A tropical city on the Caribbean sea is (almost) always going to have its charms, and Santa Marta certainly does.
On the border of a spectacular national park, nestled in between beautiful coastal mountains that turn into verdant green carpets during the wet season, offering shorts and sandal weather all year round, there is a lot to appreciate about Santa Marta. It also has the best regional food in Colombia (a country severely lacking in culinary appeal) in my opinion, as well as some of the best international restaurants.
Santa Marta is also dirty, very hot, and increasingly impacted by street and organized crime. What’s more, its beaches and natural areas suffer heavily from mass tourism.
After Cartagena, Santa Marta is the most popular domestic tourist destination among Colombians. Board an airplane from Bogota, Medellin or Bucaramanga to Santa Marta and you are going to be surrounded by cachacos sporting their sombrero vueltiao, sun cream already applied, on their way to crowd and noise up the beaches of Rodadero, Tanganga and plenty of places throughout Tayrona National Park.
Most international tourists and backpackers who come to Santa Marta also follow a fairly predictable path along Magdalena’s coast. They arrive in Santa Marta, stay at one of the city’s hostels, party in the historic district or Taganga, the seedy fishing village-cum-hive-of-scum-and-villainry, head to Tayrona National Park’s most crowded and least serene trails and beaches, and then continue eastwards towards the once charming, now completely revolting seaside town of Palomino in the neighbouring department of La Guajira.
Bear with me, you should definitely still visit Santa Marta.
Given my years of experience in Santa Marta–including the fact that I was in a relationship with a local for most of that time who showed me so much and knew the area so well–, I feel confident enough to say I know where the much better places are.
If you are after a more immersive nature travel experience on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, below are 5 lesser-known nature travel experiences around Santa Marta that are well worth the effort to get to:
Paso Del Mango
Paso Del Mango (literally, Mango Pass) is just 18km from the historic centre of Santa Marta. Notice, however, that the travel time below is estimated at 45 minutes.
That’s because Paso del Mango is a small and isolated vereda, or scattered group of houses, subsistence farms, a corner store and a schoolhouse, that sits quite a ways up into the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Unlike the much more popular tourist destination of Minca, there are no paved roads leading to Paso del Mango. This also means there are no bars, restaurants or parties to be had.
You need to make your way to the municipality of Bonda, just outside of the city and from there traverse somewhat treacherous mountain roads for a while. The trip is only possible via motorbike or four-wheel drive. Attempting it in a rental car would be a bad idea.
You can either bus from Santa Marta to Bonda and then negotiate the price of a moto-taxi (a local guy on a motorbike) up, you can hike in from Minca, or you can arrange someone with a four-wheel-drive vehicle (perhaps from a local hostel or hotel) to take you all the way from Santa Marta to Paso Del Mango for a price.
Once there, you pretty much have the entire place to yourself and it is gorgeous. The area is a collection of rugged dirt roads, hanging bridges, waterfalls and spectacular Sierra Nevada rivers. It’s like Minca but without the hordes and obnoxious hostel culture.
A handful of plucky ex-pats have set up little permaculture farms and “eco” hostels in the area, but because it is difficult to get to and much less well-publicized than Minca, very few people make it this far up. It is, however, like pretty much everywhere somewhat accessible in the Sierra Nevada, being developed.
I stayed at the Finca Carpe Diem, an “eco-lodge” right beside a river from which you can easily access all of the surrounding area’s hikes, trails and waterfalls. During my stay, my girlfriend and I were 2 of maybe 4 people there. The food was reasonably priced and pretty good, but the peace and quiet and the pretty much exclusive access to nature we had for the two nights we stayed were sublime.
The area is certainly not pristine wilderness, but the solitude, cleanliness and majesty of the Sierra Nevada were all well-worth experiencing. On my first night-walk, I saw plenty of animal life, including a Kinkajou and several snakes.
If you have time to do both Minca and Paso del Mango (ideally hiking from the former to the latter), there are some coffee tours and bird-watching opportunities in Minca that are well worth doing. But if you had to choose between Minca and Paso del Mango, Paso del Mango is both cheaper and a much more authentic Sierra Nevada experience IMO.
Playa Wachakita is a private beach and “eco-hotel” (gotta put “eco” in sneer quotes most of the time in Colombia, and most places for that matter) in the middle of Parque Tayrona. If you’re wondering why there is a privately owned for-profit business with exclusive rights to a beach and land in a supposed national park, I know, it’s lamentable in a way, but the upside is that the exclusivity means far less disturbance. There are no non-stop horseback tours and beachside restaurants blaring reggaeton and generating plastic waste all day long here. The ecological footprint of a place like Wachakita is small compared to the other major beaches and “eco” hotels in the Park.
