Santa Marta – Pirates in Colombia

The city of Santa Marta has almost 500.000 inhabitants and is located in the north of Colombia in the Departemento del Magdalena. It is the eleventh largest city in Colombia and one of the largest directly on the Caribbean coast. Its location close to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the famous Tayrona National Park make it a very suitable starting point for trips along Colombia's Caribbean Coast. Besides, the cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena are easy to reach from Santa Marta. When I walk along the promenade of Santa Marta at dusk and look towards the offshore island, I can well imagine how pirates used to hide here long ago.

Santa Marta in Colombia

In this Santa Marta travelogue, you can find out what the city's atmosphere is like, where to eat and stay nicely, and the best way to get to Tayrona National Park from Santa Marta. Find out how to get to Palomino, further east on Colombia's Caribbean coast, and what to expect there.

Where have the pirates gone?

As I step through the narrow door of the plane, the heat hits me like a hot paralyzing wall. Inside pleasantly air-conditioned, outside tropical heat. Welcome to the airport of Santa Marta. After a few days in Bogota I am not used to this. In Bogota it was pleasantly cool, here I just feel like lying down in a hammock and drinking cool beer.

The flight was pleasantly empty and the plane extremely modern. But shortly after takeoff, I experienced the most violent turbulence I can remember. Glad not to have crashed and still invigorated by the compliment an American couple just paid me in the way I had the coolest outfit they had ever seen, I gladly endure the heat though.

The airport of Santa Marta is more like an airfield, with wrecked airplanes and other machines standing around and the tropical air shimmering above in the hot temperature. The runway is directly at the Caribbean Sea and so I am already looking forward to walk along the water in Santa Marta later on. Outside the small airport building some cabs are waiting, finally I share one with two other people who both want to go to Gaira on the way to Santa Marta.

The ride is pleasant, as we drive over a small hill, Santa Marta is suddenly in front of us. The hills around the city look dried out, there are numerous cacti growing everywhere and I wonder how the tropical rainforest of the Tayrona National Park and the Sierera Nevada de Santa Marta is supposed to start here only a few kilometers away. My hostel is in the center of town, the driver honks his way through the traffic, there doesn't seem to be much going on right now, no wonder, it's way too hot to do anything.

An hour later I walk down Calle 14 from my hostel to the sea. Further north is the harbor. I heard the area around the port is not safe, I'm walking alone, it's the first night in town, I don't know how brave I can be. I cross the square Parque Simon Bolivar and already I am at the waterfront. To my right are the mighty harbor cranes.

Later, someone tells me that this is probably the port in the world from which most of the cocaine is smuggled. I don't know if this is true. But it makes me think. The mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are not far away. There are areas that are not under the control of the Colombian government. Cocaine is grown there. The next day I will see the Colombian drug police on the outskirts of the city, checking the heavily loaded trucks coming from the suspicious directions.

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Until dusk comes and it gets dark, I walk in the narrow colorful streets of Santa Marta. There is a lot going on in the area, which is bordered by Calle 12 in the north – it is said that it is better not to go further north – Calle 22 in the south and Carrera 7 in the east. Especially around the small square Parque De Los Novios there are many retaurants and bars.

The sun sets fast and fiery red. What was it like here when the city was one of the first of the Spanish invaders and was attacked by pirates? The smell of adventure wafts through the streets and along the colorful houses. Rum is sold at market stalls and I make my way back. Today it is at least here in the center of Santa Marta probably reasonably safe.

There are armed policemen on every corner. Your eyes follow a heavily drunk or otherwise drugged man as he staggers across the plaza in tattered clothes, shouting wildly. Not everyone is doing as well as us, who can pay here with our credit cards nice Caribbean nights. This is also present everywhere in Santa Marta.

Santa Marta in Colombia


The best way to get to Santa Marta from Bogota is by plane. Several airlines fly to Santa Marta several times a day. The flight takes just over an hour. I flew with Avianca, the machines are in a very good condition – airplanes are probably a good money investment. Somewhere the money for expensive cocaine has to end up. Who knows.

You can get from the airport to the center of Santa Marta very easily and for little money with a collective taxi.

From Santa Marta to Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park basically starts just east of Santa Marta. The jungle and the last foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta reach here to the Caribbean Sea. Many species of animals and untouched landscape are waiting to be discovered.

Why the Tayrona National Park was too crowded for me in many places, and why I think a trip there is still worthwhile, can be read in my report about the visit there.

Getting to Tayrona National Park from Santa Marta is fairly easy. Either plan the trip with a cab or shared taxi. The easiest way to get lost is to ask the staff at your accommodation.

Or you can take the bus. Buses leave at short intervals (about every 20 minutes) from the bus station in Santa Marta in the direction of Riohacha. Just tell the driver that you want to go to the park or that you want to get off at the main entrance of El Zaino. Usually you will be told shortly before you get there that you have to get off right away. The buses are usually pretty crowded and tightly packed, but it's still kind of fun to ride them.

The bus station of Santa Marta is not far from the center but comparatively difficult to find. It is best to ask again in detail before you go there. Otherwise there is the danger of getting lost and ending up in an area of Santa Marta where it is not safe even during the day.

The entrance to El Zaino is just under 40 kilometers from Santa Marta, which is about an hour's drive.

If you are on your way to Tayrona National Park, you should also think about driving further to Palomino.

The way to Palomino

If you follow the road east along the Caribbean coast in the direction of Riohacha and Venezuela, you will reach the small town of Palomino after almost two hours of driving and about 80 kilometers. A visit to Palomino is great!

More about it can be read in my report about Palomino. Here's just one thing: Beautiful nature, an estuary, the necessary seclusion and a wild beach make you forget the rest of the world for the time being.

To get to Palomino, you actually have to do exactly the same as to get to Tayrona National Park. Either arrange a cab or shared cab through your accommodation, making sure it is authorized, or take one of the many buses from the bus station to Riohacha and get off at the right place.

Eating and staying in Santa Marta

The Masaya Santa Marta (at to find there: Masaya Santa Marta at – advertising) is a hostel, but it also offers private rooms with private bathrooms. The great rooftop terrace has music and a bar as well as great seating with great views over the rooftops of Santa Marta. There is also a pool on the roof terrace and one in the courtyard.

The rooms at La Calzado des Santo (at there: Hotel La Calzada del Santo near – advertising) are a bit more spacious and everything seems a bit more noble. I was received extremely friendly. There is also a roof terrace here. This one is even multilevel and equipped with hammocks. And last but not least there is a pool. Perfect to let the warm tropical night air blow through your hair late at night.

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The surroundings of Santa Marta

Not far – about 20 kilometers – from Santa Marta in the hills is the village of Minca. Near Minca there is a waterfall in the middle of the forest. Small pools at the foot of the waterfall invite for a swim, the water is cool and refreshing after the dusty walk up here. If you don't want to walk the way, you can have a motorcycle cab bring you here.

The waterfall costs a small entrance fee, but there is a changing room and a restaurant with a view of the waterfall. On the way from Minca to the waterfall you pass impressive bamboo plants.

In Minca there are some bars, cafes and restaurants, the atmosphere is calm and relaxed compared to Santa Marta.

To get from Santa Marta to Minca, it's best to organize an authorized cab driver. Mine was extremely breakneck driving up and down the winding roads up and down the hills. A lasting memory.

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