A Weekend In Santa Marta

IMG_0733
“Santa Marta Marina”

Santa Marta is an undiscovered gem of a city located on the northeastern tip of Atlantic coast of Colombia. I say that it’s an ‘undiscovered gem’ because it usually flies under the radar when compared to its’ coastal counterparts of Cartagena and Barranquilla. Still though, for Colombians and foreigners alike on vacation, Santa Marta has a lot to offer its’ visitors. I was drawn to Santa Marta a couple of months ago when I visited its’ neighboring town of Minca, which is also quite beautiful and full of lush scenery up in the mountains. Unfortunately, I did not get to spend much time in Santa Marta so I decided that during my 2nd time living in Colombia, I could not pass up the chance to visit this city if I had the chance.

Luckily, due to the recent religious holiday observed in Colombia which falls on a Monday, I was able to make my return to the Atlantic coast via Santa Marta for a long weekend and I had a great time overall. Even with three full days, I felt like I could have done and seen even more so if you’re planning on coming to Santa Marta, five days or so and that should be enough to cover everything. Due to the fact that I live in Medellin, which is surrounded by mountains with no sea in sight, I took full advantage of my time on the coast by hitting up the local beaches, sampling some great seafood and doing some hiking.

Santa Marta is a small and navigable city, which made it easier to visit for a long weekend. The locals I met were extremely helpful to me, and especially the taxi drivers who were patient with my handwritten directions. The historic center of Santa Marta was well preserved in my opinion and very walkable. There are a lot of bars and restaurants located around the Parque de Los Novios, which made it easy for me to choose places to eat and drink. Beyond that, you can easily go to La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, which is place where the liberator of most of South America died in 1830. The hacienda is a museum, resting place, and has a really nice art gallery as well.

My recent trip mostly focused on visiting the different beaches located in Santa Marta, Rodadero, and Parque Tayrona. Santa Marta has many public beaches, which I found to be refreshing because there are a lot of hotels and private apartments located close to the sea but families and locals can mix with tourists to enjoy the beaches as well in the city. I found that to be a great idea and a contrast to other places, which have private beaches that only guests of the hotel or apartment can use freely. The public beach in Santa Marta is clean and nice to swim in but it can become quite crowded especially on holiday weekends.

The highlight of my trip was a visit to Parque Tayrona, one of the biggest and most popular national parks in Colombia. Well-preserved, pristine beaches, and great hiking opportunities, Parque Tayrona is the reason a lot of tourists come to Santa Marta in the first place. The park offers a lot of beautiful natural scenery of mountains, trees, and small rivers, which you can hike through for a day or more. Some visitors choose to spend a night or more in the park because it’s too big and vast to spend only a day there. The beaches are especially gorgeous because they are quite unspoiled and have no trash or residue of human presence for the most part. The water is clear, blue, and enjoyable to swim in. There’s a powerful rip-toe and large waves so be careful if you are to go swimming in some of the beaches there.

The particular beach that I visited, which is called Arrecifes, was barely inhabited and I enjoyed my time swimming, sunbathing, and listening to the clear sound of the waves without a care in the world. It was a very rewarding feeling to soak myself in the waters of the Atlantic again after a long day of waiting to get into the park and hiking through the park. For a couple of hours, I had the whole beach to myself so I was able to hear the sounds of the waves uninterrupted without any outside noise or voices to disturb the flow of nature. If there is one regret I have about the park is that I did not have enough time to see other beaches and that I should have woken up earlier to get into the park without waiting in line. If you plan on coming to Tayrona, make sure to get there by 8 or 9 AM, otherwise you will be waiting for a while to get in.

Before I left Santa Marta, I made sure to check out Rodadero, which was very different from Santa Marta and felt more like Miami Beach. High-rises, hotels, and apartments make up quite the skyline for this small city, which sits between the mountains and the coast. Rodadero is a great hub for restaurants and nightlife but also has nice public beaches which locals and tourists can enjoy alike. On my last day in the area, I decided to check out Playa Blanca, which was well worth the boat trip. Having a nice, private cabana that kept me out of the sun was welcome after two previous days in the sun. If you can’t make it to Parque Tayrona, spending the day in Rodadero is a great back up plan especially if you can make it to Playa Blanca where it’s less crowded and the water is crystal blue.

In addition to swimming and sunbathing, there are a multitude of activities to take part in. The fishing village of Taganga, which is nice to check out for a day due to its’ coastal style boardwalk also offers diving classes if you’re into learning that skill. There are also numerous tour groups offering snorkeling, hiking trips in the Santa Marta area for reasonable prices. If you’re feeling more leisurely, you can go jet skiing, banana boat riding, canoeing, and paddle boarding if that suits your fancy. The multitude of activities and places to visit in the area make it clear that Santa Marta is worth at least five days or so if you want to explore each nook and cranny of what the area has to offer. You simply can’t be bored if you decide to visit.

