Essential Guide to Barranquilla and Santa Marta

Whether or not you’re planning a trek to the Lost City, a visit to the starting point of the hike, Santa Marta, and Barranquilla, also part of Magdalena Province, should be. The coastal towns feature carefully-prepared fresh seafood, the nearby Tayrona National Park, museums, and much more.

Cra. 60 #6838, Barranquilla, Atlántico, Colombia
Barranquilla’s must-go eatery for exceptional, local, and home-style specialties prepares its meals using organic, locally sourced produce only. In a warmly decorated, landmark colonial residence, Donde Mamá serves up a Colombian delicacy often found on the country’s Caribbean coast—the traditional mote de queso, yam soup with chunks of floating cheese and bits of pork rind.
46 - 66 Calle 36
Colombians from the Caribbean coast, known as Costeños, are immensely proud of their cultural, musical, literary, and historical heritage, all of which are on display at this interactive museum. The country’s famous shore stretches from the jungles bordering Panama up through the historic cities of Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta, all the way to the deserts of La Guajira. Multimedia exhibits here offer insight into the region’s indigenous cultures, and into the varied musical expressions that have emerged along the long coastline.
Cra. 54 ##70-10, Barranquilla, Atlántico, Colombia
El Prado, a grand hotel that stands as a testimony to Barranquilla’s golden days as Colombia’s gateway to the world, is now on the nation’s registry of historic places. When it opened in 1930, it boasted of being the first luxury lodging in Colombia, with private bathrooms and telephones in every room. Narcotraficante interests acquired the property in the 1980s and made it an operations center, which drove away legitimate guests. But after government seizure and decades of decline, things are once again on the upswing. Don’t miss the expansive pool and its shady vegetation, especially when the mercury soars (day passes are available). And afternoon aperitifs or lunches beneath these palms are always a welcome respite.
Carrera 44 #72-263, Barranquilla, Atlántico, Colombia
Barranquilla’s famed pre-Lenten carnival is the supreme forum for residents’ festive spirits, but that same dance-till-you-drop energy can be found all year round at La Troja, now in its 52nd year. The barroom is a no-frills, open-air affair—weekend crowds regularly spill onto the streets in a veritable salsa-dancing tempest (definitely go elsewhere if you want quiet drinks and conversation). The music invites you to dance—with your honey, with the people at the next table, even the staff—so loosen up and enjoy.
Cra. 43 #59-03, Barranquilla, Atlántico, Colombia
Founded in 1954, La Cueva, in the seaside town of Barranquilla, gained renown as a favorite watering hole of some of Colombia’s most famous artists, writers, and intellectuals, most notably the so-called Barranquilla Group—which included Gabriel García Márquez—and painter Enrique Grau. All-night affairs were said to be equal parts pontification and house party, with a dollop of boogie. Today’s La Cueva serves a varied menu and invites visitors to relive the bohemian spirit of the artists who put this place on the map (some of their faces adorn a portrait that takes up an entire wall). Jazz bands play here on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
41 Murillo Toro y El Progreso
Parque de los Novios, in the center of Santa Marta’s colonial sector, is perfect for people-watching in the late afternoons when the tropical heat abates. Everyone from the gentry to the common folk—not to mention a plethora of brides posing beneath the gazebo—seems to treat themselves to a nice stroll around the park. Nearby restaurants and bars come alive after night falls, as do, of course, street artists and musicians.
Calle 15 #5 - 63, Santa Marta, Magdalena, Colombia
Ciudad Perdida (or “lost city”) is believed to have been a political and spiritual center for the people that inhabited the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta highlands around 800 C.E. Treasure hunters “discovered” the complex in the 1970s and plundered its ceremonial artifacts. The subsequent arrival of archaeologists and anthropologists failed to turn up the site’s true origins with any certainty, but indigenous Arhuaco and Kogui people believe it was a sacred city. It seems to have been abandoned around the same time the Spaniards arrived. Today’s visitors can still see a network of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, overlooking the Buritaca River. The city can be experienced two different ways—choose to hike in (a four-to-six-day guided trip) or to fly over on a helicopter tour (though note that aircraft are not permitted to land).
Av. del Libertador - Sector San Pedro Alejandrino, Santa Marta, Magdalena, Colombia
The 17th-century estate where Simón Bolívar died in 1830 is the site of several Bolivar monuments as well as an art museum featuring works by Latin American artists inspired by Bolívar, the hero who freed Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela from colonial rule. The estate serves as the city’s botanical garden, also worth your time for its magnificent, centuries-old trees.
Magdalena, Colombia
Tayrona National Natural Park has become such a popular destination during typical vacation periods that authorities have had to limit admission. But an off-season visit offers singular luxuries like miles of all-but-solitary beaches, jungle trails, and a unique way to observe a variety of monkeys and tropical birds in every brilliant hue. Tayrona can be experienced as a day trip from Santa Marta or as a several-night stay at one of the park’s accommodations. From the main entrance at Cañaveral (El Zaíno), visitors can take a leisurely hike to the ocean while a donkey handles the luggage; horses are also available for those who prefer not to walk. This same park entrance also leads directly to high-roofed, native-wood cabins known as ecohabs, a slightly fancier option for staying in the park.
Santa Marta, Magdalena, Colombia
On the square in front of Santa Marta’s cathedral and in the streets surrounding it, sidewalk vendors and stores sell handicrafts and traditional clothing, leather products, jewelry and other souvenirs. If you’re looking for a more substantial keepsake of your time in Santa Marta, there are also a number of antique shops in the neighborhood.

