Sometimes, when travelling, you end up coming back to the most unexpected places. For me, one of these places was Santa Marta – not because I loved this Colombian city so much but because it is a convenient transport hub and gives access to a lot of tourist attractions in the surrounding area.
At first, we had no idea what to do here. Santa Marta is not a very beautiful city and it doesn’t have many tourist attractions. Sure, there was a beach close to our hotel, but that was about it. But after having come back three times, we had, despite everything, found a couple of things to do. So if you end up in Santa Marta, let me give you some inspiration on what to do in the city itself and in the surrounding area.
#1 Visit Santa Marta’s Museo del Oro
The Gold Museum is the best museum in Santa Marta. We almost didn’t go because of a very nasty case of stomach flu, but I’m very glad we made it. This museum is not just about gold, although you can find lots of golden artefacts here, too.
On the ground floor, you can see a collection of all sorts of items collected from the pre-Columbian cultures that used to live in the area. If you do not hike to the Lost City, you can also see pictures of this large Tayrona city here.
On the upper floor, you can see various exhibitions. The first one is dedicated to Simon Bolivar, the guy who brought independence to Colombia. Next, follow various displays about the history of Santa Marta and, in the last room, a very interesting exhibition about the four indigenous tribes that are considered descendants of the Tayrona people and that live in the area.
#2 Hit the beach
Santa Marta is located on the edge of the Caribbean Sea. The beach in town is not the prettiest I have ever been to. You have a large harbour with container ships on your right, so don’t expect the kind of tropical beach you’d find in a catalogue. But it is still a great beach if you want to relax for a day because it has all the facilities you might need. For a couple of dollars, you can rent beach chairs in the shade. While we relaxed there, vendors came past with everything we could possibly want to buy – drinks, food or even a massage. And when I was craving for mango biche (learn more about Colombian street food here), I only had to walk a couple of meters to find a vendor.
Plus, the city beach is a great spot for people-watching. A young girl showed me a large snail she had caught and I watched many families having fun while cooling down in the sea.
If you don’t just want to spend a single day at the beach or if you prefer a more beautiful beach, you also have the option of going to Rodadero. This neighbourhood is the most touristic area in Santa Marta and is full of restaurants and bars. Plus, it has a beach. I didn’t personally go here since I never had more than half a day at the beach and didn’t want to go that far, but I heard good things about it. If you have been, please let me know how you liked it.
1h – 1d
#3 Go out to Parque de los Novios
Parque de los Novios is the place to go to if you want to have a nice dinner. The park comes alive in the evenings, with street food vendors setting up their stalls and locals gathering in the square. I went to Ouzo, which is a Mediterranean restaurant. It is not the cheapest place to grab food in Santa Marta but it is delicious.
You can find lots more restaurants around the square, depending on what you want to eat. We also had Mexican food here. Or you can grab a snack from the street food vendors, sit down on a bench and watch the locals meet up here.
#4 Visit the Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino
If you have already spent time in Colombia, you might have heard of Simon Bolivar. If not, this is your chance to learn a bit about the man who gained independence for Colombia and many other countries in South America.
Simon Bolivar spent his last days in Santa Marta, where he eventually died from tuberculosis. You can visit the Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino, which is where he used to live and in which you can still see his furniture.
Part of the Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino is a museum with contemporary art. When we visited, only one of the halls was open and it did not have any lights in there. If you are interested in Colombian art, ask in advance if it is open because we were not told that it was closed when we bought our ticket.
1 – 2h
#5 Visit Tayrona National Park
Santa Marta is a great base for day trips or overnight excursions into the surrounding area. One of them is the Tayrona National Park. This park is known for its beautiful beaches. You can either leave early in the morning and come back on the same day, or you can stay overnight and properly enjoy the park. If you decide to stay for a night, take only what you absolutely need since some of the campgrounds can only be reached on foot.
Most of the accommodation inside the park is camping, with tent rentals available, but if you prefer to stay in a hut, some campgrounds offer those as well. Camping Castilletes, for example, which is where we stayed, has basic rooms for rent.
Inside the park, you can take a shuttle bus to the end of the road. From there, a path takes you all along the coast. We saw some monkeys along the way and ended our hike at La Piscina, which is the only beach inside the park that doesn’t have strong currents and where you can swim. Remember that you can get a sunburn even if the weather is overcast – I did.
1 – 2d
#6 Visit Minca
Minca is a small village in the mountains, less than an hour away from Santa Marta. As with the Tayrona National Park, you have the option of going here for a day or of staying overnight. We did the latter and I think it is the best way to enjoy the Colombian countryside.
Around Minca, you can find waterfalls, viewpoints, coffee plantations and lots of great spots to swing in a hammock and relax. For a complete overview of what to do in Minca, click here.
1 – 2d
#7 Hike to the Ciudad Perdida
One of the best things to do around Santa Marta is the hike to the Ciudad Perdida. The Lost City was inhabited by the Tayrona people and abandoned when the Spaniards arrived. Since the Tayrona destroyed all paths leading there, the ruins weren’t discovered until the 1970s, when looters came across them.
To get to the Ciudad Perdida, you have to walk (or, if you are too exhausted, take a mule). The hike takes a minimum of four days and it leads you through the jungle and past villages and farms of the indigenous Kogui and Wiwa people who still live in the area. Since the path is a constant up and down, and the area is so hot and humid that you will constantly be soaked in sweat, this is not an easy hike. It is, however, extremely rewarding to see the Ciudad Perdida in the end and absolutely worth it.
Learn more about the Lost City hike in my guest post here.
4 – 6d
I hope I could help you make the most of your time in Santa Marta. If you have any comments, other suggestions for what to do or have been to one of those places yourself, I would love to hear from you.
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