Santa Marta is a colourful colonial town and travel hub situated in the north of Colombia.
Santa Marta was actually the first Spanish settlement in the whole of Colombia. The Spanish influence is still clearly evident through its spectacular architecture and cobblestone streets. Just a little bit brighter now, and mixed up with both Caribbean and Colombian aesthetics.
Santa Marta is also a great combination of both city and beach. There’s also plenty of sunshine to make both more enjoyable!
You can base yourself in Santa Marta for a beach vacation or simply use it as a travel gateway to other places in the north — Tayrona National Park, Minca, Palomino and the Lost City Trek.
If you’re visiting Santa Marta soon, you’ve come to the right place. Read on for our best advice on safety in the city, where to stay, best things to do, and how to travel onward to other destinations.
Is Santa Marta worth visiting?
We’ll get straight to the point and say that there are much better places in Colombia to spend your time than Santa Marta.
If you’re looking for a colonial city that’s close to the beach, then visiting Cartagena is a better option.
Santa Marta can be nice to stay for one night if you’re using it as a jumping-off place for other spots on the north coast. This way you can still get a feel for the city, without spending too much time there.
Is Santa Marta safe?
Santa Marta isn’t the safest of cities. Some people don’t get the best of vibes walking around. It’s a bit rough around the edges, especially once you venture further from the main street in the city centre.
However, as long as you exercise common sense, and don’t walk around at night by yourself, you should be fine. This is the same for a lot of cities in Colombia.
Where to stay in Santa Marta
Santa Marta is a reasonably big city with a number of neighbourhoods.
Choosing the right place to stay in Santa Marta can be a pretty important decision, as it’s not the safest of cities.
Our recommended places to stay are amongst the nicest, safest and most popular for tourists.
Here are our top 3 recommendations of where to stay in Santa Marta:
Location #1: Old Town — the best place to stay
Best for: everything. Santa Marta’s Old Town, essentially the centre of the city, is the best place to stay. Here, you’ll be staying within the clean and colourful colonial streets full of life.
Who is it for: those looking for a safe area. The Old Town is one of the safer areas in Santa Marta as it’s often busy and it’s most tourists tend to stay.
Don’t miss: the best restaurants, cafes and bars. You won’t have to walk far to get home after a delicious and filling meal. And it’s still super close to the beach!
Accommodation in the Old Town
The Old Town is one of the most popular places in Santa Marta for tourists to stay. This means that there are plenty of accommodation options to choose from — hotels, Airbnbs, homestays and hostels.
Akuamarina Hotel is an amazing budget option in the centre of Santa Marta. If you’re looking for something a little more luxurious, then head over to Casa de Leda.
Private rooms can start as low as $15 per night in the Old Town.
Location #2: El Rodadero — perfect for beach-goers
Best for: the beach with a splash of city life. With its taller buildings, El Rodadero definitely has a more urban and commercial feel than the Old Town. Plus, it’s a much more residential area.
Who is it for: if you want some time on the beach. El Rodadero has one of the best urban beaches in Santa Marta.
Don’t miss: El Rodadero has a lot to offer. It has plenty of restaurants — particularly seafood — cafes, shops, bars and a lively nightlife.
Biggest downside: you’re not in the centre of Santa Marta, but it’s only 10 minutes away, so you won’t be missing out.
Accommodation in El Rodadero
You’ll find slightly bigger hotels here in El Rodadero and some names that you’d recognise. There are definitely more resort vibes, due to the beach, compared to the boutique-style hotels in the Old Town.
Prices are slightly more expensive here, with private rooms starting at around $25 per night.
Location #3: Bello Horizonte — close to the airport and the beach
Best for: access to the airport — Bello Horizonte is only a 13-minute drive away.
Who is it for: those looking for some quiet. Bello Horizonte is more of a residential area. Home to upper middle class Colombians, it’s a lot quieter than the other two areas.
Don’t miss: the beach in Bello Horizonte. It’s ideal for a peaceful beach day.
Biggest downside: there isn’t a lot going on in this area.
Accommodation in Bello Horizonte
The places to stay in Bello Horizonte have a more upscale vibe about them. This is where you’ll find your luxury hotels and apartments for rent.
We can highly recommend Casa Verano, an adults-only hotel set right on the beach.
As it’s the most exclusive area of the three places to stay, the prices are also the highest. Private rooms start from around $30 per night.
Best restaurants in Santa Marta
Santa Marta has a lot of international tourists passing through, whose global tastes it tries to satisfy. For this reason, you can find dishes from all across the world.
Don’t worry, there are still plenty of Caribbean and Colombian-influenced places to eat too.
The standard of food in Santa Marta is also pretty high. You can find some really delicious dishes that will leave you wowed!
To help you get that wow moment, here are our 3 favourite places to eat in Santa Marta:
Via Roma — delicious pizza right on the seafront
Situated only metres from the seafront, Via Roma is a great location to sit back, people watch and enjoy the sunset over the beach. Couple this with delicious pizza, what more could you ask for?
With 29 pizza flavours on offer, including a nutella pizza, there is something for everyone. The staff are incredibly friendly and make the experience even better. An amazing spot in Santa Marta!
