When it comes to coastal Colombia, the laid-back town of Santa Marta is a perfect place for those who find touristy Cartagena overwhelming but still want to enjoy the charming Caribbean vibe and some tasty cuisine. Its picturesque colonial center, only a few blocks in size, is like a humble version of the one in Cartagena, but way less chaotic. Add to that the breathtaking natural parks Minca and Tyrona, only a short ride away from Santa Marta, and you’ll have all kinds of reasons to visit this place. However, save at least one day in Santa Marta itself because the town offers some amazing ventures.
What’s the best time to visit Santa Marta?
If weather conditions are a big concern for you when you’re planning your trip, you’ll love the climate of Santa Marta. Temperatures are pretty stable all year round, so you really don’t have to worry about things ever getting too cold. That being said, it can get quite hot here, especially in the months between December and April, which is also the dry period. The period between May and November will be a bit colder, but it will also have a lot more rain (October in particular).
As for the events, you will want to check out Fiesta Del Mar (Sea Festival) if you’re in town in July. Dia de las Velitas (Day of the Candles) is quite beautiful with candles popping up all over the city to celebrate Virgin Mary and her immaculate conception. It takes place on December 8 and is traditional in all of Colombia.
A few facts about Santa Marta
Founded in 1525, Santa Marta is one of Columbia’s oldest cities. This was the point from which Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada set out to explore and colonize the inland. It used to be one of the most important ports in the Caribbean in the early days, until the Spanish Crown ordered the fleets from Panama to stop at Cartagena. In the republican era, Santa Marta regained its importance and became the principal port in Nueva Granada for imports in the mid-19th century.
The same century brought another important date for Santa Marta: the liberator of five countries, Simon Bolivar, died on the estate Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino in Santa Marta on December 17, 1830 (more on that later in the Santa Marta itinerary).
Starting from the middle of the 20th century, the city turned to tourism which is based on several national parks in the vicinity. With the advent of the 21st century, Santa Marta’s historic center underwent a huge restoration project and the area is now bustling with life, representing one of the best parts of the city for a pleasant walk on a sunny day. That’s why the city is a popular resort destination that attracts both foreigners and Colombians.
One day in Santa Marta Itinerary
Follow this guide and make the most of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do during your one day in Santa Marta.
Start your day with some Colombian coffee
There’s no better way to start your one day in Santa Marta than to enjoy a tasty cup of real Colombian coffee from la Sierra Nevada. Aluna Cafe Sagrado is an artisan coffee shop that serves the most delicious coffee in town, and the location couldn’t be more central – right in the middle of the colonial district of Santa Marta. Make sure to check out its lush inner courtyard, a nice escape from the heat and the hectic streets of the city center.
Enjoy a delicious Colombian breakfast
Another amazing place, right next to Aluna Cafe Sagrado, is Lulo Cafe Bar. This healthy bistro bar offers a great selection of traditional Colombian arepas – white corn cakes stuffed with cheese, served with a variety of meat and vegetables. Vegetarian arepas are also available, as well as other breakfast options such as tortilla wraps, paninis and pitas accompanied with healthy smoothies and natural juices. In case you’re visiting this place later in the day, make sure to try their ceviches – this is a Caribbean specialty consisting of fresh raw fish in a citrus marinade.
Explore the rest of Carrera 3
You’re basically already in the middle of Carrera 3 – the picturesque pedestrian street where most of the city’s most famous restaurants and cafes find their place. Head south and explore more of it, all the way to Parque de los Novios. You’ll find many colorful colonial houses and some beautiful graffiti artwork along the way and eventually reach the city’s famous park. Parque de los Novios (Couples’ park) is a charming and intimate square and the locals love to chill here day and night. A great thing to do in Santa Marta if you just want to relax and gather your thoughts a bit.
Visit the Cathedral
Follow Calle 19 east one block and turn left onto Carrera 4, then continue walking north. After only one block of colonial houses, you’ll find yourself in front of Basilica de Santa Marta, the whitewashed cathedral that dominates the square in front of it. Another two beautiful buildings lining the cathedral square are Palacio Episcopal and Edificio del Consejo Municipal. The former was built in 1745 used to be the place where the local bishop and governor resided, whereas the latter is a very beautiful town hall from 1914 which is still being used today. No doubt, these are all things to see in Santa Marta.
