Honestly, I really wanted to like Santa Marta. We’d heard that foreign travellers often just use it as a jumping off point to other places on the coast, but a lot of Colombians from the cities use it as their beach resort. Those that can afford it even have holiday homes there!
After three days in the city, I don’t really understand the appeal. There are so many wonderful places in this country, and Santa Marta is just an aging port city. In the colonial era it had huge importance for trade with the Caribbean strongholds, and it played a part in Colombia’s battle with the drug trade in the 20th Century as a popular exit point to the United States of America. Now it still acts as a port town for business and it toys with tourism, torn between the two its identity seems lost.
There are some great restaurants in the old town, but unlike previous places we had been (think Cartagena!), the buildings were a lot more run down and uncared for. Buildings are marked with their historical importance by plaques on their walls, yet the brick is sadly crumbling around them. There are efforts of restoration underway, but I think it will be a long time before it comes anywhere close to its former glory.
The streets outside the old town are busy with people and vehicles. Street stalls with salchicha (sausages), meat kebabs, arepa, flip flops, clothing, and even Christmas decorations (it was November!) line the pavement, to the point where it’s hard for pedestrians to walk without stepping into the road.
Despite being on the coast line, the air is oppressive. It’s heavy with the heat, vehicle exhaust fumes, and the chattering of vendors. To get away from the humidity we took refuge within the Gold Museum. It seems like every city in Colombia has one, but having visited Bogota’s, which holds one of the most expansive collections of pre-Hispanic gold in South America, we have regularly skipped the others. In Santa Marta, we were drawn by the thought of aircon, yet left pleasantly surprised by what we found, and we’d recommend a visit when you’re in town. It has great exhibits on the pre-colonial groups that lived across the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta. This includes information on the Tayrona National Park, which derives its name from one of the indigenous populations that used to live in the area, and the Lost City, which was rediscovered in the 1970’s and is now a popular trekking destination (Colombia’s rival to Machu Picchu!).
One of the best things about the city is watching the sun set from the beach. The beach itself is unimpressive, and to your right you have the huge port and cranes, but on a clear day the sky is lovely. Other than this, sadly all we can tell you is how to get away from Santa Marta! Take a look here to see all the awesome stuff we got chance to do along Colombia’s Caribbean coast!