Santa Marta: is it worth adding this Caribbean coastal city to your Colombia itinerary? In the tips that follow, I’ll let you decide!

I’ve traveled to Santa Marta in a few different ways during my Colombia travels.

I stayed in a dreamy backpacker hostel a bit outside the city itself, taking little trips in for dining and nightlife. I used my stay in Santa Marta as a base to explore Taganga and the outskirts of Tayrona National Park, nearby in the region.

During another trip, I stayed downtown in Santa Marta at an Airbnb and really got to know the historic center of the town. We lived like locals, staying in an Airbnb’d room in a luxury apartment complex with a rooftop pool, worked remotely in local cafe spots and tried lots of restaurants and markets.

What’s important to know about Santa Marta is that it is much more of a real and authentic Colombian city you can experience rather safely. When compared to Cartagena, where most travelers stay in the exclusive walled city or Getsemani areas, never venturing into Cartagena city proper, you’ll see the difference.

In Santa Marta, you can experience a Caribbean-Colombian city and use the location as a jumping-off trip for great excursions or side trips. You could even call Santa Marta your home base for a week or two if you can bear the tropical heat!

Where is Santa Marta, Colombia?

Santa Marta is located in the Colombian province of Magdalena, which touches the south end of the Caribbean Sea.

Santa Marta is located 226 km (140 miles) east of Cartagena, and 104 km (65 miles) from Barranquilla.

To put things in perspective about how big Colombia is, Santa Marta is located 800 km (~500 miles) away from Medellin, and about 950 km (590 miles) from Bogota, in another direction.

To put this in more of a perspective, driving from Santa Marta to Quito, Ecuador, would be almost 2000 km (1242 miles) away!

How far is Santa Marta from Tayrona National Park?

The question everyone wants to know the answer to is how far Santa Marta is from visiting Parque Nacional Tayrona, the big draw of the region for hikers and nature lovers (and anyone who wants to break a sweat immediately).

Tayrona has a few entrances, and if you leave on a bus from Santa Marta, it could be anywhere between 30 and 60 minutes to the park’s entrances (there is one in the east and one in the west side of the nature reserve).

If you are looking at Google Maps, you’ll see that Tayrona National Park covers a lot of land area that hugs the coast, and Santa Marta looks like its cozy neighbor. However, getting to the park itself is more than just a five-minute ride, due to roads, stops on buses, or if you’re driving, finding parking and following directions to where you want to start your trek in Tayrona.

What to pack for a trip to Santa Marta & annual climate

Santa Marta is hot, and I mean that in every sense of the word hot. Santa Marta is so hot during the daytime that it’s hard to be outside (for some people).

What is the daily temperature in Santa Marta like?

With average daily temperatures between 80-90 degrees F and a stifling 60-80% humidity, Santa Marta’s climate has been described as … “miserable.”

But if you’re looking for the type of trip where you want to sweat your face off and escape winter to a warm destination, you’ll certainly get a free facial by walking around Santa Marta at noon!

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Photo of Becca Siegel and Dan Gold

Nighttime, even in the coolest months of the year from November to February, will still be between 70-80 F, probably right in the middle at 75 degrees F at night, with humidity. We strongly recommend booking accommodation with proven AC, as a fan won’t cut it if you’re not used to the mugginess.

What we took on our trip to Santa Marta

Given the tropical heat and humidity in Santa Marta, packing clothes that will keep you cool is ideal. Here’s a sample packing list:

See more about our advice for minimalist packing tips, especially when you take a trip that’ll have you taking shared buses or camping.

Best Things to do in Santa Marta

Santa Marta has a bunch of things to do in the city center, and a bunch of day trips you can take, as well. Here are some of our favorite things to do while exploring Santa Marta’s downtown Centro Historico.

We also recommend brushing up on your Spanish before a trip to Santa Marta. It’ll really help get around, order food, ask for bathrooms and provide solutions if you experience any concerns. See more about how to learn a language for traveling, here.

Marina Santa Marta

The Santa Marta Marina or International Marina is where all the boats will dock and park themselves. It is a great place to watch the sunset. In the marina area, there are a few bars and restaurants where you can sit down for seafood and have a cocktail at sunset. Try the one called “Sunset Marina.”

Bahía de Santa Marta & Malecón de Bastidas - Santa Marta

The Bay of Santa Marta, or, the Santa Marta Malecón de Bastidas is a paved pathway along the water, next to the Playa del Centro (Central Beach). This is an actual beach you can enjoy; just note that it’s not strikingly beautiful or one of the top beaches in Colombia by any means. It is a city beach and can be picturesque, as the Malecon walkway is lined with palm trees.

Centro Historico de Santa Marta

Here’s a bit of history: Santa Marta is one of the oldest cities on the South American continent. By going here, you’re experiencing a slice of history. The city has its roots from European settlers and ‘conquistadores’ dating back to the year 1525!

