The Best Day Trips From Santa Marta, Colombia
The Best Day Trips from Santa Marta, Colombia
Can you see yourself roaming rainforest depths, searching out remnants of ancient civilisations? Do you ever imagine hanging over the tops of the trees, below which nestles the wild undergrowth of the Colombian Amazon? Would you hike up sanded hills, brushing through shrouds of palm leaves to emerge onto a deserted Caribbean beach that stretches undisturbed for miles? Would you ever race down a jungle river in a rubber tube, or party til dawn around a Caribbean campfire? Explore deserts, explore mountains, explore forests and beaches and tiny towns- all within reach from the city of Santa Marta, Colombia.
The north eastern coast of Colombia is home to many treasures. Santa Marta itself is a historic city, with plenty to see and do, but it is also a major transport hub, from which you can take cheap, local buses to the below destinations.
Tayrona National Park
We were warned against going to Tayrona. We were told it was difficult to get to, that the hiking was strenuous, and that even the slightest rain would leave us knee deep in mud. We were nervous of even trying, and weren’t sure whether to give up on the park entirely. Would it be worth paying the entry, attempting the journey, attempting the hike, only to be left muddied and disappointed?
Thankfully, everything we had been told about Tayrona was utterly untrue. It ended up being one of my favourite places in all of Colombia.
I’d recommend that you wake up early to hail the local bus out to Tayrona. Buses leave every half an hour, from the corner of Calle 11 & Carerra 11. We just asked a local and managed to hail down the same bus just a block away from our hostel, so it is worth asking around to see if you can grab a spot along the road. Despite leaving early in the morning, there were no seats available. We sat on the floor, ate some fruit, and chatted to some locals. The journey only takes an hour, and the bus driver will indicate when you need to get off for the entrance to Tayrona. The bus costs around $2.
There were no queues when we approached, though apparently later in the day these can get lengthy. You’ll need to buy an entrance tick to the park, which aren’t cheap. These will set you back around $16.50. While that might seem exorbitant to the tightly-budgeted backpackers amongst us, I thought the ticket was worth the price I initially balked at. From here you can walk to the main park entrance, or take the $1 shuttle, which we opted to do.
Setting out into the sweaty seclusion of the trail, overshadowed by enormous palm leaves that fill the air above you, we were instantly in love. Though others report of large crowds during high season, we hardly saw any passers-by. With the trail mostly to ourselves, my friend and I strolled slowly, enjoyed the thick forest air, and adjusted to the heat. Despite having been in the Colombian Caribbean for weeks at that point, the heat in Tayrona was still a challenge. The hiking itself wasn’t super strenuous, with the exception of a few sets of steps, but we were walking around half dressed by the end, to combat the severity of the sweatiness.
As I say, it isn’t the most difficult hike you’ll take in South America. It isn’t necessarily super easy, and if you aren’t used to hiking it might be tricky, and it is important to bring water. There are locals selling coconuts along the route to drink from if you’re dehydrated along the route. I did most of the hike barefoot, so I would say that there’s no need to wear heavy hiking boots, these will probably just keep you hotter.
Once you’ve set out into the park, the winding wooden path will slowly shift to rough-hewn rock and sandy trails, all guiding you towards the Caribbean sea. After working our way up a steep set of stairs, the view that emerges from the tree line at the top was everything we had hoped from Parque Tayrona.
Glimpses of the golden beaches dip in and out of view, barred by flourishes lining the top of the thick, green treeline. Perched on the rocky path, we could choose to head down to the first beach on the route or to carry on down the trail. This first beach is where many choose to stop, and if you’re more interested in the beach than you are in the hike then this is a great option. It is, however, significantly busier than any other beach in the park. There are spots to get food and drinks here and relax after the start of the hike, should you not wish to continue.
We carried on, and found ourselves totally alone. There were many times en route, through thickets of thick plants and failed efforts to communicate in Spanish with the indigenous communities that inhabit Tayrona (who don’t speak Spanish), that we were curious as to whether we were actually totally lost. We never strayed from the main path marked on the map given to us at the entrance, but the park was so deserted we thought something must have gone awry. Having the jungle paths to ourselves, unimpeded views over the sandy beaches and the thrashing waves, and no signs of the crowds that we had been warned about, our journey through the park seemed too good to believe.