And let’s face it. Anyone who has been to most of the other beaches on the above map, also within Tayrona National Park, knows that mass tourism, especially during peak season and big national holidays, makes them unbearable to anyone who values serenity and the sounds of nature.
Wachakita advertises itself as an exclusive getaway. Only accessibly by boat and with very limited lodging, this is the kind of place, if they don’t already have their own beach house somewhere like Playa Cinto or elsewhere within the park, Santa Marta’s rich come for a local holiday away from the riff-raff.
It is not cheap by Colombian standards, but if you’re spending euros, pounds or dollars, it is not prohibitively expensive either. It also gives you the option to stay in quite comfortable and much more economical tents if you aren’t willing to shell out for the private thatched-roof cabanas on stilts. I came here for an anniversary, so shell out I did, but it really was what it advertised itself as.
We had the entire place to ourselves for three nights, save for one couple and a lone Spanish guy who kept to themselves. The resort also pays for and lodges a private chef, although the food was overpriced and just so-so and tended to take forever. Any of the cons was a small price to pay for the tranquillity and solitude of Playa Wachakita.
A chainlink moray (left) and French angelfish (right)
What’s more, Wachakita is close enough to Cabo San Juan, one of Parque Tayrona’s biggest attractions (though it is usually pandemonium), that it can be done as a day trip if you really want to see the iconic Santa Marta photo op.
If you are interested in underwater photography, Wachakita boasts a decent reef and nice rocky habitat just off the beach. I took the above photos with my Olympus TG-6, which is, IMO, the best underwater camera for snorkeling currently on the market.
To get to Wachakita, you can either hop on a boat leaving Tanganga for Cabo San Juan and tell the driver you want to be dropped off at Wachakita, or you can bus to the farthest entrance of Tayrona from Santa Marta, walk the trail down to Cabo San Juan and then find a boat going back to Taganga and do the same thing in reverse.
Bear in mind that if you choose to make the trip from Tanganga in a small fishing boat during the months with the roughest seas (generally October, November, and December), brace yourself. The coastline is spectacular, but I have never feared for my life to that degree. While I’m no seasoned mariner, and the captain seemed unphased, I don’t think a 15-foot fibreglass boat is meant to be braving 3m swell. Nor is a 20kg unsecured rusty anchor meant to be flying through the air every time the boat crests and clears one after another mountainous wave.
Hotel Casa Barlovento
For most people who visit Santa Marta, Tayrona is the main attraction. There are some beautiful parts of the park and, when it’s not swarming with tourists, it is a really special place and you can see how it forms the inspiration for much coastal music, culture and iconography. It’s where the Caribbean sea meets the dry tropical forests of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the tallest coastal mountains in the world, and one of the places with the highest amount of endemism on the planet.
If you go just outside of the park, all the way to the east, however, you can have all of that minus the crowds.
Hotel Casa Barlovento sits right up against the eastern border of Tayrona National Park and is separated from it by a river and lagoon.
It is where this photo was taken:
The ocean is rough here, so don’t expect leisurely swims or snorkelling (although you can go in the water), and the owners recommend not swimming in the river because of the off-chance that you encounter one of the park’s threatened but massive American crocodiles. There is a very popular surfing beach right next door, however, and you can organize day trips from the hotel to the park and even upriver.
The main draw of Barlovento is the serenity. You can stay in rooms right over the ocean (although the noise from crashing waves can get intense), or much more protected rooms off the dining area.
Barlovento has amazing views, relatively few people and a decent amount of coastal Colombian wildlife wandering the hotel grounds.
Taironaka is another beautiful and quite undiscovered nature travel and ecotourism option just outside the city of Santa Marta.
It is a bit farther from Santa Marta than the other destinations on this list, but it is well worth the trip. For my money, it’s the best eco-tourism option on Magdalena’s coast.
Taironaka–full name, “Taironaka Ecotourism and Archeological Site”–is closer to the department of La Guajira and the town of Palomino than it is to Santa Marta and quite a ways past Tayrona National Park on the coastal highway.
It is a series of small Maloka-style huts just off the Don Diego river and it features lush grounds, a river and beach that are basically all yours while you are there, and very few guests. Local people do come upriver to hang out, but getting there from Santa Marta or Palomino is not really all that straightforward, so you definitely don’t get anything resembling a crowd.
