Santa Marta: Gateway to the Caribbean

An ideal base to explore the riches of the Colombian coast
Santa Marta: Gateway to the Caribbean

Santa Marta, founded by the Spanish in 1525, is the oldest city in Colombia and the second oldest in South America. As well as an important historic center, the region around Santa Marta is the site of one of the largest indigenous populations in Colombia, with around 30,000 people from the Arhuaco, Kankuamo, Kogi and Wiwa ethnic groups inhabiting the surrounding area. Its cultural and biological significance have been recognized by UNESCO since 1979.

What to see and do in Santa Marta

In the city of Santa Marta itself the main attraction is the historic center. This area includes the impressive white fronted stone cathedral, which was the first built in the country and which has recently been restored, and Parque de Bolivar, featuring a statute of the liberation hero, and a gold museum located in the historic treasury building. In addition, the city houses Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the site where Bolivar died in 1830. The area includes some attractive gardens and a small museum dedicated to Bolivar’s links to the city. Other attractions in or just outside the city include: Altar de la Patria, a monument to Colombian independence, the 18th century Santo Domingo convent, and a museum displaying a collection of artifacts from the Tayrona civilization. The beach in town is a working one, used by fishermen as a base for their trade

The city is located on the coast and there is a beach in the town. However, it is working beach which is used by artisan and medium-scale fishing operations as a base for their trade. As such, it is not Colombia's most picturesque and has a distinctly fishy whiff at certain times of day. You'd do better spending your time visiting the far superior beaches which lie within easy access of the city (see below).

Getting to, from and around Santa Marta

The city is relatively small, with most sites in the historical center within walking distance of each other. The weather is hot and humid in Santa Marta so if you’d prefer not to walk, you can easily catch one of the taxis which circulate around the city.

Santa Marta has a small airport located about 15 minutes away from the historical center. It is served by daily Avianca flights from Bogota and Medellin, and AeroRepublica flights from Cali several times a week. The city is situated just off one of the country’s main highways and buses frequently arrive there from a large number of destinations. Most people arrive to Santa Marta either from Cartagena or on their way into the country from Venezuela.

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Trips from Santa Marta

Santa Marta is strategically located between a number of impressive attractions on and near the Caribbean coast. The city is frequently used by foreign visitors as a staging post from which to explore both the destinations below as well as the spectacular Tayrona National Park.

Santa Marta is strategically located between a number of impressive attractions on and near the Caribbean coast

Taganga

Taganga is a fishing village of around 3,000 people centered around a small bay, within a few minutes’ bus ride of Santa Marta. The beach at Taganga is significantly more pleasant than the one at Santa Marta and the laid-back atmosphere and lively nightlife have meant the area has become an important stop-off point for many travelers. While some mid-range accommodation options are available, Taganga is largely dominated by backpacker travelers and so most places to stay are in the budget category.

Diving is particularly popular, thanks to the cheap prices and the proximity of excellent dive sites

Aside from relaxing on the beach, there are a number of other activities available at Taganga. Particularly popular is diving, thanks to the cheap prices and the proximity of excellent dive sites. Several dive schools offer various trips to nearby coral reefs and other sites boasting diverse marine life, such as the marine reserves of Tayrona and around the small island of Isla de la Aguja. The majority of trips are of one day’s duration, but some schools offer longer tours including accommodation on the mainland of the national park.

It is possible to arrange boat trips to other nearby beach sites or snorkeling spots by talking with the dive schools or by negotiating with the fishermen on the beach. A recommended trip is the short-hop to Playa Grande, an impressive beach famous for its tasty sea food.

Ciudad Perdida

The Ciudad Perdida, or lost city, is an architectural site containing the ruins of an ancient city, also known as Teizhuna. The city was one of more than 250 large settlements in the south-eastern part of Santa Marta formerly inhabited by four local indigenous groups. It was home to an estimated 2-3,000 people and was founded in 650AD. After being abandoned about 1,000 years later, the site was lost until the mid-1970s when it was rediscovered by a group of Colombian archaeologists. Since then, another 25 or so settlements have been uncovered in the vicinity.

Access to the city is via a picturesque 52km trek through Santa Marta’s Sierra Nevada park

The site comprises a complex system of pathways, walls, terraces and stairs which connect the ancient houses with the ceremonial centers. The structures are spread over an area of approximately 35 hectares. Access to the city is via a picturesque 52km trek through Santa Marta’s Sierra Nevada park. The journey takes several full days of walking (the total trip duration is between four and six days) and, at times, involves some fairly steep ascents.

That said, many visitors report that the trek itself is even more rewarding than the sight which greets you upon arrival to the archaeological site. The hike takes visitors past mountainous landscapes, rivers, waterfalls, hanging bridges and through tropical forests featuring all manner of exotic fauna and flora. The trip also goes past a number of modern day indigenous settlements, as well as other smaller ruins from the pre-Colombian period scattered throughout the area.

To visit the city you must travel with one of the several tour companies offering this service in Santa Marta, Taganga or Cartagena. The full tour costs around 600,000 COP and includes meals and accommodation (camping). Independent travel to Ciudad Perdida is not possible, both due to the difficulties of access and to local regulations.

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