Santa Marta has come a long way in the two years since our first visit. Its rise in popularity as a base for exploring Colombia’s north has seen a heavy increase in travellers. And with those numbers, some much-needed new life has been breathed into the gritty coastal city.
Most travellers find themselves here merely as a stop-off point for exploring the surrounding mountains and beaches. And while the city itself doesn’t have a ton of activities, there are still a few interesting things to do in Santa Marta.
About Santa Marta, Colombia
Santa Marta is made up of three main areas: Rodadero, Taganga, and the city centre.
Rodadero, in the far south of Santa Marta, is where many wealthy travellers stay. Here there are many resorts and higher-end hotels lining the pretty beach. You can do all types of watersports or head to the aquarium, if that is your thing.
Taganga, a once sleepy fishing village and backpacker ghetto just north of Santa Marta, has taken a turn for the worse in recent years. The gentrification of many areas in the main city recently has pushed many of the gangs away.
Unfortunately, a lot of them settled in Taganga. Though still popular with scuba divers, as one of the cheapest places in Colombia, Taganga itself doesn’t have a lot more to offer, it’s once beautiful beach now covered in garbage.
Santa Marta proper is where nearly everything else happens. And most of the action centres around the historic old town. This part of Santa Marta has undergone a dramatic shift in recent years; a bit of a gringification you might say. Day and night, the music flows from dozens of hip cafes, pubs and restaurants lining the colourful pedestrian streets. It’s without question the liveliest part of the city, and where you’ll find most other travellers.
The Best Things to do in Santa Marta
Explore Santa Marta’s Impressive Street Art Scene
It’s no secret that Colombia has some of the best street art in the world. And while Santa Marta might not compare with the epic scenes in Bogota or Medellín, it’s definitely a contender.
Like with most places, vibrant murals come and go on walls throughout Santa Marta. Most of the pieces we saw during our first visit were completely changed two years later.
To save yourself from walking too far, the best place to find street art in Santa Marta is in the historic centre. New murals are popping up all the time!
Hang Out in the Vibrant Historic Centre
The lively historic centre, or Old Town, is a place you could easily spend an entire day. Grab a coffee and a light breakfast and relax in Parque de los Novios before the sun gets too hot. Grab a cheap lunch along Calle 19 or something fancier along Carerra 3, and check out the fascinating crafts for sale by Venezuelan refugees.
Cool down from the afternoon heat with a cold drink from one of the many great pubs. Then mingle with locals in Parque Bolívar. Once the sun begins to set, head back to the centre for pizza or sushi, before experiencing the vibrant nightlife.
Visit the Very Unique Art Gallery of La Transtienda
Tying directly into the street art scene is La Transtienda; though it’s a bit tricky to describe. A local graffiti artist broke into an abandoned building and with the help of other local artists, converted it into a bit of a living, pop-up art gallery.
They painted the walls with amazing pieces of art and light displays. Also, they provide art lessons and a sense of community for local youths. This can literally be life-changing for so many kids that, with few options, often turn to a life of crime.
Check out the great artwork or buy some unique gifts such as stickers, postcards, prints and buttons. The money earned allows them to buy the paint supplies to help the kids.
Their current location has recently been sold, so sometime in Spring of 2020, they’ll be moving to a new and yet unknown location.
Head over to their website for updates on their new location.
See the Santa Marta Basilica and Palacio Episcopal
Santa Marta has a lot of great looking buildings, but the plaza around the main Cathedral has some of the best. First, the cathedral itself is stunning and quite massive. When no service is taking place, feel free to head inside and check out the beautiful artwork.
The buildings surrounding the plaza are also really wonderful to check out and make for some great photos. This is also one of the main gathering points for locals, especially on weekends. So be sure to spend some time here soaking in the local vibes and eating some great street snacks.
Walk Along the Waterfront
Though not the prettiest part of Santa Marta, the Bastidas Boardwalk is one of the most interesting places in town to spend an afternoon. If people-watching is your thing, it’s often crowded with locals and usually has a few colourful characters around.
Head to the marina for some great photos of the island and shipping yard across the bay. Across the main boulevard, the entire strip is dotted with restaurants, cafes and bars of varying quality.
And while it’s a great place to take in the local vibes during the day, we don’t recommend sticking around after dark.
Do some Shopping at the Artisanal Market
There’s a small market space on the edge of the historic centre with a bunch of stalls selling a huge variety of items. There’s a bit of everything here, from the standard made-for-tourist trash to legit artisan crafts. Although you still have to sift through some nonsense, it’s a far better option than the market along the beachfront.
