My friend Miriam and I spent about a month and a half in Santa Marta, which is super hot and humid almost every day. We worked as volunteers for the foundation Mariposas Amarillas. Santa Marta is a perfect place to use as a base and head out to some day trips. It has a really nice historic center, with old colonial buildings that are slowly being restored.
We loved to spend our nights at the Parque de los novios, a square where you can find some good restaurants and bars or just sit around. Another street, where you can find a wide choice of different restaurants is Carrera 3/Calle 15. We can recommend the cocktails at the In&Out (not so much the food though), especially the coco mojito and they almost always have happy hour.
We rented a small apartment, because we stayed for a long time, but for shorter visits there are a bunch of hostels in the old town of Santa Marta. The area seems pretty safe, and probably mostly is, but we would still recommend you to not walk around alone at night as girls. We got mugged and had to learn the hard way, luckily other Colombians helped us and we got everything back, but it was still pretty scary. If you don’t like the crowded city center so much, there is a perfect little hostel The dreamer a little ways of the center, which feels like an oasis in all the city’s traffic.
The beaches in Santa Marta aren’t very nice, given the option I wouldn’t go there. The main beach next to the promenade is relatively clean, but somehow it smells really bad, probably because of the industrial harbor practically next to it. The other beach, a little ways of the center doesn’t have that smell, but the water and the beach are pretty dirty. We got disturbed more than once by the local fishermen, who are pulling their nets out of the water. Luckily that task takes a long time, otherwise we might have gotten caught in the nets. Another option for a beach, is El Rodadero, a part of Santa Marta, which you can get to either by local bus from the promenade or just taking a taxi. The beach is very clean and smell free, but completely overrun by people and vendors trying to sell you anything or wanting to marry my friend Miri. There is no natural shade, but you can rent a chair and a tent to get away from the sun.
We worked from Monday to Friday, mornings til lunchtime, so we had a lot of free time. We spend most of it in Taganga a small fishing town close to Santa Marta either SCUBA diving or relaxing at the beaches. From Santa Marta you can take a local bus to Taganga (most are quite small and without air condition) or pay a taxi to take you there for only $5. The main beach in Taganga is neither very nice nor very big, didn’t have nice sand, and was pretty dirty and crowded most of the time. Anyway, the swimming was always nice and we spend a lot of time reading. There is another beach next to Taganga that you can get by boat. The locals always offer you take you there and pick you up whenever you want. Unfortunately that beach is even worse in our opinion and don’t make the mistake of ordering food in one of the small restaurants next to the beach. They look shabby and therefore very cheap, but for a fresh fish they’ll make you pay around $20, which seems reasonable somewhere else, but not there.
The restaurants in Taganga itself are great! Most of them are right next to the beach and the offer all kinds of food for reasonable prices. The atmosphere there is just great, full of locals, backpackers, some hippies, and artists that came to Taganga probably years ago and never managed to leave. On weekend nights the little town never sleeps, and most of the people head to the biggest bar/nightclub of the Taganga, El Mirador. Just as the name suggest, the bar is outside with a huge rooftop terrace, with an incredible view over the bay.
On the weekends we were busy visiting other places close by or doing SCUBA courses in Taganga. On one of these days David and I met! He was doing his first SCUBA dive and my friend and I the rescue diver course. We talked the whole time on the boat, which took us to the dive site. We got along so well that we decided to meet up again at night, together with some other friends David made at his hostel. First we went to dinner and then all back to the hostel, La Brisa Loca, which has an amazing rooftop terrace with a bar and swinging beds. After that evening, even though David had to leave in a few days, we were already sure that there was something special between us.
After getting all our SCUBA certifications and being a little tired of the constant heat and the same beaches in Santa Marta, we decided to do a day trip to the small village of Minca. This village high up in the mountains only consists of a few houses and restaurants and is known in the area for it’s outdoor activities.
We booked a tubing tour the day before, so they sent a taxi to pick us up in the morning. The ride took about one hour and then we arrived at the company’s office. We all got some helmets, knee protectors and a life vest, and headed out into the rain forest with a local guide. We followed a small path and then quickly reached the river, where we would later tube back town. First we had some hiking and walking up the river ahead of us! The water was refreshing and not very cold, and it reached to our belly at the deepest points. The main challenge was the slippery stones and coming up some little waterfalls, maybe a meter or 1.5 meters tall. I was starting to wonder how we would go down the waterfalls later on in a tube, especially because there were big rocks surrounding them everywhere. I tried not to worry and moved on!
The river walking was really fun and soon we got rewarded by reaching this beautiful hidden waterfall in the middle of nowhere. We jumped in and swam around for half an hour or so, it was great. We didn’t really want to leave but it was time to get into the tubes and head back.
