Three Months in Santa Marta

When my short stay in Palomino came to an end it was time to return to Santa Marta. I’d been away for a couple of weeks and felt ready to get back to work. One thing I didn’t realise was that January is peak season in Colombia, proper peak season – like August in Southern Europe. To say I was surprised by how busy I found Santa Marta is an understatement. So much so I had to spend a week in a different hostel because República was full. Madness!

Things eventually quieted down and I picked up where I’d left off as soon I went back to República. The plan was to focus on editing the book and that’s mostly what I did, with varying degrees of success. As fun as staying in a hostel is, one of the major downsides is that it’s hard to work more than a couple of hours without being interrupted. It wasn’t a big deal at the beginning, but towards the end I really just wanted to be left alone so I could focus on what I was doing.

República Hostel, my home for a few months.

Regardless, I ended up staying in Santa Marta for another three months and managed to complete the bulk of the book. In good André fashion, I left it until the very last minute to be a tourist in the city. I’m not kidding, it was literally the day before I left that I went around to see the sights and take a few photos. I already knew the city, of course, but this was the first time I actually went out as a tourist. There isn’t an awful lot to see or do, but it’s a fun place to explore.

When I arrived in November I was gutted to find the malecón pretty much under construction. Needless to say I was very, very happy when it finally reopened a few months later. I actually went there a few times because it’s such an enjoyable place. The beach was still a far cry from what I had expected so I never really went there despite the hot weather. At the end of the malecón there’s an embankment with a few bars facing the marina. It is the place to be at sunset and locals and tourists alike flock there for a selfie or three. Understandably so since the sky never fails to put up an amazing show! 

The gorgeous new malecón.
Sunsets from the marina, unbeatable.

Other than that, aside from being a much cheaper alternative to overpriced and overcrowded Cartagena, Santa Marta is a city that lives off its colonial charm. Most people visit because of the numerous nearby attractions like the Ciudad Perdida, Minca (where I watched a fabulous sunrise from Cerro Kennedy!), and Tayrona National Park. So yes, the reality is that there isn’t all that much to see or do in the city proper. The centre has a number of churches and squares that are fun to explore but that’s about it. My favourite is Plaza de la Basílica, with the imposing 18th-century Santa Marta Cathedral standing in the middle.

Santa Marta Cathedral, as pretty as they come.
Plaza de San Francisco and its church.
Lively colours near Parque de los Novios.

Unsurprisingly, the one thing I really like about Santa Marta is the charming colonial vibe – unlike Cartagena here it doesn’t feel fabricated. I visited Cartagena in 2015 and loved it, but it’s the sort of place that doesn’t feel genuine at all. In Santa Marta, walking around the empty colourful streets during the day (in the company of an ice cream!) is a great pleasure. Like stepping back in time. The main street doubles as “restaurant street” and is where most of the restaurants are to be found: from Colombian to Mexican, Chinese, Italian or Peruvian… there’s something for every taste. At night it gets packed with tourists and there’s often good live music being played outside, which is pretty cool.

One of the colourful side streets.
Restaurant Street, where the magic happens!

Funnily enough, the vast majority of tourists in Santa Marta are from Colombia. And of those, a large number are from Bogotá. Took me a while to figure this out but it’s actually not very surprising when you think about it; the capital – known for its very average weather (read: cold and rainy!) – is less than a couple of hours away by plane and flights can be quite affordable. I can’t blame them for ditching the overcast skies for a bit of fun in the sun whenever they get a chance. I’d probably do the same myself in their position! 

Now, I could lie to you and say my stay had been nothing but wonders but I was actually glad to leave. It had gotten far too hot and humid and I was tired of being constantly interrupted while working. I also ended up skipping Tayrona National Park and the Ciudad Perdida as well as discarding a trip to Cartagena because I couldn’t justify their cost but that’s a story for another day. So, for my last month in Colombia – which I had originally planned to spend in Santa Marta – I booked an Airbnb in Bogotá, a city I knew was going to welcome me with open arms.