SANTA MARTA – Spectacularly Unspectacular

Santa Marta is a spectacularly unspectacular place.

Coffee vendor on a street in Santa Marta
Good morning, Santa Marta! The coffee lady is pushing her cart on Calle 19; who needs Starbucks, anyways?!
In the afternoon her place is taken by the gentleman who sells cheese-filled arepas. A very pleasant fast-food culture far from chain companies. 

The perfect place for those who don’t suffer from FOMO but are very well able to observe and enjoy the small things of truly Colombian life.

I chose Santa Marta mainly for its proximity to Parque Tayrona. But also because it’s on the coast and I wanted to spend a couple of days on the beach.

Doing The Maths

Amazingly, Santa Marta is a town with the perfect locals-traveller-ratio: Some foreigners so that people don’t stare at you with their mouth open as if the circus got into town.

But few enough so that life goes on undisturbed by their presence.

Street in Santa Marta
Average can be so pretty!

That gives you the chance to blend in as an alien. And when you’re respectful and well-behaved, you might even befriend people, and that’s very enriching.

I travel to meet, greet, and learn.

As soon as the number of travellers goes too high, you cannot just fit in anymore.
You become part of a group that changes things; and mostly not for the better.
Restaurants and bars switch their menu from local food to this global fusion-vegan-organic stuff, which is certainly healthier than cornbread and pork belly, but offered at quite high prices and for local people hardly affordable.

Same with stores that start to sell things foreigners might like at prices only they can afford.

Parque de Los Novios in Santa Marta
Parque de Los Novios where the restaurant and bar scene around is less trendy than along Carrera 3 – however, very pleasant.

This is exactly what I saw happening in Salento and, most of all, in Cartagena. The entire range of services and goods was adapted to tourism. I don’t know where local people do their grocery shopping.

While in other places people were super-friendly and curious and greeted us Bienvenidas en Colombia, in those tourist spots, they were completely oblivious and a tad rude.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that and do not blame them at all. It’s just that a place like this – no matter how enchanting – loses part of its charm.

Quit Dreaming, This Is Real Life

However, since Santa Marta is an average Colombian city, there is also average Colombian poverty which for Europeans can be quite shocking.

Those who can somehow afford it, try to offer some kind of service instead of begging to make a couple of pesos. Or they try to sell more or less desirable goods like really horrible, cheap candy that I bought this morning from a young woman with a little daughter and a baby.

Of course, you always pay far more than it’s worth. Notwithstanding the fact that I didn’t have a craving for horrible, cheap candy in the first place.

Street Art in Santa Marta
The day before the artists completed their work by adding a real net to it. It’s very pleasant to see how respectful and appreciative everybody treats street art. 

It’s truly moving how the folks at the end of the food chain look out for each other. Like the slightly less poor water seller that traded her a pack of water for two horrible, cheap candies, so that the lady could give her daughter something to drink. This solidarity is touching. And somehow shaming.

Muerte En Hawaii 2.0

The other evening we witnessed the sweetest gesture ever.

There is this kid walking around with a boombox singing mostly Muerte en Hawaii by Calle13 and sometimes a song by Arcángel which is a bit lame. However, according to his base cap and the writing on the boombox, the kid is a huge Arcángel fan, so what the heck.

Street musicians in Santa Marta, Colombia
This kid is some sort of Arcángel himself. 

So the other evening we were having pizza at a nice place on the Malecon when the kid showed up with his boombox and a homie in tow. He sang Muerte en Hawaii, we were delighted, gave him a far too fat tip.

I didn’t feel comfortable tipping and thus encouraging him, anyway. I find he should study and become a doctor instead of rapping at restaurants. Mimi said, in this case, I should tip him with an exercise book. Haha, she’s just trying to be funny!
By the way, considering his cool, clean clothes and the boombox, I don’t even have the impression that he does his singing because he needs the money to survive. He rather seems to be practicing for his great hip hop career.

So as the Muerte-song was over and the gratuities collected, the kids left, and by incident, we left at the same time.

He and his homie walked in front of us, the beat booming from the box, we followed behind, it was a little like a very, very short techno love parade.

Your Parents Should Be So Proud!

At the entrance of an abandoned store was a homeless man sitting, cheering at the two rascals.
The kids had already passed him by when they said something to each other, seemed to agree on it, and then the future hip hop star went back and gave the homeless some of the money he had just collected from his fans.
He shared.
Just like that.
How many kids do you know that would do something like that?

This is Colombia! This is Santa Marta!

Life Is A Beach…Not

After I’ve told you so many good things about Colombia and its people, I finally need to mention the – in my humble opinion – weak spot, which are the beaches.

I don’t get how people can praise Colombian beaches. To me, they are the worst. They are messy and dirty. Some of them don’t even have real sand but some dust and dirt on rocky ground.

Taganga Beach
You get to Taganga in about ten minutes. From there, you can access the Parque Tayrona in about 40 minutes by boat. Don’t even bother to take the boat from Taganga to the next bay, the Playa Grande: That is literally the worst beach I had to suffer on.

