your Santa Marta experience, help you to stay safe and can also help you to book onward trips to nearby destinations.
La Brisa Loca Hostel: Check out the famous Brisa Loca Hostel for the best social scene for travellers in Santa Marta. The inner courtyard complete with a swimming pool and pool table is where it all goes down. From $10 USD per night.
The Dreamer: One of the best hostels in Santa Marta, The Dreamer is located a little way out of the city. This super modern flashpacker hostel is very popular amongst travellers of all ages. Outside social area with bar, swimming pool and pool table. They have dorm rooms (from $15 USD) and privates (from $45 USD).
Drop Bear Hostel: For those wanting a unique experience as well as a comfy bed, try the Drop Bear Hostel, an ex-drug cartel house which has been turned into a backpacker hostel by an innovative Australian couple.
OUR PICK: Masaya Hostel: Our pick for the best Santa Marta Hostel has to be the ridiculously plush Masaya Hostel which is more like a 5* resort than a backpacker hostel! (With dorm rooms from $13 USD per night.) It has are two swimming pools, a cinema room, open-air kitchen, nightly events, comfortable and clean pod style bunk beds and a rooftop terrace – but be warned if you stay here – you may not want to leave the hostel! Read our review of the hostel here.
Other Areas to Stay Near Santa Marta:
Originally a small fishing village, whose popularity amongst backpackers seems to have got the better of itself, Taganga has gained a reputation as the backpacker party destination of the Caribbean coast.
It’s located in an undoubtedly beautiful setting of golden beach surrounded by green mountains. However many travellers recently have reported that the town itself has become rather shabby.
One thing to mention – we’ve heard quite a lot of rumours recently about gangs roaming the area and in particular, targeting foreigners. Whether this is just a phase or leading to something more serious – we are unsure – but if you do travel here, always be careful.
See our full Taganga, Colombia Guide here.
10 minutes from the city centre, this resort-like area is popular amongst high-class, rich Colombians who prefer to stay in the classier resorts for their beach holiday rather than downtown.
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!
GETTING AROUND TIP: Getting around Santa Marta is easy by walking or with taxis. The taxis in the city do not run on meters so agree on a price before you start your journey. Private taxi rides start at 7,000 COP.
Santa Marta, Colombia, Beaches
Santa Marta Beaches in the City Centre
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 any people swimming here apart from the occasional enthusiastic child and the factories and power stations on the shoreline don’t make much of a scenic backdrop!
Just a bit further up the coast, just a short walk from Plaza Parque Simon Bolivar (see below) Playa Los Cocos is a much better option for a city beach. Here the water and the sand is cleaner and the atmosphere is much friendlier.
El Rodadero Beach:
As I mentioned earlier, 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. The beach here is clean and well-maintained, but again, don’t expect a tropical paradise. For that, you need to go a little further…
Just 30 minutes from Santa Marta, this fishing village turned backpacker hub turned shabby crime-ridden ghetto used to have one of the best beaches in the area, Playa Grande. Now many reports say the beach is overcrowded, littered and not worth the journey. Avoid!
Parque Tayrona Beaches:
If you’re looking for the best beach in Santa Marta you’re going to have to head to Tayrona National Park! Here you’ll find an abundance of beautiful, clean, tropical and natural 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 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!
Things to do in Santa Marta, Colombia:
Hang Out in Parque de Los Novios
This park is a small but bustling hangout in the old centre of the city where locals and backpackers come to enjoy drinks 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 the city. It’s also a great place to sit, have a rest in the heat of the day and people-watch. The park is safe, shady, close to hostels and even has free wifi!
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 dark sweet coffee) to give you a boost for your onward sightseeing!
Visit the Place where Simon Bolivar Died:
Perhaps the most famous hero in South America’s history, liberator Simon Bolivar was the main character in South America’s eventually successful struggle for independence. He led Venezuala, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Peru to independence from the Spanish throne to become the first union of independent nations in a republic called ‘Gran Colombia’.
He died in December 1830 at the Quinta de San Pedro, a grand hacienda about half an hour outside the city. Although not super interesting (we have to admit it), especially for those who do not understand Spanish, it’s worth a visit for history buffs, and even just to see the huge confident lizards who are making the grounds their home!
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 the Lost City. The museum is free to enter and therefore in our opinion, it’s definitely worth a browse on a hot day! Signage is in both Spanish and English.
Visit Tayrona National Park:
The beautiful Tayrona National Park is easily accessible from Santa Marta, located about 30 minutes from Rodadero. Once inhabited by the Tayrona people, the area is 15,000 acres of mangrove swamps, rugged scrubland and gorgeous beaches and brilliant blue sea.
Accommodation in the National Park is very basic – hammocks and huts – or some like to splash out and have the nature experience with a little more style. Trips into the National Park can be arranged via hostels in Santa Marta.
Safety Note – Some of the beaches are set in coves with dangerous rip tides – be careful when taking a dip to get out of the sweltering heat!
Scuba Diving in Taganga:
As well as a party hub, Taganga has turned into a 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!
The diving is relatively cheap here compared to other parts of South America and some people have suggested that certain schools are more safety conscious and have better and newer equipment than others, so take care when choosing your dive school.
Organise a Lost City Trek
A five-day trek (in total – there and back) through the jungle to uncover the ancient Hispanic city is reportedly one of the highlights of many backpackers trips to Colombia! Read one traveller’s review of La Ciudad Perdida Trek here.
Much less touristy than Macchu Pichu, 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 the ‘modern day’ discoveries in 1972.
It was apparently 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 river-crossings – yet the reward is absolutely worth it!
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 to the country that most backpackers don’t see.
Where to go next?
The only time that backpackers will want to head to Colombia’s fourth biggest city is March / April time for Carnival. For four days the entire city becomes one big party which is reportedly the second biggest Carnival in South America after Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Read more about experiencing Carnival in South America here.
A mountainous haven just 30 minutes away from Santa Marta – you won’t believe how different this feels to the city! Amazing landscapes, bird watching, hiking, waterfalls, visits to organic coffee farms, and a real hippie town feel, be prepared to stay longer than you thought in this backpacker paradise. Read our guide to Minca here.
An unmissable colonial walled city three hours drive from Santa Marta – this is the tourist jewel of the Caribbean coast and for good reason. Beautiful streets of 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! Read our guide to Cartagena here.