Agua de Rio Cafe Bistro — locally sourced, high-quality food
Just a quick glance at Agua de Rio’s menu, and you’ll want to eat there. They offer a wide range of tasty food from pancakes, ceviche, tostadas, sandwiches to pasta and fresh fish.
Their entire ethos is based around using local ingredients, showing what the area has to offer as well as showcasing the culture and traditions. Agua de Rio boasts a relaxing and beautifully decorated interior that can be a welcomed escape from Santa Marta’s scorching heat.
Ouzo — a popular and tasty Mediterranean restaurant
Ouzo is probably Santa Marta’s most popular restaurant, so we couldn’t leave it off this list. It’s famous for its delicious Mediterranean flavours despite being thousands of miles away from the destinations where its plates are from.
At Ouzo, you can get a taste of Greece, Spain, Italy and more. Every plate is beautifully presented and bursting with flavour. To guarantee a seat at this restaurant, we’d recommend making a reservation.
How to get around Santa Marta
Getting around Santa Marta is a pretty easy task. Your own two feet will get you pretty far. They also have a cheap, useful and pretty easy to navigate bus network.
Here’s how to get around Santa Marta:
Most of the places worth exploring in Santa Marta are situated near the city centre or the beach. All of this is within close walking distance to each other.
Therefore, one of your best forms of transport is your own two feet. Plus, some of the streets around the centre are pedestrianised, so walking is your only option.
The blue buses that run to and around Santa Marta can be a great way to get where you need to go.
There are 15 bus lines in Santa Marta, so at least one should cover where you want to go. The website Moovit has some information about the bus lines and can help you get to your destination.
The bus is also a super affordable way to get around.
The bus to and from Santa Marta Airport
Santa Marta Airport is situated 30 minutes outside of the city centre.
Whilst you can get a taxi for 30,000 COP ($6), the bus is a cheaper option, especially if you’re by yourself.
The blue bus picks you up from right outside the arrivals terminal and goes directly to the centre of Santa Marta. Tickets cost 2,000 COP ($0.40) each way.
Hidden amongst the jungle within the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is the Lost City.
Built by the Tairona people more than 1,000 years ago, the site is one of the most popular in Colombia. However, the only way to get there is to walk!
This walk, covering 28 miles, is called the Lost City Trek. The trek can take 4, 5, or 6 days depending on what pace you’d like to take.
Whichever you choose, the journey takes you through a diversity of flora and fauna, where you get to see how the local Indigenous communities live.
The trek is guaranteed to be an experience that you’ll never forget!
#5 Learn to dive in Taganga
Only 15 minutes from Santa Marta, the change in vibe couldn’t be more noticeable.
Whilst Santa Marta is a busy and colourful city, Taganga is a fishing village/a rustic beach town. The streets and the locals exude relaxed and carefree energy.
Aside from being an ideal place to escape the busyness of the rest of Colombia, Taganga is also a popular spot for diving.
Diving in Taganga
Due to its close proximity to Tayrona National Park, Taganga is quickly becoming well-known in the diving community.
Tayrona offers a magical underwater world that’s just as amazing as its famous paradise beaches and hikes. You’ll be treated to large reefs, colourful corals, a hypnotising variety of marine life, shipwrecks and caves. All of this makes diving from Taganga very exciting.
How to go diving in Taganga
There are over 20 diving spots, so you won’t run out quickly! You also won’t struggle to find a dive shop as there are plenty in Taganga.
To give you an idea, fun dives start from around $30. You can complete a 3-day open water course to gain your PADI qualification for around $325. This is a very good price for this course compared to rates worldwide.
Now that you’ve finished reading this guide, you’re almost ready for your adventure in Santa Marta. The next step is to create your personalised itinerary with our top picks of things to do in Santa Marta. Simply choose your favourite activities and places to visit, and you’re all set to make lasting memories in Santa Marta.
Our favourite places to stay in Santa Marta
Santa Marta is a great jumping-off point to many locations along the coast – Tayrona National Park, Palomino, Minca.
Here you’ll find budget-friendly options, as well as lots of luxury hotels that most of us can only dream about.
PRO:TIP: Santa Marta doesn’t showcase the best of what Colombia has to offer. We’d recommend staying for only 1 night on your way to your next destination.
Check out our recommendations located in the best areas of Santa Marta:
Casa Verano Beach Hotel – Treating Yourself
You can’t get much closer to the beach than at Casa Verano Beach Hotel. 10 steps and your feet will be covered by the golden sand. Here you can switch between the sea and the outdoor swimming pool surrounded by palm trees.
The rooms continue with the oasis feel. They’re the perfect place to retreat to at the end of the day. The staff will also help you to have the most peaceful and memorable stay possible.
Kate is a writer, (ex)Management Consultant and avid traveller. She recently returned from a 2-year career break exploring the world and decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She’ll soon be testing life as a digital nomad. She’s visited over 40 countries and fell in love with Latin America in particular. Her travelling has inspired a passion for yoga, salsa, hiking and Spanish.
Aleksandra is a writer and editor who recently moved from Hong Kong to London. She’s worked and studied in four countries (and counting) and picked up a new hobby in each of them. She’s a big fan of long train journeys so you can count on her to take the scenic route, finding a few hidden gems along the way.