As Colombia’s premier beach destination, Santa Marta has plenty of fun things on offer to keep travelers busy. Our top picks? Trekking to lesser-known ruins, discovering sea life while scuba diving and tucking into lobster and ceviche from street-food stalls. Read on for our list of the best things to see and do in Santa Marta.
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Spend the day exploring Tayrona National Natural Park
The Tayrona National Natural Park is far removed from modern life. This coastal stretch is the image of a far-flung paradise; it ticks off the classic tropes of an idyllic castaway with its dense jungle, palm trees and crescent of sand that backs out to the Caribbean Sea. Split your time between frolicking in the ocean and hiking forest trails.
Trek to the Lost City
Forget Peru’s Machu Picchu – the Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida as it’s known by locals, predates the Inca some 650 years. This indigenous citadel is lesser known due to its geographical location; unlike Machu Picchu, to reach the Lost City, you’ll have to commit to a four- to five-day trek through the deep jungle. Because of the terrain and heat, it’s a physical and mental challenge – but one that’s worth it.
Scuba dive in Taganga
The tiny fishing village of Taganga is 10 minutes north of Santa Marta, making it a popular day trip up the coast. Some come for its laid-back small-town vibe, while others stick around to learn how to scuba dive. Here, you’ll find some of the most cost-effective Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) open-water diving courses on the continent.
Catch some rays on Playa Blanca
If you want to take a day off from trekking and exploring, there’s no shame in flopping down on the beach and soaking up some rays. Playa Blanca is a somewhat secluded spot, accessible via a short boat ride from Playa El Rodadero. Several basic local restaurants line this well-maintained stretch of sand, so you won’t need to rush back when peckish.
Visit the Museo del Oro Tairona – Casa de la Aduana
The Museo del Oro Tairona (Tayrona Gold Museum) is a bit of a tourist trap with more than 500,000 visitors annually – but it’s not without good reason. Inside the grandiose Customs House, you’ll journey through a world of gilded artefacts, including pottery, statues and jewelry from the region’s indigenous and colonial past. The museum suggests booking e-tickets online to ensure your spot.
See art at Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino
This 17th-century quinta (which roughly translates to “country estate”) is worth a visit if you’re interested in art, architecture and history. It’s where the revolutionary hero and former president Simón Bolívar lived out his final days in the 19th century. Today, it’s an art museum where you can expect to discover art from the South American countries he liberated.
Beach party at El Rodadero
Who doesn’t love a beach party? The best place to let loose is at El Rodadero, a 15-minute drive south from the center of Santa Marta. This suburb really heats up during the summer months, as Colombians come to chill by the beach during the day and drink and dance to live music at night.
Enjoy organic coffee and cacao in Minca
This small village in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains is half an hour from Santa Marta and a must-visit if you’re a coffee or chocolate lover. Join a coffee tour of Colombia’s oldest coffee farm, La Victoria, before visiting El Paraiso de Tuki Cafe to enjoy rich cacao. Stay overnight to explore the area fully, including swimming under the Marinka Waterfalls.
Search for trinkets and food at the Santa Marta Market
Ceviche, fresh fruit and lobster are all widely available from the ubiquitous street-food stalls at Santa Marta Market. There are more than 500 vendors selling food and other goods, such as gifts and clothing, for pennies on the dollar. Fancy a sit-down meal? Head to the ocean promenade known as Avenida Bastidas for an outdoor dining experience with ocean views.
Wander the Simón Bolívar Metropolitan Park
You can’t get far in Colombia without learning about Simón Bolívar. The revolutionary figure is famous for liberating the nation and is commemorated with various parks and statues across the country. Santa Marta is particularly important in Bolívar’s story, as he lived and spent his final days here in his grand hacienda mentioned above. With its landscaped gardens and ocean views, this peaceful park lies in the heart of the city and is a favorite meeting spot for locals.
Discover marine life at the Rodadero Sea Aquarium and Museum
Learn about Colombia’s diverse marine life at the Rodadero Sea Aquarium and Museum, established by Captain Francisco Ospina Navia in 1966. The park is home to tropical fish, dolphins, sea turtles and sharks, 98 percent of which are native to the area. The aquarium is accessible by boat from Playa El Rodadero, one of Santa Marta’s best stretches of sand.
Get active at Parque del Agua
Parque del Agua opened in 2020. It was designed by urban regeneration architect Alejandro Arizmendi and offers sporting courts and climbing walls, a skate park and splash areas where kids can run in and out of fountains to cool off. The park is great for evening visits when the fountain lights up and the ice-cream parlor is in full swing.
Join a tour of Pico Cristóbal Colón
Named for the famous explorer Christopher Columbus, this mountain is Colombia’s highest, rising 18,799ft (5,730m) into the sky. The peak is part of the mystical Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range, home to indigenous communities and barely visited by tourists. You’ll need to book a tour through a licensed adventure company to visit. Choose one that works with local tribes to provide ethical treks in this sacred region, where you’ll find tropical forests, sparkling alpine lakes and glaciers.
Sit back and relax at Parque San Miguel
Experience a slice of local Santa Marta life at Parque San Miguel on the outskirts of town; this is where city residents come to hang out in the evenings. Watch older men take part in heated chess tournaments, catch a weekly basketball game or join an energetic Zumba class in this tree-shaded park. There are also several flower stands for people visiting the cemetery next door, which was relocated to the area in 1789.
Amy Blyth contributed additional reporting to this article.
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