Seriously, Colombia is great, but don’t come here for a beach vacation.

Of course, I haven’t been to every single beach here, but those that I’ve seen range from ok – like Parque Tayrona, Palomino, and Rodadero – to dreadful.

Here are my top 5 of the worst ones, whereby No. 1 takes the cake to be the worst beach I’ve seen in my entire life:

5. Cartagena
4. Santa Marta
3. Playa Grande/Taganga
2. Taganga
1. Playa Blanca/Isla de Barú

But in about 20 minutes by cab or bus you can get from Santa Marta to Rodadero, and the beach there is quite ok and the water is pretty clean.

Rodadero Beach in Santa Marta
Pedaling fun in front of Rodadero’s skyline. It’s not projects, it’s hotels and condos. And that’s one of the better beaches. See what I mean?!

We were particularly pleased that they have pedal boats and not these ocean killing jet skis; let’s hear it for Rodadero!

Leaving Santa Marta

We came to Santa Marta for various reasons. First of all, I wanted to spend more time in a beach destination. Well, Santa Marta has a city beach, but it’s really not great – and located irritatingly close to the harbor.

But Santa Marta is a gateway to the beach in Rodadero and that’s pretty nice. You can get there in 20 minutes by cab or bus and have a truly pleasant vacation-experience.

Rodadero Beach
The beach of Rodadero….
Colombian Sweets
….where the hawkers make sure that you look good in a Bikini.

Then, hiking tours to the mystic Ciudad Perdida hidden somewhere deep in the Sierra Nevada start at Santa Marta. And the city is also a hub to other fantastic places along the Caribbean coast – just 45 minutes from Minca, an hour from Parque Tayrona, and two hours from Palomino – all reachable by local buses.

That was the other reason why we picked Santa Marta as our alternative Caribbean destination after Cartagena.

Not Leaving Santa Marta

Yes, if you insist, you can visit some landmarks such as the Tairona Gold Museum. Or La Quinta de Bolívar, the house where the Venezuela-born freedom fighter used to live, located just a stone throw away from the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the place where this South American hero died at only 47 from tuberculosis.

Finally, there is also the Museo Bolivariano de Arte Contemporáneo, the Museum of Contemporary Art in the vicinity.

These places are about five miles from the center, in Santa Marta’s eastern outskirts, close to the Universidad del Magdalena.

Street in Santa Marta
Look: Real Colombians running errands.

But actually, this is not what Santa Marta is all about.

It’s about the unspectacular yet pretty side streets.
It’s about the lovely squares where you won’t awe at impressive statues, but observe how Colombians pursue their daily tasks or meet up after the day’s work is done.
It’s about strolling along the promenade or checking out the big shopping streets.
¡Es la vida!

The Hip Side of Santa Marta

Nonetheless, there is a small neighborhood that could be called hip and trendy. It’s the Carrera 3.

Carrera 3 in Santa Marta
Carrera 3 by day…

Here, you’ll find stylish restaurants and bars designed mainly for visitors and young local crowds from the university nearby. Also, some of Santa Marta’s coolest street art can be admired in this area.

Carrera 3 by night
…and by night.

Actually, it’s a good place in particular if you are longing for some fresh, healthy – and meat-free – food: All the restaurants have at least a couple of valid vegetarian or even vegan choices and prepare wonderful juices, shakes, and smoothies from fresh fruits.

Street Art in Santa Marta
No Colombian city would be complete without street art. Here is a painted overview of restaurants, clubs, and bars in the neighborhood, making advertisements into street art.

At night, this street is a bit more animated than the bars around the Parque de Los Novios.

Practical Information

How to Get There

By Plane

Surprisingly, Santa Marta’s Simón Bolívar International Airport is one of the most important airports in Colombia. There are domestic flights for instance to Cali, Medellin, and, obviously, Bogotá.

The airport is approximately 17 kilometers southwest of the city center. Cabs charge a fixed fare of 26,000 pesos, however, to Taganga, it’s 38,000 pesos. In addition, there is a surcharge of 700 pesos on weekends and holidays and of 1,000 pesos at night after 8 p. m.

However, there is an inexpensive local bus service available from the airport to downtown Santa Marta.

By Bus

Going from Cartagena to Barranquilla, Santa Marta, and Parque Tayrona by the marsol bus company is a very good option since it’s a convenient door to door service.

However, there are also various public busses – actually, Santa Marta is one of the major hubs on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

The public bus to  Parque Tayrona leaves at the stop next to the Central Market on Calle 10 with Carrera 9 where any cab takes you for as little as US$1. Here, you have to catch the local public bus towards La Guajira.

How to Get Around

Cabs in Santa Marta are quite cheap so it’s not worth it to wait for hours for the public bus. However, normally, public buses are plenty so you really have the choice and will never have a problem getting even to Taganga or Rodadero.

