Santa Marta is popular coastal city in Colombia with a slowly growing number of foreigners living in the city. But there are downsides to living in Santa Marta. So, we look at 12 Santa Marta downsides for expats living in Santa Marta.

We previously looked at downsides to living in Medellín and downsides to living in Bogotá. Also, we looked at downsides to living in Cali and downsides to living in Cartagena plus and overall downsides to living in Colombia. And several Medellin Guru readers asked for us to also look at the downsides of living in Santa Marta.

In addition, we previously compared Medellín vs Santa Marta in 16 categories to see which is the better city to live in for expats. And in that comparison the Medellín won if the categories were equally weighted. Also, we looked at the top things to do in Santa Marta and nearby.

I have seen some posts on the Internet that looked at the pros and cons of Santa Marta. But these all tend to miss some of the downsides of living in Santa Marta.

View of Santa Marta, Colombia

View of Santa Marta, Colombia

The biggest benefits to living in Santa Marta include the coastal beach life, low cost of living and less traffic than is found some of the larger cities in Colombia.

But there are also several downsides to living in Santa Marta. I am originally from the U.S. and have lived in Colombia over eight years and have spent several months in Santa Marta during over six trips to the city.

So, the following list of downsides to living in Santa Marta is an expat’s perspective based on my experiences in the city and in Colombia.

Furthermore, not all these Santa Marta downsides apply to everyone. Some of these downsides can be overcome or avoided.  And the following list of Santa Marta downsides from a foreigner perspective is in no particular order.

Rodadero beach near Santa Marta

Rodadero beach near Santa Marta

1. Climate and Weather – Santa Marta Downsides

Santa Marta is a coastal city in Colombia. And the temperature during the year averages a relatively hot 82.9 ° F (28.3 °C), which is a bit warmer than the average annual temperature in Cartagena of 82.0 ° F (27.8 °C).

The average daily high temperature in Santa Marta ranges from 89.8 to 92.8 °F (32.1 to 33.8 °C). And in Santa Marta, the average daily low temperature ranges from 72.1 to 77.9 °F (22.3 to 25.5 °C).

The all-time record high in Santa Marta was 100.8 °F (38.2 °C). Santa Marta is a beach city on the Caribbean and it can get quite hot on some days. But Santa Marta does not really have a hurricane risk.

Also, it’s humid in Santa Marta with an average annual humidity of 76 percent. To me, the climate of Santa Marta with its unrelenting heat and humidity is the biggest downside of living in Santa Marta. In Santa Marta it gets hot enough that you will definitely need air-conditioning.

While some expats may prefer the warmer climate of Santa Marta, most expats I have talked to prefer a cooler eternal spring climate. Colombia has three cities with eternal spring climates: Medellín, Pereira and Bucaramanga, which all have cooler climates than in Santa Marta.

2. Healthcare – Santa Marta Downsides

Santa Marta has none of the top hospitals in Colombia. In fact, none of the cities on the Caribbean coast of Colombia (Barranquilla, Cartagena and Santa Marta) has one of the top 24 hospitals in Colombia.

Santa Marta is a small city with a metro population of less than 500,000. So, it doesn’t have many hospitals and the hospitals in the city are relatively small. Healthcare is important for retirees but Santa Marta doesn’t have even one highly ranked hospital.

So, you will have to go to another city in Colombia to find the best hospitals. Both Medellín and Bogotá each have nine of the 58 best hospitals and clinics in Latin America.

3. Infrastructure – Santa Marta Downsides

As a smaller city in Colombia, Santa Marta has some infrastructure deficiencies.

Santa Marta has sometimes experienced water issues over the past few of years caused by drought. During these water issues, many neighborhoods in Santa Marta have been without water and water had to be trucked in. Also, there are several parts of Santa Marta without paved roads.

In addition, the electricity and Internet services in Santa Marta tend to be less reliable than in the bigger cities of Bogotá and Medellín. Each time I have visited Santa Marta I have experienced outages with electricity, Internet or water.

Aedes aegypti mosquito, photo by CDC

Aedes aegypti mosquito, photo by CDC

4. Mosquitos and Other Bugs – Santa Marta Downsides

Mosquitos and other types of bugs can be a major problem in Santa Marta and are a downside of living in the city.

