Chances are, if you’re visiting Santa Marta, South America’s oldest surviving city, it is on your way to other more well-known destinations like Parque Tayrona or Ciudad Perdida. And while these are surely places you don’t want to miss, the Caribbean coastal town of Santa Marta is worth a visit beyond a stop-through.
Sure, its location near so many popular destinations makes it a convenient spot to book tours, regroup, or take a load off, but I’d encourage you to add a couple of days in Santa Marta to your northern Colombia itinerary. It’s deserving of more than a simple stopover. Below are my top six things to do during your time in the town.
1. Take A Free Walking Tour
These tours are some of my favorite things to do upon entering a new town. I like to do these as soon as I arrive because they are a great way to get a feel for a new city. Most tours meet in Parque de los Novios and will give you information on how to find the guide ahead of time. They will likely be wearing a specific color or holding a flag.
While there are a handful of different tour companies to choose from, most walking tours will last about 2–3 hours. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, a sun hat, and lots of sunscreen. (This city gets hot!) You will visit several of the main attractions in Santa Marta such as the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Library, which pays tribute to the late author.
Along the way, your knowledgeable guide will captivate you with interesting anecdotes about the city’s history and culture. Feel free to ask them any questions you have. When you are finished with the tour, you will have a much better feel for the city and where attractions are located and can now easily return to explore longer on your own.
Pro Tip: While these tours are called “free walking tours” and they are indeed free to book and attend, there is an expectation for a tip of some kind at the end. If you are happy with your tour guide, be sure you have some cash on you at the end to show them your appreciation.
2. Parque De Los Novios
More than just your starting point for the free walking tours, Parque de los Novios is a popular gathering place for locals and visitors alike. This “Park of Lovers” has recently undergone a much-needed makeover. It is now a beautiful spot for newlyweds to pose for engagement or wedding photos by the park’s main attraction, The Templete del Parque, a beautiful white-washed gazebo.
The renovation did a good job of keeping the park’s Colonial feel while also adding a chill tropical vibe. This makes it a great place to enjoy some street food, sit back and relax, and people watch while taking a break from your busy sightseeing schedule.
Nearby is Calle 19, a new pedestrian street filled with cafés, restaurants, and bars. Take a stroll down this car-less street and choose from any number of hip, gourmet eateries. If gourmet food is not in your budget, there are plenty of street stalls all around the park.
Enjoy watching the sunset in the park and then watch it erupt with nightlight as the bandstand lights up, musicians play, and salsa dancers fill the streets. Its location near the historic city center means you will never be far from all the main attractions Santa Marta has to offer.
3. Arepa De Huevos
Speaking of street food, this is the food that was recommended to me by nearly every Colombian student I ever had. Arepa de huevo is a popular hand-held meal in northern Colombia. While you will find arepas all over Colombia, it is generally only in the north that you will find this variation.
The best place to find these are in street stalls. They are made from a corn dough that is deep-fried until it puffs up. A hole punctures it so that a raw egg can be slipped inside. It is then deep-fried again. Sometimes you might find these with stewed ground beef as well.
These are a great, cheap, and easy breakfast any day. They also make a great snack to take with you on your afternoon strolls. Couple this with a fresh jugo de guayaba agria, or guava juice, and you have a tasty, traditional, northern Caribbean meal.
Pro Tip: Be sure to agree on a price before accepting any samples from street vendors. This rule also applies to taxis and any other services that do not show a set price. It also applies to taking pictures. Be sure to ask first and avoid being hassled for money after.
4. Quinta De San Pedro Alejandrino
This is the homestead where Venezuelan military and political leader, Simon Bolivar, spent his last days. If you spend any time in Latin America, you will likely be familiar with this leader and his role in bringing independence to several Latin American countries, including Colombia. Streets are named after him, statues in his honor stand in plazas and parks (like Parque Bolivar in Santa Marta), and museums like Quita de San Pedro Alejandrino abound.
More than just a museum, this hacienda was once a rum distillery using sugarcane which was cultivated and processed on the property. There is also now a botanical garden on the grounds. This garden boasts plants and trees gifted by other countries in homage to the great leader.
Located in the Mamatoco neighborhood and about a 20-minute bus ride from the waterfront, this museum is open every day of the year except January 1. Entrance is about $6 USD. Be sure to plan for a couple of hours to explore the hacienda and its grounds. Guides can be hired in a variety of languages.
Pro Tip: If you’re hoping to spot the famous iguanas of Colombia, this is a great place to do so. They are everywhere here.
5. Admire Street Art
This is becoming a popular thing around the world and I’m not mad about it. I first encountered street art in abundance in Valparaiso, Chile. It has since become one of my favorite things to do when exploring a new city.
Santa Marta is filled with beautiful street art. In downtown Santa Marta, you can take a guided tour or simply set out on your own. There is the Ruta del Grafiti, or “Graffiti Route,” that you can follow to see the highlights of these murals and graffiti. Wherever you are in Santa Marta, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for this great street art.
6. Rodadero Beach
You may have noticed that so far on this list, I’ve not mentioned any beaches. This may seem weird since Santa Marta is a coastal town. And while there are a lot of beaches in Santa Marta, many of them are polluted due to their proximity to the port and most are overcrowded due to their proximity to the center.
However, Rodadero Beach is an exception and would be the only beach I’d recommend in Santa Marta (there are plenty I’d recommend quite nearby, like Taganga and Parque Tayrona, but this article is about Santa Marta).
Just 3 miles south of Santa Marta, Rodadero Beach is a popular spot for Colombians on vacation. This does mean it will very likely be crowded, but it will also have all sorts of amenities such as chairs, umbrellas, sports equipment, and lots of beach vendors. Its setting among the mountains and its white sands are sure to please.
While generally just a launching point from which to take or book more popular destinations in Caribbean Colombia, I hope I’ve shown you that Santa Marta is well worth a couple of days. Prepare to do some serious relaxing, eat some amazing food, and enjoy a city full of history and culture.