In theory, Santa Marta has quite a lot to offer. Firstly, it is the second most important colonial city on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia. Secondly, the highest and only snowy mountains of the Country, called la ‘Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta’, are just located behind this coastal town. Also, Santa Marta provides a number of international restaurants with a hipster-vibe and a couple of good places to go out at nights. While this all sounds pleasant and the old town is quite charming (even though unfortunately not very well kept), there is also a less beautiful side of this city. In fact, most of the foreign travellers don’t like this place too much. But why? Well, besides walking through to the old town (you can probably see most of it in less than 1 hour) there really isn’t much to do. Also, Santa Marta is known to be quite dangerous – I experienced my first armed robbery just 5 meters away from my hostel. And no, I wasn’t alone. Neither was it late at night. So to make sure you won’t be disappointed, I wouldn’t recommend you to stay in Santa Marta for more than one night. This gives you enough time to experience the nice things about this city and see the (not very spectacular) beach. After that you can go and explore the many other beautiful places in this region. But more to that later.
Get from the airport to Santa Marta’s old town
Either grab a cab for 30mil or take a bus (costs around 2mil per person). The bus driver will let you out whenever and wherever you ask him to, and as Santa Marta’s old town is quite small it will only be a short walk to your hostel.
Where to stay in Santa Marta
Most hostels and restaurants are located in the colonial town. Stay there to wander through the old streets (see picture 1) and get an impression of this place. The beach is very close.
Where to eat in Santa Marta
As already mentioned, there are many nice restaurants in the old part of Santa Marta. In my impression you almost can’t go wrong – actually every place we tried was really good. If you want street food just walk along the main road and you will come across a square full of food stands.
Places surrounding Santa Marta…
Rodadero is a town just before Santa Marta (you’ll pass by it when you come from the airport). It is a bit more expensive and also bit tidier. It’s mostly visited by people that own an apartment there and there is no backpacker vibe to it, so I won’t go further into detail.
Taganga is on the opposite side of Rodadero, a bit further away than Santa Marta coming from the airport. This place definitely doesn’t lack the backpacker vibe. In fact it is full of travellers.
My first impression of Taganga was a very positive one. The setting is beautiful, in between of two sandy mountains full of cactus (see pictures 2 & 3 below). The village itself is small but fine. Besides the main road most streets do not have pavement (see picture 4), which made me feel a little bit as if I was in the Wild West.
How to get to Taganga
Besides taking a taxi, it’s easy to grab a bus that says ‘Taganga’ on the windshield. They drive down the main road (where all the shops are) frequently and will bring you directly to Taganga. The drive only takes around 15 minutes.
Where to eat in Taganga
There are many western restaurants in Taganga. However, if you are looking for cheaper street food, you can find that on the main road along the beach. Try the filled Arepas – so yummy!
Beaches in Taganga
The closer you get, the less wonderful it becomes. Compared to other beaches, the beaches in Taganga are not especially beautiful or clean. They get quite crowded and the sand is a bit stony. However, it is good enough to spend one or two afternoons relaxing. People on the main street will also try to sell you boat rides to another close beach. But there is no need to take the boat. You can get there quickly by walking. Go to the right side of the main beach follow the path that goes up the hill. You’ll find many little beaches on the way. The closest one is less than a 10 mins walk away.
Nightlife in Taganga
Due to the large number of backpackers in Taganga you will find your way to a party for sure. However, El Mirador 1 and 2 are always a good idea. They are both located a little up the hill but easily reachable by walking. Mirador 1 is open until they play ‘lemon tree’ at midnight. Then everyone wanders up to Mirador 2, where the party continues in a modern building with different floors. Both Miradors allow you to enjoy the view over Taganga while getting drunk.
What to do in Taganga
Besides laying on the beach and recovering from your hangover, you can go scuba diving for a pretty low price. The underwater world is not extremely spectacular but still worth it considering the price. But don’t worry – if you get bored in Taganga after some days, there are many other places close by that are definitely worth a visit…
Other places to visit on the Colombian Caribbean Coast
A bit more to the north of Taganga you will come across Parque Tayrona, a beautiful national park located on the coast. More to the inland you’ll find the biggest mountains of Colombia, La Sierra Nevada, where it is possible to make a 4, 5 or 6 day hike to the Lost City. If you continue north along the coast, you’ll find the beach town Palomino. Another two hours of driving later you’ll get to a town called Riohacha. From there you can make a guided tour to La Guajira desert.
If you go south, after passing Santa Marta you’ll get to the town Barranquilla in about two hours. If you happen to be around end of January / beginning of February you should not miss the Carneval de Barranquilla, one of the biggest in Latin America. If you continue south you’ll get to the beautiful colonial town Cartagena in another two hours of driving.
All of the mentioned places are, in my opinion, definitely worth a visit. As they offer a variety of things to do I will write a separate post about those destinations soon.