In November, I travelled with five women to visit our friend who lives in Santa Marta. Due to work constraints, we only had 10 days to spend in this beautiful country. Our resident Colombian planned a mini-tour, which was truly wonderful.
We mainly stuck to the north of the country, using Santa Marta as a base. While we had the added luxury of being able to leave our backpacks at our host’s house, most of the hostels in Santa Marta are also very happy for you to leave belongings there as a lot of people base themselves in the town ahead of the four-day lost city trek. We didn’t have time for this, but still managed to pack a huge amount in. If you are stuck for time, but keen to explore, I highly recommend following a similar route – which would work for a group, couple or solo travelers.
We started in Santa Marta, exploring the city itself. We then made a two-day trip to Minca, followed by a night in Tayrona National Park. Finally, we flew from Santa Marta to Medellin – which for me, was the highlight of the trip. We went back to Santa Marta from here but it is very easy to fly from Medellin to Bogata, where most international flights depart from.
Santa Marta is a beautiful city on the Caribbean cost. Over half a million people call it home, yet the historical centre has the feel of a small but lively town. Famous for its weather, Santa Marta doesn’t fall below around 30 degrees Celsius all year round. It is a fantastic base for nearby beaches, and daytrips into the jungle or out to more remote costal spots. It can get a bit stressful when it rains (which happens frequently), but when the sun comes out, all is forgiven.
- You must eat at Lulo, on Carrera 3. I highly recommend their house arepa – the ‘Lulota’, which has a hearty helping of incredibly tender braised beef, delicious salsa and fresh Colombian avocado. It is great for lunch or dinner and their cocktails are delicious.
- Carrera 3 and the surrounding area is a great spot more broadly. If you are looking for food and nightlife, head to this road and wander up to the Parque de Lois Novios. Hemingway has delicious seafood and Ouzo serves great pizzas. If you sit outside at night, you’ll experience most of Santa Marta’s street performers – from traditional Colombian folk singers, to break-dancers that rival the best American crews. Do tip, they are excellent and a $5,000 note means very little to most tourists.
- For a good coffee Ikaro Cafe on Calle 19 is great. The surroundings are just lovely. Food here is nothing to write home about, but it does boast a full vegetarian menu. Again, this is a great street for wandering down during the day or at night.
- An absolute must, is the ‘Jugos’ (juice) stand along the seafront. This discerning aluminum stand, situated near the Marina and next to a ceviche vendor, has a collection of amazing fruits that you’ll never have heard of. My favourites were sapote con leche and lulo con aqua.
- The Marina is nice for a good coffee, upmarket food, and an excellent view.
- Finally, take a taxi to the El Mirador Hostel in Taganga (about 15 minute drive from the centre). Here you’ll find a stunning infinity pool overlooking the bay. Head there an hour or two before sunset. It is $10,000 entry and once you’re in has cheap beers and cocktails that you can enjoy in the pool. Sunset from this spot was mind-blowing. At night, it becomes a club.
Because we used Santa Marta as a base, we were able to try out a range of accommodation. Below are all the places we stayed – ranked in order of price (high to low). I would recommend all of them – the hostels are great and you can easily get a private room; the hotel was quite special but also very affordable. We used Booking.com throughout.
- Hotel La Calzada del Santo – fantastic location; really lovely hotel (a bit more luxury); pool and hammocks on the roof; average breakfast; aircon; hot showers.
- Masaya Hostel – great location; simple, clean rooms; pool on the roof with great views; fantastic breakfast; aircon; hot showers.
- Hostal El Espanolete – great location; very cute (a lot of character); really cheap; simple, clean rooms; fantastic breakfast; air con.
Minca is a 45-minute drive from Santa Marta. You can get buses and cars from the market place and it costs $8,000 one-way.
Minca itself is lovely, but very small – really you want to use it as a base to explore the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountain range and its coffee and chocolate fincas (farms). However, if you are craving decent food and free Wi-Fi, Lazy Cat Cafe is good. Pick up some brownies from any one of the coffee shops – they are all made by the same person and are delicious.
