Situated between the balmy Caribbean coast and the soaring Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, you’ll almost certainly find yourself passing through Colombia’s oldest surviving city during your travels. And while it’s far from the prettiest or most exciting destination in and of itself— easy access to the nearby jungle, charming coastal towns, and stunning national parks make Santa Marta the ultimate base for day trips, as well as the perfect jumping-off point for longer excursions.
Whether camping in Tayrona National Park, trekking to the Lost City, or chasing waterfalls in Minca, here’s absolutely everything you need to know about using Santa Marta as a base for day trips and longer excursions, including how to get there, where to stay, and the very best places to explore.
What's in this travel guide
Getting there & around
Getting to Santa Marta
Santa Marta has an airport and a reasonably large bus terminal, which easily connects it to other Colombian cities like Medellín and Bogota (I’d recommend flying) or Cartagena (where a shuttle is the best option).
Cartagena to Santa Marta
There are near-constant buses operating between Cartagena and Santa Marta; tickets are typically 28,000COP / $11AUD and the journey takes 5-6hrs, plus a taxi out to the distant bus terminal (15-20,000COP / $6-8AUD). Instead, I’d recommend the Berlinastur shuttle, which can get you there in about 4hrs and for the same total price (40,000COP / $16AUD ticket + 5,000COP / $2taxi).
Medellín is one of the few journeys in Colombia where taking the 18hrs+ bus (195,000COP / $76AUD) is actually more expensive than flying (80,000COP / $32AUD), even when you add in the 45,000COP for checking a bag. I’d recommend getting a cheap flight with Viva Air if you’re coming from Medellín.
Santa Marta is reasonably compact, but if you’re staying at a hostel slightly out of town (like Dreamer Hostel) or coming from the bus terminal, you can always grab a taxi to most destinations for a few thousand COP ($1-4AUD).
Unlike bigger cities like Medellín and Bogotá where it’s not a great idea to just hop in a taxi off the street, it’s a bit safer in Santa Marta; if you’re travelling alone or at night, though, you can always ask your hostel to call one for you, just to be extra cautious.
Where to stay in Santa Marta: Dreamer Hostel
Dreamer Hostel is the absolute BEST place to stay in Santa Marta, offering a range of shared dorms (36,000COP / $14AUD) and private rooms (100,000COP / $40AUD). The property is a little bit out of Santa Marta town, but it has a lovely pool area with heaps of hammocks, an onsite restaurant & bar, and super helpful staff that will help you organise any day trips or other excursions.
Dreamer Hostel also organises cheap group colectivos to Tayrona National Park, Palomino, and Minca for their guests, which saves you the journey into Santa Marta to catch the bus (for only ~ $1AUD more than what you’d pay in town).
The staff will also happily store your bags for any overnight excursions, regardless of whether you’re staying another night on your return. Backpacks are tagged and locked in a storeroom, which I felt was very secure.
*Best day trips & excursions from Santa Marta
1 | Tayrona National Park
Surrounded by vibrant coconut palm jungle, flanked by the world’s highest coastal mountain range (the lush Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta), and home to a spectacular assortment of crescent-shaped beaches, Tayrona National Park occupies a staggering 150 square km of jungle and 30 square km of protected marine reserve just a stone’s through away from the town of Santa Marta.
Tayrona is the quintessential Caribbean paradise— but also an incredibly sacred place for local indigenous tribes, including the Tairona people, who’ve inhabited this land for more than 2,000 years. Carry this with you as you explore, remembering to be respectful and appreciative of the opportunity to visit such a magical place!
The best way to experience Tayrona National Park is on a 2-day/overnight adventure, which you can easily do on your own without the need for a tour:
Hike through one of Colombia’s most spectacular national parks
Swim at pristine beaches (or just enjoy the scenery at some of the best non-swimming beaches)
Ride horses through the verdant jungle
Spend the night in a hammock right on the beach, falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves
Getting there | The most economical option for getting from Santa Marta to Tayrona National Park is to grab a bus from the centre of town for about 7,000COP ($3AUD), departing every 30min (starting at 6am) from the corner of Calle 11 & Carrera 11. If you’re staying at Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta, the staff also organise shared colectivo departures right out front for 15,000COP.
Where to stay | There are 3 main campsites within Tayrona National Park, but the most popular (and by far the most scenic) is at Cabo San Juan. There are basic cabins (200,000COP), tents (40,000COP/person), and hammocks (40-50,000COP) available— go for the El Mirador hammocks, which are housed in a little hut directly overlooking the beach.
About two hours up the Caribbean coast from Santa Marta, the laid-back backpacker hotspot of Palomino is one of the best places to spend a few days while in northern Colombia. Set on the coast, flanked by the jungle and also in close proximity to a quick-flowing river from the Sierra Nevada mountains, this once-sleepy beach town is now home to trendy hostels and insta-worthy eateries that perfectly compliment its relaxed vibes.