Visit Plaza de Bolivar and Museo del Oro
Another picturesque square is Plaza de Bolivar, the main city square where some of the city’s most important cultural institutions are located. Facing the park, you’ll find Biblioteca del Banco de la República Gabriel García Márquez and Casa de la Aduana. The city’s oldest building, Casa de la Aduana, houses Museo del Oro Tairona, where you can learn about the history of Sierra Nevada, Santa Marta, the house itself and the whole Magdalena region over the last 2000 years.
Even though the name Museo del Oro stands for Museum of Gold, the pre-Columbian gold collection is only one single room inside of the museum. Other rooms display artifacts from the Sierra Nevada region such as jewelry, ceramics and metalwork with interesting stories accompanying each section. The admission is free and the exhibition is bilingual.
Pay a visit to Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino
Take a 20-minute taxi ride at the cost of 8-10 thousand pesos to Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino. For Colombians and many other Latin Americans, visiting this hacienda is of great significance since it is the place where the liberator and national hero Simon Bolivar passed away on December 17, 1830. The house displays the original bed in which he died, different antique furniture from that period as well as the marble corpse of the Liberator.
Besides the national importance, the visitors to this impressive hacienda and former sugarcane estate can visit the eighteen-century buildings dedicated to sugarcane production, an imposing botanical garden with a palm-lined esplanade, the Altar de la Patria monument and Museo Bolivariano de Arte Contemporaneo. For 22 thousand pesos, this should be on anyone’s list of things to see in Santa Marta.
Lunch at La Canoa
This city boasts great restaurants, many of them offering some kind of fusion of European and Carribean cuisine. Therefore, you really should leave room in your Santa Marta itinerary to enjoy some delectable dishes, and Cafe Restaurante La Canoa, a French restaurant with local ingredients and Carribean vibe stands at the very top of the local gastronomy scene. Don’t miss their ultimate champion – Lomo la canoa, a beefsteak with blue cheese and bacon in tropical maracuya sauce.
Finally, save some space for their amazing desserts. In case you find it hard to choose one from their extensive dessert list, go for Milhojas – sheets of puff pastry filled with vanilla custard.
Taganga village / Playa Grande
Even though the city has several sandy beaches at the very heart of the city, you should still consider visiting the neighboring Taganga village during your one day in Santa Marta. This fishing village, only two miles northeast of Santa Marta, teems with marine life and is one of the cheapest diving spots in the country.
Numerous colorful fishing boats occupy the Taganga Bay and make the whole scenery especially charming. In case you want to spend some time at the beach, take a short boat ride to Playa Grande. You can purchase the round trip tickets at the cost of 8000 pesos from the kiosk at the main beach in Taganga. However, expect some crowds because Colombians simply love to spend time with their families at the beach.
Walk the Malecon at sunset
For many coastal cities in Latin America, malecon (seafront boulevard) is the locals’ favorite spot and the place where they spend their evenings. Santa Marta’s malecon, officially known as Paseo de Bastidas, starts with a marina and a sandy beach on one side, continues as a colonial boulevard and finally ends with another sandy beach with the city port and shipyard in the back.
In case you’re not into visiting Taganga, make sure to at least visit one of the city’s central beaches in the afternoon. However, the whole area comes alive in the late afternoon, just before the sunset in the magical atmosphere of the warm colors of the Caribbean sky. You’ll find many locals hanging out with their friends and families here, kids playing soccer on the beach as well vendors selling the street food and souvenirs.
Have dinner at Carrera 3
As already mentioned, some of the best restaurants in Santa Marta can be found in Carrera 3. If you crave the Mediterranean, and especially Greek flavors, or you simply want to eat the best wood-fried oven pizza in town – head to Ouzo. They have two different menus (top terrace menu and street level menu) and a great wine list. If you’re more into homemade pasta, salmon or you still haven’t tried the marinated raw fish – ceviche – then Lamart should be your number one option. However, both restaurants represent some of the best places Santa Marta’s food scene can offer.