Reportedly the Aedes aegypi mosquitos that spread the Zika virus infection are fairly prevalent in Santa Marta. Most notably, the Aedes aegypi mosquitos also spread the Chikungunya virus and dengue fever. So, make sure to take precautions in Santa Marta and use insect repellents.

Late last year I met two expats in Medellín that had traveled to Santa Marta and both got sick with Zika. This demonstrates that it’s important to take precautions in Santa Marta. And the grocery stores and drug stores in Santa Marta all sell insect repellents.

Simón Bolívar Santa Marta Airport, photo by Jeancarlos - Medellin Guru

Simón Bolívar Santa Marta Airport, photo by Jeancarlos – Medellin Guru

5. International Travel Access – Santa Marta Downsides

Simón Bolivar International Airport (SMR) in Santa Marta is a very small airport. From Simón Bolivar airport, there currently are only non-stop domestic flights to Bogotá, Cali, Medellín and Pereira available.

So, a downside of Santa Marta is that you will need to connect from somewhere to fly to Santa Marta from international locations. There are no non-stop international flights to the very small Santa Marta airport.

Police in Santa Marta, photo by National Police of Colombia

Police in Santa Marta, photo by National Police of Colombia

6. Crime is a Major Concern – Santa Marta Downsides

Crime and safety are major concerns of expats considering moving to Santa Marta and expats living in the city.

There are parts of Santa where you shouldn’t go, particularly after dark, and you’ll need to learn these. Like any big city some neighborhoods in Santa Marta are not considered safe at night.

For example, stay away from barrios including María Eugenia, Pastrana, Tayrona, Once de Noviembre, María Cecilia, Ciudad Equidad, Los Fundadores, Altos de Bahía Concha, Nueva Betel, San Martín, Chimila 1, Pescaito, 20 de Julio, Corea, Ensenada de Juan XXIII and Cerro de las Tres Cruces in Santa Marta. These are areas where even taxi drivers won’t go after 8 pm.

In the Santa Marta metro, the Rodadero beach neighborhood is generally considered one of the safest areas. But in reality, the barrios in Santa Marta with more cases of robberies of people in 2018 were Centro, Rodadero, Mamatoco, Jardín, Centro Historico and Taganga. Rodadero is a wealthy beach neighborhood with many hotels, hostels and furnished apartments. And Taganga is another beach area.

We have a separate article that looks at security in Santa Marta in more detail.

7. Public Transport – Santa Marta Downsides

There is no metro system or elongated bus system in the small city of Santa Marta. So, compared to several other cities in Colombia, Santa Marta has an inferior public transportation system.

In Santa Marta there are some inexpensive bus routes and inexpensive taxis. Taxis used to be unmetered in Santa Marta but they started using meters in late 2018. But there are still some fixed fares in Santa Marta and surcharges to some areas and surcharges at night and on Sunday and holidays.

A common downside in Santa Marta is that some taxi drivers in Santa Marta will still try to take advantage and charge a higher “gringo” fare for foreign tourists.

8. Spanish is Required

I have met a few foreigners that have been living in Santa Marta for several years that don’t speak much Spanish. But most Colombians in Santa Marta (and the rest of the country) generally don’t speak much English. So, to be independent you will need to speak some Spanish.

It is difficult to get by living in Santa Marta without speaking some Spanish. Only a few of the locals in Santa Marta speak English and there are very few foreigners speaking English living in Santa Marta.

Also, most of the people that you will interact with on a typical day in Santa Marta, such as store clerks, taxi drivers and waiters will tend to speak little to no English. You will find fewer locals speaking English in Santa Marta compared to the bigger cities of Bogotá, Cartagena and Medellín.

In addition, Education First ranks the English proficiency in Colombia as low at 48.90 on a 100-point scale.

(Note this downside is not unique to Santa Marta, it’s a Colombia downside that is also a downside in other cities in Colombia).

9. Need to File Taxes Twice and High IVA Tax

If you are an expat from the U.S. living in Santa Marta, Colombia, you likely will have to file taxes in both the U.S. and Colombia.

You are considered a tax resident in Colombia if you stay in the country for more than 183 total days during a year, whether this time is continuous or not. In addition, Colombia taxes the worldwide income of tax residents.

Just because you have to file taxes in Colombia doesn’t necessarily mean you have to pay income taxes. Colombia has several deductions plus you can subtract some income taxes paid in another country from income taxes due in Colombia.

