Santa Marta is a beautiful town in Colombia that’s fitting for those who want to venture off the beaten path. While many of Colombia’s tourists flock to Cartagena, my recommendation is to consider Santa Marta instead. Santa Marta is small enough to not be as overwhelming as a busy hub like Cartagena but offers plenty of things to do for a fulfilling vacation that’s both adventurous and relaxing.
Located on the coast of the Caribbean Sea in northern Colombia, Santa Marta is a short 3-4 hour drive from Cartagena or a 1.5-hour flight from Medellin. From a historically rich downtown district to an abundance of outdoor activities, Santa Marta is officially one of my favorite chill beach towns. Not to mention the brilliant blue waters that border much of the town’s main hotel and marina districts.
Here’s a brief but essential travel guide to help navigate planning your trip to Santa Marta, Colombia. If you’re anything like me and want to skip straight to what you came for, I’ve also included quick links below.
Before heading to Santa Marta, check out this list of the top things to do and challenge yourself to daily unforgettable experiences.
Tayrona National Park is one of the top reasons visitors come to Santa Marta. Hiking through lush green forests to ultimately arrive at beaches that feel untouched makes Tayrona a special place.
The park is one of the ecological reserves of South America. As such, this expansive park feels like paradise, with wildlife, tons of flora and fauna, and beaches that aren’t overrun with crowds of people. Here, you can spot monkeys, encounter the biggest ants you’ve ever seen, and see what an untamed jungle looks like. You’ll feel like you stepped back in time–before overtourism became a thing–spotting little if anyone else along the way.
Getting to Tayrona is fairly simple–a short 45-minute drive from Santa Marta’s city center. You can take a taxi, or private car, or try your hand at the public bus system. There’s also the option to travel by boat, which means you’ll skip the hiking and arrive directly in Cabo San Juan del Guia for a day on the beach.
Arriving at the park early is highly recommended to avoid having to hike in the dark to get back to the entrance. There’s also the option of negotiating your way onto a boat that takes you to Taganga, where you can catch a taxi back to Santa Marta. Fair warning, the boat ride is choppy but being able to skip the hike back to the entrance made it so worth it. Especially considering that getting a ride back later in the day at the main entrance is a game of chance as you’ll be standing with all of the other people trying to get a taxi at the end of the day. Unless you have a private car waiting for you, boating back might be the best way to go. It will certainly be the most epic adventure you’ve experienced.
Entrance fees vary depending on whether you visit during high or low season. For non-Colombians, the rate is 64,500 COP (about $15) in the high season and 54,500 COP (about $13) during the low season. High season runs from June 15 to July 15 and December 15 to January 30.
Bonus tip: It’s always a good idea to make sure you have cash on hand for items along the way. Although you can pay your entrance fee with a debit or credit card, some food and drink vendors may only take cash inside the park.
You’ll probably want to opt for the additional ride into the park unless your goal is to get in as many steps as possible. You won’t miss much if you decide to shuttle into the park, so no need to feel FOMO at this point in the adventure. Plus, you may want to preserve your energy for the hike that awaits once you actually get inside the park (I’m so glad I did).
The closest swimmable beach takes about an hour an hour and a half to get to. The full trail to get in and back is a total of 7.5 miles. There are a handful of horses you can ride for an additional fee to shorten the trip and avoid hiking. However, seeing Tayrona on foot allows you to take your time and really soak in the experience. Most visitors explore the beaches along the way, with Playa Nudista being one of the most popular. Although not legally a nudist beach, some visitors practice this modality when the beach is less busy. With limited food and drinks along the way, this is also where you can find snacks and beverages to replenish your energy after the hike.
Tayrona is the ancestral home of the Kogi people. The park honors this by closing several times a year to allow them space to perform ancient traditions and customs while also giving nature a break from visitors. In 2023, the closures were February 1-15, June 1-15, and October 19 through November 2. Make sure to confirm that the park will be open before you get there.
Experiencing Tayrona is a must, so if you do nothing else while visiting Santa Marta, add this to the list!
If relaxing is a top priority, you absolutely have to book a sailboat tour with a visit to Bahia Concha. Sailing adventures in Santa Marta typically begin at Marina Santa Marta, which is centrally located.
