Caribbean Seaside Renaissance
Editor’s Note: Filling in today for Kathleen, who is enjoying the final few days of her family holiday in Medellin, is Latin America Correspondent Lee Harrison, reporting on his discoveries in another Colombian destination worth your attention right now–Santa Marta…
I first came to Santa Marta to do two things: To confirm a bad report and to verify a myth. As it turned out, both of my pre-conceptions were wrong. Santa Marta turned out to be one of my best beach discoveries of the past 10 years.
The “bad report” was from my guidebook, which told me that Santa Marta, Colombia’s oldest city, was dangerous…that I should stay out of the historic center, because it was run-down, crime-ridden, and offered nothing to do.
It sounded like a city in decline. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
The “myth” had to do with a rumored marina, to be built in the old downtown. It was supposed to become the engine that would return economic life to the city. Being skeptical, I figured that this marina was just like all the other promised marinas, bridges, airports, and new highways that I’ve heard about in Latin America over the past decade that I’ve been covering this beat. I’ve learned that “promised” usually means mythical. In this case, though, the myth was real.
The Santa Marta of today is a city on the upswing. Construction is booming, business and entrepreneurs are moving in, property prices are rising, and old-town Santa Marta is turning into a jewel of a Caribbean port city.
Santa Marta is a hotspot for Colombians. While tourists and foreigners prefer the more-famous Cartagena, Colombians prefer the more authentic environment of Santa Marta.
Let’s take a look at the region, area-by-area. Greater Santa Marta spans a 12-mile distance from Taganga in the north to the airport in the south.
Taganga will take your breath away when you crest the adjacent hill and see it for the first time. The expansive, sparkling, deep-blue bay and the tiny village will be laid out before you, with tall mountains providing the backdrop. The beach is long and unspoiled, and the new boardwalk sees visitors strolling its length day and night. Taganga’s bay is terrific for diving and snorkeling, and you’ll find a number of dive shops and excursions available.
The crowd in Taganga is mostly folks under 30, who come for the diving, the beach, and the relaxed, Caribbean atmosphere. There is little to no residential development going on here, with only limited properties for sale.
Santa Marta (the city itself) contains the original historic center. It was founded in 1525, which makes it Santa Marta’s oldest city. This is the area that’s enjoying a renaissance.
Instead of the seedy port city my guidebook described, I found that Santa Marta is a city on the upswing that has renovated its waterfront, which now sports a green, well-kept park and boardwalk along its length. It’s bustling with people strolling and enjoying the view of kids playing in the water and cruise ships coming and going from the adjacent port.
On the inland side of the waterfront drive, new cafes have sprung up where visitors can stop to enjoy a cold drink under the shade of a wide umbrella.
The largest parks in the historic center—Parque de los Novios and Parque Bolívar—have been completely restored, with new brick pathways winding between green lawns and shady trees. The bright-white statues and gazebos gleam in the sun as visitors pause to relax and watch the passers-by.
But the big news in Santa Marta is the US$8 million dollar, 256-boat marina. When I first came to town, it really was just a rumor. But today the marina’s jetty is complete, the new floating docks are installed, and the slips are occupied by both local and transient boaters.
And, true to predictions, the marina has sparked a number of upscale projects onshore. What’s more, the gentrification is spreading throughout the historic center, as boutique hotels, small restaurants, and tasteful condos continue to replace the run-down buildings the city was known for just a few years ago.
When you’re exploring Santa Marta, be sure to make time for the large, open-air restaurant, Gran Manuel, located at Calle 28 and CRA 1. Their Cazuela de Camaron (shrimp stew) is the best I’ve ever had… and I’ve tried this dish dozens of times around the region.
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 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 won’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 selling everything from fresh-made pizza to fresh-squeezed fruit juice.
Weekend nights turn into impromptu beach parties, with families turning out by the hundreds to enjoy the local music of wandering Vallenato bands… while vendors supply them with pizza, shish-kabob, and snow cones.
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 the neighborhoods Rodadero Sur, Playa Salguero, Pozos Colorados, and Bello Horizonte. It lies south of Santa Marta, between El Rodadero and 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 and some good pre-construction buys.
The 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. Less than three years ago, the boom was just starting, with only two or three projects under way. Today, there are dozens, with condos selling as fast as they can put them up. The condos in this area are generally high-end, big, 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.
But I also found the area short on Caribbean character and charm. The southern sector doesn’t have the lively energy of El Rodadero or the emerging elegance of Santa Marta. It’s perfect for Colombians who want a second home on the beach in a private setting… a place to get away from it all. But as a foreigner who enjoys the Colombian experience, I prefer both El Rodadero and Santa Marta to the southern sector.
Interestingly, the current market activity is being fueled exclusively by well-off Colombians, with almost no foreign buyers. People from Medellin and Bogota are buying second homes here in record numbers. Also, many Colombians living in the United States are investing in Santa Marta, wanting to diversify outside the U.S. dollar and into the strong Colombian peso.
The cost of entry here is still pretty low, if you shop around. Homes and apartments in Santa Marta start at around US$60,000. A one-bedroom oceanfront condo in a new building can be had for as little as US$108k.
The greater Santa Marta area has something for everyone. From the pristine bay at Taganga to the classic port ambience of Santa Marta, the energy of El Rodadero, and the gleaming towers of the southern sector.
And, best of all, it’s booming.
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