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The Inside Word on… Santa Marta, Colombia

  • by Fabiola Duerig
  • 8 February 2011

With so many destinations in the WHL Group‘s ever-expanding network, we have an incredible wealth of local travel information at our fingertips. Through the Inside Word, our local partners – all travel experts – share their top tips on what to do, what to eat, where to party and where to shop in their necks of the woods.

Santa Marta, Colombia

The greatest historical claim to fame of Santa Marta, Colombia, is that it is one of the first places in the Americas colonised by the Spaniards in the 16th century. Known as the “pearl of the Colombian Caribbean,” the historic port is one of immense natural scenery and boasts the highest coastal mountains in the world – the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Bahia-Concha-Santa Marta-Colombia

The tranquil beach of Bahia Concha is set against Tayrona National Park's mountains, the Sierra Nevada for which Santa Marta, Colombia, is famous

Anyone who visits Santa Marta must visit Tayrona National Park, a natural paradise with some of the best beaches in the world, the mystical Lost City in the nearby mountains and the surrounding estuary mouths of rivers at the Caribbean Sea. It is also worthwhile to visit the small bays and towns nearby to interact with local people and to learn about their customs and culture.

In the city of Santa Marta, travellers can find in South America’s oldest building (La Casa de Aduana, from 1531) as well as the “mother of all Colombian churches”. A final must-see is the open-air museum Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, a 17th-century hacienda where the liberator of South America, Simón Bolívar, spent the last few days of his life.

Day Trips

Visitors can easily fill an entire day with the fascinations of Tayrona National Park, the indigenous town of Pueblito and marvellous Crystal beach. However, we recommend trying a combination tour so that travellers can maximise their sightseeing time. For example, a Sierra Nevada and Tayrona National Park tour covers a lot of ground, from the small coffee town on Minca just 14 kilometres from Santa Marta to the Sierra Nevada highlands and back down to Crystal beach, all in one day!

Pozos-Azules-Santa-Marta-Colombia

The Pozos Azulues, or Blue Fountains, are a refreshing sight near the small coffee village of Minca just 14 kilometers outside of Santa Marta, Colombia

Other day trips in the area should always include a short visit to the quaint fishing village of Taganga or the tourist town of El Rodadero by Chiva bus.

Cruise-ship passengers stopping in Santa Marta can make the most of their short time with specially tailored tours. Other excursions like sport fishing and helicopter rides are available for those who aren’t up for the popular six-day trek to the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida).

Shopping

Avenida Quinta is a lively street for shopping in Santa Marta and finding the latest fashion, while antique shops and traditional clothes shops surround the Cathedral. Of course, there are plenty of typical souvenir shops in El Rodadero with all the standard tourist knickknacks and the local sweets handmade with local fruits that visitors love to sample. The classic souvenirs in Santa Marta are pieces of jewellery and handicrafts made of seashells. The typical hat of the coastal people, the sombrero vueltiado, is also a hot item.

Restaurants

For great, authentic Santa Marta cuisine, a favourite among locals is definitely the Hotel Sierra’s Sound in Minca, 30 minutes from Santa Marta on the way to the Sierra Nevada. It offers delicious regional dishes such as roasted meats (and some international options too) in a relaxed atmosphere right next to the Minca River.

Tucan-Santa-Marta-Colombia

A wealth of biodiversity and wildlife, such as this toucan in its natural habitat, can be spotted in the Tayronaka Reserve near Santa Marta, Colombia

In the city, some good Santa Marta restaurants are Chuchos and the Gran Manuel (both famous for seafood), and Ben’s & Josep’s always comes through with nice juicy steaks. Just recently, a small tapas restaurant called La Tasca opened next to Parque de los Novios, offering very authentic Spanish tapas at a fair price. In Carrera 6 Nr 14-15 there is a nice local restaurant that serves up typical almuerzos (lunches) with soup, chicken, meat or fish accompanied by rice, fried bananas or beans with salad only for 5,000 pesos (about US$3).

Local Treats

The beaches of Santa Marta are said to be the best of the Colombian Caribbean and each one has its own enchantments, especially the beaches of the Tayrona National Park. The surf is dangerous at the beautiful strands of Arrecifes and Cañaveral, while la Piscina and Cabo de San Juan are very calm bays. Only reachable on foot are the lesser-known bays of Neguanje – Cinto, Chengue and the so-called Sea of the Seven Waves.

Of all the beaches on Santa Marta, the calmest and warmest are Bahía Concha and Bonito Gordo. Close to there, you have the small bays from Sisihuaca to Playa Grande and finally Taganga, while surfers congregate at the beaches next to Tayrona Park like Los Angeles, Los Naranjos and Casagrande.

Tayrona-National-Park-Santa-Marta-Colombia

A view of the Cabo San Juan del Guia beach, one of many lush stretches of coast to be discovered in Colombia's Tayrona National Park

Night Out

Santa Marta’s nightlife is less wild and impressive than larger destinations like Cartagena. Visitors will find the most action on the weekend. The bigger nightclubs and bars are located next to Parque de los Novios, and the more laid-back Crab’s Bar or the Figueres Bar hide out in Calle 18 No 3.

Nearby Taganga has become the new hot spot, where local haunts like Sensation and El Mirador de Taganga are great places for locals and foreigners alike.

For anyone who want to enjoy local Vallenato sounds or salsa, just hang out in any grocery store, Maria Bukana or the Terraza Latina in Calle 30.

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