When thinking of places to visit in Colombia, cities like Cartagena, Medellin, and Bogotá are usually top of mind. However, the lesser-known hidden gem beach town of Santa Marta should be on your bucket list.

Santa Marta, a premier beach destination, sits on the Caribbean Sea on the northern coast of Colombia. As Colombia’s third largest coastline, Santa Marta is the oldest surviving city in Latin America, dating back to July 29, 1525, which are the days of Spanish Conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas. Unlike the overcrowded, not-so-picturesque beaches of Cartegena, the city’s seaside views offer every shade of blue and plenty of room to relax in the sun. 

If the idea of a culturally rich coastal city with delicious food, affordable stays and otherworldly nature experiences is your ideal getaway, Santa Marta delivers on all fronts. The city’s magnificent white-sand beaches are bordered by the lush mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria Range, the highest coastal range in the world. It’s the perfect blend of land and sea and is home to more than one hundred Colombian-Caribbean, European and local seafood restaurants with amazing dishes for every meal. 

To get to Santa Marta, travel to Cartagena and transfer by taxi, bus or private car, or fly directly into Simón Bolívar International Airport. Prior to your trip make sure to confirm reservations for your preferred activities. While Santa Marta is less busy than other South American cities, some attractions operate on seasonal schedules and limited availability.

Bookmark these must-try activities for your next Santa Marta vacation.

Visit Colombia’s Breathtaking Tayrona National Park

TN Hidden Gem Santa Marta - Tayrona National Park beach
Photo Credit: Azzedine Rouichi

At the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and edge of the Caribbean coast sits the land-protected area of Tayrona National Park. After a 45-minute drive from the city center, arrive at the entrance of a natural attraction unlike any other. Hike through the park or journey by horse for a sensory-overload jungle experience. 

Park wildlife includes 105 species of mammals, 46 species of amphibians and reptiles and 300 species of birds, according to the Global Alliance of National Parks. Stop to sightsee animals in their natural environment en route to the park’s brilliant beaches. Take breaks at various beach spots along the way or head straight for the main beach, where the best views and cold cervezas await.

Tayrona closes three times each year to allow ecosystem recovery and give sacred space to indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to perform spiritual rituals. The park operates from 8:00 a.m, until 5:00 p.m., so make sure to arrive early to enjoy a full day. Besides, you’ll want to make your way out of the park before the sun sets and larger animals begin stirring.

Set Sail at Marina Park

TN Hidden Gem Santa Marta - Marina Park
Photo Credit: Oscar Ivan Esquivel Arteaga

Opt for a day on the water by chartering a private or group sailing tour. Hopping on a boat is one of the best ways to appreciate the beauty of this region of Colombia. As part of the day, your charter team may venture to boat-only access beaches or find the perfect spot for snorkeling. The best sailing charters will include lunch, which is a fan-favorite for fish lovers who love local food. 

If water activities are your happy place, a sailing day in Santa Marta is an unforgettable way to pass the time.

View A Beautiful Sunset at Taganga Bay

TN Hidden Gem Santa Marta - Taganga Bay
Photo Credit: Oscar Ivan Esquivel Arteaga

Taganga is a 10-minute ride from Santa Marta, making it super easy to add to the schedule. Spend an afternoon at the traditional fishing village and enjoy the world’s most beautiful sunsets as street musicians play the soundtrack to your dreamy life.

Plan a beach day at nearby Playa Grande or join a local fishing tour. Shopping is also noticeably less costly than Santa Marta, so carve out time if souvenirs are important. End the day watching locals play soccer on the beach, while enjoying freshly-squeezed fruit juice or a handcrafted cocktail.

Nightlife in Santa Marta

Similar to many beach cities, the daytime fun keeps going when the sun goes down. Many of the city center’s walkable streets come alive as the day progresses. Bar hop in the evening, taste various foods, stroll through the modest crowd and take in a street performance.

TN Picks: Activities in Santa Marta

Do you need a few more ideas for activities to book during your trip to Santa Marta? Here are three fun ways to see the best of the city.

Enjoy a Day Tour of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park

Travel through the mountains to the Marinka waterfalls and thermal pools of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park. Relax in the nearby giant hammock overlooking the waterfall as you soak in local culture from your guide. Close out the day with a chocolate tasting at the Museo del Cacao.

Sail Dream Blue Waters to Parque Tayrona

Picture this: You board a 17-meter yacht where Luis’ team is ready to safely sail you to the coastal park. Settle in for your boat day and enjoy the beach vibes at Tayrona National Park. Swim, snorkel or do nothing on the beach before returning to the marina.

Make the Trek to Colombia’s Lost City (Ciudad Perdida)

Experienced hikers will enjoy a small group guided trek through the jungle for several days. Embrace hikes lasting for hours, campsite stops each night and natural pools before reaching The Lost City, also known as Teyuna. After three days of immersion in local culture and nature, return to the city to recover and relax.

These Santa Marta things to do only scratch the surface of ways to explore the Magdalena Department of Colombia. Take on all the adventures or only a few, but one thing is for sure: your first visit won’t be your last.

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