We spent a productive and incredibly cheap month in Santa Marta, Colombia in January, discovering some aspects of the city we really appreciated as well as others that came as unpleasant surprises.
Let’s start with the good things first.
Santa Marta was significantly cheaper than any other city we visited in Colombia.
Our Airbnb cost $790 for 28 days, menu del dias (set lunches) range from 10,000 – 16,000 pesos (about $3-$5) per person, and taxis cost 5500 pesos ($2) for most trips within the city.
While it may not hold the allure Cartagena does for tourists on vacation, it can be a solid option for long term travelers and digital nomads on a budget.
Santa Marta is Colombia’s oldest city and the second oldest in South America, dating back to 1525.
The old town has colorful colonial buildings and a free museum where you can learn about the history of the region as well as the life and times of Simón Bolívar, liberator of South America, who died in Santa Marta and whose villa still lies on the outskirts of the city, albeit a bit dilapidated now.
The food here is really good and international, with lots of vegetarian choices, traditional arepas, burgers, and even authentic Indian fare.
Personally we preferred the restaurant scene in Santa Marta to that of Cartagena.
For the fitness oriented, there’s a big gym overlooking the marina with prices starting at 50,000 pesos (about $15USD) for a monthly pass.
Since it’s too hot in Santa Marta to exercise outdoors except very early in the morning, this gym with air-conditioning was a lifesaver.
It has a full range of cardio and weightlifting machines, mats, free weights, and even a rowing machine. It also offers paddle boarding classes in the marina below.
When temperatures cool down in the evening, the old town really comes to life, with tons of outdoor restaurants, bars, street performers, musicians, and vendors selling all sorts of things.
Everybody comes out at night to dine al fresco or just enjoy the setting sun along the waterfront.
So What’s Not to Like?
It may seem like easy living in Santa Marta, but before you jump to book a long stay, here are a few things we found frustrating.
No Hot Water
On our first day, we discovered there was no hot water in the shower.
This apparently is not uncommon in this part of South America; it’s practically citywide in Santa Marta. While temperatures reach above 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the water still comes out cool, not warm.
To ensure you have hot water, either stay in a hotel or ask your Airbnb host before booking. Some have installed hot water heaters, but if they haven’t, it’s not always disclosed in the listing.
Have you ever been to a place where the weather report was simply Windy every day? Our first week in Santa Marta, the wind howled all night and blew out three transformers in our neighborhood.
During the day while walking down the street we’d have to brace ourselves with our eyes squeezed shut while the wind ripped around us.
The windy season lasts 5 months from late November to early May. We were there in January and experienced forty mile an hour gusts for over a week, but then it calmed down during our last two weeks, so it can be highly variable.
The Culture Trip called Santa Marta “Colombia’s premier beach destination.”
Maybe so for Colombia, but if you’ve been to any other beaches in the world, Santa Marta’s are not that nice and more importantly, the sea water is too dirty to swim in, due to the city’s problematic sewer system.
When you search for Santa Marta online, you might see pictures of the beaches at Tayrona National Park, but it’s misleading to equate the two.
Tayrona is a half hour drive away, the entrance fee is quite high for foreigners, the park closes for a month starting at the end of January, and daily capacity is limited, so reserve in advance.
Dirty Tap Water
The tap water is not safe to drink or even cook with. We were advised not to consume it even after boiling.
The national government of Colombia has sent millions of dollars to this region to improve the water infrastructure, but the funds haven’t been used for that purpose.
The water is largely untreated and comes from very dirty rivers. When the water level is low, which happens during droughts, the tap water comes out brown as silt and dirt gets stirred up in the pipes.
Santa Marta has been plagued by droughts in recent years, especially during the dry season from December to April.
Purified water is sold in 5 liter plastic bags. We bought them from our local minimarket for 2700 pesos each, and they delivered them on a bike, which was good as we went through about one a day.
Every morning starting before 8am and going til nearly noon, we were awakened by the yell of “aguacate aguacate, papaya papaya!” signaling the arrival of the fruit sellers.
Several of them all blare the same recording from a loudspeaker. They come every day, even on Sundays.
But it’s not like they’re providing an indispensable service or selling their fruit for reasonable prices – we never saw anyone buying from them.
If you’re a digital nomad traveling through South America on a tight budget and you need a place to park yourself for a while, Santa Marta could be worth considering.
We ate healthy, exercised, and got a lot of work done, all for very little.
Still, we wouldn’t come back for another long stay. We’d rather spend more to have hot water!