Santa Marta is not the most popular city in Colombia amongst tourists, but it certainly has much to offer. It is essentially a large port city with not-so-impressive beaches. That being said, Santa Marta is perfectly located to give you easy access to incredible experiences.
You can hop over to Taganga, Minca, Tayrona National Park, and other nearby attractions from Santa Marta. The location actually makes it the perfect city to establish a temporary home base while you explore the whole coast. And beyond that, you can still find some pretty cool things to do in Santa Marta.
After spending seven weeks in Santa Marta, I learned a lot about the area and its attractions. I am here to share with you some of the best things to do in Santa Marta, Colombia.
Make sure to also read my post 29 Best Places To Visit In Colombia.
Best Things To Do In Santa Marta, Colombia
Explore the Historic Center
The Historic Center of Santa Marta is where all the action happens. You will find dozens of bars, cafes, old churches, parks, bars, and restaurants surrounding the historic center.
Santa Marta is known as the oldest surviving Spanish settlement in Colombia. So it should be no surprise that you’ll find streets lined with old, Spanish colonial-influenced architecture. The colorful buildings and flag-lined streets make it a beautiful area for a stroll.
The Simon Bolivar Park is the focal point of the Historic Center. And while there isn’t much to do in the park itself, you can easily navigate almost anywhere from this park.
The Historic Center is just a block back from the main pier and beaches in town. There is a good blend of foreign-targeted businesses (such as vegan restaurants, high-end cafes, and coworking spaces) and local markets. This mixture between foreign interests and local living makes the Historic Center a great place to experience real Colombian living while enjoying some of your preferred amenities and conveniences.
For a walking tour of Santa Marta Historic Center, click here.
Visit the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino
Simon Bolivar, nicknamed El Libertador (The Liberator) across Latin America, is celebrated for helping Latin America earn independence from Spain. He is an important figure across all of South America for his remarkable accomplishments and actions to “liberate” the south from Spain.
To learn more about Simon Bolivar, one of the best things to do in Santa Marta is visiting the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino (San Pedro Alejandrino Mansion), famous for being the his death place. The mansion is kept in beautiful condition and has much to see and learn about throughout the grounds. It is close to the Historic Center, so you can easily get there by walking or by city taxi.
You can spend two to three hours there, either on your own or with a tour guide, to learn a little more about the rich history of Simon Bolivar and the mansion he spent his last days in.
For a guided tour that also goes to the Quinta de San Pedro, click here.
Check out Parque De Los Novios
Parque De Los Novios is a large, square park in Santa Marta’s center. Restaurants, cafes, and bars line the square. The inside of the park is well-maintained and often filled with craft stalls and other Colombian sellers.
You can’t spend a ton of time in the park, as it is relatively small, but it’s a great place to walk through on your way out to lunch or to one of the nearby bars.
Go on a sailing trip
With its large pier and easy access to the Caribbean ocean, it goes without saying that one of the unmissable things to do in Santa Marta is to join a high-end sailing or yacht excursion.
The main pier is right in the center of Santa Marta, located at the end of the Malecon. The pier is where most sailboats or yachts are docked, where the diving boats depart, and where you can find paddleboard or kayak rentals.
The environment surrounding Santa Marta is all lush rainforests, rolling hills, and breathtaking views. A sailing excursion is a perfect way to take in this region’s beauty while relaxing on the water.
You can check out this eight-hour sailboat experience. It includes lunch, snacks, snorkeling equipment, passenger insurance, and the chance to rent kayaks or paddleboards and has a lot of positive customer reviews.
Visit some of the nearby beaches
The Historic Center of Santa Marta is not well-known for its beaches (although you will find Colombian families and children playing in the waves on the beach there). But the good thing is, there are tons of beautiful beaches nearby – and hanging out at the beach certainly is one of the most popular things to do in Santa Marta, for tourists and locals alike.
Rodadero is a community in Santa Marta, located about 10 km (6 miles) from the Historic Center. The main beach there is packed full of tourists and locals. It is said that the Rodadero beach is much cleaner than Santa Marta.
You can get there by taxi (15,000 COP or $3 USD) or public bus (about 3,000 COP or $1 USD). From Rodadero, you can also take a short boat ride to several other hidden beaches, like Playa Blanca.
You should also read my post 19 Best Beaches In Colombia.
Go on a day trip to Taganga
If you want an easy-to-access beach from Santa Marta, you can’t miss Playa Grande in Taganga. There are several beaches in Taganga, but Playa Grande is one of the best.
Taganga is known as a little “backpackers paradise” in Colombia and does not disappoint. However, there is a lot to do in Taganga besides hiking to Playa Grande. You can watch some South American football at one of the local beach bars, eat fresh seafood caught that day, or just walk up and down the main strip.
Head over to my post A Useful Guide To Taganga, Colombia.
