Santa Marta is a 5 hour bus ride from Cartagena past Barranquilla driving up the Atlantic coast. Santa Marta is at the base of the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains which are clearly visible from the city which sits at the base of the foothills. It reminds me of Carrara on the Tuscan coast of Italy where one can see the marble strewn peaks of the maritime Alps while laying in the beach.
Santa Marta is a pleasant city, not too big, with beaches, lots of hotels and restaurants and a marina which was just built in 2011. The beaches in town aren’t the greatest but what’s nice about the city is that it offers all the services of a big town and makes a good jumping off base to so many north coast locations.
There are several nice plazas in town – the area around Plaza de los Novios is the trendy spot in the center of the city and the streets around it abound with international restaurants and hip bars. Down on the boardwalk called the ‘Malecon’, is a nice ocean front promenade which also offers plenty of beaches and bars perfect for a late evening seaside dinner or after dinner drink.
Rodadero and Playa Blanca beaches
But don’t waste your time on the beaches of Santa Marta. Take a taxi for $3 over the mountain to Rodadero, a little town in the foothills to the south, where there are better beaches. From the north end of Rodadero beach catch a passenger boat ride ($5 round trip) to Playa Blanca – a beautiful beach with course white sand and thatched huts serving up food and beer. The boat’s first stop is at outdoor aquarium with dolphins and sharks on display. Entrance fee is $8. Or stay on the boat to the final stop which is Playa Blanca.
I was there on a Sunday afternoon when the local crowd was peaking but found plenty of room to stretch out a towel and take a swim amidst the festive atmosphere. The water here is cooler than in Cartagena and Tolu -very refreshing with a nice breeze all day. There are two story restaurants right on the beach offering up refreshments and seafood dishes and they are packed all day. There are also huts on the beach offering tables and umbrellas for $3 a day. The Colombians in and around Santa Marta like to drink, sometimes it seems the women pound the beers harder than the men. And beer vendors march up and down the beach all day long with their beer coolers. But on this busy Sunday by 2 in the afternoon most of the vendors, restaurants and thatched hut dispensaries had run out of beer.
Palomina is one of those off-the-beaten beaches that are hard to forget and one you’ll definitely want to spend more time at and probably come back to again in the future. To get there take from Santa Marta a bus up highway 90 hugging the Atlantic towards Riohacha. It’s about a 2.5 hour trip. The bus driver will drop you off on the main highway in front of a dirt path which leads down to the beaches. Motor-taxis are parked on the highway waiting to take you down to the beach.
This is definitely a back packers paradise – a one of its kind in Colombia. It is a very laid-back, anti-stress atmosphere here with none of the boom-boom party enthusiasm of most Colombian beaches. The town caters to tourists both Colombian and foreigners and everyone looks like they came here to relax, be alone and recharge their batteries. There are plenty of hotels on the beach with air-conditioning going for around $40-$50 per couple. Or one can check out the hotels and hostels back off the beach with a fan (no air) for half the price. Camping is available and cheaper yet. There plenty of restaurants in the beach area and surf board rentals on the beach.
Only about half a mile of beach in Palomino is developed. This is where all the hotels and hostels are located but it never seems crowded. The tourists here are all laid back and like to keep to themselves. The beaches to the north and south of Palomino are empty and one can endlessly wander in any direction along the palm lined sandy beaches and rarely see a soul. Sandy beaches in the ocean mist, mountains in the background, a constant breeze make for a perfect place to come and unwind. The waves come rolling in about 3′ high but the one fly in the glass of Chardonnay here are the undertows. The beach here is renown for it’s dangerous undertows. Swimmer are best to stay in shallow waters or rent a surf board as numerous swimmers and surfers have perished here. The Palomino river comes through this area and one can arrange a lazy tube float down the river through the jungle landscape to the sea.
This is the home of the Kogi tribe and you’ll see them as they come to Palomina and buy supplies and sell their wares.
The park is what your would expect of a tropical paradise. Is just a 45 minute bus ride outside of Santa Marta. So close one can keep a hotel room in the city and go visit the park during day trips as accomodations in the park are few, pricey and mostly kept for people on tours. There’s and $18 entrance fee to the park which has seen prices sky rocket in he last 10 years as there is a steady stream of visitors.
Outside the park there are a lot of eco-toiurism spas and resorts with names like Rancho Relaxo and Kantawa Spa which run $170 a night. These are relax spas harnessing the river’s energy and offering sweet water therapy, massages and tours to the park. If one is in Colombia for a short time really wants to unplug and recharge before going home, and money isn’t an issue, these spas can supply the needed pampering.
Thirty minutes south of Palomino is Buritaca – a renown beach which sits at the mouth of the Buritaca river. If you like the idea of having a nice sandy beach on the salt water Atlantic with the fresh sweet water of the Buritaca River at your back then this is the place for you. The bus lets you off on the main road where there are guys with motorcycles waiting and for $.70 they will take drive you one mile down the road to the riverside. Here there are vendors selling food and drinks. To get to the beaches wade across the shallow river or there are small boats that will ferry you across the river for $.70 round trip. The beach is nice and long and runs from the mouth of the river endlessly north. This is typical Colombian beach catering to the locals and few foreign travelers visit.
I did some exploring of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the 1970 and I recall it as being very tough and rugged terrain. It is now a national park called Sierra Nevada di Santa Marta. If one wants to get up into the park and mountains – a six day trek to the Ciudad Perdida on the north face of the mountains rates right up there with the Inca trail in Peru. It is one of South America’s classic adventures. Ciudad Perdida is in the national park. Venturing out on ones own is dangerous as it is easy to get lost so tours are highly encouraged with an organized tour operator. The tours run around $500 per person which includes guide, meals, mules, tents, hammock and mosquito netting. The mountains get a lot of rain so bring good repellent, a sleeping bag, warm clothing, flash lights, plastic bags to keep things dry, proper footware and water purifying tables. The site was only discovered in 1975. It dates back to a settlement founded near the Rio Buritaca between 500 and 700 AD at an altitude of 3,300 feet.
If you want to venture into the Sierra Nevada mountains, but not spend 6 nights sleeping in a hammock to do it, a day trip to the village of Minca is perfect. A 45 minute bus ride from Santa Marta in a collective taxi takes you up winding road into the mountains. This is also a town that caters to backpack travelers who are looking to get off the beaten path and rest up after a hard, hot experience of coastal travel. There are plenty of hostels, agricultural tourism centers and little restaurants in this town. From here one can arrange for tours on horseback or do some bird watching and hiking. An hour walk outside of town and one comes to a path that leads to the Pozo Azul waterfalls – a series of small local swimming holes. Once a sacred indigenious site where purification rituals were performed. The water is cool and refreshing.
A bus trip 90 miles northeast from Santa Marta ($7) takes you to Riohacha. It is a nice seaside city and the cheapest place to book a tour to the Guajira Peninsula. There are very helpful tourist agencies here. Riohaca has nice sandy beaches, clean water for swimming, a 700 foot long wooden pier stretching out into the ocean and a nice malecon or seaside promenade. The artesans sell their wares on the malecon and there are nice beachside bars serving up excellent Mojitos and Cuban Libres. There are also a couple of nice markets in town to explore.
(For more on Colombia’s Beaches see the following articles:)
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