Santa Marta is Colombia's oldest colonial city, founded in 1525 by Rodrigo de Bastidas, a Spanish conquistador. Today, it is the capital of the Magdalena Department and an increasingly popular tourist destination. With its rich history, ecological diversity and opportunities for adventure tourism, Santa Marta offers varied options for the leisure traveller. Its average temperature is 28 °C and its altitude is a mere 4 m above sea level.
History and culture lovers will enjoy strolling through traditional Spanish homes, with their large gardens and ornate balconies filled with plants. A must see for history buffs is the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino.
Our Santa Marta Destination Guide below tells you all the highlights of a visit to this beautiful part of Colombia. Taking a locally run Santa Marta tour is the ideal way of exploring all that Santa Marta has to offer. Also check out our Colombia Destination Guide for more general information about travelling throughout Colombia.
The city is located in Colombia's northern province, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, with the Sierra Nevada Mountains behind it. Santa Marta is an important commercial port and hub for culture, history and tourism. Large sections of the population are employed by the travel and tourism, bio-fuel manufacturing and transportation industries. Incidentally, the bio-fuel sector here is Colombia's largest.
Santa Marta has excellent sites for snorkelling and diving. The northern suburb of El Rodadero is a more exclusive area with the attractions of a lovely beach and an aquarium as well. Another popular pastime is big-game fishing; depending on the time of year, you can fish for tarpon in the Manzanes River. Playa Blanca is an extremely popular hangout, thanks to its white-sand beach; the waterfront cafes offer both freshly cooked, flavourful seafood and delightful sea views.
Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) will, in all likelihood, be the high point of anyone’s stay in Santa Marta. Located in the thickly forested slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this is one of South America’s most famous and mysterious archaeological sites. Centuries ago, a city was built here by the Tayrona Indians on over 250 artificial terraces. Despite being aware of its existence, the Spanish conquistadores could not find it. After the colonial era, it remained forgotten and unknown until its rediscovery in 1976. There are two ways to reach Ciudad Perdida. The easier and recommended way is by helicopter. The adventurous traveller may opt for the 6-day guided trek through dense, tropical forest – gruelling, no doubt, but also unforgettable. The predominant feature of the site is the terraced temple at the top with exactly 1,200 steps leading it. The site itself is perfectly safe for visitors to walk around in.
Tayrona National Park is to Santa Marta’s east, a 15,000-acre natural reserve that is a wonderland for birdwatchers. The park is also home to some of the Caribbean’s most pristine beaches. However, accessibility to these beaches is not easy and the seas are too rough for swimming. The park provides basic accommodation in the form of huts and hammock shelters. Visitors should take their own hammocks. A path made of loose rocks takes you to the ancient ruins. It was designed thus by the Tayrona Indians of old, as a warning sign of outsiders approaching their habitat. The trek to the ruins takes a full day and is pretty arduous; trekkers have to crawl their way through hand-carved tunnels and negotiate huge boulders.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range has peaks going up to 17,325 ft. A diverse range of flora and fauna has evolved here thanks to the varied topography.
El Rodadero is a popular resort town lying west of Santa Marta. A scenic bay, wide beach and scintillating night life make El Rodadero a sought after holiday destination for Colombian tourists. During the domestic holiday seasons, El Rodadero gets extremely crowded and prices are at their highest. The beach front is where all the action is, lined with high-rise apartment complexes, hotels to suit all budgets, cafes, bars and nightclubs. Getting here is easy, a 10-minute bus ride is all it takes to cover the 5 km from Santa Marta.
Minca is the perfect place for a little tranquillity. It’s a small village in the Sierra Nevada, about 630 km above sea level, in a coffee producing region. For visitors, there are plenty of simple pleasures, from observing the lush, tropical vegetation to bird watching or enjoying a bath in one of the crystalline waterfalls. Another reason to visit Minca – it’s a good place to briefly escape the heat of the coastal area. Minca is 14 km southwest of Santa Marta, a half-hour drive by car and one hour by bus.
Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold) is in the Casa de la Aduana (Customs House), an impressive Spanish mansion. Here, you will see exhibits from the Tayrona civilization of yore, mainly their pottery and gold; also, artefacts made by the Kogi and Arhuaco Indians. If you plan on doing the trip to Ciudad Perdida, the model of the “Lost City” in this museum will be of particular interest to you.
Acuarioy Museo Del Mar (aquarium-cum-museum) is a short distance northwest of El Rodadero. Visitors can view sharks, dolphins, seals and turtles among other marine species. There is also a dolphin show for tourists. The museum has an eclectic collection of exhibits including replicas of Inca ceramics and a propeller retrieved from a nearby air crash. From El Rodadero’s beach, there are boats plying to the aquarium. Ticket stalls are on the beach.
Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino is a 17th century hacienda and the final resting place of Simón Bolívar, the Spanish American general famously known as “The Liberator” who freed South America from colonial rule. The hacienda and its estates were a centre for sugarcane cultivation and processing, with a trapiche (sugarcane mill) and destileria (distillery).
The hacienda grounds have several memorials to Bolivar, the largest of which is the Altar de la Patria in the centre of the estate. To its right is the Museo Bolivario, housing art works donated by Latin American artists from Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and Bolivia, the countries freed from Spanish rule by Bolivar.
Santa Marta Catedral is Colombia’s oldest church. Work on the enormous, whitewashed building was completed only towards the end of the 18th century, as a result of which it is possible to discern the influence of architectural styles from different periods of history. The ashes of Roger de Bastidas, founder of Santa Marta, are stored to the left of the church entrance. In 1830, Simón Bolívar was buried here; however his ashes were taken in 1842 to his birthplace, Caracas.
Taganga is a fishing village to Santa Marta’s north, with a charming, horseshoe-shaped bay. In recent times, it has rapidly grown into a popular halt for backpackers. There are dive centres here offering inexpensive scuba-diving courses. The beach is a happening place, with boats jostling for space, bars and cafes. Playa Grande is a splendid bay to the northwest within walking distance. Taganga is a delightful, ‘do-nothing’ place where you can unwind at the beach, take in a spot of scuba-diving and savour freshly caught and cooked seafood.
The coral reefs near Santa Marta are an exciting option for water sports enthusiasts.
If you're looking for a few thrills, rent a jet ski (charged by 10-minute increments) on the beach. If you aren't an expert at operating one, it's possible to get a ride. Lifejackets are available.