Santa Marta an important commercial port and tourist destination. Every day, there are cargo ships coming and going and the action is very much visible. From the beach, the view of the Caribbean Sea is more or less to the west (beautiful sunsets) with a huge rock of an island jutting up out of the water to make a somewhat dramatic effect. Off to the right is the port snug behind another even bigger rock. This is a decent beach if you like beaches that are right in town with lots of people, vendors, and noise. Vendors are extremely aggressive if you are on the beach.
Aside from the old center, the main attractions of Santa Marta are its two resort-like suburbs El Rodadero, to the south, and Taganga, to the north. El Rodadero has several high-end hotels and private "clubs" that cater mostly to wealthy Colombians, whereas Taganga used to be a fishing village and is very popular with (mostly foreign) backpackers. Taganga has many scuba-diving agencies.
There is a high season and low season. High season is December through April, with its peak from mid-December to late January (due to school and university vacations).
- 1 Simón Bolívar airport (SMR IATA) (It is on the beach, 20 min south of town, but much closer to most of the beach resorts and 10 min from the main beach El Rodadero). Has non-stop flights from Bogotá, Medellín-Cordova, Bucaramanga, Pereira and Cali. . If you get in from abroad check if baggage is unloaded in Bogota even if airlines promise they´ll send the baggage directly to Santa Marta.
- A public Bus from the Santa Marta airport to the city centre Carrera 1A cost COP$2400.
- A taxi to the Centre historico is around COP$25,000 (no prepaid or metered taxis available).
The 2 bus station (Terminal de Transporte). is all the way out of town on the main highway. To get there, you can catch a bus/colectivo with the sign "UCC TRANSPORTE" at carrera 1. The ride will take some 45 minutes and cost about COP$2,000. If carrying a big backpack, you might be rejected by some colectivo drivers, just wait for the big buses. With the taxi the trip takes around half hours and costs COP$15,000. In the bus terminal, you can get free WiFi at the tourist office.
Bus rides are available:
- from Cartagena: COP$20,000, 3½ hours
- from Barranquilla: COP$10,000, 2 hours
- from Medellín: COP$108,000, 15 hours
- from Bucaramanga: COP$60,000, 9 hours (Copetran, Brasilia) (Feb 2016)
- from Bogotá: COP$80,000, 16 hours
- from Riohacha: COP$15,000, 2½ hours
- from Taganga: COP$1,400, 15 min with minibus or taxi for COP$10,000
For more comfortable road travel across northern Colombia, a few companies offer air conditioned van services between Cartagena and Santa Marta, with stops in Barranquilla en route. Cochetur seems to be the most reputable of these. Price is COP$50,000 per person between the main two stops and they will pick you up and drop you off at your desired location in each city. You will likely share the van with 6-8 people including the driver. Tipping did not appear to be expected but a thousand or two goes a long way here.
If you're heading to the Coffee Region, a cheaper option is to catch a Berlinastur bus to Honda (COP$70, at least 12 hours, departure at 2PM), and right after that another bus to Pereira (COP$30, 6 hours). You'll need to wait for an hour or so in the middle of the night in Honda, but you can stay at Berlinastur office during that time.
Streets are numbered. The beach can be considered "Carrera 1" or 1st St., and the first street is usually "Carrera 1A" or 1A St. The next street after the first row of buildings is Carrera 2 or 2nd St. Calles are streets running from north to south. Unlike bigger cities in Colombia, taxis do not run on a meter. Payments range from COP$3500 for a "lift" (usually a ride no more than 10 minutes) to upwards of COP$20,000, depending on where you go. If you meet someone who 'knows' a taxi driver, this can be a good opportunity to negotiate a price to your next checkpoint in Colombia. Some drivers will take you as far as Barranquilla, although you have to negotiate.
- 1 Museo del Oro, Calle 14 No.2-67 (on plaza Bolivar). Displays a collection of precolumbian pottery, a nice collection of gold and a scale model of Ciudad Perdida. Free entrance.
- Simon Bolivar's place of death (take a bus for COP$1,400 or taxi for COP$5,000). Beautiful and very interesting gardens, lots of iguanas, study the map before getting any further. The guide will tell you only about the buildings and the history of the "Libertador". COP$12,000.
- Scuba diving. Nearby coral reefs provide good possibilities for scuba diving. All the scuba diving operators are at Taganga, so you'll need to go there to shop around (prices are very different from one to another). You can follow the PADI course (3-4 days), or just go for a 1-day dive (no licence required).