Best place to sleep

Staying somewhere around the Parque de Los Novios is your best option. You reach every point of interest within minutes. And even if not, there are cabs waiting in front of the big supermarket ‘Éxito’ on Carrera 5 that bring you everywhere you wanna go for a couple of pesos.

We stayed at the rather quirky Hotel del Parque which is rather a guest house. The owner was shockingly unprofessional but very kind. However, they don’t offer it on hotel sites anymore – and I can imagine why.

Therefore, here is a good choice of places for all budgets*:

Booking.com

Best Place to Eat

As I mentioned above, many of the restaurants on Carrera 3 are catering to the health-conscious crowd by serving light, fresh snacks.

The café and bar Lulo is the most personable one – due to the service and since it’s not pretentious at all.

Breakfast at Santa Marta
First the healthy part…

They have a variety of fantastic breakfast options with lots of vegetarian alternatives. Refreshing natural fruit juices and smoothies full of vitamins and excellent coffee.

Breakfast at Santa Marta
….followed by the yummy part of breakfast served at Lulo.

In comparison to traditional Colombian restaurants, they are not exactly cheap, but you actually get what you pay for: Good food.

Lulo Bar
Carrera 3 16-34
Callejon del Correo
Santa Marta,
Phone: + 57 – 5 – 423 27 25

Santa Marta was only one of many beautiful places I’ve visited in Colombia. To read about the others, go to the main post and take your pick!

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26 Replies to “SANTA MARTA – Spectacularly Unspectacular”

  1. Santa Marta looks like Fun! I haven't been to Colombia and have never heard of this place. But the food and beach looks very inviting!

  2. I have been to Santa Marta, and it is indeed the only place where I did nothing besides strolling on the streets, chatting with locals and eating loads of food, I mean A LOT. Santa Marta was such a relief after Cartagena where every 2 minutes someone will try to sell you some tour or something or just good ol' catcalling.

  3. Never been to Colombia. That lady pushing a cart of coffee is so unique! You won't have to struggle looking for you morning fix, if you can spot them in the road. Good thing they have health conscious snacks too. Travel and still stay fit 🙂

  4. Looks like a unique place to spend some time and really get to know. And the food looks fantastic!!!

  5. The food photos look so delicious and really healthy. I love how colorful it is everywhere and it sounds like you were able to pack a lot into your trip. Great job exploring, looks like a wonderful travel

  6. This is a detailed blog about Santa Marta. I hope I can visit it someday and use your travel guide in exploring it!

  7. love the food and street pics. The place sounds exotic and your blog post does complete justice to it.

  8. Colombia has been at the top of our bucket list ever since our last trip to South America, we didn't make it there. But I didn't know about Santa Marta. Looks like our kind of place to explore, so will be sure to include it in our itinerary!

  9. I love places where I can be all by myself. Santa Marta seems like my kind of place. The streets and food look inviting.

  10. What a incredible place. I want to just make a trip here now. Love the graffiti walls and the colourful lanes of Santa Marta.

  11. Santa Marta looks like a quirky place to witness different culture and beautiful beaches. I loved the wall art and how colorful bars and cafes exteriors are with all those advertisements. I am adding this place to my list when I visit Colombia.

  12. Are the snacks from the beach made of coconut meat? Looks familiar! And oh I love small town like this. I always had the best travel moments in non-touristy small town. If you want to learn about the culture, nothing beats small charming villages.

  13. I visited Santa Marta back in 2013 – was there for less than a day before I decided to move on to Cartagena. There was just something about the place I didn't get. Which is weird, as so many people (both tourists and locals) had raved about it to me! Perhaps if I go back I'll use your guide as a base and maybe enjoy the town a little more?

  14. I absolutely loved this post as it brought me back to my trip to Santa Marta, Barranquilla, and Minca a few years back. I still here the guy working on the bus screaming "SANTA MARTA, SANTA MARTA". What a place to be 🙂

  15. Seems like a really local place not totally rundown by tourists. And definitely agree with that quote about just being in a place. I think traveling without rushing from site to site with a mindful attitude makes a trip perfect.

  16. I love how honest your post is! Sometimes not so exciting experiences are as important as the amazing ones! That is also why travel bloggers are so important! 🙂

  17. Being at a place and feeling it rather than crazy exploring sometimes makes me feel like am wasting my time but I still love doing it. After reading this post I won't feel guilty anymore, thanks for sharing. Have heard so much about Santa Marta and love how different it looks from the places I have been to.

  18. I have never been to Colombia but Santa Marta looks quite warming and welcoming. Always love the places not so crowded with people. This place to feel.

  19. I want so badly to visit Colombia – I have friends that go every year to medellin. They tell me that most tourist min. Stay is months at a time. Because it just so easy in Colombia. The food looks amazing. What a beautiful trip I must say.

  20. This looks like alot of fun 🙂 I have been searching for more on Colombiaaaa so this great.

  21. Lovely guide! Santa Marta looks pretty cool to visit plus the food I'd love to eat that delicious breakfast of yours. I'll probably visit that particular restaurant Lulo for sure.

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