Nightlife in Santa Marta
A city like this is bound to have some excellent places where you can experience the nightlife. Burukuka restaurante & bar is certainly one of them because its location is absolutely perfect – the place overlooks the bay and looks incredible in the evening with its wooden floors. Oh, and the cocktails are great. Crab’s is the place to go to if you’re a fan of rock’n’roll and blues music, and it also has a bunch of delicious cocktails and other great booze, while Charlies Bar offers tequila happy hours and some good live music. No matter which one you choose, though, you’ll have a blast.
Where to stay in Santa Marta?
Hotel Catedral Plaza
Calle 16 # 5-17, Centro Histórico., 470001 Santa Marta
A fantastic rooftop pool is not the only thing Hotel Cathedral Plaza has to offer, but it certainly has that “wow” factor. The cathedral is right there in front of the hotel and the view from the pool is absolutely spectacular. Comfortable rooms, American breakfast every morning, free toiletries… What more could you ask for?
CALLE 15 # 14 A – 25 Parque del Cundí (a la vuelta del Níspero), 470001 Santa Marta
If you want to be near the beach, Camali Hotel is the way to go. Fascinating greenery surrounds the big outdoor pool, and you can easily whip up a barbecue on the facilities nearby. You get a patio with each room, which is a very nice touch, and with a beautiful garden and great breakfast, you will have everything you need to relax here.
Calle 14 #04-80, 570004 Santa Marta
No matter how you slice it, Masaya Hostel is a fantastic place to stay. Located right in the city centre, very close to the bay, it has air-conditioned rooms, serves breakfast, allows you to use the kitchen on your own and even provides salsa lessons to the guests. The building itself is beautiful and has two pools, so you really can’t go wrong with booking a room here.
Calle 15 # 2-16, Santa Marta – Magdalena, Colombia, 470004 Santa Marta
Now, this is something truly special. Republica Hostel is run by some incredible people and their Saturday pool parties are pretty much legendary. Great drinks and food accompany those events, so you will feel right at home here. Plus you can charge things to your room. The building is absolutely gorgeous, and the same goes for the rooms. You will have a hard time trying to find a better hostel not just in Colombia but anywhere else.
Day trips from Santa Marta
If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t think of what to see in Santa Marta next and have more than one day in the city, consider booking yourself a nice day trip. As already mentioned, nature is mesmerizing around here and there are several nationals parks you can visit. The choice is yours.
Tayrona National Park
Without a doubt one of the best day trips from Santa Marta you can make, a visit to Tayrona National Park will leave you speechless. Not only will you get to see lush forests and all kinds of animals, but you will also get to enjoy a pristine beach and the very best of the Caribbean Sea. Oh, and there is also the option of enjoying some great food here, too. Talk about a full package! If you can squeeze in a visit to this place into your Santa Marta itinerary, don’t hesitate – do it.
Mica is a picturesque eco-village near Santa Marta which offers loads of things you can do. There’s Finca La Victoria, a coffee farm that has been around for more than 125 years. Then there are the waterfalls (Pozo Azul and Marinka) where you can swing and refresh yourself, while being surrounded by lush forest and incredible serenity. The mountain of Sierra Nevada that surrounds Santa Marta is a magical place indeed.
Learn from indigenous people
A great idea for a day trip from Santa Marta is a visit to one of the indigenous communities on Sierra Nevada. You will see what it truly means to be one with nature, and you can even learn some interesting skills, skills that helped these people survive and thrive in this part of the world. Not only that, but you will also learn about the culture these people have developed over the centuries.
Extra tips for visiting Santa Marta
- Taxis around here do not have their meters. Agree on the price before you start the ride!
- When going for a swim around here, be aware of the tides because they can be fairly strong and therefore dangerous.
- Colombia is not exactly the safest country in the world. Sure, this town was lovely and I had a great time, but do be careful at night, especially if you’re alone. A good idea is to ask your hosts for some safety tips.