Santa Marta and around

Santa Marta, the capital of Magdalena Department, is the third Caribbean port, 96 km east of Barranquilla. Unlike Cartagena, it is no colonial beauty but what it lacks in architecture it makes up for in character and bustle, and the Sanmarios are some of the most welcoming and gregarious people you will find anywhere in Colombia. The area around Santa Marta has much to offer, including a number of beaches. Head west to the family resort of Rodadero, or north to the fishing village of Taganga. Backpackers will love Taganga's lazy charm, and it's a convenient stopping point en route to Tayrona and a good place to organize treks to Ciudad Perdida mountain range. Southeast is Ciénaga de Santa Marta, 4000 sq km of wetlands with all types of waterbirds, and from
here you can reach Aracataca, birthplace of Colombia's most famous writer, Gabriel García Márquez,
and believed to be the inspiration for the village of Macondo which features in so many of his books.

Getting there

, Simón Bolívar, is 20 km south of city. The
bus terminal
is southeast of the city, towards Rodadero.

Although cruise ships from various places (eg USA, Puerto Rico, Panama and even Europe) visit Santa Marta from time to time, it is difficult to find a passage here from overseas. Without a
carnet de passages
, it can take up to four working days to get a car out of the port, but it is usually well guarded and it is unlikely that anything will be stolen.

Getting around

Many of the buses coming from Barranquilla and Cartagena stop at Rodadero on their way to Santa Marta.

Tourist information

tourist office
, is helpful and has lots of maps and brochures. The online magazine, is an excellent source of information on cultural events, activities, new restaurants and bars in Santa Marta and around.


The north end of town near the port and beyond the old railway station, and areas south of Rodadero beach are dangerous and travellers are advised not to go there alone. Beware of jungle tours, or boat trips to the islands sold by street touts.


This part of the South American coastline was visited in the early years of the 16th century by the new Spanish settlers from Venezuela. At this time, many indigenous groups were living on and near the coast, and were trading with each other and with communities further inland. The dominant group were the Tayrona.

Santa Marta was the first town created in Colombia by the
, in 1525. The founder, Rodrigo de Bastidas, chose it for its sheltered harbour and its proximity to the Río Magdelena and therefore its access to the hinterland. Also, the
represented a potential labour force and he had not failed to notice the presence of gold in their ornaments.

Within a few years, the Spanish settlement was consolidated and permanent buildings appeared . Things did not go well, however. The
did not 'collaborate' and there was continual friction amongst the Spaniards, all of whom were expecting instant riches. Bastidas' successor, Rodrigo Alvarez Palomino, attempted to subdue the
by force, with great loss of life and little success. The
that survived took to the hills and their successors, the Kogi, are still there today.

By the middle of the 16th century, a new threat had appeared. Encouraged and often financed by Spain's enemies (England, France and Holland), pirates realised that rich
pickings were to be had, not only from shipping, but also by attacking coastal settlements.
The first raid took place around 1544, captained by the French pirate Robert Waal with three ships and 1000 men. He was followed by many of the famous sea-dogs - the brothers Côte, Drake and Hawkins - who all ransacked the city in spite of the forts built on a small island at the entrance to the bay and on the mainland. Before the end of the century more than 20 attacks were recorded and the pillage continued until as late as 1779, the townsfolk lived in constant fear. Cartagena, meanwhile, became the main base for the
and much was invested in its defences. Santa Marta was never fortified in the same way and declined in importance as a result, this accounts for the poverty of the colonial heritage here. Over the years caches of treasure have been unearthed in old walls and floors - grim testimonies to the men and women of those troubled times who did not survive to claim them.

Two important names connect Santa Marta with the history of Colombia. Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada began the expedition here that led him up the Río Magdalena and into the highlands to found Santa Fe de Bogotá in 1538, and it was here that Simón Bolívar, his dream of Gran Colombia shattered, came to die. Almost penniless, he was given hospitality at the
of San Pedro Alejandrino. He died there on 17 December 1830, at the age of 47.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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