You’ll pass around 6-7 beaches on the standard day hike through the park. These beaches are very unsafe for swimming as the waters are very rough, and the hundreds that have ignored these rules haven’t lived to talk about it. Don’t go swimming, there are plenty of other beaches in the Colombian Caribbean that are ideal for a dip.
If we had had more time available to us in Santa Marta we would have stayed overnight in Parque Tayrona. There are many options available, ranging from the stringy hammock to the almost glamorous. The most well known amongst the backpacker crowd is Cabo San Juan, where you can get a hammock for the night for $12. Wild camping isn’t permitted.
There is a restaurant along the main route through the park, as well as a panadería, and many locals selling coconuts and bottles of water.
A trip to Minca is synonymous with a trip to Casa Elemento. A hostel popular with the many backpackers travelling around South America, the spot is famous for their hammocks, dangling high over the tops of the trees that make up Colombia’s dense forest. Work your way up the muddy hill, a trying task as the slippery slope does all it can to push you back down, to reach this iconic spot.
There’s nothing like the sounds of the jungle. As the sun falls and the forest night comes to life, watch from the skies and listen to the changing bird calls, the raucous insects, monkeys screaming and the rustle from the world below.
If you’re interested in spending a decent amount of time deeper in the Colombian, Brazilian or Peruvian rainforest, you can read about my Amazonian adventures here.
A stark line of contrast is drawn along the Palomino beach front. The white wisps of Caribbean sand are scored by the blackened line of the tide. Quiet and curious compared to her fellows, Palomino’s seafront continues to increase in local and foreign popularity. Its proximity to Santa Marta, and the more popular beaches in Taganga and Tayrona, make it an easy stopping point for those touring Colombia’s Caribbean coastline. The small town that houses the beach has a laid back vibe, home to many travellers seeking respite from the tourist crowds, and its increasing popularity has brought a new wave of cool restaurants and bars.
A popular day out in Palomino involves bobbing along in a plastic ring, traversing the Palomino river. Tubing surrounded by lush forests of the Sierra Nevada, the river is shallow and calm, offering an ideal vantage point to lay back and watch the countryside slip by. With an initial hike to the starting point, and a 2 hour trip down the river, the excursion takes around 3 hours overall.
A quick jaunt on a mototaxi out of Palomino will take you to a secluded set of waterfalls, the Quebrada Valencia falls, in amongst the forested hills. Though neither large nor particularly spectacular, the falls offer a place to relax in nature away from the beaches and the tourists. The waterfalls do sometimes dry up, so be sure to check with a local whether they’re worth the excursion.
Buses run every 15 minutes from the centre of Santa Marta to Palomino. If you’re travelling from another part of Colombia, you’ll need to go to Santa Marta first and then catch one of these local buses.
I have heard nothing but incredibly glowing reviews of El Rio Hostel, in the Palomino area. I didn’t stay here due to time restraints, but I was told my many people that I was absolutely crazy to miss it.
Historically, Taganga has been a holiday spot for Colombians and tourists alike, seeking a nightlife hotspot away from the major coastal cities. Once a quiet fishing village nestled between green hills, the quaint bay that leads the town out into the Caribbean expanse drew an unexpected buzz amongst holiday-goers. Though, it seems in recent years that the spot is slipping back into its prior desolation. While there is still a reasonable number of tourists on the beach-front, the earlier waves of tourists brought with them an increase in petty crime, and the sad staples of prostitutes and drug pedallers. The tourist infrastructure remains, however, and the beach is close enough to Santa Marta to make for a good day out. Bring some friends and some bottles of rum and enjoy the seafront.
Regular local buses run from Santa Marta to Taganga and take only 15 minutes. It is also inexpensive to take a taxi, particularly if you can split the costs.
The Lost City Trek
It takes three days of delving into the depths of the rainforest, camping in the wild and traversing rough terrains, to reach the hidden city that was lost to the Colombian jungle for centuries. Due to a lack of money and time, I decided against taking the trek. This was one of my biggest regrets in Colombia, and is at the top of my list of things to do when I return. Check out this guide for all the information you’ll need to take the lost city trek.
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