There are some nice (though mosquito-heavy hikes) that you can do from the lodge itself, as well as plenty of wildlife observation opportunities. If you want to sit on the beach and swim in the river all day, you will likely see macaws, toucans, howler monkeys and iguanas.
Taironaka is also nice because it contributes to the economy of both the local community of Don Diego–by employing people as boat drivers and hotel workers–and partners with the local indigenous groups to provide cultural tourism in and around Taironaka. It is a good example of how nature tourism benefits local communities.
The highlight of the trip for me was the squad of yellow-striped dart frogs that would hang out on the front porch every morning eating ants, and occasionally come into our Maloka.
The wildlife at Taironaka was nice all around:
The only issue I had with this place (although they may have rectified it by this point) was that my room didn’t have a mosquito net, which is 100 percent necessary at this place. You’re in the middle of the jungle here and sharing your room with bats, birds, lizards, frogs and insects. I don’t mind all that, just give me a net.
You can get to Taironaka by bus or you can arrange (or have your hotel help you arrange) a taxi from Santa Marta. It cost me around 200,000 COP each way (about $50 USD) and the price of accommodation wasn’t over the top. Food wasn’t included, but it was also reasonably priced.
You will need to either get off the bus at or have the taxi driver take you to the town of Don Diego, which is right on the coastal highway. Once you’ve made the turn-off, you will need to navigate your way through the small town to the boat launch where the ecolodge has small lanchas that come and go every so often. It’s not the most intuitive journey, but the place is small and close-knit enough that if you stop and ask for directions enough times, and mention you’re looking for Taironaka, you will find it.
Once at the boat launch, you can walk from the town to the lodge, but if you aren’t comfortable walking through the jungle in unfamiliar territory, best to wait for the boat.
The ride upriver is about 15 minutes and it’s really nice. Lots of wading birds on the sandbanks.
Lost City Trek
The Lost City Trek isn’t exactly a lesser-known nature travel or eco-tourism experience around Santa Marta. In fact, among foreigners, it’s probably one of the more popular. It deserves to be on the list, though, because it really is worth the money.
That is because the Lost City Trek gives you access to parts of the Sierra Nevada that you would otherwise not have access to. The local tour companies have forged partnerships and agreements with local indigenous groups, campesinos, as well (less pleasantly) the paramilitary factions that run the show in the mountainous regions of the coast, to offer the adventurous traveler and avid hiker something truly unique.
The trip starts just outside the bounds of Tayrona National Park and takes you deep into the Sierra Nevada Mountains through some sublime coastal mountain forests, past rivers, over bridges, and features plenty of sweeping Sierra Nevada vistas.
Tours typically last four days, with the final destination being the Lost City itself, or Teyuna Archeological Park, as it is officially called. The Lost City was only rediscovered in 1976, making it a site of both national and international significance, and on the way, you pass by various traditional villages where Kogui, Arhuaco, Kankuamo and Wiwa Indigenous groups continue to live and practice their ancient lifestyles, quite removed from Western civilization.
The trails are well-maintained for the most part, and it is an easy path to follow, although you definitely want (and need, by law I believe) to have a local guide with you. That said, expect to hike at least 4 hours the first day, 7 hours the second, 6 the third and, depending on whether you choose to do the 4 or 5-day hike, 7 hours on the fourth or 4 and 3, respectively.
You will be well-rewarded for the effort, however. Keep in mind that at such a pace, you really don’t have time to dawdle. You can, of course, stop to take photos, but if looking for and photographing wildlife is what you’re after, the tours aren’t really designed for that. You will still see a lot, regardless.
There are several tour operators based out of Santa Marta that organize trips year-round. Magic Tour Colombia, Teyuna Tours and Expotur seem to be the most popular. All of the companies charge between $300 and $400 USD for the trek, with meals and accommodation included.
Enjoying Santa Marta Means Avoiding The Tourist Traps
Most of the Santa Marta lists out there encourage you to check out places like Taganga, Rodadero, Playa Grande, Cabo San Juan, Minca, the Historic Centre, and urge you to visit the Simon Bolivar Museum.
If you like the crowds and the heavily commodified tourist experience, then by all means see the above places and nothing else. To be fair, aside from Rodadero and Taganga, all of the other options, and especially the Simon Bolivar museum, have their merits.
But if experiencing the natural beauty of Colombia’s Caribbean coast is the primary objective of your trip to Santa Marta–which for the vast majority of visitors, it is–and you want to do it in a way that is as unspoiled by mass tourism as possible, then take it from someone who has lived in Santa Marta, thoroughly explored the coast of Magdalena and knows how the tourism economy operates in and around the city: my list is much better.