If you’re not heading up to Minca, this is your best bet to pick up some of the cacao and coffee that region is so famous for.
Where | Calle 21 and Carerra 2
Take the Free Walking Tour
It’s actually a little funny, but we didn’t learn about this tour until the final day of our second visit to Santa Marta. And because of what we learned, we’re actually quite eager to return to dive deeper.
The guide, Javier, is not actually from Santa Marta originally, but has lived here for some time, and his passion for his new home shines during the tour. He’s well-versed in Santa Marta’s history and the goings-on of today. I would highly recommend doing this tour as soon as you arrive, to get a better appreciation for the city.
Like most ‘free’ walking tours, guides work on tips. You don’t need to pay anything, but it really helps them out.
Eat All of the Street Food
Santa Marta gave us our first introduction to Colombian street food a few years ago. And today, there’s more than ever.
I’ll go into more detail later on in the eating section. But understand that you can get delicious street snacks from early in the morning to late at night!
If you’re new to street food, consider taking a tour like this one!
Escape to the Mountains with a Visit to Minca
Minca is a little bohemian town tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains. And while it’s just 40 minutes from Santa Marta, it feels a universe away from the hectic vibes of the big city.
Breath some fresh mountain air while watching for wild toucans. Climb through the dense jungle searching for pristine waterfalls. Sip coffee at some of the oldest plantations in the country, or just kick back and soak in the laid-back atmosphere, watching people play in the river from a cafe balcony.
Minca can easily be visited as a day trip, but if you have the time, we recommend staying a night or two to really take it in.
Visit Tayrona National Park
With arguably some of the prettiest beaches in the country, Tayrona National Park is one of the biggest reasons people come to Santa Marta.
Hike through this fantastic nature reserve and see dozens of unique birds and lizards. Then spend the night swinging in a hammock under swaying palm trees while the sound of the sea lapping at the sand puts you to sleep.
Ever-increasing park fees and crowds in Tayrona have some travellers seeking alternative beaches in recent years. But most visitors still feel that Tayrona Park is an unmissable experience in this part of Colombia.
If you’re short on time, consider taking a day tour.
Relax at Bahia Concha
Speaking of alternatives, Bahia Concha is one of our favourites. And we’re surprised that more travellers aren’t talking about it. Bahia Concha is a small bay on the western edge of Tayrona National Park. And while it’s technically part of the greater park, its geography physically separates it.
This isolation from the rest of the park means they can’t charge the same park fees. So you get a beautiful Tayrona-esque beach, without the park prices.
Trek to the Lost City
Arguably the most epic thing to do while visiting Santa Marta is nowhere near the city itself.
The Lost City is an archeological site, deep in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The city itself predates Machu Picchu by half a century and was only rediscovered in 1972.
Imagine yourself as Indiana Jones. Trek through the dense mountain jungles to the ancient city ruins. Imagine what life must have been like living in such isolation all those centuries ago.
The treks are long and challenging, but the reward is entirely worth it.
Use Santa Marta as a Base for Exploring Northern Colombia
Santa Marta is the last major centre before the mountains and desert plains of northern Colombia begin. As such, it’s the perfect place to base yourself while finalizing plans for further exploration.
Whether you’re heading up the beaches of Costeño or the backpacker town of Palomino, this is your last place to stock up on any supplies you might need.
Perhaps you’re fully committed to the life and are considering venturing all the way into the vast wastelands and stunning coastlines of La Guajira. Santa Marta can be the perfect place to put together a group of other curious travellers to help ease the journey.
What to Eat in Santa Marta
Eating options are plentiful in Santa Marta, so you’ll have no problem finding something to keep you exploring. Whether you’re looking for traditional Colombian street food, a healthy vegan snack, or a big slice of pizza, Santa Marta has something for every taste.
De Picnic is near Ocean Mall, southeast of the historical centre. It’s an outdoor food court that opens up during the evening. We were staying near it during our first visit and stopped in several times.
There are a ton of options here, but my personal favourite was these mind-blowing salchipapas (think loaded fries).
Where | Calle 29, across from Ocean Mall
Finding good pizza in a country without a significant Italian population can be hit and very miss. Thankfully, Santa Marta nails it with this tiny, street-side pizza shop in the historical centre.
The focaccia-based slices are a decent size and have incredible toppings like prosciutto and roasted cherry tomatoes, and salami with hot peppers. But the real prize here is the price. Each slice fell in at around 5-7,000 COP. It’s hard to beat that!
Where | Calle 19, near Carerra 4 – Only open in the evening.
