Santa Marta is a popular beach destination in Colombia located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Each year, Santa Marta is becoming a more popular tourist location in Colombia. And we look at 16 top things to do in Santa Marta.
Cartagena is the city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast that is most visited by foreigner tourists. Santa Marta is considered more of a tourist location for Colombians.
You won’t find as many foreigner tourists in Santa Marta as you will in Cartagena. But the costs are lower in Santa Marta than in Cartagena. And more foreigners are discovering Santa Marta each year.
In addition, Santa Marta is becoming easier to get to with more domestic flights from other Colombian cities plus the first non-stop flight from the U.S. to Santa Marta starts in December 2018.
I have been to Santa Marta over six times in the past 10 years and this list of 16 top things to do in Santa Marta is based on my experiences.
There are many things to do in Santa Marta and nearby including two of best things to see and do in Colombia: the popular and beautiful Parque Tayrona along the coast and also Ciudad Perdida – Colombia’s lost city.
So, what are you waiting for? Pack a bag and head to Santa Marta. While there, here’s 16 top things to do in Santa Marta and nearby in no particular order:
1. Visit Parque Tayrona
Parque Tayrona, also known as Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona (Tayrona National Natural Park), is a popular national park in Colombia located along Colombia’s Caribbean coast that is known for its beautiful beaches and biodiversity.
Parque Tayrona is a tourist hotspot in Colombia that reportedly received a total 395,250 visitors in 2017.
This park is full of biodiversity with over 60 mammal species as well as 400 species of birds, in addition to countless reptiles and amphibians. It’s a very biodiverse area with two ecosystems between coastal mountains and the sea.
Parque Tayrona includes 150 square kilometers of land and over 30 km of coastline. One of the main reasons to go to Parque Tayrona is the beautiful beaches.
Likely the most famous Parque Tayrona beach is Cabo San Juan de Guia beach, also known as Cabo San Juan or El Cabo. Four other popular beaches are Arrecifes, La Piscina, Cañaveral and La Piscinita.
Parque Tayrona is located just 21 miles (34 km) from Santa Marta in Colombia’s coastal department of Magdelena.
One way to get to Parque Tayrona is by bus or taxi to the entrance and then it’s a 2 mile (3.4 km) hike to the beaches.
An insider tip is that it’s possible to catch a boat to get to the Tayrona beaches faster. You can catch a boat from the fishing village of Taganga that is located only 5 km from Santa Marta. And the boat ride to Parque Taryona is only 45 minutes.
Keep in mind that a yellow fever vaccination is required before visiting Parque Tayrona. Also, we have a more detailed Parque Tayrona guide.
2. Head to the Beach in Rodadero
Rodadero is a beach neighborhood located about 10 minutes from Santa Marta. Rodadero is the location were many foreigners who visit Santa Marta end up staying.
There are many hotels here and also many furnished apartments. When I visit Santa Marta I normally stay in Rodadero.
Also in Rodadero, there is an interesting variety of restaurants, bars and nightclubs as well as some good shopping. And the beach comes alive at night with some live music and parties on the beach and a number of vendors.
Rodadero beach is a good place to go for a swim, watch the sunset and eat street food and drink cocktails. Also, you won’t find as many vendors on the beach here bothering you compared to the beaches in Cartagena.
3. Hike to Ciudad Perdida
Ciudad Perdida is the site of an ancient city in Colombia that is older than Machu Picchu in Peru. It’s a challenging but rewarding hike with ancient ruins, jungle, river crossings, native villages, waterfalls and much more.
Ciudad Perdida is an archaeological site of an ancient city in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains near Santa Marta. It is believed to have been founded about 800 CE, which is about 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu in Peru.
Ciudad Perdida is located deep in the Sierra Nevada coastal mountains near Santa Marta.
And it remains accessible only on foot in what is one of Colombia’s most exciting and breathtaking hikes. This is definitely one of the most rewarding and also challenging hikes I have been on.
To visit Ciudad Perdida you must do this hike with a tour company. A Ciudad Perdida tour consists of a multi-day hike to and from Ciudad Perdia requiring four to six days. And the cost starts at 950,000 pesos.
This is considered a moderately difficult hike with a number of river crossings and several steep ascents and descents.
The hike to Ciudad Perdida is one of the most amazing things to do in Colombia. But it’s not for everyone due to being a four-day to six-day hike in the jungle.
If you go to Ciudad Perdida in Colombia you will have something to really remember. And the amazing landscapes and views plus the sense of remoteness will stay with you for a long time.
