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 clearly visible from a city sitting in the foothills.
Santa Marta is 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 base to many beaches and parks on the north coast and up in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
There are several nice plazas in town. Plaza de los Novios is the trendy spot in the center of the city and the surrounding streets are flush with international restaurants and hip bars. Down on the boardwalk, or the ‘Malecon’, there’s a nice sea side promenade with plenty of beaches and bars perfect for a late evening ramblings.
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, an adjacent town in the foothills to the south, with better beaches. From the north end of Rodadero beach catch a passenger boat ride ($5 round trip) to Playa Blanca – a beautiful beach with white sand and beach thatched huts busy serving up food and beer. The boat’s first stop is at outdoor aquarium with dolphins and sharks on display for an entrance fee of $8. get off here and catch the next boat to the beach, or stay on the boat. The next and final stop will be Playa Blanca.
I was there on a weekend afternoon when the local crowd was aplenty but found a nice space to stretch out a towel and take a swim amidst the festive Sunday atmosphere. Buy a drink at one of the bars and they’ll give you a table and chair to leave you your stuff. During the week the beach is much less busy and chill. The water here is cooler than in Cartagena and Tolu -very refreshing with a nice breeze all day. Two story beach-side restaurants, packed all day, offer up cold refreshments and seafood dishes. There are thatched gazebos huts on the beach with drink tables and umbrellas for $3 a day.
The Colombians in and around Santa Marta like to drink. On Sundays it seems the women pound the beers harder than the men. Beer vendors march up and down the beach hauling their beer coolers across the hot sand. But on this weekend day, by early afternoon, most everyone had run out of beer and the crowd began returning to the city.
Palomina is one of those off-the-beaten beaches that are hard to forget and will have you wanting to spend more time at than you have. It will also have you coming back again in the future.
To get there from Santa Marta take 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 in Palomino. Take the dirt path leading down to the beaches. Motor-taxis parked on the highway are for hire and will take you down to the beach.
This is a back packers paradise. A one of it’s kind beach in Colombia. with a very laid-back, anti-stress atmosphere void of the boom-boom party vibe of most Colombian beaches. While catering to both Colombian and foreign tourist everyone looks like they came here to relax. But with the sunset the party starts. People enjoy the night breeze and drinks and party on the beach till dawn.
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 no air, just a fan, for half the price. Camping is available around the village and down the beach and offer the most affordable accommodations.
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 beaches to the north and south of Palomino are empty and one can safely 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, and 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 drink here are the undertows. The beaches north of Santa Marta are renown for their dangerous undertows. Swimmers are best to stay in shallow waters or rent a surf board as numerous swimmers have perished. 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 due an increasingly steady stream of visitors.
Outside the park there are a lot of eco-tourism 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, 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 waist deep 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. There is a hotel in Buritaca close to the beach. $20 (70,000 COP).
For more on Caribbean beaches see: Colombia’s Beaches on the South Caribbean
Ciudad Perdida – One of South America’s Classic Adventures
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. It’s a six day trek to the Ciudad Perdida on the north face of the mountains. This trek rates right up there with the Inca trail in Peru. It is one of South America’s classic adventures.
Ciudad Perdida is in the mountains of the national park at an altitude of 3,300 feet. 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 foot-ware 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.
Minca – A town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
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 indigenous site where purification rituals were once performed. The water is cool and refreshing.
Riohacha – the Seaside City
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 artisans sell their wares on the malecon where there are nice beach-side bars serving up excellent Mojitos and Cuban Libres along with a couple of nice markets in town to explore in town.
(For more on Colombia’s Beaches see the following articles:)
Colombia’s Southern Caribbean Beaches: Arboletes to ToluPlease leave your comments, personal experiences or any questions you may have in the comment box below and we will get back to you.