- Jet ski. On the beaches, you can usually rent a jet ski in increments of 10 minutes. If you are not comfortable operating one, you can usually ask for a ride around. Life jackets are provided.
- Birdwatching. Birdwatching at the El Dorado bird reserve above Minca ProAves.
- Spanish School, Calle 21 3-88 Centro, ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. The Neotropical Spanish School at Casa Scania is a small size Spanish School focused on quality giving classes in downtown Santa Marta and Barranquilla, USD8/hour with one student per teacher, USD6 per person in small groups.Course material, hot and cold drinks included. Casa Scania Calle 21 3-88 (between Carrera 3 and 4) Central Santa Marta. For more info see homepage. USD8.
- 1 Adrenaline Addicts, Carrera 21, Calle 20-36, ☏ . 9AM-6PM. They offer motorcycle rentals, lessons, and motorcycle tours spanning 1-7 days. Run by a pair of young Americans, new business with nice new bikes. Rentals around US$30/day, Tours under US$100/day, all inclusive, varies by tour. Run from Drop Bear Hostel.
Santa Marta is famous for its beach sellers. Since beaches are open 365 days a year, there are always people wandering up and down the beach selling anything.
The beaches in the northern suburb El Rodadero have aggressive sellers. Take this as an opportunity to haggle - usually aim for COP$2,000-3,000 below the price asked.
If you are planning to go to Tayrona and need to buy snorkeling gear, you'll be disappointed to see only a couple of very basic Chinese packs, the same in all the shops. If you decide to buy them, the cheapest prices are in a kitchenware shop at Calle 15 with Carrera 3 (COP$15 for the "good" one).
Postcard stamps can be bought at the post office at Calle 22/Carrera 2 (COP$2,900 for Europe). No stamps are sold at the Deprisa post office (Carrera 3).
Carrera 5th is a big shopping promenade, with stores accompanied by street stalls and vendors. At the corner with Calle 20 there's a big supermarket (Exito). Some streets are pedestrian-friendly, such as Carrera 3 between Calle 15 and 20.
There are a lot of eating options. They seem to be good at roasting and grilling chicken. They do a good job of grilling beef tough but flavorful. Seafood is plentiful and relatively inexpensive lots of shrimp and seafood cocktail vendors. Most varieties of fruit are available even what is more common to cold climates. At night street vendors sell all types of snacks pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, shakes, kabobs, rice in milk with coco, fried stuffed doughy things, etc. Coffee, hot chocolate, and both hot cinnamon and lemon is omni-present.
- Restaurante El Españolete, Calle 13 no 2-45. Excellent Spanish food. Specialized in paellas, tapas and grilled meat. The owner, Toni, is from Valencia, Spain, and he can cook the real paella at a very reasonable price (less than US$15 per person). His wife, Alexa, is Colombian and her smothies are the best (she uses fresh passion fruit, mango, and other varieties of tropical fruits). They are both really nice and provide their customers with helpful tips to visit the best places in Santa Marta. Lunch menu is about $5. The restaurant is housed in a colonial building and it is even haunted by a ghost!
- La Tasca - Tapas Bar, Calle 18 No 2- 72. Run by a Spaniard, this small and cosy restaurant offers an excellent selection of typical spanish tapas at a fair price. It is a real experience for the palate of both locals and tourists.
- Agave Azul - Sabores de Mexico, Calle 14 No 3-74, ☏ . Open Tu-F for lunch and dinner and Saturday for dinner only. Happy Hour Margaritas 2-for-1 from 5-7PM everyday.. Very good Mexican food prepared by fabulous New York trained chef Michael McMurdo. With a range from burritos to steaks to seafood this very elegant food will blow your mind but not break the bank. With lunch menu for US$4 and dinner menu from US$8-13.
- Merkabar / Welcome Restaurant, Calle 10 No 2-11. Good combination of local and gringo food. Good breakfasts, cheap filling lunches, and their famous "sopa del mar", soup overflowing with seafood. Their fruit juices are excellent. Gilberto, one of the brothers that owns and runs Merkabar, speaks English and is friendly and helpful with tourist needs.
- Ben & Josep´s bar & restaurant, Carrera 1 # 18-67. (Dutch owner) On the beach road in front of the Park Hotel. The very best steak (filet mignon) in Santa Marta. Fine dining for a reasonable price.
- Restaurante El Escorial. A good restaurant is in the middle of the block behind the beach on 11th street
- Restaurante y Pescadería Manuel, Carrera 1A # 26-167, ☏ . Very nice seafood.