Most sailing tours afford the opportunity to take in this region of Colombia’s coastline from the sea. After a 30-40 minute ride, you’ll land at Bahia Concha, one of the sixteen beaches within Tayrona National Park’s borders. The waters at Bahia Concha are some of the most beautiful you’ll ever see–with a bright turquoise blue that rivals the Caribbean.
The reason I would recommend enjoying Bahia Concha by boat is mainly due to the perks that come with it. Lunch and a free beer are included in most cases, with additional drinks for purchase. There are food and drink vendors on the beach, but I wouldn’t rely on that to ensure I had a decent meal for the day. Sailing tours also may have additional equipment for kayaking or snorkeling while you’re anchored in Bahia Concha so you don’t have to bring your own gear.
You can usually find these sailing day trips on activity sites like Viator or Airbnb Experiences. If you’re traveling solo or in a small group, there are shared tours that range between $60 and $80. If you want a private experience or have a large group, you can also charter a private boat that’s just for you and your crew.
This was seriously the most relaxing day of our time in Santa Marta. It’s a full-day adventure; I wouldn’t add anything else to this day’s itinerary aside from dinner. A perfect day of sea and sun, this is another must-do activity while visiting this beautiful town.
Considered one of the most intense but rewarding hikes in South America, the Lost City Trek is best reserved for the very active and outdoorsy types. Fortunately, the hike can only be completed with one of several approved tour companies. Doing the multi-day hike independently isn’t allowed.
Since 2005, people have been hiking this Colombian trail for sport while visiting Santa Marta. Because this activity takes a minimum of two days and up to four, it would be wise to plan ahead and do your research in advance.
If you decide to take on this adventure, or any adventure really, I’d also suggest securing a solid travel insurance policy. In the event of a medical emergency, you’ll want to have everything you need for a smooth transition into medical care treatment.
This personally isn’t an adventure that’s up my alley as it’s a little too outdoors for me, but I can appreciate it for those who want to give it a shot. If four to five days of hiking in nature sounds like your version of travel, then you’ll want to consider a visit to the Lost City.
Parque de Los Novios is a perfectly central location for finding a bit of Santa Marta history as well as food and nightlife. Marked by several city monuments and park benches, this park sits in the historic center surrounded by restaurants, bars, and nightclubs.
During the day, the area is a peaceful place to explore the city while still getting a glimpse into a bit of its action. You can find affordably priced traditional Colombian restaurants to dine in for breakfast and lunch. Later in the evening, local acts come alive in the streets and various restaurants fill the streets with a blend of sounds.
Although I share some of my top restaurant recommendations later in this article, you can’t really go wrong in this area of town. Not only is it safe to walk around and discover a new eatery, but Colombia’s flavors paired with local seafood access make it a foodie’s dream. My recommendation here is to get into the streets in the evening and pick the restaurant that picks you. Every mood, menu, and music playlist brings something different to every guest, and the restaurants near Parque de Los Novios deliver the best Colombian food.
Reminiscing on the food in Santa Marta makes my mouth water just thinking about it. The best part of the plentiful options available to dine is that every type of food palette can find an unforgettable meal here. Indian, Latin, Caribbean, Moroccan, and American cuisine is found throughout many of the restaurants that line its most popular areas. With one restaurant after another, you won’t have to wonder whether there will be something to your liking.
Here are some of the best restaurants for a wonderful meal in Santa Marta, Colombia.
In Parque de los Novios sits Donde Chucho Gourmet, an all-around beachy Colombian vibe with delicious food. Online it’s described as an “unassuming, colorful seafood restaurant offering homestyle meals and outdoor seating,” but that depiction doesn’t do it justice.
The menu is overwhelming in the best way, with 20+ pages of affordable dining options. Seafood stews, cold starters, pasta, rice dishes, and other mains line each page, which can make it hard to decide. Non-seafood eaters will be happy to know that there are plenty of beef and chicken beef dishes on the menu as well. A full bar with specialty cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages is available to round out your meal experience.
Aside from the seriously tasty food and drinks, what I love about this restaurant is the beautiful evening decor and live entertainment. The restaurant usually has a live singer serenading guests on the string-lit romantic outdoor patio. Definitely worth a visit whether you’re traveling solo or in a large group (although I would call ahead if your party is large).
