If during your time in Colombia you find yourself on the Caribbean coast (and why wouldn’t you?), you’ll without question end up in Cartagena. But as beautiful as it is, there’s no reason to not push further. Up the coast, the town of Santa Marta is the perfect base for the beaches of Tayrona National Park, the laid-back vibes in the mountain village of Minca, = and the incredible Lost City Trek. The following post will break down how to get from Cartagena to Santa Marta and back again.
*at time of writing, $10,000 COP = $3.60 USD
The Not So Budget Option: Fly/Private Car
We’re including these on the list simply because they are an option. Although hardly the cheapest, the point-to-point travel time is without question the quickest. And while a flight itself might be quick, the time spent waiting around at the airport as well as transport to and from would take away from the convenience significantly.
Both flying and taking a taxi/uber are relatively similar in price, ranging from around 300,000-400,000 pesos. If you’re the type with extra money to spend, this is definitely an option, but not one we’d typically recommend.
Prices and quality vary between the different car options but keep in mind, hiring a private driver comes with additional risks. Always be sure to hire from a reputable company and agree on prices before boarding.
Considering that some of the other options are not only significantly cheaper and the overall time of the journeys only a little longer, hiring a driver would be a last-resort option.
Bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta – The Cheapest Option
Travelling by bus is easily the most common way to get around Colomba. Making the trip from Cartagena to Santa Marta is no different. There are several bus companies that make the journey between cities, all with varying quality and prices. Some we’ve been told are incredible, others to avoid altogether.
Although bus travel is relatively simple and care-free, there are two important things to consider for this specific trip:
First of all, one thing to note is that the main bus terminals in both Santa Marta and Cartagena are some distance from the city centre, meaning added costs to the seemingly inexpensive trip.
Cartagena Bus Station
To reach the bus station in Cartagena, a taxi will cost around $20,000 pesos (slightly less if your bargaining skills are on point). The ride itself should take around 30 minutes – depending on traffic. Another option are the green and white local buses that will run you around $2500 pesos and take around an hour.
On the Santa Marta side, the terminal is much closer and a taxi will cost around $5000 and a local bus roughly $1600 COP. Both taking around 10-20 minutes.
Secondly, some of the larger busses do not have a direct route between Santa Marta and Cartagena. A lot of these busses, while comfortable and relatively affordable, include a transfer mid-journey. Not only may you require switching buses, but possibly booking two separate tickets; one from Cartagena to Barranquilla, another from Barranquilla to Santa Marta.
Again, this all depends on the time of year and day of the week. Just keep these extra costs in mind when the apparently dirt-cheap bus ticket prices draw you in.
Also, there will always be some touts trying to sell you bus tickets, but these often come with inflated prices or longer routes.
Best Overall: Shuttle
Absolutely our preferred and most recommended option are the smaller shuttles. Costing only slightly more than a bus ticket, many of them save costs in other areas.
Two of the most popular companies are Marsol and Berlinastur. While both have their similarities, Berlinastur stood out as the best option for us. The shuttles themselves will cost around $40.000 COP per person, which is only a few dollars more than a large bus. The best part about these smaller shuttles is that they don’t leave from the main bus terminals outside of the cities. Instead, they leave either from local offices or in the case of Marisol, they offer direct pickup and drop-off at your accommodation.
But be warned: The “door to door” service offered by Marisol is rarely that. This typically only works if your hotel or hostel is in the main centre of either city, aside from that, the shuttle will drop you off “nearby” where you’re staying. This could leave you stranded in an unfamiliar area with unknown further transport issues.
It was for that reason we decided on Berlinastur. Simply show up at the Berlinastur office in either city and hop on one of the shuttles that leave several times per hour. You may have to walk or take a taxi a short distance to the office, but it should be minimal and you’ll know the destination ahead of time.
With a short rest stop in Barranquilla, the whole trip from Cartagena to Santa Marta took just over four hours.
The only downside in regards to the shuttles is the leg room is fairly limited. However, for the relatively short trip, it was hardly an issue.
Bonus tip for the busses and shuttles: even though it may be hot and muggy outside, the air conditioning will likely be cranked. Bring a sweater or light blanket with you if you’re the type to get cold easily.