I’ll be honest; Santa Marta is a city I love to hate. Located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, in the northeastern region of the country, Santa Marta is usually seen by backpackers as no more than a stop over on the way to the famous Tayrona Park or to the hippie beach town of Taganga.
Ask Colombians though, especially ones from Bogota, and you’ll hear all about how Santa Marta is a beautiful city on the beach and a great place to vacation. It is a city of contrasts and a city that very clearly draws the line between tourists visiting for the beaches and locals who actually live there. For a broke backpacker, it’s a city that has even less appeal.
Incredible Beach Resorts Or A Dirty City
Santa Marta has a few distinct areas, which often leads to the the wildly different stories and experiences visitors have to the city.
Usually the people with stories of beautiful beaches and incredible sunsets stayed in the resort neighborhood of El Rodadero. Located about 10 minutes from the center of the city, El Rodadero caters mainly to rich Colombian tourists. High-rise hotels and all-inclusive resorts line the perfectly white sand beaches. The neighborhood has incredible spas, restaurants, and nightclubs. When visiting El Rodadero, it is easy to see why so many people end up loving Santa Marta.
In contrast, many backpackers have stories of a hot, dusty, and crowded city. They were most certainly staying in the old city center. Santa Marta is one of the most important seaports in Colombia and cargo ships can be seen loading and unloading at the docks, located right next to the old city center. The problem is that a lot of the cargo coming out of this port is coal which leads to a good amount of dusty, polluted air. Besides that, the city center, like most South American cities can get uncomfortably packed on a typical weekday. Walking down the main street must be done single-file since the other half of the sidewalk is always filled with street vendors and very shop seems to think blasting incredibly loud “Everything is on Sale!” recording out their front doors will attract shoppers. It can be overwhelming to say the least.
Beautiful Beaches, No Relaxation
So, to get away from the city noise, you want to head to the beach. Again, Santa Marta ends up being a city of contrasts. The central beach in the heart of the city is small and usually packed with locals. The water is decently clean but on the far end of the beach, the neighborhood gets sketchy and the beach is not safe in the early evening or at night.
On the other hand, just a few miles north or south of the city you end up on gorgeous white sand beaches. In the rich neighborhood of El Rodadero, the beaches might look beautiful but good luck getting getting an peace or quiet. Beach vendors roam the beaches from sunup to sundown and are very aggressive. At the other end of the city, the small fishing village turned hippie, backpacker hangout also has great beaches but can often turn into a big party of drugged or drunk backpackers.
The Positive Side
Ok, so I have been pretty harsh on Santa Marta. It was a city that got under my skin and left me with a bad feeling but in actuality, this is a working port city that does have some appeal. It’s not your typical pretty beach town but it is the stepping off place for some of the most beautiful places in Colombia. The true value of Santa Marta is what surrounds it. From the cheap scuba lessons in Taganga to the world class beaches of Tayrona National Park to the majestic snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains, Santa Marta does in fact live up to its nickname – La Perla de America (America’s Pearl). Just think of the city as the small ugly rock that the pearl grew around…
Couple Travel Tips
- Santa Marta is not a city where you want to opt for the cheapest hostels, which are located in the city center but at the far end of the beach. Wander half a block further and you will end up in a very bad part of town.
- Santa Marta is the best place to book tours of the surrounding areas. The largest, most reliable companies operate out of the city center.
- If you are leaving the city and heading to Cartagena, book a minibus (Marsol or Cochetur) instead of heading to the bus station. You will end up saving yourself hours of travel time and only pay a few dollars more.