Santa Marta. The Beach: So Near, Yet So Far!

After nearly five months of chasing the end of winter around South America I was beginning to dream of spending some time lazing on the warm sand of a tropical beach, so it was with

After nearly five months of chasing the end of winter around South America I was beginning to dream of spending some time lazing on the warm sand of a tropical beach, so it was with great excitement that I booked the 16-hour bus journey from Medellin to Santa Marta in Colombia. This would also be the last overnight bus journey in a trip that has seen us stack up an impressive 225 hours on buses, that amounts to a week and two days!

The buses in Argentina were pretty comfortable. Champagne is included!
Unfortunately the boneshakers in Bolivia were not so good. Service was not provided and my seat overlooked a precarious 7ft drop. By the end of the journey this stairwell was full of bottles, fruit, shoes and other things that had fallen, hitting me on their way down!

Unfortunately our final bus journey also manifested itself as the most memorable.  About two hours into the journey we heard a loud clunking noise as something heavy collided with the back left hand side wheel. Unaware—or just not caring—the driver continued at the same breakneck pace as before, overtaking tankers on blind bends and refusing to brake until only millimetres away from the vehicle in front. The heavy clunk was followed by a high-pitched grinding every time the bus cornered left, and those of us sat at the back of the bus could sense that something about the bus’ movements had changed. It took another fifteen minutes for the driver to reach the same conclusion that the passengers had realised straight away. The bus would have to stop.

The rest of the journey descended into chaos. Firstly, the passengers of the stricken bus were split up and loaded onto the next few buses heading the same way. In order for Nicklas and I to stay together this meant sitting on the floor in the aisle of a very crowded bus, hoping that this solution would be short-lived. To make matters worse our backpacks had not been loaded onto the same bus as us. Forty minutes later we arrived at a restaurant and were told to get off the bus with the instruction that another bus would turn up for us at some point. We had no idea whether this would be the same bus that was carrying our luggage!

To cut a long story short we ended up on the only non-reclining seats—you know the ones right at the back by the toilet—whilst the people on the seats in front of us leisurely reclined so far back we could almost see up their noses. Then at 4am we were required to change buses again, this time to a seat that would only stay fully reclined, but at least we were on our way to the beach.

Many people had told us that we should not hang around in Santa Marta but head further along the coast to Taganga and Parque Tayrona. However, these people failed to mention that we would be arriving during a National Holiday and neglected to tell us that we should book ahead. The only accommodation we had been able to secure was at Hotel Miramar, one of the oldest hotels in Santa Marta. Hotel Miramar is run-down and shabby but the owners are friendly and our room was the cheapest room we have had in the whole of South America (private double with private bathroom for $21). We had no choice but to settle in Santa Marta until the festivities settled down.

I’m pleased that we did.

Santa Marta beachfront by night

Santa Marta gets a lot of negative press so many people tend to head straight to Taganga, the ‘backpacker friendly’ resort 15 minutes away in a taxi. It is true that the view of the right-hand side of Santa Marta beach is marred by a large shipping-yard and the horizon is often obscured by the large tankers going about their business, but this does not stop the locals from holidaying on the small stretch of sand available or climbing over the rocky barrages close to the shipyard. I admit that the beach is not pretty, and there is no way that I would ever swim in the murky, oily water but the promenade is worth a walk along. Thousands of people pack every spare inch of sand, vendors’ carts laden with delicious exotic fruits line the promenade, and street sellers flash their wares: sunglasses, bags, trinkets – you name it. At night the busy sea view restaurants do a roaring trade in rum cocktails while salsa beats permeate from every doorway.

Colombians basking in the sun during a National Holiday

What I like best about Santa Marta is the choice of restaurants. While Taganga is more about hanging out eating greasy french fries in a beach shack, Santa Marta has some good options if you’re looking for a decent meal. Ben & Josep’s on the seafront serves a succulent steak, or you can get good Mexican food (a rare find in South America) at Agave Azul next to La Brisa Loca hostel. If you are after a healthy lunch then Lulo Café Bar on Carrera 3 serves a range of excellent wraps, pitas, paninis, smoothies and juices. They also make a killer fruit mojito.

We have not yet managed to spend the day lazing on the beach but we have enjoyed ourselves eating great food and watching the local festivities. Santa Marta does not need to take up a large space on a travel agenda but neither should it be completely dismissed.

Have you ever enjoyed a place that people told you to avoid? Do other travellers’ negative opinions put you off visiting places? Come and talk to me in the comments section below.

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