Santa Marta – a sweet Colombian beach town and springboard for Tayrona

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A statue along the beach park in Santa Marta

After Cartagena, we arrived in another tropical beach town: Santa Marta. Though normally just used as a jumping-off point for Tayrona National Park (it’s a short 2-hour collective ride to the main entrance), we adored this town for its comfortable accommodations and amazing local food. We heard mixed things about Santa Marta from the internet before arriving, so to confirm a few things: yes, the city is not the cleanest – there’s tons of dust in the streets. Yes, the traffic can be insane – we learned to walk in the traffic jams. And yes, this beach party town can get sleeplessly loud at night – we brought earplugs. But between living off of fresh-squeezed juice of every kind of tropical fruit imaginable to walking the beach at sunset (still lovely in the rainy season, by the way), I don’t think we can complain.

Stay

We started our Santa Marta trip by checking into the dorms at La Villiana Hostel. Since the hostel also doubles as a bar, bring earplugs to ensure a good night’s sleep. Also bring your swimsuit because the hostel has a small pool for a midday dip on hot days.

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Sweet, cool relief: La Villiana’s pool offers a break from the midday heat. Here’s a window of the hostel reflected in the water.

From what we saw of the 16-bed dorm and 8-bed dorm that we stayed in, rooms at La Villiana are pretty nice by our hostel standards. The bunk beds were fairly comfortable, there were actual stairs (not ladders) leading up to the top beds, and each bed also came equipped with a cubby that had a reading light and two outlets for charging electronic devices. (I thought Stoytcho had a picture of this, but sadly I couldn’t find it.)

They also had lockers available and drawers underneath the bunks for your bags, which does away with tripping over everyone’s stuff when I have to use the restroom at night. The only downside I found to the rooms is that they can get insanely cold at night because they turn on air conditioning and fans. It may help some people sleep, but because they only handed out sheets I was frigid the first night. I slept in a sleeping bag the rest of the nights because attempts to ask them about additional layers ended in failure (although they have a sign saying they have them). So think of this hostel as a BYO blanket kind of place.

We went over to Tayrona National Park after a couple of days here, and the hostel was happy to store the extra stuff we didn’t want to lug in with us. Whether or not this storage service cost money weirdly depended on which front desk staff you asked, so we asked a couple of people until one person pointed us to the storage location and we dropped a reusable grocery bag there, tied shut – I’m not sharing that one to keep everyone else’s stuff safe. When we came back our stuff was still there and untouched, although buried by other people’s bags, so we can happily say that your stuff is safe here as long a no one sees something tempting.  Don’t store anything that might be sensitive to having 15 heaping travel packs piled on it, though.

Eat

Ahhh, this is where Santa Marta really shined. There were two spend categories of food: street cheap and restaurant expensive. Being us, we stuck mostly with the street cheap and enjoyed eating at the amazing street markets. Our local haunt was the street market that takes over Calle 16 between Carrera 5 and Carrera 6, just east of Catedral de Santa Marta.

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People gather for dinner at the street market
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Grillfest: get kebabs, potatoes, and arepas all grilled to perfection at the street market.

The market specialized in pizzas, fried foods, and fresh juice, with at least two stands selling any given thing from just before lunch until around 8:00 pm. Here’s an example of the delicious abominations you could get there, a heaping plate of “animal fries” for USD $2 (COP 6,200):

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Abandon hope, all ye who enter here: beneath this pile of fried potato skins, cheese, sausage slices, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions lies half a pound of french fries.

Our other category of food, the fancy restaurants, was located on a long stretch of the narrow pedestrian-only Carrera 3 between Calle 16 and Calle 20. These restaurants range from $4 to $20 USD an entrée and include a Chipotle-ish DIY burrito place (Barbacoa Santa Marta), an amazing arepa café and juice bar (Lulo), and some extremely high-end restaurants (Ouzo, places across from Parque de los Novios). We ate here only a couple of times, but that extra couple of dollars buys you some amazing food:

 

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Arepa tower!  (From Lulo)
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Mixed juices from Lulo.

Lulo offers heaping arepas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as mixes of delicious tropical juices. For USD $20 we each got a juice and arepa piled high with veggies and protein. The staff are bilingual, making ordering especially easy of you don’t know any Spanish. And it’s STILL cheaper than a comparable restaurant in the U.S.*

Do

We spent a total of 3 days in Santa Marta, so we didn’t get to explore much. But we did manage to find the beach, which hugs the west side of the town. Like some places in L.A., the beach is part boardwalk and park called Camellon, with steps leading down to the sand and waves. There are vendors selling snacks and souvenirs in Camellon, and from talking with locals we found out it’s safe to wander until about 8 or 9 pm, when everyone closes up shop and goes home. This makes it the perfect place to catch the sunset:

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Sunset over the beach in Parque Camellon, Santa Marta.

Though it was rainy season, the temperatures were also still fairly warm and the water was comfortable:

 

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People swim at sunset in Parque Camellon, Santa Marta.

 

Apart from that, we spent our time here relaxing and planning our trip to Tayrona National Park.

*My reference here is Rubamba, our beloved arepa place back in New Haven, CT. There two arepas and drinks would run you about USD $25 before tip, so a total of roughly $30 for a night out there. Of course this price for a nice night out might be comparable to some other U.S. restaurants, but overall it still runs cheaper.

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3 thoughts on “Santa Marta – a sweet Colombian beach town and springboard for Tayrona

  1. Lulo! It was one of the few restaurants open (thankfully) when we returned to SM on a Sunday, from Tayrona. The food was delicious.

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