Usually when travelers think of Colombia, their minds immediately race to international tourist hotspots like Cartagena and Medellin.
Yet when we look to Colombia’s Caribbean coast, we find the lovely city of Santa Marta. Though it may not be Colombia’s most popular destination for international tourists, Santa Marta has a whole lot for discerning travelers to experience and enjoy.
If you’re still stumped on why Santa Marta belongs on your “to-go list,” here are 8 great reasons to make your way here.
Since Santa Marta directly abuts the Caribbean Sea, you will find plenty of beautiful beaches around town.
If you’re simply looking for a convenient beach in the heart of town, Playa Los Cocos is right by the city’s historic downtown and the marina. Though this beach may not feel pristine, it does tend to be clean, and the water is safe for swimming.
If you’re looking for a more exotic experience, head to Playa El Rodadero: It’s only about a 15-minute drive south of Playa Los Cocos, yet it feels a world away with its lush, tropical landscaping, its long stretch of white sand, and its pumping nightlife.
For wider stretches of sand and calmer waters, check out the beaches of the Malecón del Aeropuerto and Playa Dormida. If you want to splurge a little on a nice hotel, the Santa Marta Marriott Resort Playa Dormida offers very easy and safe beach access.
If you need public access, you can enter the beach from the Malecón that’s right across the street from the Simón Bolívar/Santa Marta Airport, as well as from a small road to the north.
Not only do these beaches feature fun yet manageable waves for swimmers and bodysurfers, but they also give plane spotters the prime opportunity to watch various airplanes coming and going from the airport.
Tayrona National Park
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Tayrona National Park may be Colombia’s finest natural treasure.
Located less than an hour’s drive away from town, Tayrona is where you will find many of Colombia’s most incredible native animal species, including the mantled howler monkey, the oncilla (or northern tiger cat), the montane solitary eagle, and the military macaw.
Tayrona also has Colombia’s largest coral reef, which provides habitat to over 400 fish species.
Not only does Tayrona National Park include some of Colombia’s most spectacular beaches, such as Bahía Concha and Cañaveral, but it also features forest trails that guide visitors through dense jungles, and the more advanced trails head up and down the park’s towering mountains.
Malecón de Bastidas
This Malecón is named after Santa Marta’s founder, Rodrigo de Bastidas. Though the beaches here are not exactly the cleanest or most inviting, travelers still have plenty of great reasons to come and stroll this boardwalk in the historic heart of the city.
The Malecón is the ideal place for first-time visitors to dive right into Santa Marta’s local culture: You will find a number of restaurants featuring great (and affordable) local cuisine, and the Malecón itself has ample park space where you can stretch out and enjoy the scenery.
You will find plenty of public art that illustrates much of the rich history of this region, plus there’s a full outdoor gym that’s great for working out!
Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino
Calling all art hounds and history buffs: Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino is where it’s at!
This hacienda was built in 1609, and it’s a fine example of a grand Spanish colonial estate that produced valuable goods like rum, honey, and panela. Yet in 1830, this was the final place where Latin American revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar stayed as he battled a terrible bout of tuberculosis that ultimately took his life.
Because of the hacienda’s special place in Bolivarian history, it’s also a potent memorial to Colombia’s and the rest of Latin America’s successful drive to break free from European colonialism.
Even better, Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino is also home to the Bolivarian Museum of Art: It houses an impressive collection of postmodern art by many of Latin America’s most intriguing artists.
Museo del Oro
Santa Marta’s Museo del Oro may truly be good as gold. After all, it has so much gold on display!
Though some locals and visitors have gradually grown more frustrated over this museum’s growing popularity, it’s still worth visiting because this former customs house has a remarkable collection of gold artifacts, some of which date as far back as 2,500 years.
In addition to all that glittery gold, this museum has many more pre-colonization artifacts on display, including indigenous-made pottery and statues, that remind everyone that present-day Colombia already had people building thriving civilizations long before Spain began to colonize this land.
Stretching for about 600 hectares (or roughly 1,480 acres) in a dry tropical forest perched above Highway 90, the Mamancana Reserve offers a tranquil escape from city life.
For travelers wanting to reconnect with Mother Nature, Mamancana is great for hiking, birdwatching, rock climbing, paragliding, and even horseback riding. For those who simply want to unwind and recharge, Mamancana has a gorgeous pool area
Though Mamancana is often open to the public, it is occasionally reserved for private events (including concerts), so you may want to call ahead to check on availability and obtain your day pass.
The Coffee and Cacao of Minca
Sitting around 700 meters (or nearly 2,300 feet) above sea level in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Minca is the perfect place to grow some of the world’s best coffee and cacao.
Whether you’re an aspiring culinary artist or an eco-conscious wandering spirit, the cacao and coffee farms of Minca are ideal for getting to know the land, the traditions, and the delectable recipes of this storied region.
Beyond the farms, Minca abounds in gorgeous natural scenery, including a special waterfall that’s sacred to local indigenous communities.
The Lost City
Peru may have Machu Picchu, but Colombia has its own Lost City (or Ciudad Perdida) that’s captivating the hearts and minds of the most adventurous travelers.
Though this Lost City is not as well-known as Peru’s iconic Incan city, this Lost City actually predates Machu Picchu by some 650 years. Though archaeologists first discovered this Lost City in the 1970s, this 1,000+ year-old ancient city tends to draw smaller crowds, even as it offers just as spectacular scenery and ancient history.
If you’re up for the ultimate expedition to discover this unique wonder of the world, Lost City Trek offers 4, 5, and 6-day tours that give you the ultimate opportunity to reconnect with nature, immerse yourself in pre-colonization indigenous history and culture, and learn more about the present-day indigenous communities who call this place home.
If you’re still wondering why Santa Marta is worth visiting soon, here’s one more reason: Affordability. While Colombia overall offers many bargains for international travelers, Santa Marta in particular offers extra “bang for the buck” thanks to its flying under the radar of the global jetset.
Even as certain other cities in Colombia are increasingly feeling the effects of growing tourist popularity, it’s quite easy for travelers to eat well and stay safely in Santa Marta.
Depending on your budget and “taste for luxury,” it’s even possible to spend under $100 per day (based on solo travel) on your trip with lodging costs included! If you want a more premium experience, you can still potentially spend under $500 per day (for one person) while enjoying a nicer hotel and fancier restaurants.
Though Santa Marta may not draw the kinds of huge international tourist crowds that have become increasingly customary in Cartagena and Medellin, it’s nonetheless a city full of hidden gems and special surprises that will delight those travelers who make the journey here.
From idyllic beaches to towering mountains and from ancient indigenous history to cutting-edge contemporary art and culture, Santa Marta really has it all.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com