Just over 140 miles up the coast from Cartagena is the colonial city of Santa Marta.
Founded on July 29, 1525, by Spanish conquistadors, this is the oldest city in Colombia.
This is a much more affordable option than Cartagena, despite offering the same sandy coast, calm waters, excellent diving, and energetic culture.
Fifteen years ago, Santa Marta was a work in progress, rough around the edges in some areas and downright seedy in others.
Today’s Santa Marta is a different story…
Its downtown has undergone a restoration effort that has revived its Spanish-colonial parks, churches, and homes to their former glory.
New elements have been introduced, as well, and the city now boasts an attractive seafront park, excellent seafood restaurants, cafés, boutique hotels, and even a cruise-ship port.
The beaches here are longer, wider, and better-kept… all with a small-town feel.
You can enjoy the boardwalk lined with palm trees where people come to walk, exercise, and take in the views. The energy picks up in a big way after sundown, with live music and people of all ages out and about.
Despite my comparison before, Santa Marta’s allure is altogether different from that of Cartagena.
Colombia’s sister coastal cities share a similar aesthetic, but Santa Marta is less than half the size of Cartagena and has a natural backdrop that few places on earth can match—the Caribbean to the north and west, Tayrona National Park to the east, and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range to the immediate south.