In walking around the historic center and colonial downtown of Santa Marta, start with Plaza Bolívar and walk toward Parque de los Novios. If you’re into museums, there are a few, namely the Museo del Oro Tairona - Casa de la Aduana, which is free.

Local markets in the historic center

Wherever we go, we enjoy visiting local markets, trying the street food and haggling for some fun stuff. In Santa Marta’s downtown, you will probably pass by some local markets or streets that turn into markets during the day. Try anything you set your eyes on, and remember that cash is king!

Try local Colombian street food

My favorite Colombian street snack, which I have found in most regions of Colombia, is this incredible coconut candy patty that brings so much joy to my heart. Maybe you have different tastes, or you prefer savory over sweet. Have fun finding street food in Santa Marta!

Where to Stay in Santa Marta

In Santa Marta, you can opt to stay in a hotel, hostel or Airbnb. There are properties for all three of these types of accommodation both near the downtown historic center (Centro Historico) and a bit farther outside town where it is quieter.

If you’re having trouble deciding between all these options, consider our guide to choosing which type of accommodation to book.

An Airbnb (whole home or private room)

We stayed at an Airbnb (private room in an otherwise shared apartment) one block inward from the water and close to Parque de los Novios. This is a good location to consider if you can stay within a two block radius of this downtown park, because you’ll be walking distance to the historic center and all the cool restaurants and bars for travelers.

The street was Carrera 2 between Calle 17 and Calle 18.

Now, while I wouldn’t exactly recommend this Airbnb apartment because our door didn’t have a lock on it and a few other things were a little “off” about the experience, it did have a rooftop pool that was worth writing home about. It had views of the city and was quite striking at sunrise and sunset.

I think my biggest tip for finding accommodation in Santa Marta is to check the box for ‘pool’ if you’re searching among Airbnbs or other apartment rentals. With the Santa Marta heat, having a pool with immediate access is a lifesaver for cooling off.

Helpful Tip

Get $55 off your first stay with Airbnb anywhere in the world, by using our booking link.

The Dreamer Hostel (outside Santa Marta)

The Dreamer Hostel Santa Marta is located on a large and very nice property a ways outside of Santa Marta itself.

I described this place to my family as, “seriously an amazing hostel – it’s like a resort, and the pool is lovely.” I even made a note to myself that it was “one of the best hostels ever.” There’s a pool, bar, restaurant, roof porch and amazing amaIng staff.

When booking this hostel, don’t book it for the location (you won’t be able to simply walk downtown to the historic center of Santa Marta from it).

Do book it for the staff, the pool, the bar and the ambiance. This hostel is super conducive to meeting other travelers if you are traveling solo and the staff are glad to help arrange your transport to your next destination.

La Brisa Loca Hostal Santa Marta

This super cool downtown Santa Marta hostel has one of the best locations for where to stay, if you want to be in the center of the action on your trip to SM.

La Brisa Loca Hostal was built from a historic building over 100 years old and has been restored, renovated and updated with lots of charm, both old and new.

There’s an excellent rooftop where you can socialize and party with lots of other backpackers. There are dorm rooms only, so no privates here. This hostel is great for backpackers who want to meet others and have a great time.

Where to Stay in Taganga

For staying in Taganga (which is not big), there are about six hostels and quite a few hotels to choose from. Given the somewhat lack of a center of town in Taganga, it’s best to stay at an accommodation that has a very large number of good ratings, and a high review score. Here are a few ideas for the best places to stay in Taganga.

Hostels in Taganga

Among the best hostels in Taganga are Divanga Hostel, which has a 9.6 rating on Hostelworld. It has a pool (very important) and great staff.

Hotels in Taganga

We suggest booking on Booking.com for reserving a hotel stay in Taganga. Casa Bella Mya is a cute pink hotel with an excellent rating, and for Taganga, the prices are more in the mid-range (USD50 per night). For a more budget stay, try budget hotels (with equally great ratings) like Divijuka and White Taganga.

Where to Eat & Drink in Santa Marta

Santa Marta has great nightlife, and I’ll give it that. In my two visits to Santa Marta, I remember dining al fresco in historic alleyways with live music, eating ceviche and sipping sangria. Santa Marta has quite a few places where you can grab a drink, have a pizza, try seafood or find vegan health food and coffee.

La Muzzeria

This restaurant has raving reviews on TripAdvisor where lots of people are talking about their pizza and great ambiance.

IKARO CAFE

This coffee shop was the closest thing we found to a digital nomad cafe during our stay in Santa Marta. We chose to try working remotely here with our laptops and it went well! The menu is fantastic, with healthy foods, big green smoothies, great coffee and more.