Since it’s slightly farther afield (and there’s heaps to enjoy), spend a couple days in Palomino:
Hire a tube and float down the river towards the ocean, beer in hand
Spot monkey, toucans, and other exotic animals in the trees
Learn to surf at Palomino Beach
Hike to the Quebrada Valencia Waterfalls just outside of town
Getting there | Buses depart every few minutes from Calle 11 & Carrera 9 in Santa Marta for about 10,000COP ($4AUD) or from the main bus terminal in Santa Marta for about 15,000COP ($6AUD), either option taking ~2hrs to reach Palomino.
Where to stay | Dreamer Hostel, my top pick for Santa Marta, also has another location in Palomino right on the beach! Shared dorms start at 40,000COP ($16AUD) and private rooms with aircon from 120,000COP ($45AUD). Just like the Santa Marta location, there’s a large pool, plenty of hammocks, and a great restaurant & bar.
3 | Minca
Minca is an absolute paradise of wild jungle palms, secluded waterfalls, colourful birds, and jaw-dropping sunsets. But despite rising popularity among backpackers, this lush spot in the forested mountains above Santa Marta has managed to retain nearly all of the magic and solitude of an as-yet undiscovered gem, easily making it one of my favourite places in all of Colombia.
There’s a definite tranquility about Minca, a slower pace and a peaceful vibethat strips you of worry and re-centres you among the trees. It’s the kind of place you can really get lost for a few days— and then return to civilisation in Santa Marta feeling like you’ve been away for a year.
Although it’s possible to visit Minca as a day trip from Santa Marta, I’d definitely recommend taking at least a few days to enjoy this magical area:
Swim beneath sparkling waterfalls like Cascada Marinka and Pozo Azul
Hike up to the Los Pinos lookout for sprawling views out to the Caribbean
Learn about the traditional production of coffee and chocolate at a local, family-owned finca
Spend lazy afternoons in a hammock, soaking up the fresh mountain air
Getting there | The cheapest way to get to Minca is by colectivo departing Calle 11-12/Carrera 9 in the middle of Santa Marta. These run pretty much constantly throughout the day and cost just 8,000COP ($3AUD) for the 45min drive into the jungle. If you’re staying at Dreamer Hostel, the staff also organise shared colectivo departures right out front for 9,000COP.
Where to stay | The top place to stay in Minca (and one of my favourite hostels in all of Colombia) is the incredible Casa Loma, an idyllic jungle retreat nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Accommodation ranges from hammocks (starting at 20,000COP / $8AUD) to rustic private huts (starting at 50,000COP / $20AUD). For the best sunset views, reserve Casa Luna in advance!
This little fishing town on the Caribbean coast, just 20min down the road from Santa Marta, is becoming increasingly popular with travellers. While its beaches certainly don’t hold a candle to those at Tayrona National Park, you can still chow down on fantastic seafood, admire the impressive backdrop of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and even get underwater with one of the local dive shops. In fact, this is one of the cheapest places in Colombia to get dive certified!
You can easily experience the best of Taganga as a jam-packed day trip from Santa Marta:
Swim in the calm waters of Playa Grande
Enjoy inexpensive andsuper fresh seafood on the beach
Getting there | From the market in Santa Marta (Avenida 5), you can catch a bus to Taganga for just 1,800COP ($0.70AUD). Alternatively, a private taxi should only cost around 12,000COP ($4.50AUD).
Where to stay | Since Taganga is just 15min from Santa Marta (and you can probably see most of the highlights in a single day), I’d recommend staying in Santa Marta at Dreamer Hostel.
5 | Lost City Trek
Deep in the overgrown Colombian jungle, less than 2hrs from Santa Marta yet only “rediscovered” in the 1970s by a group of treasure looters, lies an an impeccably preserved ancient city. Known as Teyuna to the indigenous Tairona people and their present-day Wiwa decendents, this site was built an estimated 600 years before Machu Picchu and continues to hold great spiritual significance to local tribes.
Treks out to Colombia’s “Lost City” are quickly becoming one of the most popular things to do from Santa Marta, though the journey is not without its challenges. You’ll be required to join a guided tour (there is absolutely no option to do this on your own), walking 4 or 5 days and 50km into (and back out of) the sticky, sweltering jungle. From what I hear, the ruins are worth every heavy step.
*I try to only write about places that I’ve personally visited on this blog— but given the growing popularity of La Ciudad Perdida, I think it would be remiss of me not to at least mention that Colombia’s most popular trek is located just outside of Santa Marta (despite the fact that I haven’t (yet) done the trek myself).
Getting there | The Lost City Trek begins in remote Machete Pelao (about 2hrs from Santa Marta), but tours will always provide transport out to this spot. Many companies will even pick you up directly at your accommodation in Santa Marta, including Dreamer Hostel.
Where to stay | All guided Lost City treks include accommodation at rustic campsites along the trail, with options ranging from basic dorm beds to hammocks or tents.