When a Caribbean escape beckons, Colombia can be an overlooked destination. Over the last decade, though, security has steadily been replacing the shadow of the country’s violent past. One destination in Colombia’s northeast region is now attracting more international visitors: the coastal Caribbean area of Santa Marta.
Established in 1525 by the Spanish as a base of conquest, Santa Marta sits at the foot of the world’s highest coastal mountain range, the towering Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Sultry by day and balmy by night, the Santa Marta area requires a streak of adventure and willingness to learn a little Spanish, but the broad range of activities and excursions -- including the area’s crown jewel, Tayrona National Park -- are well worth the effort.
Tayrona's Beauty and Beaches
Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona is a protected region of teeming biodiversity covering approximately 12 square miles of the Caribbean Sea and 45 square miles of accessible beaches, horseshoe bays and rain forest habitat. Naturally, it’s also one of the top destinations for domestic tourism within Colombia, yet attracts backpackers and nature lovers worldwide. Hike trails through verdant rainforests lead to lovely stretches of sand such as Arrecifes, La Ardilla and La Piscina. Enjoy an exhilarating horse ride through the jungle, negotiating narrow ravines and steep inclines.
Take land or sea transport to must-see beaches such as Neguange, Playa Cristal and Concha, surrounded by bays jutting out of the Sierra Nevada’s knarled jungle cover and palm trees. After seeing all the beaches, experience some waves on your own or with the family by taking surfing lessons at the relaxed Casa Grande Surf school, just 3 miles from Tayrona.
Diving and Snorkeling off Taganga
The small fishing village of Taganga, about 3 miles outside the old town of Santa Marta, often serves as the launching point of trips to nearby Tayrona Park. The sweeping view from its deeply-set bay is stunning and the surrounding diving opportunities are a marvel. One of the most heavily visited destinations on Colombia’s Caribbean coast,
Taganga is popular with the backpacker crowd. Loud music from the one club in town can turn a tranquil location into a loudspeaker, but Taganga is worth a visit. Try the Bahia hotel and restaurant overlooking the bay, where the friendly staff are ready to assist with travel arrangements utilizing the best taxi driver in town, Nestor.
6-Day Trek to the "Lost City"
Lying undiscovered since the Spanish conquest, the mountain city of Cuidad Perdida was uncovered by grave robbers in 1972. With origins dating to the 7th century, Cuidad Perdida was built by the native Tairona people. In time, the Lost City served as a major hub to more than 3,000 inhabitants. Today, the only way to get here is an arduous 32-mile, 6-day hike. Not for the faint-hearted, but if your inner Indiana Jones is calling, you’ll find yourself trekking the final 1,200 stone steps up to the entrance to a pre-Colombian town that predates Machu Picchu by 650 years.
Minca's Waterfalls, Coffee Plantations and Exotic Birds
Southeast of Santa Marta, the small mountain town of Minca awaits with its cool climate and hundreds of exotic bird species. Located at the beginning of Colombia’s “coffee zone,” Minca is a welcome respite from the low-land heat of Santa Marta. Tour the organic coffee farm Hacienda La Victoria and meet Senor Jorge Martinez, who has overseen the farm’s traditional operations for nearly 30 years. Hike or ride on the back of a motor bike to Pozo Azul, a freshwater waterfall or take a dip at Arimaka waterfall or Las Piedras (The Stones).
Wind down your nature explorations by taking a tour of Santa Marta’s historic destinations, including Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino -- a colonial hacienda with gorgeous gardens, where the South American liberator Simon Bolivar spent his final days. Dine at the highly-rated, bohemian Gourmet Plaza restaurant, affiliated with La Casa boutique hotel down the street. If staying nearby, Hotel Tamaca in El Rodadero and Hotel Santorini are solid choices for location and service.
Getting Around Santa Marta
When traveling throughout Santa Marta, you will likely experience jarring transportation conditions on some back roads and see wrenching examples of the income disparity Colombia is now struggling to overcome. Yet it still common to hear about many visitors who find themselves happily and pleasantly stuck in some exotic destination in this diverse region, lending credence to the local saying that in today’s Colombia, “The only risk is wanting to stay.”