- Restaurante El Santo, Calle 21 - 2a 52, ☏ . One of the few places in SM with good tender Argentinan meat and nice wine. Argentinan and Islandic owner. Very nice and welcoming.
- Tim's Gourmet Coffee Shop, Cra 1A 23-57 (50 m from the entrance of the marina in downtown Santa Marta.), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Opens at 7:15AM everyday. Tim's Owls Den Pub open until 10PM weekdays. 2AM Friday & Saturday. 2-for-1 cocktails.. You'll get free Wi-Fi while you're having a fresh coffee made by beans direct from the organic growers on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, Western Canadian/German pastries and European style breakfasts daily until 2PM. Crepes and deli sandwiches all day.
- Excellent seafood soup from a man at the corner of 13th st. and 4th Carr (diagonally opposite the small church.. next to sunglasses vendors. You'll see huge pots of soup). Very cheap and delicious, but only in mornings. Sells out by noon.
- There is a man who has been sitting on 14th street between 3rd and 4th carrera (behind the beach) selling shrimp cocktail at a reasonable price for 23 years.
- There is another man who has been sitting on 22nd street on 1st carrera (in front of the beach) selling a delicious shrimp cocktail at a reasonable price and he is very reliable and well known in the city.
- 1 Seko Bar, Calle 19 4-11, Santa Marta. Good music, cocktails, excellent prices, slightly insane. Very popular.
- Santo Domingo, Calle 17 No. 3 - 70 near the cathedral.. The best place to party in Santa Marta. The owners are super nice, they will personally attend. The owners are two Spanish. That women more beautiful and rumba, to good music and really nice atmosphere.I always found it a good show. Thanks Elena and Kike.
- Crab's Bar, Calle 18 No. 3-69 (between Carr 3 & 4). A fun rock n' roll bar. The Colombian owner (who is a spitting image of Neil Young) used to own a large rock club in Bogotá, but he sold it to settle down here. Every evening he VJs videos of all the great classic rock bands. Friendly staff, great vibe, nice decor.
- Burukuka. A trendy nightclub on the way towards El Rodadero. Burukuka sits on top of a hill overlooking the sea, with a great terrace. It's a high-end place, so dress appropriately. Also serves food. Vía al Edificio Cascadas del Rodadero, just out of town, to the south.
The drink of choice is, of course, beer. Because Santa Marta can get brutally hot during the summer (upwards of 35°C/95°F), it is a good idea to constantly have a bottle of water with you. During the evenings, when it gets cooler, beer and friends is often an excellent combination. It would be good idea to take a couple of "Stubbie Coolers" (Australian vernacular for an item which keeps the beer in your bottle cooler or longer) as the heat will have you drinking warm beer by the time you are at the end of your drink.
Soft drinks can be found at nearly every restaurant - sometimes you can even pick it up in glass bottles. They are cheap: a drink usually costs no more than COP$2,000.
Ask about Ben´s Bar on the Beach. Barrio Samario, La Puerta, and El Garage.
- Juan Valdez Cafe, Calle 14 (next to the Gold Museum). One of the surprisingly few excellent coffee options in town. Even many good restaurants don't have a good coffee machine and/or use good coffee beans.
If you are looking for a place to stay, there are somewhat more expensive hotels. 10th street is less expensive. These include:
- Hotel Nueva Granada, Calle 12 No 3- 17, Historic Centre of Santa Marta. Nice and small, with pool and jacuzzi, bar, comfortable and clean double and multiple rooms with air- conditioning or ventilators, unlimited internet access, and free breakfast. The staff is very kind and helpful. Fan/air-conditioned: single COP$50,000/65,000, double COP$85,000/100,000, triple COP$105,000/120,000, bed in 6-bed A/C dorm COP$35,000.
- Cabin Tayrona Park (Tayrona Park accommodation), at one of the calmest beaches of the Tayrona National Park. Check-in: noon, check-out: noon. Private,comfortable, friendly local staff, and within the Park Double and triple rooms with private or shared bathroom from USD35 per night, restaurant service available.
- Hotel Sierra's Sound (Minca hotel and restaurant), Minca (Next to the river.). Check-in: noon, check-out: noon. Air-conditioned rooms from USD25 per person. It offers a calm and totally natural atmosphere and one of the best restaurants of Santa Marta.