We spent two nights at La Candelaria coffee and chocolate finca, which I cannot recommend highly enough. They have six beds (so we took over the whole place) but also run coffee and chocolate tours. We tried out both tours, which were brilliant. I departed with bags full of their coffee beans – all harvested and roasted on site.
La Candelaria is a stunning hour-long hike from Minca, with breathtaking views of the Sierra Nevada and down into Santa Marta. It is an incredibly peaceful place, with fantastic coffee on tap and great food cooked to order. We had no phone signal or Wi-Fi, which added to the charm of this lovely place.
You can walk from the finca to Poza Azul waterfalls in about an hour and a half, which are beautiful and worth a visit if you are in the area.
Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona
Tayrona National Park is one of the ‘must-sees’ of Santa Marta. Again, it takes around 45 minutes from Santa Marta on the bus, which you can also get from the market place. Tickets cost $8,000 one-way, and most people will stay at least one night – although you could easily get lost for weeks.
You can only really enter the park through one route, and once you are inside you have to travel by foot, although do take the 10-minute bus from the entrance to the start of the trails. Entry costs $44,000 per person.
We hiked from the entrance to the Cabo San Juan beach and campsite – this is where most of the iconic shots of Tayrona come from. You can stop off at two other beaches along the way (one of which also has a campsite). The hike takes between 2-3 hours depending on the weather – post-rain it can be very muddy. The jungle is stunning and nature abounds; we saw monkeys both ways.
I recommend timing it so you get to Cabo San Juan before 1pm, when hammocks are still available (much more enjoyable than spending the night in a sweaty tent). The best bit of the day is from sunrise until non-campers start arriving again at around 11am – the beach is deserted and the weather calm. You can eat at the restaurant on site, or buy delicious hot breads from vendors on the beach.
When looking to leave, you can get a boat from Cabo San Juan to Taganga, or just hike back and get the bus to Santa Marta.
The only downside of Tayrona was the dogs – there were about five or six male dogs wandering around who decided to have a turf war under our hammocks at night. Not ideal.
We ended our trip with three days in Medellin, which all of us absolutely loved.
We stayed at Mila hostel, which was very comfortable. The owners were incredibly friendly and full of local tips, so this is a great for spot for the solo traveler. Mila is located in the very trendy El Poblado neighbourhood, which feels very safe and is packed full of bars and restaurants.
- We had a great night out in El Poblado, bar hopping and dancing until 4am. On nights out, I recommend buying a bottle of Medellin rum instead of individual drinks – it is cheap and delicious.
- In the same neighbourhood, Café Zorba is a very trendy pizza place that serves great beers, and again boasts a fully vegetarian menu.
- Do take the opportunity to Visit Comuna 13, a beautiful neighbourhood in the north of the city, famous for its graffiti. I suggest going about an hour before sunset. Most of the other tourists have left by this time so you can start to see the area come to life. It has the added novelty of outdoor escalators, and the views are stunning. We drank lemon micheladas as the sun went down and felt very safe throughout.
- Make sure you take one of the cable cars – these are part of the Medellin transport system so are cheap and easy, and provide breathtaking views of the city.
- Take a day trip to Guatape. If you are travelling as a group I recommend hiring a driver for the day (around $450,000). You can also get a bus, or join a tour group that will take you to both El Peñón ‘the rock’ and Guatape. The rock is a geological marvel, with stunning views from the top. Guatape is deservedly famous for its beautiful colours. If you are looking for a good coffee, try Kaffa – this was honestly the best coffee I’ve ever had. The owner grows and roasts his own beans – and is so obsessed, he has coffee related tattoos all over his body.
- We had a fabulous breakfast at Sancho Paisa. This is a little out of the city, and on the way to Guatape, so probably only worth it if you are headed that way. Try the ‘Calentao con Chicharron’, a delicious traditional breakfast. Mine came with a mug of hot chocolate the size of my face.
- Take the Real City walking tour. This free tour lasts about four hours, and is incredibly interesting. You’ll learn all about Medellin’s history (from murder capital of the world in 1991 to 5 million visitors a year in 2016), day to day life, and politics. This is one of the few places you can safely mention Pablo Escobar, although they’ll still ask you not to name him out loud, otherwise – keep schtumn, and DO NOT mention Narcos!