The Caribbean coast of Colombia is a special place and definitely worth a trip, even if it’s a flying visit to Tayrona National Park. We actually spent almost 3 weeks in this area of the country as we loved the laid back relaxed vibes of being by the ocean. Most people use Santa Marta as a base to explore this tropical part of Colombia.
From Cartagena – Cartagena bus terminal is about a 40-minute drive out of the city and costs around 15-20,000 COP in a taxi. The buses from the terminal are cheaper than getting a bus from the city centre, by about half so it does work out cheaper to take a taxi to the terminal especially if you are splitting the fare with someone. The bus cost us 20,000 COP but the going rate is 25,000 COP – we managed to wangle a deal. The journey takes 5 hours and should drop you off at Santa Marta bus terminal – or in our case, at a random road side. A taxi to the centre of Santa Marta will cost between 6-8,000 COP.
Santa Marta also has an airport which we took advantage off when we flew to Medellin. Flying in Colombia is almost as cheap as taking the bus, and when given the option of a 16-hour bus journey or a 1 hour flight for almost the same cost – it was a no brainer for us. Viva Colombia has some great rates if booked in advance and even when booking last minute, the rates are still decent. The only negative about this option is the cost to add luggage to the flight so if you can, pack light so you can take your luggage as carry on – something I have never been able to manage myself but many people can.
Where to stay
We found an absolute steal on airbnb called Roka Dura for 40,000 COP a night in a private room. The hostel is actually still being built but all the ground floor rooms have been completed to a high standard and there is a kitchen and even a swimming pool on site. This hostel is going to be absolutely fantastic when it’s finished. One of the best things about the hostel is the owner, Jonathan who is a well-travelled Canadian guy who enjoys a beer with guests and shares his favourite places to visit in Colombia. The hostel is a 20-minute walk from the centre of Santa Marta but is on a main bus route so all local buses that pass go direct into the centre.
Things to do
Explore Santa Marta
Explore the old town of Santa Marta was the first Spanish settlement in Colombia and is the oldest surviving city in the country and the second oldest in South America. There are many churches to explore in the old town and the sea front is a nice place to relax with a beer. We found a perfect little bar on the promenade called Bahia Tropical serving ice-cold beers for only 2,500 COP.
If you are looking for somewhere to go in the evening, there are tons of cool bars and restaurants around Parque de los Novios. We found some great bars serving happy hour Gin and Tonic’s for only 15,000 COP for 2 so we set up camp there for a few hours and watched the world go by.
Bahia Concha is a small bay and part of Tayrona National Park. This pretty bay is easy to reach by bus, just take the bus heading to Bastidas (1,600 COP) and let the driver know you are going to Bahia Concha so they let you know when to get off. Once there, you can either take a moto taxi (5,000 COP) or a 4×4 jeep (5,000 COP) to the bay which takes 10-15 minutes. Entrance to the bay is 5,000 COP but in my opinion, it’s definitely worth it as it really is a gorgeous beach.
Rodadero is a typical beach town and where a lot of locals like to go on holiday. It’s easy to get there from Santa Marta by taking a local bus (1,600 COP). It has a nice beach and lots of bars and restaurants along the front. Rodadero is a lot livelier than Bahia Concha and if you like water sports such as jet skis, banana boats and relaxing in floaties, you will love it here.
We were introduced to this dish by Jonathan at Roka Dura hostel. The first night we arrived he invited us out to eat with his wife and some other guests from the hostel. We visited a local restaurant close by and had the most gigantic plate of salcipappa which is basically French fries covered with 3 types of meat and delicious sauce. Think a Colombian version of nachos, they were to die for. Sorry veggies!
Tayrona National Park
A must if you are visiting Colombia is Tayrona National Park. Getting there is really easy from the market in Santa Marta. Buses leave frequently throughout the day and the cost for the bus is 6,000 or 7,000 COP depending on which entrance you want to get off at. The bus is pure luxury compared to a lot of the buses we are used to travelling on, it was super comfortable and air-conditioned.
There are 2 entrances to the park which lead to different hiking trails – a 1.5 hour easy hike, or a more difficult 4 hour hike. If you want to hike the more difficult route, just let the driver know as he will assume you are taking the easy route like most people do. The more difficult route is also the cheaper option for the bus. The hike is extremely hot and sweaty but lots of fun and involves climbing over big white boulders, Indiana Jones style.