8-81 Calle 12
Including more than 500 different vendors, the Santa Marta Market (Mercado Público) is a lively and colorful experience. You can wander among the exotic fruits and vegetables in one row of stores, see meat and poultry vendors in another and find gifts and clothing in a third section of the market. Even if you don’t find the perfect souvenir, exploring the market provides a glimpse into daily life in Santa Marta.

Cra. 3 #19-29, Santa Marta, Magdalena, Colombia
Centrally located on Parque de los Novios, Ouzo serves the city’s best Mediterranean dishes, including brick oven pizzas, seared octopus and roasted lamb with orzo. The chef and owner, Michael McMurdo, began his culinary career in New York City at the Michelin-starred Greek restaurant Anthos. On a visit to Colombia, however, he was charmed by Santa Marta and decided to make his home in the city, opening Ouzo in 2011. The result is a celebrated Greek restaurant in an unexpected corner of the Caribbean.

Santa Marta, Magdalena, Colombia
The views of the skyline of Gaira (once a separate town, near Playa Blanca, but now part of greater Santa Marta), the ocean, and the surrounding hills are part of the magical experience of dining at Burukuka, located right on the water. But it is the restaurant’s commitment to excellent fusion, Caribbean and local cuisine that is the real reason for its success. One must-try is the callelle, a local specialty of mashed green bananas with cheese, sour cream and homemade sausage. The alfresco seating on a large deck is a plus even on warm days, as it’s cooled by ocean breezes.

One of the best ways to see Santa Marta is on the waterfront promenade, the Paseo El Camellón (also known as the Paseo de Bastidas), which runs between the city’s old port and the new marina. The palm tree–lined walk has several plazas where you can stop and take in the view, which is especially stunning at sunset. The walk is also a popular location for vendors selling crafts and sweets made from coconut and tropical fruits. Sculptures along the promenade depict the indigenous people of the region, providing a link to the area’s history.

Carrera 2 Parque Simón Bolívar, Santa Marta, Magdalena, Colombia
Part of the revitalization of the city of Santa Marta is this new addition to its cultural offerings. The Tayrona Gold Museum (Museo del Oro Tairona), named after the Tayrona culture, which dates back to at least 100 C.E., has a fascinating collection of pre-Columbian gold jewelry and other artifacts, as well as displays about the region’s history. A centerpiece of Parque Simón Bolívar, the museum is located in the restored 16th-century former Customs House (Casa de la Aduana), one of the earliest buildings in Santa Marta and an important artifact in itself.

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