Another centrally located restaurant on Parque de los Novios is Ouzo, which brings Greek cuisine to Latin America. The menu features Mediterranean cuisine with a touch of Colombia, from homemade pasta and roasted lamb with orzo to fresh seafood and wood-fired pizzas. Other dishes customers love are the Greek paella, gyros, and glazed beef.
The story on Ouzo’s origins goes, “The chef and owner, Michael McMurdo, began his culinary career in New York City at the Michelin-starred Greek restaurant Anthos,” March Perrotta of AFAR writes. “On a visit to Colombia, however, he was charmed by Santa Marta and decided to make his home in the city, opening Ouzo in 2011.”
Menu items range in price from $6-20, on average. The restaurant can get on the busy side, so be sure to pack your patience, order a beverage, and opt to sit outdoors to people-watch as you pass the time.
Entre Cuates is yet another restaurant that regularly makes the list of the best places to eat in Santa Marta. Here is where you’ll find what some call “the best Mexican fare in town.”
The menu consists of the standards: nachos, tacos, quesadillas, grilled meats, and other dishes. Most meals average between $9 and $15, but the flavors are worth much more. Entre Cuates’ relaxing setting is the perfect place to find fresh guacamole and elotes while enjoying the sounds of Santa Marta.
Head to Entre Cuates for a late lunch or early dinner to grab your ideal seat. The popular restaurant turns into a gastropub on busy nights, so it’s a good option for a chill but entertaining night on the town.
This small restaurant has great, unique dishes and is the perfect excuse to take a break off the touristy paths of the main roads. Soul Food is another popular dining pick for Colombian and Caribbean dishes. One Tripadvisor review even describes the chef as “by far the best cook in town.”
Past visitors rave about the roasted chicken, surf & turf, and seafood stew dishes. Vegetarians will also find joy in knowing that there are plenty of options for your tastebuds, too. Overall, most dishes are very affordable and well worth the dining experience.
The “good food, good beer, good times” restaurant is consistently among the top of many travelers’ lists of best restaurants in Santa Marta. Porthos is a steakhouse and pub that focuses its menu on steaks, beers, and burgers as well as the gastronomy of Colombia.
Staple starters include chorizo bites, fried plantain bites, and empanaditas. The grill menu consists of various cuts of beef, steak, ribs, pork loin, and chicken breast. Their burger selection is equally extensive, with burgers 30% off on Tuesdays from noon until 11 p.m.
Happy hour is extra happy at Porthos, with select two-for-one shots and cocktails available daily from noon until 7 p.m. Make sure to give one of their big margaritas a try; maracuya (passion fruit) is my personal favorite. Fresh fruit juices and local sodas are also available in addition to their extensive cocktail list.
Porthos is definitely where you want to go for a midday or late afternoon happy hour session.
No destination is without its faults, but generally speaking, Santa Marta is a safe tourist destination. During my extended weekend visit, I didn’t have any issues or feelings of being unsafe. That said, I also was traveling in a group at all times and didn’t stay out past midnight on any night while there. You’ll be fine to walk alone during the day in most cases but I wouldn’t recommend doing so at night. Whether you’re in a group or by yourself, I would still recommend monitoring your surroundings. This is especially important for female travelers to ensure you’re not being followed as there have been incidents in Santa Marta in the past.
Most tourists will vacation in the city without any issues, however, it’s important to know what to be mindful of when visiting. Travel.state.gov warns of increased civil unrest and kidnappings in some areas, but petty crime is typically the biggest cause for concern. Crimes like purse snatching, pickpocketing, and cellphone snatching can happen anywhere but nightlife spaces, on the street, and on beaches are the most popular spots for theft. Make sure to leave valuables behind and securely pack any items you bring with you. This isn’t the destination to flaunt wealth so be mindful of keeping phones, jewelry, and money out of sight.
Another money tip is to only use ATMs at banks or in grocery stores. Try to avoid using ATM machines on the street or in areas that aren’t well-lit.
Though it may be tempting to do on vacation, avoiding illegal activities is always a good idea. Your party favor of choice might be available but it’s rarely worth the headache and legal trouble it might cause. Drink spiking is also something to keep an eye out for and a good reason to watch out for yourself and others in your group.
On the health front, drinking tap water is not recommended, so stick with bottled water. In terms of food, I didn’t have a bad meal or a meal that made me feel bad. You shouldn’t have anything to worry about there.
It’s also a good idea to always enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, to receive alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency. The free service allows U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll in their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
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