In addition, we have a detailed guide to hiking to Ciudad Perdida – Colombia’s lost city.
4. Take a Boat to Playa Blanca and the Rodadero Aquarium
Playa Blanca is one of the best beaches near Santa Marta. At Playa Blanca the sand turns “whitish” and it’s a good place to go snorkeling and relax in the sun. Also, there are some local restaurants where you can get fresh fried fish and drinks.
In Rodadero, you will find a number of boats that will take you to Playa Blanca. Playa Blanca is located a short 20-minute boat ride from Rodadero. Some of the boats offer a day-package that includes lunch at Playa Blanca and a return trip – the typical price is about 35,000 pesos per person.
The boats also stop at Rodadaro Aquarium. Rodadaro Aquarium is an aquarium that opened in 1965.
This aquarium is only accessible by boat and it has over 800 animals including dolphins, fish, sea turtles and sea lions. The aquarium entrance fee is 35,000 pesos and for children less than 2 years old the fee is only 3,000 pesos. Also, it’s possible to swim with dolphins here for 200,000 pesos.
We recommend going early to Playa Blanca to ensure you can get a sun tent and chairs. And on the weekends it can get very busy.
5. Explore La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino
La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino was founded on February 2, 1608. With the passing of time, the large hacienda (country estate) changed owners 15 times.
At the end of the second decade of the 19th century, the hacienda was awarded to the Spanish Joaquín de Mier, a businessman who grew sugarcane crops.
Joaquín De Mier was a Spanish supporter of Colombia’s independence and he offered a place to stay to revolutionary hero Simón Bolívar. Bolívar arrived in Santa Marta on December 1, 1830, from the Port of Sabanilla (Atlántico) after renouncing the Presidency of Gran Colombia.
Bolívar initially stayed at the House of Customs. And on December 6, Bolívar was transferred to the hacienda. The first four days Bolívar traveled the entire hacienda, then he fell into bed and never left his room again.
In 1891, the hacienda was declared a Colombian National Monument. Today the stunning colonial-era estate, which was the death place of Simón Bolívar, serves as a monument to Simón Bolívar. It’s considered one of the most important tourist attractions in the city of Santa Marta.
Several monuments have been built on the grounds in remembrance of Bolívar. The most imposing is a huge central structure called the Altar de la Patria, with Bolívar inside looking down.
Just to the right of this is the Museo Bolivariano, which has works of art donated by artists from several countries liberated by Bolívar including Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
Also, the grounds of the hacienda are home to Santa Marta’s Jardín Botánico botanical gardens.
La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino is located in the Mamatoco neighborhood, about 4 km from the center of Santa Marta.
6. Wander the Historic Center and Visit Catedral Basílica de Santa Marta
Santa Marta was the first Spanish settlement in Colombia. It was founded in 1525 and it’s the oldest surviving city in Colombia and reportedly the second oldest in South America.
Visiting Santa Marta’s historic center is worthwhile. You can see the colorful colonial architecture of the old homes in the area and visit the whitewashed Cathedral Basilica de Santa Marta.
Cathedral Basilica de Santa Marta is a Renaissance style Catholic temple located in the historic center of Santa Marta, which was built in the 1760s. This church is reportedly the first basilica established in South America.
In the 19th century, the church housed the body of Simón Bolívar for 12 years. Inside the church you can see where they kept the remains of Simón Bolívar until his body was sent to his descendants in Venezuela.
And since 1953, the church houses the remains of Rodrigo de Bastidas, the founder of Santa Marta.
7. Visit Museo del Oro Tairona
Museo del Oro Tairona (Tairona Museum of Gold) is located in a house known as Casa de la Aduena (Customs House), which is beautifully restored colonial house in Santa Marta.
The museum contains displays of gold jewelry, tools and instruments used by ancient tribes in Colombia. And many of the artifacts on display were found in the vicinity of Ciudad Perdida.
The museum opened in 2014 and the museum puts the cultural heritage of the city on display. The museum permits you to explore the past and present of Santa Marta, the department of Magdalena and the Sierra Nevada mountains of Santa Marta
Since the museum is free to enter, it’s worth spending some time here on a hot day. And the signs are in Spanish and English. It’s a nice museum but not as impressive as the Gold Museum in Bogotá.
8. Head to Parque de Los Novios
During the day, in Parque de Los Novios you will find shady trees, park benches but the big attraction is all the restaurants you will find around this park.
During lunchtime, you can find cheap menu del día at many restaurants near the park serving traditional Colombian dishes. Santa Marta has some of the best food on the coast. And Parque de Los Novios is the heart of the eating scene in Santa Marta.
