What to do in Santa Marta, Colombia

What to do in Santa Marta, Colombia

One of the most popular points on the Colombian coast, the historic city of Santa Marta is typically used as a jumping point for visitors looking to see Minca or Tayrona. The city of Santa Marta has something of a harsh reputation; there are no pleasant beaches in the city, crime rates are relatively high, its currently home to a large number of Venezuelan refugees, which is sparking controversy amongst locals hostile to their growing presence. Yet, for those of us with an interest in Latin American history, there is still plenty to see and do in the final refuge of the indomitable liberator Simon Bolivar. There’s also a great party scene to be found here, cheaper than in Cartagena and equally as open and welcoming to travellers. From wallet-friendly pubs, open-air cocktail spots, rooftop bars, to after parties running til the early hours of the morning, Santa Marta is wild at night.

Beyond Santa Marta lie incredible destinations like Tayrona National Park, Minca and the Lost City trek. For a full guide to the best day trips to take from Santa Marta, check out this post.

What is there to do?

Santa Marta Cathedral

The city prides itself upon the Santa Marta cathedral, a large colonial-style structure, similar to many constructed by the Spanish during the conquest of South America. Built in 1513, the historic building housed the body of Bolivar for 30 years, before he was posthumously hailed a hero by the Venezuelan people, as his body was returned to his homeland in Caracas. His heart remains at the cathedral in Santa Marta, honouring the city in which he found refuge and comfort during his final days in exile and ill-health.

Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino

If you have spent any time in Latin America, or you plan to, you should know about Simon Bolivar. El libertador, leader of the Latin people in their revolution against the Spanish crown, sits alongside San Martín as one of the most influential people in American history. Freeing Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Panama from Spanish rule, in part alongside his southern counterpart, Bolivar trudged through waist-deep Amazonian waters for days at a time, united mestizos, mulatos, indigenous peoples and slaves, rode endlessly over trialling mountain trails. Despite this vast liberation, Bolivar was largely condemned in his later years. His plans to create one country, rather than separate states, caused controversy. He was seen as desiring of power, as a president unwilling to relinquish his rule, as a hallmark of an earlier time in Latin politics. He was exiled from his beloved Venezuela, finding himself in the care of a friend in Santa Marta, Colombia, in the last days of his life.

Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, a splendid hacienda just outside the city, was to be the liberator’s final home. His plans to move to Europe were quashed by a bout of severe illness, and he died of tuberculosis, in exile and disgrace, in 1830. The home has become a museum, both an example of a 19th century stately home, and a monument to the achievements of Bolivar.

Rodadaro Beach

Around a 20 minute boat ride away from Santa Marta, you’ll find Rodadaro beach. Very popular amongst locals and tourists alike, the white sands are considered amongst Colombia’s finest. However, as I say, it’s a popular spot. Visit for a day in the scorching Santa Marta heat, but don’t expect the silent seclusion you can anticipate from other spots on his list.

How to get there

Buses to Santa Marta run regularly from major Colombian hubs like Cartagena, Barranquilla or Bogotá. We took the bus from Cartagena very early in the morning, and the journey only took around 5 hours. I’ve seen many bloggers reporting that the journey is uncomfortable and difficult, which is only true if you’re unacquainted with Latin American bus travel. If you are, it is an averagely comfortable journey, perhaps even above average. I’ve been discouraged in the past by bloggers and travel writers exaggerating wildly about the horror of overland travel- unless you’re on a luxury holiday, it’s fine. It’s the cheap option.

It is also possible to fly to Simon Bolivar airport, near to Santa Marta. The journey from the city to the airport takes around 30 minutes in a taxi, and the airport offers very reasonably priced domestic services.

Where to stay

We stayed in the famous Drop Bear Hostel, sister to the one that I worked in in Medellin, and formerly one of Pablo Escobar’s holiday mansions. The facilities are excellent, with a pool on-site and a large amount of common space to mingle and meet people. The bar is inexpensive and buzzing in the evenings, a perfect place to start before experiencing Santa Marta’s emerging nightlife scene. Though a little far from the centre of town, taxis are cheap. We regretted not being able to stay here longer, and I’d strongly recommend it.

While it may lack the romantic lure of Cartagena or the fashionable development of modern Medellín, Santa Marta should still be included in your Colombia itinerary.

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What is there to do in the historic city of Santa Marta, Colombia?
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