Best Caribbean Seaside City You’ve Never Heard Of
Cartagena continues to boost its profile as a prime travel and investment destination, and it’s not hard to understand why. The city is teeming with culture and liveliness and boasts a range of attractions—from the outstanding cuisine and tropical climate to a bustling city center and bohemian neighborhoods—that make it both dynamic and livable… a true Caribbean marvel.
But if you’re seeking refuge and relaxation, you could find another Colombian coastal city less than 200 miles away more appealing. It’s cheaper, more geographically diverse, and less worse-for-wear by international tourists than the “heroic” Cartagena…
That city is Santa Marta.
Colombia’s First Colonial City, On the Rise
If this is the first time you’ve heard of Santa Marta, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Outside Colombia, few know of this alternative to Cartagena.
Among Colombians, however, Santa Marta, Colombia’s oldest colonial city (in fact, one of the oldest cities in all South America, founded by the Spanish in 1525), is hardly a secret.
The city was also the death place of the most important South American in history: Simón Bolívar. Bolívar’s retirement villa, La Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino, is a short drive from the city center.
Santa Marta’s allure is altogether different from that of Cartagena. Colombia’s sister coastal cities share a similar aesthetic, but Santa Marta is less than half the size of Cartagena and has a natural backdrop that few places on earth can match—the Caribbean to the north and west, Tayrona National Park to the east, and Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountain range to the immediate south.
Scattered throughout Santa Marta’s astounding geography are some of the most spectacular beaches in Colombia, not to mention upscale shopping and fine dining in and around Santa Marta’s vibrant colonial historic center.
Let’s take a look around the area, starting in the city proper.
Santa Marta’s Historic Center
If you’ve visited colonial cities in Latin America in the past, the city center of Santa Marta will feel familiar. It consists of blocks of whitewashed colonial structures, including its cathedral, one of the most beautiful I’ve seen on three continents.
With its proximity to the mountains, Santa Marta’s climate is slightly cooler than Cartagena’s, and afternoon rainstorms are a regular occurrence between May and November.
Main points of interest in the city center include Parque Simón Bolívar, an expansive tree-covered plaza that opens up directly to the city’s main beach area. Some of the best restaurants and shopping are in this area and around Parque de los Novios, a peaceful hideout right in the middle of the city. The best nightlife is along Calle 19, one of the narrow city streets that empties into Parque de los Novios.
While Cartagena is overrun with street vendors, Santa Marta is calmer by miles. This is because most of this city’s visitors are Colombians, and street vendors target tourists. You also don’t see the party buses that roam the streets of Cartagena at every hour of every day. Santa Marta has not fallen victim to these… at least not yet.
El Rodadero, The Most Popular Beach Area
About a 10-minute drive from Santa Marta’s center is El Rodadero. It’s one of Colombia’s most popular vacation spots and the most visited part of Santa Marta… although, technically, it’s its own separate town.
The buildings are more modern and the shopping offerings more extensive than in Santa Marta’s center. El Rodadero famously has a trail where iguanas like to hang out known as El Sendero de las Iguanas, or “Little Jurassic Park,” among the locals.
More important, there are some great beaches accessible from El Rodadero. My favorite is Cabo Tortuga, which lies just south of El Rodadero. It’s an appropriately named white-sand beach alcove; the rock and cliff that form its northernmost barrier look quite like a turtle.
Cabo Tortuga just got even better, thanks to the opening, a little more than a year ago, of the second building of a luxury condominium complex bearing the same name. The complex spares no amenity, including a Turkish spa, a top-rated restaurant, tennis court, workout room, and more. Each condo unit has an expansive balcony with astounding views of the Caribbean and surrounding landscapes.
As far as rustic luxury getaways go, this one would be hard to top.
Discover Santa Marta’s Outdoor Playgrounds
For those looking to truly get away and seek refuge in nature, Santa Marta has two top-tier options in close proximity: The Sierra Nevada, the lush and misty mountain range that cascades into Santa Marta and the Caribbean… and Tayrona National Park.
Before I got to know Santa Marta, I visited Minca, a small mountain village in the Sierra Nevada, about a 30-minute drive from Santa Marta.
The town bills itself as Colombia’s ecological capital, and is known for its coffee and its chocolate. The rushing water of the Río Gaira and the seemingly endless nature trails—including one to the pristine Pozo Azul and the surrounding jungle—make Minca a nature- and mountain-lover’s dream.
If you’re truly daring and adventurous, you can take a four-day excursion to La Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City), Colombia’s answer to Machu Picchu. I plan on making this trek sometime over the next couple of months.
Finally, there’s Tayrona National Park, which includes part of the Sierra Nevada. As far as nature goes, Tayrona is Colombia’s pride and joy. As far as outdoor activities go—from hiking and rock climbing to river rafting, virgin beaches, wildlife observation, and everything in between—it’s all possible in Tayrona.
The Property Market In Santa Marta
If moving to or owning a second home in Santa Marta sounds appealing, you’ll be happy to hear that this city’s property market is far more affordable than that in Cartagena. In Santa Marta right now, you could buy:
A home with everything, including a view of the sea in El Rodadero. This property has five floors with three bedrooms and three bathrooms, totaling 73 square meters (785 square feet). The house has a large terrace and a balcony boasting stunning views of the Caribbean. The house is within walking distance of 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 is 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 in walking distance of just about everything you need. Two bedrooms and one bathroom, a terrace, and interior patio, with a total of 98 square meters (1,054 square feet). Asking price: US$81,000.
A rustic abode in Taganga, where life is a bit simpler in this fishing village, a 10-minute drive from the center of Santa Marta. It may be worth having to travel a bit for some of your errands to wake up to some of the most beautiful views you’ll find anywhere. This property contains two separate houses totaling 200 square meters (2,152 square feet), which includes six bedrooms and four bathrooms and is listed for US$93,000.
A beautiful home with whitewashed exterior in the Galicia neighborhood of Santa Marta is 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 (1,173 square feet) and listed for US$67,000.
A modern home in a closed community in El Rodadero features beautiful, modern amenities, three bedrooms and five bathrooms, and is within walking distance of the beach and shops in El Rodadero. Asking price: US$210,000.
Full-time Colombia Expat