What to do in Santa Marta when Tayrona is closed (Colombia)?

The main reason why travellers go to Santa Marta is because of the national park Tayrona, which (allegedly) has some of the nicest beaches in the Caribbean. When we were planning our trip around Colombia, we were hesitating either to go to the eje cafetero (coffee region) or Tayrona national park. At the end we opted to go to Tayrona. We bought a flight from Medellin to Santa Marta, where we planned to stay two nights and spend one whole day in Tayrona national park.

However, only two weeks before our departure to Colombia we, accidentally, came across that the Tayrona national park will be closed exactly during the time we were planning to be there. Unfortunately, it was too late for us to change our plans, our flights and hotels were already booked. So we needed to find alternatives and I found that beaches of Palomino are very nice and worth a visit. We decided to rent a car for a day and go there instead.

Santa Marta city
Santa Marta is apparently the oldest city in South America. It is a small town on the Caribbean coast with a strong Caribbean culture. People are very relaxed and laid back, which will definitely be connected to the heat and the scorching sun.
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The airport is very small and poorly organised. Right in front of the luggage claim area there are many taxis and they say they are secure, although they looked quite dodgy. They have a fixed rate of 28,000 to Santa Marta (there’s a chart at the exit from the baggage claim area). The one we took was falling apart and the driver was quite crazy, but we got to our hotel safe and well.

The town of Santa Marta has some old colonial parts, but in general is not that interesting. It is quite small and all activity is centred between the Parque de los Novios, Parque Simón Bolívar and the Callejón del Correo. There is a Museo del Oro to visit, but not much more than that. The biggest attraction are the beaches nearby.

However, Santa Marta has a small, but lively evening life. Most restaurants and bars are concentrated on Callejón del Correo or the Parque de los Novios. The atmosphere in the streets is quite nice, there are many artists that perform in the street and the Parque de los Novios is full of people.

El Rodadero
We arrived late in the afternoon, so we decided to pay a quick visit to El Rodadero. A part of Santa Marta with the closes beaches to the city.
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The beach is long with grey sand. The water is very cold at first, but then it feels just about right. They rent some sort of tents on the beach to protect you from the sun and there are vendors passing by every 10 seconds. There are mostly Colombian families on the beach and a lot of children. It seems like it’s mostly catering to national tourism.
To get to El Rodadero we took a local bus ($1,400) from Carrera 1 (the malecón) in Santa Marta. They come by every couple of minutes and there’s a ‘conductor’ that jumps on and off calling on for people to hop onto the bus. The one we took was a real character. He even got into a fight with another person. We didn’t quite understand how or why it happened, but all of a sudden the bus doors closed and a guy outside was pointing a small knife though the window. The conductor took a (really) large knife himself and started to threaten the guy outside. I didn’t dare to take any pictures. Fortunately the other guy walked away relatively quickly and all ended just fine. It felt somewhat dangerous, but all of the other passengers were very calm and didn’t care much about the knives.
Palomino
Palomino is a small town about 70km east from Santa Marta along the main road leading towards the border with Venezuela. We decided to rent a car for one day to have the liberty of moving around. It took us about 1.5h to drive there. Similar to El Rodadero the sand is a mix between yellow and gray. However the sea here was very wavy and they say the currents are very powerful and that it can be dangerous. I found it quite fun though.
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The beach was really nice, with not that many people there and a relaxed atmosphere. Most of the tourists were backpackers or groups of young people. There were several beach vendors coming around and selling all sorts of trinkets and food, but not that many as in Rodadero.
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Taganga
Taganga is a horse-shoe shaped bay just north of Santa Marta. We got very mixed information about Taganga. Guide books, especially Lonely Planet, are quite negative about it (especially about the security), but a Colombian friend of mine talked quite positively about it. Hence, we decided just to stop there for a quick look to judge for ourselves.
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On the way there is a viewpoint overlooking the bay. The views from there are really nice, and Taganga indeed looks quite cute. However, after descending into the village we found a different reality. The village is run down, buildings falling apart and streets made of dirt. It really feels depressing and unsafe. I would not recommend going there at all.
Transportation Santa Marta to Cartagena
There are public busses that will take you from the main bus terminal in Santa Marta (to the bus terminal in Cartagena) for around $28,000. img_5423-640x480However, the bus terminal is quite far from the centre, so we decided to rather take a door-to-door van service. We used MarSol and they picked us up at our hotel and left us at the Puerta del Reloj in Cartagena for $48,000 per person.
They say the service leaves at 8.30am, but they pick you up to one hour before. We were the fist ones to be picked up at 7.30am and then we collected more people in other parts of town and we arrived to Cartagena around 12.30 – 5h in total. The transportation was in a comfortable van for 18 passengers. We made two short stops for WC and food on the way. I think they provided an excellent service and I would definitely recommend this option
Restaurants in Santa Marta
Lamart: Simple and nice restaurant on the Callejón de Correos serving mostly fish dishes. We ordered a ceviche, an octopus a la gallega and a fish. The food was very good and fresh. The atmosphere was really cool, especially if you sit outside in the small alley, with all the artists performing in the street.
Lulo: Just next door to Lamart. The menu centred around antojos, such as cebiches, arenas, wraps and sandwiches. The menu actually looks more like a breakfast/lunch place, but it is also one of the most popular places on TripAdvisor. We had a ceviche that was based on cooked shrimps, which I don’t really consider a ceviche, and an arepa with octopus. The food was quite good, but the service was very slow. It seems that they became too popular and can’t be bothered to serve all the new customers, since they have so many anyway.
Bars: There are plenary of bars on the Parque de los Novios and other side streets. A really nice atmosphere if you can sit outside in the park or on one of the pedestrian streets and watch the life go by.
Hotel
Casa de Isabella: A nice boutique hotel in the centre of town, just a couple of steps from the Plaza de los Novios. The decor is very well taken care of and the rooms are beautiful (somewhat small though) and the staff are very nice. The breakfast could be improved though, the coffee is really bad and the dishes were a bit tasteless. The Wifi had a very bad reception and the speed was super slow.
Santa Marta vlog
A collection of my pics from Santa Marta in a vlog on YouTube:
Part of a week in Colombia
This was the third stop on a week long trip around Colombia.
We spent two nights in each: Bogota, Medellin, Santa Marta and Cartagena. It was a rushed but well planned trip, and I think we really got a great feel for the country. However, there are many other things to see in Colombia. On future occasions I’d like to go back and see Zona Cafetera, Parque Tayrona (which was closed on our visit), and the Amazon region.
My map of Colombia
I prepared a map with all the places we visited:
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