Santa Marta; First Impressions of Colombia's Oldest Town

First impressions of Santa Marta; Colombia

Hola! (no one says hola) I am writing this from a Wi-Fi-less treehouse in Minca so I am not sure when I will be able to put this live but I thought I’d use some downtime to talk about my first impressions of the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

I left Manchester at 5pm on Friday the 22nd Jan to fly down to the Caribbean Coast for my two week jaunt around the region with my partner and a cool 19 hours later we arrived in Santa Marta by way of Bogotá. Once you land you are immediately struck by how laid back the internal security is at Santa Marta airport, it is basically a bus stop with a runway. You do not pass through any security and you simply wait while the luggage is carried 50 yards to the belt.

Once out of the airport we jumped in a taxi (should be around 22,000 COP, but we got mugged off and paid 30 – classic gringos!) and it's then you notice the first thing about Colombia; they give very little thought to road safety compared to the sanitized UK roads, most taxi’s appear to have actually taken out the seatbelt, so when our taxi driver pulled a controversial U-turn on the exit from the motorway my heart was in my mouth. Anyway, we arrived at our hostel at about 8:30 in the morning, slightly delirious and with the temperature already above 25 degrees.

 Street Art in Santa Marta

Street Art in Santa Marta

The second thing we noticed about Colombia is that they do not give a flying F if you do not speak Spanish. I've come to Colombia with next to no Spanish (enough to order a beer and appear like I'm not being deliberately rude) and they do not give you an inch. Very little of the population speak English and when you look at them with a vacant, lost gaze, rather than slow down and try and meet to you halfway they rephrase their original sentence in the same lightning fast Spanish, it might actually be a game! Not that I'm complaining, it really gives you the incentive to get off your arse and use some initiative, but it was a bit of a help when we were told there is an American style mall just down the road from the our hostel as it allowed us to get some basic supplies stress free as we settled in.

The taxis in Santa Marta offer a flat-non-negotiable rate of 6,000 COP to everywhere in the city, this is a massive help as it opens up a crowded and busy city for little over £1 and negated the fact that the hostel was a little out of the way as well as killing the need for two people to negotiate a price when they do not have a clue what each other is talking about.

Once in the centre of Santa Marta you can really tell that it is a city in development. There is so much building work going on it can put you off a little bit, a lot of the locals are wearing face masks to protect from the dust and you don’t blame them. It is all part of Colombia’s progress I suppose, but hot weather and construction is always a little off putting. Having said that Santa Marta is really rewarding during the day as you get to see the locals go about their daily business in an environment which is not dependent or built around tourism. 

The main square in the city centre is Parque Los Novious, which is slightly more expensive than the rest of the restaurants and bars you come across, still nothing compared to the prices in the UK but a noticeable difference. So it is perhaps not the one if you are backpacking or doing a long stay but as we’re only here for two weeks it is not a big deal to pay £14 each for a meal. The bars in the area are a lot of fun, all very colourful with lots of music and the odd street performer. Its a shame we didn't get chance to see the square in full swing on a Saturday night but it was fun non the less.

 The view from La Pearla in Parque los Novious

The view from La Pearla in Parque los Novious

On the topic of prices, the most common local beer is Aguila and typically costs 3/4000 COP which comes in around the 50p-80p mark in bars, wine appears to be more expensive, around 12,000 for a glass ("Vaso de tinto vino" – see, I'm learning) and the more expensive ‘artisan’ beers Happy Toucan and Happy Jaguar, which are made in Minca (I was actually at the factory this morning) cost around 6,000 COP.

You can get cheap meals for around 9000 -12,000 COP which usually contain a meat/fish, rice and plantain or patties for about 8,000 COP. Then of course there is the more expensive meals which mostly cater to foreigners or the wealthier Colombians.

 Deep fried fish, coconut rice and fried plantain

Deep fried fish, coconut rice and fried plantain

One thing I want to stress about this area of Colombia is that it does not come close to the negative Colombian/South American stereotypes. I've not once felt pressured by pushy street sellers, I've not been offered cocaine, the first taxi drive aside, no one has tried to take advantage. The people are very courteous and happy to help. Unlike when I've been to parts of Asia, in Colombia you certainly do not feel like a walking wallet.

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While in Santa Marta there is not loads to do apart from explore and visit the bars and restaurants but you are only about an hour away from Tayrona National Park, which contains a number of stunning beaches (a lot of walking to get there though, so it might not be for everyone!) entry costs 35,000 COP or 15,000 COP if you visit Bahia Concha beach (below).

 Bahia Concha Beach in Tayrona National Park

Bahia Concha Beach in Tayrona National Park

All in all, Santa Marta is a city in which it is pretty easy to save some money for the more expensive parts of the trip and get accustomed to Colombia. I would recommend you learn some Spanish, it’s the only thing that has held us back and would probably enhance the trip tenfold.

At the end of my trip I will do a summary post with some recommendations including restaurants, bars and accommodation. 

Cheers for reading,

Jon.