SANTA MARTA – Spectacularly Unspectacular

I chose Santa Marta for its proximity to Parque Tayrona and because it’s on the coast and I wanted to spend a couple of days on the beach. The beaches were disappointing – Colombian beaches…we’ll get to that later – but the city itself endeared me.

There are destinations in this world where I immediately think “I have to tell my friend Margarete about this place, she would love it here!” It’s always places I like a lot, too. Places with a good 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.

Every morning the coffee lady is pushing her cart along calle 19. 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 . 

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 corn bread 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 they can afford. This is exactly what I saw in Salento: the entire range of services and goods was adapted to tourism. I don’t know where local people do their grocery shopping – probably at Armenia 16 miles away because at the supermarket in Salento were only tourists and the range of merchandise was correspondingly low. While in other places people were super-friendly and curious and greeted us “bienvenidas en Colombia”, in Salento 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 charme.

Carrera 3 by day…
…and by night.

And at this point we’re back in Santa Marta where there is one street, carrera 3, with stylish restaurants and bars designed mainly for tourists and trendy local crowds from the University nearby. Since the rest of the city is pure, standard Colombian, the fancy places on #3 are even enjoyable.

First the healthy part…
….followed by the yummy part of breakfast served at “lulo”.

Since Santa Marta is an average Colombian city, there is also average Colombian poverty which for Europeans is 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 from a young woman with a little daughter and a baby in tow this morning.
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.

What’s very moving is 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 the lady could give her daughter something to drink. This solidarity is touching; and somehow shaming.

No Colombian city would be complete without street art. Here is a painted overview of restaurants, clubs, and bars in the neighborhood. 
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 the street art. 

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 that is a bit lame, but according to his basecap and the writing on the boombox the kid is a huge Arcángel fan, so what the heck.

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 don’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, how 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 when the Muerte-song was over and the gratuities collected, the kids left, and by incident we left at the same time. They walked in front of us, the beat booming from the box, we followed behind, it was a little like a very, very short love parade.
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 to the homeless and gave him some of the money he just made. Just like that.
How many kids do you know that would do something like that?
This is Colombia! This is Santa Marta!

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.

From a distance Taganga doesn’t look as bad as it actually is. The fumes from the motor boats alone are horrific.

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 (Parque Tayrona, Palomino, and Rodadero) to dreadful. Here is 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.

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

Did I inspire you? Planning on going to Colombia?
Get detailed information on the most interesting destinations that I’ve travelled bye:myself.

Santa Marta is a spectacularly unspectacular place, perfect to those who don’t suffer from FOMO but are very well able to observe and enjoy the small things of truly Colombian life.

Good morning, Santa Marta! The coffee lady is pushing her cart on Calle 19; who needs Starbucks, anyways?!

In Colombia, people were incredibly nice everywhere. But in a small town like Santa Marta, you can take a closer look – and as you take this close look, you spot all these invisible threads that are connecting these people and hold them together – and that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Getting from Cartagena to Barranquilla, Santa Marta, and Parque Tayrona by the marsol bus company is a very good option because it’s a convenient door to door service.
As I already stated in the Cartagena-chapter, it is not worth it to walk all the way to the marsol station to save one or two bucks. Just get them downtown at one of the travel agents.

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.

The beach of Rodadero….
….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.

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.

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

Staying at Santa Marta

The other day at a party, I overheard a girl saying: “You know, when travelling, I also enjoy just being at a place”.

I’ve found that quite eye-opening: Just being. No racing through cute alleys full of historic buildings, no waiting in line at museums, no pushing on boats and squeezing in vans – just being at a place.

And being is what you can do all day long in places like Santa Marta; in places with a good 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.

Two locals vs. one traveller – desirable ratio.

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.

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.

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!

Carrera 3 by day…
…and by night.

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

Making advertisements for the local bars and restaurants into street art….
…and transforming the next corner into an open-air gallery.

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.

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

The restaurant and bar scene around the Parque de los Novios is less trendy than those along Carrera 3 – however, very pleasant.

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 where 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 do understand why.

Best place to eat:

First the healthy part…

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

Like 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 personable one – due to the service and since it’s not pretentious at all. 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. In comparison to traditional Colombian restaurants, they are not exactly cheap, but you actually get what you pay for: Good food.

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

Do you want to read about all the other beautiful places I’ve visited in Colombia? 
Then go to the main post and take your pick!

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