Colombia also has a 19 percent IVA tax (a value added tax – VAT) on many products, which makes buying many things more expensive. The IVA tax used to be 16 percent but was increased to 19 percent in February 2017. But some grocery items such as milk, eggs and fruits and several other items are exempt from the IVA tax in Colombia.

(Note this is another Colombia downside that is also a downside in other cities in Colombia).

Chevrolet Spark - one of the most popular car sold in Colombia

Chevrolet Spark – one of the most popular car sold in Colombia

10. Cars are Expensive

Cars can be quite expensive in Cartagena due to import duties in Colombia of up to 35 percent. Reportedly over 60 percent of the vehicles sold in Colombia are imported. So, many models of cars sold in Santa Marta and other cities in Colombia can be more expensive than in the U.S.

Colombia has a free trade agreement with the U.S. that went into effect in 2012. The agreement is phasing out the import duty for vehicles over a 10-year period but there are still import duties.

In addition, Colombia has free trade agreements with several other countries. These other agreements are also phasing out import duties for automobiles. Over time this will help reduce the costs for imported vehicles sold in Colombia.

When living in Santa Marta, you should expect to pay more for a car than in the U.S. Also, there are also ongoing costs with owning a car including insurance, maintenance, taxes and gasoline.

But it is possible to live in Santa Marta without a car. Santa Marta has public buses, which are inexpensive. In addition, Santa Marta has relatively inexpensive taxis.

(Note this is another Colombia downside that is also a downside in other cities in Colombia).

USD to COP 10-year exchange rate history, source XE.com

USD to COP 10-year exchange rate history, source XE.com

11. Exchange Rate is Volatile

When living in Santa Marta in Colombia pretty much all of your costs will be in the local currency – Colombian pesos (COP).

The exchange rate over the past three years has been very beneficial if you have U.S. dollars (USD) or another Western currency. But the exchange rate has fluctuated dramatically over the years. So, it hasn’t always been like now.

Over the past 10 years the exchange rate has ranged from 1,745 to 3,518 pesos to the USD. So, your cost of living in Santa Marta in terms of USD will fluctuate. Over the past four years the exchange rate has ranged from 2,707 to 3,518 pesos to the USD. This is a much higher exchange rate range than the prior six years, as seen in the above chart.

(Note this is another Colombia downside that is also a downside in other cities in Colombia).

12. Customer Service

You will need patience and tolerance living in Santa Marta or other cities in Colombia. If someone says they will be there in 30 minutes it may be in two hours, tomorrow may mean sometime later in the week and so on.

Also, don’t expect someone to be on time for a date. It’s a pleasant surprise when they are. Colombians don’t come from a service-oriented culture. So, customer service can at times be very slow.

North Americans and Western Europeans used to their more well-oiled realities will run up against their share of disorganization, poor service, long lines and bureaucracy in Cartagena and Colombia, which can range from mildly frustrating to infuriating.

However, this is no different than many other countries in Latin America. I have experienced similar issues in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and several other countries in Latin America.

(Note this is another Colombia downside that is also a downside in other cities in Colombia).

Santa Marta Skyline

Santa Marta Skyline

The Bottom Line: Santa Marta Downsides – the Downsides of Living in Santa Marta as an Expat

The bottom line is that no city is perfect and every city has downsides. Also, some of the above Santa Marta downsides listed above really apply to any city in Colombia.

For example, five of the downsides listed above (the exchange rate, customer service, taxes, need for Spanish and expensive cars) can apply to any city in Colombia.

Also, before deciding to live in a city like Santa Marta it is important to understand all the downsides when comparing to other cities in Colombia or in other countries. Some publications tend to praise Santa Marta as a place to live but they don’t really discuss all the downsides.

So, hopefully the above article will help communicate several of the downsides of living in Santa Marta from an expat’s perspective.

To each his own. Some expats prefer living in Santa Marta. To me, I enjoy visiting the city. There are so many things to do in Santa Marta and nearby with all the water and beach activities. But I prefer living in Medellín with its eternal spring climate.

In addition, we previously looked 11 downsides to living in Medellín and 12 downsides to living in Bogotá. Also, we looked at 8 downsides of living in El Poblado, the most popular neighborhood for expats in Medellín.

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