In addition, this park comes alive at night when people gather in the park before heading out to the bars and clubs. You will hear music blaring from nearby bars and sometimes there will be a live performance in the park.
After exploring the city during the day, you can go at night to Parque de Los Novios to dine and drink.
9. Try the Caribbean Cuisine
The seafood in Santa Marta is excellent due to the proximity to the sea.
In Santa Marta you can find ceviche, fresh fruits and juices and even lobsters available in street stalls.
Pargo (red snapper) is a good choice and is typically served whole. And langostinos, warm-water lobsters, are found in abundance and are affordable. Also, you will find many stalls selling Colombian ceviche in a Styrofoam cup.
Another of my favorites is Rocoto with mix of Peruvian and Caribbean food. And Lulo is a popular restaurant with very good ceviche.
10. Stroll Along Paseo El Camellon
Paseo El Camellon, also known as Paseo de Bastidas, is Santa Marta’s waterfront promenade that runs between the old port and the new marina. In addition, this palm-tree lined promenade has several plazas where you can take in the view.
Paseo El Camellon is worth a stroll, particularly at the end of the day with a picturesque sunset. Also, there are several sculptures along the walk depicting the indigenous people of the region.
In addition, there is a monument to Rodrigo de Bastidas. Bastidas was a Spanish conquistador and explorer who mapped the northern coast of South America and founded the city of Santa Marta.
Along the promenade you can find all varieties of street food. So, you can grab and snack and check out the views. Finally, there are few nice restaurants nearby.
11. Hike to Quebrada Valencia
Quebrada Velencia is nice excursion from Santa Marta with a short eco hike through the forest to waterfalls with several large, natural pools that are good for swimming and relaxing. And this hike is something different that all the beaches in the Santa Marta area.
It’s worth noting that you have to wade through several river crossings to get to the waterfalls, so be prepared to get your shoes wet.
During the rainy season (October to December), you will normally find more visitors due to a higher volume of water flowing. Also, it’s possible to climb up the slippery and sharp rocks to swim in some of the small pools higher up.
Quite a few tourists go to Quebrada Valencia, particularly on the weekends. So, we recommend not going on the weekend and go early before the crowds.
There are some vendors along the path selling snacks, drinks and hand-made crafts. Also, the entrance fee is only 3,000 pesos. Make sure to bring some water, hiking shoes and insect repellent.
The best way to reach Quebrada Valencia is by bus from Santa Marta. It’s about an hour bus ride. And the hike to Quebrada Velencia is only about 30 minutes.
12. Scuba Diving at Taganga
Taganga is a small fishing village only about 10 minutes from Santa Marta. And in Taganga you can find several dive schools. Reportedly Taganga is one of the cheapest places in the world to get your scuba certification.
So, why not learn to scuba dive in the warm and clear water of the Caribbean. The dive schools will even provide transportation to Tayrona National Park for diving around the islands.
For beginners the number of dive shops can be overwhelming. Calipso, Poseidon and Oceano are three of the main companies in Taganga and are a good place to start. Four-day open-water PADI courses typically cost between 850,000 to over 1 million pesos.
We recommend checking out the gear. If the equipment looks damaged, dirty or poorly maintained you probably want to look elsewhere. And many of the instructors speak good English.
The dive schools will offer all type of classes and certifications. And when you go diving take plenty of food and water with you. Low blood sugar levels can be dangerous while diving, as is dehydration.
Keep in mind that Scuba diving in Colombia is safe but only if you maintain safety standards.
13. Visit Minca
Minca is a hidden gem village in the mountains near Santa Marta. It’s located only about 45 minutes from Santa Marta and worth a visit.
Minca has some amazing landscapes, hiking and waterfalls. And it’s a good place for bird watching and visits to coffee farms.
Some of the best things to do in Minca include:
- Tour a coffee farm – Minca boasts some amazing local coffee and one of the most popular local coffee farms is Finca La Victoria Plantation.
- Visit Pozo Azul – a swimming hole with a waterfall.
- Relax on the world’s largest hammock – it’s at Casa Elemento hostel.
- Go on a hike – my favorite hike in the area was to Las Cascadas de Marinka, about an hour hike to waterfalls.
It’s possible to do a day-trip to Minca but you could also stay overnight. Also, we plan to cover Minca in more detail in a future article on this website.
