Everyone who appreciates the Caribbean has heard of Cartagena, Colombia. This Spanish-colonial city on the Caribbean Sea is Colombia’s #1 draw for foreign visitors and home to a sizeable expat community.
But just 150 miles up the Caribbean coast is another Caribbean town that you may not have heard of…
Santa Marta offers excellent diving, sandy beaches, calm waters, an upbeat and energetic culture, and a collection of diverse and attractive living options.
While Cartagena is where the world comes to visit… Santa Marta is a place to settle in.
And thanks to the continued strength of the U.S. dollar versus the Colombian peso, dollar holders enjoy a serious buying advantage right now.
Colombia’s Oldest City Has Been Reborn
Columbus visited Santa Marta on his second voyage to the New World in 1499. The oldest city in Colombia, Santa Marta was officially founded in 1525.
It was here that one of Columbus’ crewmen documented the wealth and riches of the local indigenous people, giving rise to the myth of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold.
It’s always warm in Santa Marta, with highs hovering in the high-80s to low-90s Fahrenheit year-round. The rainy season—May to November—turns the surrounding mountains a lush green, while it’s very dry the rest of the year.
When I first visited Santa Marta in 2010, it was definitely a work in progress. The formerly seedy downtown was undergoing restoration, bringing the old colonial homes, parks, and churches back to their original splendor. Leading-edge investors were prowling the city.
|Well-kept parks and fine colonial buildings are the Santa Marta of today|
Today’s Santa Marta is a different story. The downtown now has an attractive seafront park, plenty of small cafés and bars, as well as coffee shops, boutique hotels, excellent seafood restaurants, and even a cruise-ship port. There’s a 256-slip marina, and new, tasteful condo projects have sprouted up around the entire area.
When I refer to “Santa Marta,” I’m talking about the Santa Marta metro area, which extends 13 miles from Taganga in the north to the airport in the south. This stretch of Caribbean coast is home to an amazing diversity of beachside destinations.
Let’s take a look at them from north to south, starting with Taganga…
Taganga is a small village surrounded by tall mountains that sits on an expansive, sparkling, deep-blue bay. The beach is long and unspoiled and is bordered by a new boardwalk. Taganga’s bay is terrific for diving and snorkeling, and you’ll find a number of dive shops and excursions available.
Santa Marta (the city itself) contains the original historic center and the cruise-ship port. This is the part that underwent the dramatic restoration. Santa Marta also hosts a number of inland neighborhoods, such as Bavaria, that would be great for full-time living away from the tourist traffic.
El Rodadero lies about 10 minutes south of Santa Marta. It’s been the main draw in the area for years, as people sought to avoid the once-seedy historic center. The beaches are in fact far longer, wider, and better-kept than Santa Marta’s, creating a giant crescent-shaped shoreline that’s several miles long. El Rodadero offers a small-town feel that you don’t find in the city.
On the oceanfront, El Rodadero boasts a fine sandy beach lined with palm trees along the warm, calm waters. The palm-shaded boardwalk is filled with people walking and patronizing the kiosks, which sell everything from fresh-made pizza to fresh-squeezed fruit juice.
|Well-kept parks and fine colonial buildings are the Santa Marta of today|
Weekend nights turn into an impromptu beach party, with families turning out by the hundreds to enjoy (and dance to) the local music of wandering music groups.
I think of El Rodadero as the family destination within the Santa Marta area. It’s bustling with people enjoying the beach, markets, shops, and boardwalk. It maintains a safe, friendly, and laid-back feel. I like to call it the “Unpretentious Caribbean.”
The southern sector consists of neighborhoods Rodadero Sur, Playa Salguero, Pozos Colorados, and Bello Horizonte. It lies south of Santa Marta and El Rodadero, but before the airport. These areas feature quiet, well-tended, and more exclusive beaches than you’ll see in Santa Marta or El Rodadero. They’re also the site of quite a few new, upscale condo buildings.
This southern sector is the current direction of expansion in the Santa Marta market, where you’ll find most of the new construction and pre-construction deals. The condo projects here are generally high-end, of large size, with nice finishings and amenities.
The southern sector is long on natural beauty. Bello Horizonte has the widest beach I saw in the area, and most of the beaches along this stretch are frequented only by the neighboring residents, with little to no tourism. It’s peaceful.
When I came here as a foreign traveler, I found the southern sector a bit dull compared to the party atmosphere in El Rodadero or even Santa Marta Centro.
But now I understand its attraction for those who want to escape the bustle of Medellín or Bogotá (or El Rodadero, for that matter).
All things considered, Santa Marta is my favorite spot on the Colombian Caribbean coast. It doesn’t have Cartagena’s impressive colonial architecture, but neither does it have Cartagena’s prices or tourism annoyances.
From the pristine bay at Taganga to the classic port ambience of Santa Marta and from the energy of El Rodadero to the gleaming towers of the southern sector, I’d say that Santa Marta has something for everyone.
If you want a Caribbean home at a relatively bargain price… especially, again, at today’s exchange rate… then Santa Marta could be right for you.
What specifically could you think about buying right now?
A three-bedroom, three-bath home of 75 square meters (807 square feet) with a view of the Caribbean Sea in El Rodadero. The house is within walking distance to grocery stores and shopping centers. Asking price: US$119,000 at today’s exchange rate.
A traditional one-story house centrally located in El Rodadero just four blocks from the beach, two blocks from a bus stop, and one block from a major commercial center. It’s hard to beat the location on this one if you want to be within walking distance of just about everything you need. This 98-square-meter (1054-square-foot) two-bedroom, one-bath home with a terrace and interior patio has an asking price of US$81,000.
A rustic abode located in Taganga, a fishing village about a 10-minute drive from the center of Santa Marta. It may be worth having to travel for some of your errands to wake up to these beautiful views. This property includes two separate houses totaling 200 square meters (2153 square feet). Asking price at today’s exchange rate is US$93,000.
A beautiful home with whitewashed exterior in the Galicia neighborhood of Santa Marta located in a gated community a bit removed from the city center. This house has three bedrooms and three bathrooms, a full kitchen, terrace, living room, patio, and dining room. The house is 109 square meters (1173 square feet) and is listed for US$67,000.
A modern home in a closed community in El Rodadero that features beautiful, modern amenities, three bedrooms, and five bathrooms and is within walking distance of the beach and shops in El Rodadero. List price at the current exchange rate is US$210,000.
A luxury condominium in the brand-new beachfront Cabo de Tortuga development, a modern complex with a chic restaurant, Turkish bath, gymnasium, tennis court, and pools. Condominium units include a full kitchen, up to three bedrooms, three-and-a-half bathrooms, plus living area, and dining room. Units are 111 to 165 square meters (1195 to 1776 square feet) and priced from US$330,660 to US$457,000.
If you’re looking for a colonial Caribbean city with less bustle than the famous Cartagena, Santa Marta is your place. With a bit of everything within reach, the city could surely rise to Cartagena’s level of fame at some point…
Hopefully, though, that doesn’t happen.
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