There are a number of beaches to choose from at Tayrona, we opted for Cabo San Juan which is the most popular and also the prettier of the lot. If you prefer more secluded beaches, this beach is probably not the one for you. It’s also worth baring in the mind that not all the beaches are good for swimming, many of the coves have extremely strong currents and swimming is forbidden. Cabo San Juan and La Piscina are the 2 main beaches where swimming is allowed.
A lot of people use Santa Marta as a base to store their big back packs and spend the night at the park in hammocks or tents on the beach – we only went for a day trip which meant we were kind of rushed once we arrived but we still got to spend a good 3-4 hours at the beach. There is a restaurant onsite serving drinks, snacks and food. Everybody warned us it was super expensive so we packed our own lunch and plenty of water but the prices weren’t too ridiculous.
On the way back, we took the shorter route which is still an enjoyable hike. This is the route the horses take so it’s a lot muddier, and once you reach the end of the trail, you will need to take a mini-van to the main road (2,000 COP).
Taganga is small fishing village just a few miles from Santa Marta which is now well known for offering some of the cheapest diving in South America. We visited Taganga during an unusually rainy season which meant the normally baron mountain landscape had become a lush green tropical picture-perfect backdrop to the pretty fishing bay.
Where to stay
Hotel Bahia Taganga is the best hotel in the bay and is built into the rocks overlooking the beautiful fishing village. If you are a backpacker, chances are this hotel will be a little over your budget but if you are wanting to splash out and treat yourself for a special occasion, I can’t rate it highly enough. The hotel has a swimming pool overlooking the bay and a Jacuzzi to relax in – oh and our bed was the biggest we have ever stayed in and the most comfortable; we didn’t actually want to get up!
Casa Gypsy is a backpacker hostel located a 10-minute walk from the main street in Taganga. It has a cool laid-back vibe and an awesome rooftop bar to enjoy sunset.
There are so many dive shops in Taganga, you may be a little overwhelmed at who to choose. There are two dive shops that really stand out with regards to professionalism and quality and those are Oceano and Poseidon. We really liked both schools but in the end, we went with Oceano as they were the cheaper option and were also heading to dive in Tayrona National Park.
A 2-tank dive will set you back 190,000 COP and also includes all diving equipment which is of a very high standard plus drinks and a small lunch for your surface interval. The dive school itself is super cool and they are more than happy for you to chill out in the shop with a coffee talking diving with others divers.
We were lucky enough to have 2 x 60 minute dives at 2 different dive spots and we saw tons of eels, lion fish, and an octopus. During the surface interval, we docked at Bahia Concha which is the beach we visited earlier in the trip; there we enjoyed fruit, sandwiches and chatting to other divers about our favourite dive spots.
We arrived back at the dive shop at 3.30pm so we pretty much had a full day of diving for approximately £50!
One of the only negatives about Taganga is the tourist scouts offering boat trips. There are tons of them and you will be asked about 50 times a day if you want to go on a boat trip. We walked to Playa Grande which takes about 15-20 minutes so no need to take a ‘lancha’. To get there, head to Taganga Bahia Hotel and take the little path to the left-hand side. Follow the path until you reach the beach. You will also find some really cool looking eco-hotels there.
Food and drink
Bitacora restaurant serves up a mean burger! We went there twice as the food was so good and the prices are more than reasonable.
Pomodori is a great pizza restaurant which also offers take-away which is ideal when you have a hangover and don’t want to go anywhere! The pizzas are seriously tasty and the restaurant has a cool rustic vibe.
Babaganoush is without doubt the best food we have eaten on the trip so far. 3 courses only costs 40,000 COP and you have a choice of anything from the menu. I chose falafel balls for starter while Chris had tomato soup, for main, we both went for the filet mignon medium rare and for dessert we had chocolate brownie and crumble. The steak was cooked to perfection and was a decent size all washed down with an amazing glass of Malbec.
They also have a happy hour deal with 2 x 1 cocktails and the margaritas are spot on. Lastly, the setting of the restaurant is absolutely stunning, set up overlooking the bay with the stars shining as you eat the most incredible food. A must visit if you are in the area!
If you are looking for a party, there are tons of bars on the beach which have happy hour offers, good music and the party usually moves on to El Mirador. We didn’t actually make it to El Mirador as we stumbled upon a bar on the way up there. We can’t remember the name of the place, (too many rum and cokes to thank for that), but it was full of locals so we called in and ended up staying there the entire night! Look out for a cool looking bar on the main road leading out of Taganga and you will find it there!