- [formerly dead link] Hostal SolyMar, Carrera 2 No 19-06, ☏ . This is an immaculately clean hotel, which is a change from a lot of the places in Santa Marta. The immediate area is probably the best in Santa Marta, as opposed to the sketchier Calle 10 barrio. The colonial rooms are recommended, with very tall ceilings and fan for COP$30,000 for a private room (single). The staff is incredibly friendly.
- Hotel Imperial Caribe (also known as the Hotel Villa del Mar), Calle 17 No. 3-96 (between Carr 3 & 4), ☏ , , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Nice rooms, friendly staff. Singles with fan for COP$30,000. Doubles, Triples, A/C more. Free Wi-Fi in lobby.
- Hotel Boutique Don Pepe, Cl 16 # 1c – 92 Barrio Centro, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Small hotel with 12 rooms, restaurant, spa and rooftop jacuzzi.
- 1 Rodadero Apartments (RSMA), Carrera 1A 5 - 93 El Rodadero, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 3PM, check-out: 11:30AM. Apartments for rent day - season, near Tayrona Park and Taganga. 2 rooms with air conditioning, bathroom, LED cable TV, beach view terrace, free WiFi, pool, private parking, airport shuttle, local tours & snorkeling. start from USD65/night.
- [dead link] Hotel Miramar, Calle 10C No 1c-70, ☏ . Classic South American backpacker's hotel. Rooms are quite basic and sometimes it's hot, but the staff is great, Wi-Fi very fast and free, defacto tourist information office for surrounding area (Tayrona, Lost City, etc.) Also has a really friendly restaurant, and offers safe boxes for backpacks when going on tours. They also have a location in Taganga at Calle 17 No. 2-36. Dorm COP$30,000; twin room shared bath COP$80,000-90,000; double room shared bath COP$100,000.
- [dead link] Candela & Chocolate Hostel, Calle 12 No 3-01, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Fairly new and clean hostel right on the corner with a locked security gate, ring the bell to get someone to help you. Rooms are spacious and well ventilated with lockable chests for your belongings. Free Wi-Fi. Two blocks away from the main plaza. Dorms for COP$18,000, including breakfast.
- Casa Familiar (also on Calle 10, 1 block up from Miramar, on other side of street). Private, mild mannered and friendly staff. Rooms are small and basic. Single from COP$20,000. Also has dorm rooms for COP$15,000.
- Hotel Palma Blanca (20 Street No 1b-69, next to a calm beach in the cheerful tourist town of Rodadero in Santa Marta), ☏ . Check-in: 3PM, check-out: 1PM. Private,comfortable, friendly and attentive staff, and a great swimming pool. All rooms have air-conditioning and wireless internet access. single COP$110,000, double or twin COP$130,000, triple COP$180,000, quad COP$230,000.
- El Kool Koala Backpackers (Calle 13 No 3- 139, 3 blocks from the beach of Taganga in Santa Marta), ☏ . Run by an Australian with 20 years travel experience who speaks fluent Spanish in the best Aussie accent and his energetic local best mate. Really cruisy place, outdoor setup for cooking, chilling, or drinking the night away. Dormitories from COP$18,000.
- Hotel Minca (Newly refurbished hotel and restaurant), Minca (opposite the police station.). The hummingbird feeders and fruit feeders attract around 40 species of birds to the garden. Double COP$125,000, single COP$80,000.
- 2 El Hostal de Jackie, Calle 21 # 3-40 (between Carrera 3 and 4), Centro Historico (take a public bus (blue colour) from the airport to Calle 22), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Backpacker Hostel with dormitories and private rooms. Kind and helpful staff. Each bed has its own fan (can be noisy at night) in 12-bed dorm. Small but nice swimming pool on the ground floor. Terrace bar with satellite TV and a hammock on the top floor. Wifi and 2 computers with internet. Kitchen available. Close to the beach (5 minutes walking). Laundry service. Checkout 11PM. from COP$21,000 in low season (COP$28,000 in high season).
- Taganga - a backpacker and hippie haven in a one-time peaceful little fishing village just north
- Ciudad Perdida — Santa Marta, is besides Taganga the main jumping off point for the famous trek, and you should be able to arrange a trek on short notice with any of the hostels or tour companies.
- Tayrona National Park — an unspoilt natural paradise of jungle, birds, ocean, and absolutely gorgeous beaches.
- Cabo de la Vela - tours to this small village can be booked in Santa Marta or Riohacha, although departures don't take place daily. An interesting experience, but only recommended for seasoned travellers, preferable with travel experience in SEE (begging children, heat, long bus drives)
- Cartagena - the Heroic City, Capital of the Bolívar department is Colombia's tourist city par excellence