Despite being relatively undiscovered when compared to Aruba, the Bahamas, Bermuda, and other vacation getaways, Santa Marta is a city on the rise and its’ making a lot of progress in developing its’ tourism infrastructure. There are many cranes working on building the next hotel or apartment complex especially in Rodadero. The Santa Marta airport, which may be the smallest airport I’ve ever visited is getting a makeover and is going through a lot of construction in order to make it a hub for Colombians and tourists alike. With investments in infrastructure and education, Santa Marta will continue to grow in popularity.

I hope that tourists will continue to get along with the locals and respect the great natural beauty of the area especially in Parque Tayrona. The one thing that was difficult for me to deal with was the coastal humidity, which will cause you to sweat like no other. Be prepared to be hot but you get used to it eventually. Lastly, using AirBNB to meet some locals was really nice and I highly recommend the online service to my readers. Just make sure to do your research first and choose places to stay, which are conducive to your travel needs. A holiday weekend well spent in my opinion and I have a feeling that I will be back in Santa Marta one day soon. Parque Tayrona and Rodadero were my favorite parts of the trip and I’m sure others will enjoy those places too if they choose to visit this great area of the country.

The Heat Is On

One undeniable fact about life here on the Atlantic coastal area of Colombia is the constant heat and humidity. For me, this has been the biggest adjustment that I have had to get used to over the past month or so. Considering it was 20 degrees Fahrenheit and extremely cold when I left New York in mid-January, it was quite the shock to my senses to be experiencing 90 degree weather and 70% humidity on a daily basis here in Colombia especially during the months of January and February, which I have always associated with the Winter season. However, one of the great things about human beings is that we are very adaptable to our environment and our bodies can adjust to different climates without too much trouble. For example: Instead of bundling up in layers, you wear light clothing and show more skin.

Especially in this day and age, it is much easier to deal with the climate then in decades or centuries past. Due to modern technology, it’s much easier to deal both with the heat and humidity than ever before. For my fellow Peace Corps trainees and for those of you out there who want to visit the Atlantic coast of Colombia in the future, I have listed some tips and advice on how to beat the heat:

  • Wear light shirts and pants, preferably of cotton material. Heavy clothing is heavily discouraged and it will give you a chance to upgrade your fashion choices by wearing what the locals wear. Jeans are common here culturally and because it is also much harder for the mosquitos to bite you if you cover your legs as well.
  • Before you leave the house or apartment, wear sunscreen that is strong and reliable. If you’re not careful, you can get a severe case of sunburn and heat stroke. Also, it’s important to put on mosquito repellant in the exposed parts of your body not covered by clothing when you’re walking or running outside in the heat.
  • Wear a hat and put on sunglasses to reduce the sun’s impact on your face and eyes. This has been great for me in protecting myself from any skin problems or eyesight issues because the sun is quite strong.
  • Make sure that you drink plenty of water and hydrate continuously throughout the day. Bags of water are commonly sold here and are great for re-hydration. I would avoid sodas, sports drinks because they are not the best for hydrating yourself. If you need some sugar, then they are good options but Water is king when it comes to keeping your body temperature in line. Lack of hydration can be a real problem here so make sure you’re drinking a couple of liters of water each day.
  • Try to reduce your activities, movements outside during the hours of 2 to 4 PM. In my own experiences here, the heat is strongest and the humidity most oppressive during the mid-day. I would recommend staying inside during those hours and keeping cool at the local café or library. Strenuous physical activity during these hours could be detrimental to your health. It’s also a good opportunity for a nice descanso (rest) if you have some free time after school is over.
  • Besides water, indulge in some ice cream and natural fruit juices to keep your energy levels up. This is my favorite item for this list as I am a sucker for ice cream and cool beverages. It cools you down and it’s a nice reward for yourself after a hard day or week on the job.
  • Travel and time permitting, going to a local villa for some time at the pool and indulging in some cool refreshments is an afternoon well spent on the weekend. Going to the pool is one of my favorite ways to beat the heat and it’s nice to swim, lounge around and relax with friends.
  • Take advantage of the mornings and evenings when it is much less hot and humid out. I’ve heard from my fellow trainees that running in the early morning or exercising in the evening is preferable. I would agree completely that you have to be flexible and try to pick the times of the day where the heat isn’t as extreme and you can exercise without sweating puddles.
  • Hanging out at the library or the local Internet cafe where you can read a good book, catch up on work, and/or use the Wi-Fi is another great option. These places usually have air conditioning and/or strong fans too to help keep you cool.
  • If you’re feeling adventurous, heading to the beach for a day trip or to the local mall, Movie Theater are other great ways to keep cool and round out the ‘Top Ten.’

Finally, do not forget to invest in having a big fan ready to use for those humid nights in your bedroom. Sleeping in 90-degree weather is not easy so make sure you have a fan at your disposal to rest more comfortably. I hope this list is useful for those reading who are thinking of visiting hot and humid places. Despite the challenges that warm climates present to the human body, I still prefer it to the cold and snowy weather that I grew up with in New York. In addition to that, shoveling two feet of snow can be a real pain in the butt.