Ah, Minca, such a beautiful little slice of the jungle. Located only 40 minutes from Santa Marta and one of my favourite spots in the north. This beautiful green mountainous village is for now, slightly off the beaten path but is growing in popularity each year. Minca is great for hiking, bird-watching, and as the temperature is much cooler than Santa Marta, the fresh mountain breeze will have you wanting to extend your trip; we ended up staying here 6 nights instead of the planned 4.
Buses leave the market of Santa Marta regularly through the day and costs 8,000 COP for a one-way ticket. A taxt will cost you 40,000 so worth it if there are a few of you travelling together.
Where to stay
We had a slight hiccup with our accommodation in Minca but luckily the owner of Emerald Green Hostel helped us out for the night even though he was fully booked. Emerald Green is an Irish owned hostel which was all built and designed by the owner himself, Niall. It has a river view and is in a prime location.
As Emerald Green was fully booked we had to find alternative accommodation for the rest of our stay in Minca so we checked in to Brisas de Minca which is a family run hostel on the main street in Minca. The rooms were 70,000 COP per night, clean, cheap and included a free breakfast.
Casa Elemento is the number 1 hostel for backpackers on the Gringo trail, but as it was a dangerous 30-minute moto-taxi ride out of the main village, so we decided to give it a miss.
Things to do
Hiking, hiking, hiking!
The hiking in Minca is awesome, it’s hard enough to feel like a challenge but easy enough to hike a few days in a row. We hiked to Casa Elemento to see what all the fuss was about and it took us about 3 hours from the village. The hostel is really cool and you can pay for a 1 day pass which gives you access to all the facilities including the infamous giant hammocks. You also get one free drink with the entrance price so we enjoyed a beer, soaking up the sunshine and chilling out in the hammocks.
On the walk back to the village from Casa Elemento, we stopped at Marinka waterfall which is absolutely stunning! This two-tiered waterfall is on private land so has a small entrance fee of 4,000 COP.
We hiked to La Candeleria Organic Coffee Farm which has unreal views over the mountains and free coffee – well you are in one of the first regions of Colombia to offer organic coffee after all. This hike takes around an hour to an hour and a half but we first stopped off at Mundo Nuevo which is an ecological farm and then hiked down to La Candeleria from there. This will add an extra 30 minutes to the hike.
Following on from La Candelaria, you can do a loop to Pozo Azul where you can swim in the natural pools and even jump from the top waterfall. The water is probably the coldest water I have ever bathed in and definitely wakes you up! Entry to Pozo Azul is free, which is always a bonus.
There are a number of other hikes you can do from Minca including the snow-capped mountains of Sierra Nevada. That particular hike is not for the faint hearted and only for advanced hikers.
Birdwatching is really popular in Minca thanks to the 300 plus species of birds who live in this area. Every morning whilst eating breakfast we would watch hummingbirds feeding only a few feet away from us. Even if you are not an avid birdwatcher or know much about it, you can’t fail to be impressed by the beautiful birds you will see whilst in Minca.
We usually cook most evenings, but as the food is so good in Minca we decided to eat out most nights. We found 2 hot spots that we ate at twice, Santisabella and Lazy Cat.
Santisabella is an Italian restaurant specialising in pizza and pasta on the first floor, with a cool cocktail bar on the ground floor. We ate and drank here most evenings and can confirm both the food and drinks are fantastic. I always go for Hawaiian pizza and it was one of the best I’ve tasted on the trip, for pasta I was recommended the spinach and ricotta ravioli but unfortunately, they had sold out so I opted for 4 cheese ravioli and it was really tasty. Chiquita Brava cocktail bar is the best bar in Minca and the Gin & Tonic was one of the best I’ve ever had!
Lazy Cat specialise in burgers and noodle bowls. I ate the chicken and vegetable wok rice noodle bowl with ginger, lime and peanuts the first night which was jam packed full of goodness I couldn’t even finish it as the portion was so huge and we also went for the happy hour 9,000 COP burger offer which is available every day from 5-7pm including 6,000 COP cocktails.
Other points to mention
There are no ATM’s in Minca so make sure you go there with plenty of cash. You can pay on card in most places but if you do need some money there is a company called Embassy which can be found near the church. Here you can withdraw money, book tours, store baggage, use the internet and print documents – basically it’s a one-stop shop for everything you may need. Speak to Rafa, he is the man about town!
We absolutely loved our time on the North coast of Colombia, if you are heading to Cartagena, be sure to check out my quick guide too.
Have you ever thought of visiting Colombia? Let me know in the comments below.
Keep on wandering!