Santa Marta. What a perfect place to forget about those cold winds, dry air, and squashed public transport in Bogotá.
To maximize your precious time here, it’s imperative to experience the city and its compelling surroundings at a distance from the crowd-gathering places of interest.
If you are seeking a different sort of coastal holiday, one that guarantees exploring lonely landscapes, benefiting and learning from local culture, and just eating great food, there are some alternative ways to appreciate the charm that Santa Marta has tucked away.
But you’ll always be in close range of the bustling beach culture, sweltering streets and rumble of raucous chivas.
Santa Marta on two wheels
The healthiest and coolest – both in temperature and style – way to travel around the city is by bike. Explore the streets and small alleyways. Discover history through the monuments, museums and churches. Experience the markets and offerings from street vendors, or just observe the daily life of locals from the vantage of two wheels.
Let’s Go Santa Marta Bike and Mulata Hostel (Carrera 19 No. 3-32) offer personalized bike tours and bicycle rentals. To promote “green” transport among samarios (the term for Santa Marta locals), you can participate in the weekly bike night every Thursday and meet like-minded people while whizzing around town.
Bike riding and walking in tropical weather can be challenging, so thirst-quenching drinks are necessary. Luckily, Santa Marta is a fruit mecca, and on virtually every corner you’ll find vendors offering a variety of freshly-squeezed juices that are a perfect way to deal with the Caribbean heat.
Try mango and maracuyá, or add some chocolate powder, Milo, to your zapote.
Historic downtown, unforgettable food
For an afternoon pick-me-upper, several options are to be had within the historic city centre. For the more intimate, try the homemade brownies or cinnamon rolls from Carepastel (Calle 19 No. 3- 105). Next door, at Carambolo, you’ll find the best place for a hit of frozen yoghurt, topped with fresh fruit and the sauce of your choice.
The cultural café La Canoa (Calle 18 No. 3-75) specializes in coffee and French-style pastries. Indulge in their éclairs, among many other sweet offerings. You can stay for dinner as the colourful fusion of French and Caribbean-style cooking wafts from the kitchen.
If downtown becomes tiresome, Santa Marta offers an escape to calmer residential areas – the barrios – where you can find fabulous restaurants tucked away inside homes.
If you’re in the mood for sushi, there’s the traditional Los Cocos neighbourhood to enjoy a romantic evening and inviting meal at Hay Sushi (Calle 26A No. 1C-54). The professional service and skills of the chef, together with the arty ambiance lead to a charming evening out.
For carnivores, Ombú Steakhouse (Cra.13 No. 27-62) in the Bavaria neighbourhood is the place to get your fix, and the beef cuts are worth the price.
For the best empanadas (as recommended to me by a trusted Samario) Empanadas Los Ángeles in the barrio of the same name. Try the corn, bacon and cheese, the queso costeño with shrimp or pineapple, the afrodisiaca … the list goes on.
Getting out of the city
Santa Marta has the luxury of being conveniently close to several incredible places and the mountain trek of the Paso del Mango is a wonderful way to absorb the pristine environment of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Pick and indulge in the fruits found en route or simply cool off in the natural rock pools.
The trail traverses between Minca and Bonda, with the journey commonly starting in Minca. If you are a fan of your knees, I highly recommend hiking the other way round, as the trail is quite steep on the Bonda side.
If hiking is not your strength, take the colectivo from the central market or a taxi to Minca and relax in the Cascada Marinka, a waterfall situated 20 minutes from the village where pure flowing water, from snowy peaks, will restore your vitality.
No doubt you will want to visit Tayrona National Park. But knowing how to escape the masses is just as important. Enter the park via the Palagana entrance and follow the dusty potholed road (preferably in a 4×4) until Bahía Gairaca. There you’ll have to negotiate a lancha (a small boat) to take you to Playa de Amor, a small secluded beach surrounded by breath-taking landscapes. Bring your own snorkel gear as the clear waters allow for some excellent swimming and marine life observation.
As the second oldest colonial city in South America, Santa Marta, always needs updating and is constantly evolving to live up to the expectations of tourists. It’s not a place you’ll easily forget, especially after a full day of walking, biking, swimming, and of course, eating!