The best Caribbean beaches on the mainland of Colombia are in the north, around the port city of Santa Marta. SM is a small, easy and accommodating city one can easily get the hang of in an afternoon stroll. It’s an easy city to feel at home in and a good city to use as a base for visiting numerous beaches nearby. And the climate is cooler and much less humid than other cities on the coast.
The area is in the foothills of the highest coastal mountains in the world – the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, whose highest peak, Pico Colon, is 18,946 meters high and on a clear day can be seen from the beaches below. Cold winds whip down from the mountains and cut across the top of the ocean waters. Hard and soft coral reefs and underwater mountain cliffs can be explored snorkeling from the beaches nearby.
The city of half a million people is located on the Bay of Santa Marta. The capital of the department of Magdalena, the city and was founded in 1525 by the Spanish Conquistadors making Santa Marta one of the oldest cities in South America.
There’s enough to do in the city to easily fill up a day or two. Take a stroll down the boardwalk by the sea, Malecon de Bastida. Take walk through Plaza Bolivar in the center. Visit the city’s central market, an easy stroll from the center, and see the residential part of Santa Marta and the streets where all the Colombians come to shop. For nightlife, go to Plaza de los Novios and walk down Carrara 3 to Plaza Bolivar. This street, closed to traffic, is wall to wall restaurants and bars all with tables spilling out onto the streets.
Rodadero Beach – An Extension of Santa Marta
While there are small strips of beaches beyond the downtown boardwalk, better beaches are just a short cab ride away. Rodadero beach is just south of Santa Marta, a bus ride over some foothills. It’s a modern beach town with lots of recently built high rise apartments and hotels mostly catering to Colombian tourists. While it’s cheaper to stay here than in Santa Marta, it’s a newer development with more condos, hotels, nightclubs driven by the needs of Colombian tourism.
From Rodadero beach one can get catch a motor boat to the beach at Playa Blanca. A more remote beach, crowded on the weekends, it is pretty much desolate during the weekdays, with lots of beach side restaurants pushing inexpensive fish luncheons and copious amounts of beer.
Tagana – A Back Packers Paradise
Ten minutes to the north of Santa Marta is the town of Tagana, over the years it’s been referred to as a quaint, back packers get-away with lots of hostels, speedboats and dive shops. The town is worth a visit if you have a few hours to spare. Go there for lunch at a restaurant on the beach.
From Tagana one can catch a small motor boat north to the National Park of Tayrona – one of the most important national parks in Colombia. Tagana and Santa Marta are also near the Ciudad Perdida or ‘The Lost City‘ – an ancient, abandoned city that disappeared around the time of the Spanish conquest and was only ‘discovered’ again in the 1972. It’s a 5-day trek through jungles and mountains to visit the site.
Tayrona National Park – Boat Trips from Tagana
The boat ride from Tagana to Tayrona National Park is cheap – $18 for a round trip that lasts the day and takes people to various beaches in the park. Sounds great. But what they won’t tell you is that once you leave the harbor, you’re dealing with waves 6-8 feet in a 20-foot skiff with strong breezes 30-40 miles an hour shearing crests right off the tops of waves. Got to hand it to the guys handling the boats – they sea skills.
But the passengers are never prepared for the white knuckled sea conditions awaiting them off shore. Shortly after leaving we had to turn around and drop off a lady who was so scared, she was having a sever panic attack. Never saw anyone go so white. The trip lasts an hour and a half each way. It was extremely rough going north against the waves but coming back to Tagana, with the waves, was an almost enjoyable ride.
People submit themselves to this adventure to save a few bucks at the gate of Tayrona Park. But a much easier and safer way to get to park is by land. Buses leave people at the entrance of the park, which is just a 15-mile one-hour bus ride outside of town. Entrance to the park is a hefty $28 for foreign tourists, which explains the lure of taking a boat from Tagana – avoiding the park’s entrance fees.
Tayrona National Park
Tayrona, is known for its palm-shaded coves, coastal lagoons and rain forest. From the park entrance one must walk to the numerous beaches in the park. The beaches at the entrance of the park are the most crowded. Bahia Concha, Canaveral Beach, Arrecifis Beach, Playa Cabo San Juan del Guia and Boca del Saco (better known as the nudist beach) are one of the most visited as they are on the main trail from the park entrance – a trek that is 90 minutes each way.
Playa Brava, Playa Cristal, Palmarito and Playa Muerta are more isolated and harder to get to. They are up to a 3-4 hour walk each way. A lot of the more distant beaches can be reached by motor boats leaving from Neguanje Bay in the park. If you don’t like hiking or going by boat, there are locals renting horses and their guide services.
This stretch of coast along the park is infamous for its wicked currents and drownings. Swimming is prohibited at a number of beaches as more than 300 people have drown since the park opened in 1969. Guachakyta, Arenilla and Playa La Piscinita are the best beaches for swimming. Castillettes, Siete Olas and Playa Canaveral have strong waves and undertows and post caution signs reminding you you’re swimming at your own risk.
Palomino and Buritaca
After the park, highway 90 runs north next to the coast, below the Sierra Nevadas. There are some wonderful little beaches and undeveloped little villages along this stretch. Costeno beach and Palomino beach are undeveloped little beach towns.
Costeno Beach is a collection of hostels and small resorts, all very economical, just north of the park.
I like Palomino Beach; it has a little village with a never-ending beach with its white sands and palm trees filled with parakeets and parrots. If you like beach combing, the beach at Palomino is 10 miles long. South of town, where the Palomino river empties into the ocean, a long spit of sand offers an ideal option of fresh and salt water bathing along with food tents serving up fresh fish dishes.
For a $7 they’ll rent you an inner tube, take you a few miles up the mountain on the back of a motor bike and drop you up river so you can lazily float down river back down to the sea.
I was in Palomino two years ago when the town was just another dusty, sleepy pueblo but has now become ‘a Colombian destination’. The sheer number of tourists has increased and changed embracing younger crowds.
For a more out of the way experience, I like Buritaca – a town just south of Palomino. Like the Palomino, the Buritaca River comes down from the mountains and empties into the sea. Here there’s a nice spit of white sand separating the river and the ocean for an alternate bathing experience of both fresh river and sea water. When you’re hungry just wade across the river to one of the open-air restaurants on the beach facing the ocean. They all offer a nice array of fresh fish cooked however you’d like with sides for $5 a plate.
How to Get There:
Taganga – buses run through the center of Santa Marta, up Carrera 5, to Taganga for a $1.20 one-way ticket. Don’t’ waste money on a taxi. These buses run every 10 minutes.
Palomino, Buritaca – from the main market Carrera 9 and Calle 11, Mercado Santa Marta, there’s a bus station with buses leaving every half hour to Parque Tayrona, Palomino and beyond.