Founded by the Spanish in 1525, Santa Marta is one of the oldest permanent cities in the Americas and it’s got colonial architecture, a whitewashed cathedral, and endless opportunities to explore nature within its reach. Though the city is a bit gritty, it’s worth visiting for the history, waterfront, and vibrant street food scene.
There’s a public market to wander through, dive shops where you can get scuba certified, and Caribbean beaches within reach. Best of all, Santa Marta is located near Tayrona National Park which is teeming with wildlife, walking trails, and camping spots.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Santa Marta:
The modern, beachy neighborhood of Santa Marta, this is where you’ll find many of the city’s restaurants, bars, resorts, and hotels, and it’s where many visitors choose to say.
There’s great shopping, decent nightlife, and a good range of seafood and souvenirs.
Stroll the boardwalk, try some street food, and listen to the lively, local music.
The beach in Rodadero is big and easily accessible, but it gets crowded with tourists and ambitious vendors who won’t take no for an answer.
It still does the job, but it’s also easy to take a water taxi to more secluded beaches nearby!
2. Scuba Diving
One of the cheapest places in the world to get your Scuba certification, why not learn to dive in the clear, warm waters of the Caribbean? Santa Marta and the nearby village of Taganga are great places for that with their many reliable, safe, and professional dive shops.
They’ll provide transportation to Tayrona National Park for diving around the islands there, as well as snacks, equipment, and all the study materials you’ll need.
There are endless schools of colorful fish, coral reefs, and even turtles and dolphins if you’re lucky! In town, check out Santa Marta Dive and Adventure, and in Taganga, visit Poseidon Dive Center.
3. La Ciudad Perdida Trek
Hiking fans can make the journey to Colombia’s “Lost City,” an ancient settlement built by the Tayrona people around the year 800 AD. Hidden deep within the coastal jungles, Ciudad Perdida was abandoned around the time the Spanish arrived and only rediscovered in the 1970s.
The remains include impressive stone terraces, stairs, and walkways which are only reachable on foot.
The guided trek to the ruins is a hot, muddy, steep slog through tropical vegetation with river crossings and steep climbs.
In all honesty, the walk is difficult, the mosquitos are incessant, and you’ll be sleeping in open air shelters, but the reward is worth it.
4. La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino
This is an old colonial hacienda and sugar cane refinery just five minutes outside of Santa Marta.
Its claim to fame is that Simón Bolívar spent the last days of his life here, and today you can tour the property to learn its history and hear stories of his final hours.
Wander the botanical gardens and the art gallery now located at the quinta – it’s a fun mix of history and nature.
If you like, you can get a guide too – they’re students from a local high school! You’ll feel transported in time amongst the colonial architecture and furniture.
Be sure to keep an eye out for the iguanas that roam around too.
5. Tayrona National Park
The biggest draw of any visit to Santa Marta is a trip to the nearby protected national park of Tayrona.
It’s located right on the coast with many square miles of forested mountains and multiple beaches.
The lush green landscape is teeming with biodiversity, and you’ll see birds, monkeys, leaf cutter ants, and maybe even sloths on your way in.
You can arrive via public bus from the city and then hike all the way to viewpoints, jungle trails, and beaches.
It’s worth it to spend the night since the walk in takes so long.
Rent a hammock or a tent and camp out at Cabo San Juan – it’s rustic but incredible! You could also ride a horse into the park or negotiate with a boat to drop you off from Taganga.
You’ll find beach restaurants here selling fried fish, rice, and cold beers.
Remember to bring mosquito repellant, good shoes, and sunscreen.
6. Visit the Santa Marta Public Market
Located just near the spot where you catch the bus to Tayrona, this sprawling market is an assault on the senses.
Take some time to stroll through for a taste of an authentic Colombian market… and some just-prepared local food if you want! The bottom floor houses meat and fish as well as clothes, soccer jerseys, shoes, and other apparel on the outskirts.
The top has vegetables, fruits, and herbs.
It’s colorful, lively, smelly, and sometimes wet, but it’s a great place to see the culture and gastronomy of Santa Marta.
You can’t get any food fresher than this, so buy a fish that looks good and have them fry it for you while you’re here.
7. Wander the Historic City Center
Santa Marta was the first Spanish settlement in Colombia and it’s one of the oldest surviving cities in South America.
Despite its gritty exterior, bad traffic, and pockets of crime, a stay (or a stroll) through the city’s historic center is worth your while.
The Catedral de Santa Marta is a whitewashed beauty that’s rumored to be the oldest cathedral on the continent.
Inside you can see where they kept the remains of Simón Bolívar before sending them to his descendants in Venezuela.
Take in the colorful colonial architecture and old homes around here on your way to Parque de los Novios.