Adventure in Tayrona National Park
Tayrona National Park is home to some of the most beautiful, white-sand beaches you’ll find in Colombia. It is an easy day trip or weekend trip from Santa Marta.
You can take a 45-minute boat road to the best beaches around. Some popular spots for snorkeling and sunbathing include the following:
Cabo San Juan Beach
Bahia Concha Beach
Tayrona National Park has four main entrances, with so much to offer for each. Just be sure to bring some money for the Tayrona entrance fee.
You can check out this guide for more information about different activities in Tayrona National Park if you want to spend a weekend there.
You can book your day trip to Tayrona National Park from Santa Marta here.
Diving from Santa Marta
Divers flock to Santa Marta and nearby towns for the incredible diving experience – it goes without saying that one of the most popular things to do in Santa Marta is diving! If you’re into diving, then make sure to get at least one full day in the waters around Santa Marta because the reef is full of life and beauty.
We went on two dives in Santa Marta. All dive boats take you off the coast of Tayrona National Park, where you’ll see some stunning brain coral, a thriving wildlife community, and exciting swim-throughs.
While many people go to Taganga for that, booking a dive trip from the center of Santa Marta is easy and affordable. We booked our dive with Aquasport Al Limited Dive Center at the pier. It cost 260,000 COP ($55 USD) for two dives.
Learn from the museums
Santa Marta has several museums beyond Quinta de San Pedro. Museo del Oro Tayrona (The Museum Of Gold) is in the Historic Center, near Simon Bolivar Park. This is a small museum, but you can spend one to two hours walking through and learning more about Colombian history and the indigenous people of Tayrona.
If you are interested in the “Father Of Colombia,” Simon Bolivar, you can find more interesting details of his life at the Bolivariano Museum of Contemporary Art. This museum is less of an art museum and more of a small, modern museum centered around Simon Bolivar.
Spend a weekend in Minca
Minca is a small, local village located 21 km (13 miles) from Santa Marta. It is known for its beautiful waterfalls, low-key vibe, and friendly local people.
Pozo Azul is the most famous waterfall in Minca and can be accessed from the center of Minca with no problems. All you have to do is hike up the road from town, take a short moto-taxi ride to the entrance, and enjoy a short walk through the jungle to the waterfall. Marinka Waterfalls, Cascada Escondida, and Oido del Mundo are other popular waterfalls near Minca.
Minca is only a 45-minute bus ride from Santa Marta and incredibly easy to get to. You can get on the bus from the Public Market in Santa Marta (the same place you would find the buses to Tayrona National Park). The buses to Minca leave once full and should only take 45 minutes to one hour.
You can also take a guided tour of Minca, which would include visiting all major attractions in the area.
This 8.5-hour long tour leaves Santa Marta, takes you to Minca to explore some waterfalls and includes a visit to a coffee farm and the Cocoa museum.
Another option is this tour that goes to Marinka Waterfalls – the tour lasts 8 hours but keep in mind it only runs in Spanish.
Go on La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) Trek
If you have a few more days to spend in the state of Magdalena and love multi-day adventures, you must check out La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City). This four- or five-day trek takes you through the most stunning scenery to visit the history-rich Ciudad Perdida. It is an excellent way to experience the environment and learn so much information about the indigenous people and Colombia’s history.
Most of the tours to La Ciudad Perdida leave from Santa Marta, so it is the perfect excursion if you have a few extra days in the region. Your hostel, hotel, or Lost City tour agency can watch your main bags for you while you are on your adventure.
For a Lost City Trek that departs from Santa Marta, click here.
Head over to my post A Guide To The Ciudad Perdida Trek: 18 Best Things To Know.
Watch the sunset on the Malecon
The Malecon is a boardwalk that runs from the Santa Marta pier in the South to the shipping yard in the North. It is only about a one-mile stretch but the perfect place to enjoy a beautiful sunset out over the water.
On the Malecon, you’ll find locals selling drinks, sweets, and other snacks. The Malecon has a brand-new workout park, a relatively large skatepark, little stalls that sell local food and fish, and even special events and concerts during holidays or weekends.
Enjoy sunset from a rooftop
Many hostels in the historic center of Santa Marta have rooftop bars, dance floors, and seating areas. If the Malecon is too crowded or chaotic for you, you can escape to a nearby rooftop to enjoy the sunset. Our favorite place for sunset was La Brisa Loca Hostel, which also happened to have an attached Coworking office we loved to visit for our productive days.
Let loose with the lively nightlife
Santa Marta has some great nightlife, with a little bit of everything for everyone and it goes without saying that one of the best things to do in Santa Marta is spend an evening out.
There are tourist-centered bars, loud rave-like clubs, and more chill areas to enjoy a few drinks. The main street for nightlife is in the center of Santa Marta, off Simon Bolivar park. The road is lined with various bars, clubs, restaurants, and cafes.
In addition, most hostels in Santa Marta have bars with fun events, dance floors, and other activities for guests.