Some other guys from the company had brought the tubes in the meantime and we were ready to go! First it all went quite slow and well, till the first little waterfall appeared. It really wasn’t that high but going down with a little tube is still pretty scary. Of course all of us fell out of our tubes, we lost our knee protectors too, and were lucky to not hit some of the rocks, I guess. At that point one of the girls that was on the trip started crying and didn’t stop till we reached the end of the tour. It wasn’t as much fun as I hoped, due to constantly getting stuck between rocks, falling out of the tube, or completely scratching up our arms and legs, but still I think it was mainly a pretty safe thing. When we reached a very slightly higher waterfall after about 45 min we all had to get out of the tubes and walk back to Minca, this time carrying the tubes.
After this adventure we needed some food to regain our strength before we headed back to Santa Marta. The guide recommended a little restaurant around the corner, which was mainly frequented by locals. The food there was delicious and super cheap. Overall, a trip to Minca is a great idea to escape the heat and see something other than beaches.
When we had another free weekend, we decided to meet up with some other friends of mine, who had been traveling around Colombia too. As Santa Marta doesn´t really have great beaches and as we wanted to get out of the city for a bit, we planned a trip to Palomino, a small village at the beach. We took a public bus from Santa Marta to Palomino, which took us about 2 hours. You can take the bus on Calle 11/ Carretera 11. There is no fixed schedule so you might have to wait for a while and share the bus with locals bringing home their weekly or maybe monthly groceries (or maybe they just have a huge family to feed) that they bought at the market right next to the bus stop.
When we got to Palomino we jumped off the bus and looked out to find our hostel, The Dreamer. We knew it was next to the beach so we started walking down the only path we could find. Very soon some locals with their little moto taxis stopped and offered us a ride to the hostel. We didn’t know how long it would take to walk, and we always wanted to ride a moto taxi but never dared in the crazy traffic of Santa Marta, we said yes! The ride only took about 3 minutes but it was fun and worth the 3 dollars! As soon as we entered the hostel property, we were amazed! It looked like paradise with cute little houses where the rooms were, and a big swimming pool in the middle. The beach was also right next to it.
The beach is incredible, it is about 7 kilometers long and not even a little crowded! The sand is perfect and the water a little rough, but that is what makes it fun. Some people even try to surf there!
There are a lot of small restaurants and bars next to the beach, where they offer great and cheap local food. Our hostel also had a nice restaurant and bar, we sat there in the evenings with our friends. There’s not much going on in Palomino besides that, we spent our days at the beach and the nights with good food. There is the possibility to go tube down a big river, but as we already got our share of that, we preferred to stay at the beach the two days we spent in Palomino before heading back to Santa Marta. On the way back we hopped on another moto taxi, hoping a bus to the city would pass by soon, as we didn’t know the schedule and it only comes every one-two hours. Right when we got to the main road, we saw the bus a little ways ahead. It seemed that we just missed it, but our moto taxi drivers didn’t see it that way and rushed after the bus! It was pouring, so we got completely wet, but we actually did catch that bus. Once the driver noticed two crazy motos coming after him, he pulled over and we got on!
After spending the next Saturday just in Santa Marta, we wanted to see something new and wanted to go check out the beach, Bahia Concha, which the locals told us good things about. To get there we hopped on a public bus to the outskirts of Santa Marta, from there on we were told the best way was to catch a moto taxi to the beach! After our last good experience with those, we decided to go for it. Unfortunately this was going to be a much longer ride (almost 20 min) and on a very bumpy road full of huge stones and holes. The moto taxi drivers didn’t seem to care and just pretended to be on a concrete road. We already saw the motor bikes falling down and us breaking a leg or arm. Luckily we got there safe and were ready to head out to the beach. It was incredibly crowded that day, it seemed like the whole population of Santa Marta was out there. As all the other beaches around, there was almost no shade so we rented a beach tent and some chairs again. We probably could have saved on that money as we spent almost the whole time in the water! Besides being too crowded, Bahia Concha is a very nice and clean beach, which we can recommend to visit.
One other amazing thing we did, just after we finished working as volunteers, was spending two days at Tayrona National Park. If you’d like to read about this adventure, you can read about it here.
TOP THINGS TO DO IN AND AROUND SANTA MARTA
– Enjoy the evenings in Santa Marta´s historic center
– Do a SCUBA course in Taganga
– Stay some time in Palomino, far away from the crowds
– Make a day-trip to Minca, if you seek some cool air
– Eat the local food, like the freshly caught fish or the bananas and coco rice
– Visit Bahia Concha beach, but not on the weekends
– Make a trip to Tayrona National Park (stay a night or two)