8. Visit Minca
Set in the mountains just outside of Santa Marta, this village is a cool green escape from the sultry city and beaches.
Birdwatchers will love this biodiverse area of the cloud forest that’s only recently been discovered by tourists and backpackers.
You can also visit the two waterfalls of Marinka and Pozo Azul for a dip in their refreshing waters.
Be sure to do the three-hour hike up Los Pinos for a look at the viewpoint and a bit of lounging in the gigantic hammock at Casa Elemento.
Mototaxis are available if you don’t want to hike the trail both ways.
Then check out Finca La Victoria for a look at one of Colombia’s coffee regions and traditional processing methods.
9. Eat All the Caribbean Cuisine and Street Food
Santa Marta’s streets are packed with vendors selling phenomenally cheap and fresh local food.
After you’ve had your fill of fried fish and arroz de coco (coconut rice), grab a styrofoam cup of Colombian ceviche – the addition of ketchup to the mix is interesting! There’s a plethora of fresh fruit and juices, so be sure to try things you can’t get at home, like lulo and maracuya.
The seafood is excellent, from pargo (snapper) to langostinos (warm water lobsters), and the cazuela de mariscos (seafood stew) is delicious and affordable.
Try the grilled chorizo and fried potatoes you’ll find around the Éxito supermarket too! For some gourmet arepas, hit up Lulo.
10. Visit Taganga
A haven for backpackers, partiers, and divers, Taganga is a formerly tiny fishing village turned tourism hotspot.
Though a bit dirty and overdeveloped, the area surrounding it – including Tayrona National Park – is truly beautiful.
Depending on whether you’re feeling its vibe, you may just want to visit for a look at the viewpoint or a trip out on a boat.
It’s full of dive shops, a few good restaurants, hostels, and places for partying at night.
The beach here is no longer good for swimming, but you can hike to Playa Grande or Bonito Gordo for better beaches – just check with the locals first to be sure it’s safe and don’t bring any valuables with you.
11. Paseo El Camellon
Santa Marta’s palm tree-lined waterfront promenade runs from the old port to the new marina.
It’s worth a stroll – especially at sunset – to grab a drink or a snack while you check out the views over the water.
Along Avenida Las Bastidas, you’ll find men selling ceviche and arepas as well as sweets, fresh coconuts, and tropical fruits.
Tourists seem to love posing with the statues of the larger-than-life indigenous figures here, and you’ll even see some locals swimming here.
Nearby you’ll find the governor’s house, craft stores, and a few nice restaurants.
12. Playa Blanca
One of the better beaches that you can visit from Santa Marta, Playa Blanca is where the waters turn turquoise and the sand turns white(ish). From Rodadero, you’ll find plenty of men with boats willing to take you there for a few dollars, and the crowds here are more low-key than in town.
This is the place for you to try some snorkeling (be wary of the sea urchins), relax in the sun, and hike to the viewpoint.
There’s also a few activities like banana boat rides and ziplines, plus plenty of places to eat fried fish and grab a cold beer.
You could also combine a visit here with a trip to the Rodadero Aquarium.
13. El Dorado Reserve
One of the top birding destinations in Colombia, if you want to spot tons of endemic, rare, and threatened species, head to El Dorado Reserve outside of Minca.
Book accommodation at the lodge here and they’ll arrange for a private driver, or you could take a taxi (and possibly a moto-taxi or 4×4) up from Santa Marta.
You’ll arrive in the cloud forest with views of the mountains, lush vegetation, and pure natural surroundings.
As far as birds, expect to see hundreds of hummingbirds as well as quetzals, trogons, and tanagers (among others). Arrange for night walks to experience wildlife like frogs, lizards, possums, and monkeys.
The lodge at El Dorado provides spectacular eco-friendly rooms and amazing meals.
14. Tairona Museo de Oro
Smaller than the Bogotá Gold Museum but with insightful cultural information nonetheless, the Tayrona gold collection is a great free attraction in Santa Marta.
It focuses on the ancient indigenous civilizations of the Sierra Nevada region, especially the Tayrona.
You’ll also learn more about the history of the city of Santa Marta itself as you explore all the gold and ceramic artifacts collected from past societies.
Located in a beautiful old house, there’s a lovely interior courtyard where you can sit after you’re done browsing.
15. Parque de los Novios
During the day, you’ll find shady trees, monuments, and park benches, but the real attraction is the number of restaurants that surround Parque de los Novios.
At lunch, get a cheap menu del día nearby at one of the traditional or more modern restaurants.
But this park really comes alive at night when young people gather before heading out to the bars and clubs.
Come here after you take in sunset at the marina to listen to the music blaring from the nearby bars or a live performance in the square.
Grab a drink and hang with the locals before going out for the night.