Go on a coffee plantation tour
Colombia is famous for coffee, and while the Caribbean coast doesn’t house as many coffee plantations as inland, you can still find some fantastic tours. Most tours leave Santa Marta and take you to a coffee plantation near Minca.
Many tours include other activities, like a dip in one of the fresh Minca waterfalls and time spent at the coffee plantation. A coffee plantation tour in Magdalena is the perfect choice for anyone who doesn’t have much time in the region and wants to make the most of it.
If you’re short on time, you can look into this full-day Minca tour that leaves Santa Marta. It includes a tour of a nearby coffee farm, a bath in the river, a gourmet lunch, and a tour of the Cocoa museum.
Now that you know about the best things to do in Santa Marta, let’s see how you can plan a trip there. Let me start by answering a common question!
Is Santa Marta safe?
Santa Marta has a reputation for being a little more “rough” or “raw” than other Colombian towns. That being said, we never had any problems at all. People were incredibly nice, helpful, and eager to talk with us and share tips. We frequently walked around with our phones and laptops (although mostly hidden away) without concern.
However, you should always take the usual precautions while traveling anywhere in Colombia or South America. Follow these simple steps, and you should have no major problems:
- Don’t flash your phone around
- Don’t wear expensive jewelry to draw attention to you
- Keep your wallet hidden away in a safe space
- Don’t carry too much cash at one time
- Trust your gut; if you feel uncertain, then move to a safer space
- Avoid walking around alone at night
- Don’t leave things unattended at the beach
Just be aware of your surroundings and enjoy beautiful Colombia!
Where to stay in Santa Marta
There are two main areas to stay in Santa Marta; Santa Marta Historic Center and Rodadero.
Rodadero is a little community located near Simon Bolivar International Airport. Historically, it has a reputation for being safer for tourists. However, the streets have become lined with incredibly loud bars, and the pavement is crowded with locals selling obscure goods or services.
It was too overwhelming for us, so we chose to stay in Santa Marta Historic Center. The best options are near Simon Bolivar Park and the Malecon. That way, you can easily walk to anything you may need.
The following are some good options in Santa Marta Centro Historico:
Grand Marina Suites Santa Marta
If you prefer to stay in a self-catering apartment, this is an excellent options. Apartments are modern, clean, equipped with everything you may possibly need for a comfortable stay. Some even have ocean views.
Casa Rosa Hotel Boutique
This small hotel has plain rooms decorated in a traditional, a bit retro style. They are spacious and have all the comforts you may need. A delicious breakfast is included in the price of your stay.
If you are traveling on a budget you have the option of staying in this nice hostel which has a selection of good private rooms and dorms. Breakfast is included in the price of your stay.
How to get to Santa Marta
Santa Marta is 225 km (140 miles) from Cartagena. You can take a 45-minute direct flight or a 4-6 hour bus/car ride.
The bus ride to Santa Marta takes anywhere between four to six hours. It stops in Barranquilla and a few smaller cities on the way to Santa Marta. Buses leave for Santa Marta often, starting from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm. A bus ticket should cost between 50,000 COP and 60,000 COP ($10 to $13 USD).
Barranquilla to Santa Marta is another easy bus trip of 105 km (65 miles). You can take a local bus from Barranquilla to Santa Marta in about three hours or a 30-minute flight.
One main highway connects the two cities, so it is a popular and easily accessible route for bus and taxi travel. A bus between the two towns should cost anywhere from 18,000 COP ($4 USD) to 50,000 COP ($10 USD)
Bogota to Santa Marta is roughly 950 km (590 miles) and would take 20+ hours by bus or an hour and a half by plane.
Many travelers take a bus from Bogota to Santa Marta to save money or for the adventure, but the flight is effortless and cheap. If you decide to take a bus, just be prepared for almost a day on the road, with sometimes simply bad driving.
Medellin to Santa Marta is roughly 825 km (500 miles) and would take 16+ hours by bus or an hour and a half by plane.
There is a rather extensive mountain range between Medellin and Santa Marta, which sometimes makes the bus journey a little rough. If you can afford it, a flight between Medellin and Santa Marta is strongly recommended.
If you are planning a trip to Colombia, these other posts will be useful:
- 19 Unmissable Things To Do In Bogota
- 7 Great Day Trips From Bogota
- A Complete Guide To Where To Stay In Bogota
- 15 Useful Things To Know Before Visiting Cartagena
- 22 Incredible Things To Do In Cartagena
- The Best Day Trips From Cartagena
- Where To Stay In Cartagena: The Best Neighborhoods And Places To Stay
- An Excellent Guide To San Gil, Colombia
- A Concise Guide To Salento, Colombia
- A Complete Guide To Hiking Valle De Cocora, Colombia
- 12 Best Things To Do In Medellín, Colombia
- 8 Best Things To Do In Guatape Colombia
- A Concise Guide To Villa De Leyva, Colombia