This is a great place to find vegan food and vegetarian food in Santa Marta, so check out their menu online.

If you may need a place to work with your laptop in Santa Marta, this is the place. If this is the case, check out our tips for working remotely and traveling.

Restaurants on Calle 19

One block inward from Parque de los Novios is Calle 19, which is lined with restaurants and bars. Try your search for your next meal on this street!

How far is Santa Marta from Cartagena?

While they look close on a map, the bus ride from Santa Marta to Cartagena is between four and five hours on average. In my experience, it was a pretty OK ride in a van of about 16 people.

If you have rented a car, you will probably get there much faster, as the buses are known for making several stops.

How far is Santa Marta from Tayrona National Park?

Santa Marta is about one hour on the bus (to the closest park entrance) from Tayrona National Park. We took the first bus we could get ourselves to, around 7 AM and we boarded the buses behind the central market. We ran there. We had no time to lose.

We also wanted to be the first people into PNN Tayrona, like that time we were the first people into Chichen Itza.

Bahia Concha, PNN Tayrona

If you want to experience some of Tayrona National Park without doing the sweaty heated hike, the camping or the dirty work, you can go for a day to Bahia Concha.

Bahia Concha is a bay inlet at the edge of PNN Tayrona. It’s located here. You can spend a day here on the mid-size beach with pretty nice waves and you’ll see Colombian families, other travelers and blue waters.

How to get to and leave from Santa Marta

Santa Marta is a sizable city of half a million inhabitants, so it makes sense that it has the conveniences of a semi-major Colombian city.

Santa Marta has its own airport (Simón Bolívar International Airport), abbreviated with the airport code SMR. From here, you can take a great number of domestic flights within Colombia.

If you’d like to fly into Santa Marta or fly out of Santa Marta, you can do so from Bogota, Medellin or Cali, all nonstop.

Ironically, if you’d like to fly nonstop from Cartagena to Santa Marta or vice versa, you can’t do that. You have to connect in Bogota! The best way to get from Cartagena to Santa Marta (or Santa Marta to Cartagena) is to take a bus or drive.

Taganga Beach: Where is Taganga?

Taganga is a small beach town close to Santa Marta. If you’re looking for a place to stay with a lot to do, Taganga might not be that destination for you. Taganga is smaller and has fewer options for everything than Santa Marta does, but it is not much further from the Santa Marta Airport.

Taganga is a 20-minute taxi ride from downtown Santa Marta, and that’s with traffic. It is only 5km away from most parts of Santa Marta.

Taganga had a heyday of travel and has slightly slumped since then. You will, nonetheless, find some very nice places to stay with great ratings, great staff and nice views.

Taganga’s beach is not huge and it’s not very clean, but it does have pretty nice views at sunset. This is the main reason to visit Taganga, especially if you are staying in Santa Marta. It’s a very small trip that can provide some variety.

Getting from Tayrona National park to Taganga Beach

It is possible to take a boat ride out of Tayrona National e (you will be charged top dollar as a tourist, potentially around USD 20 or 25 per person) to Taganga Beach.

The ride can be rocky in a small boat on the waves, but it might be your only option of leaving Tayrona at the end of the day if you do not want to hike back to the main road, or stay in a camping tent.

If you arrive back in Taganga from Tayrona and you are staying in Santa Marta, no worries. All you have to do is find a taxi on the roads above Taganga Beach and give the address of where you are staying in Santa Marta.

Is taking a day trip to Taganga worth it?

Yes, and in fact, I enjoyed my sunset excursion to Taganga. A few friends from the hostel and I hired a taxi and took the short ride from Santa Marta to Taganga Beach and it was well worth it.

All we did was sit on the beach and drink mojitos at a beach bar, while watching the sunset and dipping our feet in the water.

As for the town itself of Taganga, there’s not a ton to see because it’s not very big. Your best bet of doing something worthwhile in Taganga is to go for a day with a clear view out to the water and enjoy the sunset with a drink in hand.

Should I go to Minca after Santa Marta?

Yes, if you have time, you should absolutely take a trip to Minca after Santa Marta and put that in your itinerary.

What you should know about Minca is that it is a place on the map where no one actually goes. If you go to Minca, you’ll spend all your time at your ecolodge or eco-hostel, because the draw of Minca is being in nature and engaging in ecotourism activities.

For example, I stayed in Casa Elemento, which has very unfortunately since closed (home to the world’s biggest hammocks, so they said!), but in its place are new and popular ecolodges that I’d urge you to choose for your trip.

To see all your options for ecologdes and the best-rated ones in Minca, Colombia, see this Hostelworld search page to see ratings for Rio Elemento Ecolodge, Mundo Nuevo Eco Lodge, Finca Carpe Diem Ecolodge and more. All their views and pools look incredible.

Last updated on December 26th, 2021