For more traditional Colombian eats at very reasonable prices, Medellin is a great option. Huge portions of grilled meat, rice, potatoes, plantains and beans, with some of the cheapest prices we found in Santa Marta.
If you’re really feeling hungry, go for bandeja Paisa, the legendary platter from the Antioquia region of Colombia.
Where | At the corner of Calle 22 and Carerra 3.
Menu del Dia from Mango Beach
For the cheapest lunch options, head east from the main square along Calle 19. You’ll find a bunch of simple eateries offering menu del dia (literally menu of the day), which includes soup, rice, salad, beans and a choice of meat, usually for around 8,000 COP.
You won’t need to look too hard, most of these restaurants will have workers outside that will find you first. If not, they typically have clearly visible signs announcing their daily menus.
We stopped in at a place called Mango Beach that was pretty decent. We shared the 8,000 menu and it was enough for both of us.
Where | Along Calle 19 in the historic centre
Tamales are one of the most common staples of Latin cuisine. In Santa Marta, however, you can find a very unique style that is much different than the standard.
Instead of a dense, masa (corn) flour dough, these tamales here are made with rice. And the fillings include things like chicken, olives, nuts and dried fruit.
This is the only place we’ve ever encountered these, and to this day they’re one of our favourite tamales!
Find them on Sundays and some holidays. Look for ladies selling them on the street outside of the cathedral during the afternoon.
Not quite an arepa in the classic sense, these heavy, salty, gooey snacks are as delicious as they are unhealthy. A cornmeal dough is mixed with cheese and grilled on a banana leaf over coals until the whole works is a delicious wad of liquid magma.
The most famous stall in town is just south of the main square along Carerra 3, south of Calle 23.
Meat on a stick. It’s the ultimate street food. And there is plenty to be found on the streets of Santa Marta.
Starting mid-day and going well into the evening, carts can be found all around the city centre with skewers grilling over coals. They’re usually some combination of chicken, onions, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes, and brushed with a sweet, smokey red sauce.
Many of these stalls also sell grilled sausages. Unfortunately, we didn’t try any good enough to recommend, so maybe stick to the skewers.
Like with all street food, make sure the stall is busy and that the food is hot when you get it.
Where to Stay in Santa Marta
The biggest concentration of accommodation options are found in the historical centre, Rodadero, and Taganga.
If you’re here for diving, Taganga is the best place to be, and where all of the action happens. Otherwise, we would recommend Santa Marta proper.
Even if you aren’t planning on doing much sightseeing while in Santa Marta, we recommend staying in the historical centre / Old Town. During our first visit, we stayed near the Ocean Mall. And while it wasn’t a bad area, the distance kept us from visiting the Old Town, especially in the evening.
On our most recent visit, we stayed at CoraLite Hostel. It’s cheap, comfortable and perfectly located just off the main centre. It allowed us to spend the vast majority of our time exploring the centre without wasting any time getting around. We probably wouldn’t stay anywhere outside of that area again, it saves so much time getting around.
Also, most buses going to Minca, Tayrona, Bahia Concha, and Palomino, leave from the busy local market which is only a few minutes from the historic centre.
The historic centre is also the safest part of town.
Click here to book CoraLite Hostel.
Is Santa Marta Safe?
Short answer: Yes. But the reality is a little more complicated.
Santa Marta as a whole is a safe city, though, like any city, some parts are nicer than others. The historic Old Town is the safest part of the city, all day and most of the night. Outside the Old Town, specifically north of Calle 15, east of Carerra 5, and along the waterfront, you shouldn’t go wandering around after dark.
Due to the political situation in Venezuela recently, Santa Marta has seen an increase in Venezuelan refugees. This has been met with mixed emotions by some, locals and travellers alike. True, many of these refugees are in a desperate state and some may resort to crime to get by. But there are many local Colombians who are in the exact same position. Stick to the historic centre after dark and you should have no issues with anyone.
From our experience, we saw no increase in sketchy activity during our visit. In fact, we actually felt safer in 2020 than we did in 2018. Aside from people selling very cool crafts on the street, we only had one direct encounter with a Venezuelan refugee. We were in the market trying to find a specific bus when he pointed us in the right direction before waving and disappearing into the crowd.
Once little more than a gritty hop-off point for all things Northern Colombia, Santa Marta is in the midst of a fascinating transformation.
With more travellers escaping the crowds and over-tourism of Cartagena, Santa Marta is looking to be the next big spot.
So before you pop in for a night only to bounce to the hills the next morning, consider spending a few days exploring this wonderful, changing city.