14. Visit El Dorado Reserve
El Dorado Reserve is located about 3.5 hours from Santa Marta and is one of the top birding destinations in Colombia. Over 350 species of birds have been spotted here as well as over 50 species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
El Dorado Reserve protects the populations of 21 endemic bird species and nine amphibian species, which are threatened with extinction.
El Dorado is located in the forest in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. So, there is lush vegetation everywhere and fantastic mountain views.
If you book at the lodge here, they will arrange for a private driver from Santa Marta. El Dorado Nature Reserve has 10 rooms and five Kogihabs, which offering amazing views of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains.
El Dorado is a great place to relax and enjoy nature, amid spectacular views and abundant wildlife.
15. Take a Side-Trip to La Guajira Peninsula
La Guajira Peninsula is a desert environment located along the northern coast of Colombia. This is a dessert region that is the northern tip of Colombia and South America. And the region is home to the indigenous Wayuu people.
The extreme north of La Guajira is the Macuira National Park (Parque Nacional Natural de Macuira). This 25,000-hectare park is a good place for bird watching with 140 different bird species.
Several tour companies in Santa Marta offer two-night or longer trips to Cabo de la Vela and La Guajira Peninsula. This barren peninsula is about 149 miles (240 km) long and no more than 31 miles (50 km) wide.
Keep in mind this is a hostile desert climate that has made it pretty isolated since colonial times. Also, it’s off the beaten path of foreign tourists and can provide an “end-of-the-world” feel. In addition, a third of the driving is off-road. But if you are looking for a beach all to yourself, this adventure is for you.
The capital of the Guajira Peninsula is Riohacha, which is about 109 miles (175 km northeast of Santa Marta. And Cabo de la Vela is a remote Wayuu fishing village even further away with several beaches with few people.
16. Go on a Motorcycle Adventure
Adrenaline Addicts in Santa Marta offers 1-day to 12-day off-road motorcycle adventures. Since 2016, Adrenaline Addicts has offered all-inclusive motorcycle tours and motorcycle rentals along Colombia’s northern coast.
Adrenaline Addicts’ 1- or 2-day taster tours are guided tours for beginner and novice riders. They also offer 4-day off-road adventures and even 12-day mixed terrain epics.
Zero motorcycle experience is required for the taster tours. And lessons are compulsory for first time riders and included for free in the tour price, or you may ride an automatic scooter.
Adrenaline Addicts has several tours that go to along the coast, go to Minca, go to Cabo de la Vala and more.
These off-road motorcycle tours can show you parts of Colombia that most tourists don’t see.
How to Get to Santa Marta
Many foreigner tourists who visit Santa Marta travel by air. The Santa Marta Airport is named Simón Bolívar International Airport with code SMR. And it’s the seventh largest airport in Colombia in terms of passengers.
Simón Bolívar International Airport in Santa Marta currently has regular flights from three different airlines with direct flights to and from five different destinations, which will grow to seven destinations by December 2018.
- Avianca– Bogotá, Cali, Medellín
- LATAM– Bogotá, Medellín
- VivaAir– Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Medellín, Miami (starting December 18, 2018), Pereira and San Andrés (starting November 6, 2018)
In addition, we previously provided a detailed guide to Simón Bolívar International Airport in Santa Marta. Also, I have flown from Medellín to Santa Marta several times for under $100 roundtrip.
Some foreigner tourists also travel to Santa Marta by road from other coastal cities in Colombia like Cartagena and Barranquilla. From Cartagena to Santa Marta it’s about 4-6 hours depending on traffic and if you go by car, van or bus. In addition, it’s at least a 14-hour bus ride from Medellín. So, I don’t recommend this.
Also, keep in mind that taxis in Santa Marta don’t have meters. So, to make sure you are not surprised at the fare at the destination when in Santa Marta, always make sure to ask the fare to the destination before getting in a taxi. The minimum taxi fare in Santa Marta is 6,000 pesos and there is a 500 peso addition to the fare at night and on weekends and holidays.
The Bottom Line: Top 16 Things to Do in Santa Marta – Top Tourist Attractions
There are so many things to do in Santa Marta and nearby. You could spend a week there and not see everything. The Ciudad Perdida hike is at least four days and a trip to La Gujira Peninsula is at least a day or two. So, if you are going for a short time you won’t be able to do everything.
Once I spend a month working remotely in Santa Marta. And during this time, I was fortunately able to experience all of the top 16 things to do in Santa Marta in this article and much more.
The bottom line is that Santa Marta is an attractive tourist location in Colombia with its beaches, mountains plus a hidden city and a desert nearby. So, it should continue to attract more tourists.
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