“The mountains are beautiful, but where is the closest beach?”
If you’re a water lover like me, your first impression of Medellín may go something like that.
Luckily, every single location in Colombia is accessible in an hour (or less) by plane—with affordable tickets from Avianca Airlines or Viva Colombia.
My mother is an even bigger beach fanatic, so when my parents visited my home in Medellín, we made plans to go to the beach for a few days. Our destination was Santa Marta, a city located on the Caribbean in the northern department of Magdalena. The first Spanish settlement in Colombia, Santa Marta is also known for being a busy port. Though the city is small, the surrounding area offers beaches, hikes, scuba diving, snorkeling, and other adventures and activities perfect for any vacation style.
The city center is quaint, featuring narrow roads, old Spanish architecture, and squares surrounded by restaurants. We were impressed by the variety of food selection, from pizza joints to trendy burger bars to more upscale Italian and Mediterranean food, all within a few blocks of each other, surrounding the square. As we finished our dinner, bars began to open their doors. In a few hours this area would turn into quite the spot for nightlife.
About 20 miles outside Santa Marta is Parque Tayrona, a national park covering around 12 square miles. Here lush green jungles meet the Caribbean, giving way to hidden beaches. Some are accessible only by boat. If you only go for a day, be sure to get an early start. To reach some of the beaches here involves a three-hour hike. As you hike into the park, you’ll stumble across beaches of various sizes, restaurants, and even small hotels and lodging areas. The hike is relatively flat, and much of it has been turned into a boarded walkway, making it an enjoyable walk for all ages and athletic ability. If you prefer to get around quicker, you can explore the park on horseback.
With the relaxing mix of jungle sounds and crashing waves—not to mention the stunning flora, fauna, and ocean scenery—many park visitors opt to stay the night. Located a three-hour hike into the park, Cabo San Juan beach is a relatively touristy destination with a restaurant and a camp ground that lets you rent either a tent or a hammock. More romantic options include the EcoHabs—little huts perched above a secluded beach in Tayrona. Each hut has a view of the ocean, a terrace with hammocks, private room, and bathroom.
Another popular day trip from Santa Marta is to the fishing village of Taganga, only a 10-minute taxi ride away. This town is a favorite with backpackers for its many dive shops and cheap bars and restaurants. The fishing boats on the ocean make Taganga a great spot for spectacular sunset views while you drink a cold beer and feast on freshly-caught fish at one of the beachside restaurants.
For some real adventure and a hard-core hiking experience, look no farther than the Lost City hike. Choose from five- to seven-day guided hikes through the jungle to untouched ruins. Think Inca Trail without the people. The ruins are different from what you get at Machu Picchu, but many adventurers go for the hike itself—the opportunity to cross rivers and streams, to encounter indigenous people living deep in the jungle, and to get that Indiana Jones experience.
Santa Marta provides a great escape from the bigger cities of Colombia. It’s an inexpensive flight from Medellín or Bogotá. With plenty to do, be sure to plan more than just a weekend around these parts.