Santa Marta or Cartagena? Which city is best to visit for solo female travellers?

Similar to other Colombian tourist hotspots, the Colombian Caribbean Coast has seen an influx of international tourists over the past years. While many coastal cities are worth visiting, most international tourists choose to visit either Santa Marta or Cartagena.

Since most international tourists travel to Santa Marta or Cartagena, I decided to write this blog post about my experience in both Colombian cities. I intend to help those of you out there decide which of the two cities is best for you.

This blog post aims to help mainly solo female travellers who intend to visit Santa Marta or Cartagena (or even both), and it is based on my experience travelling to these cities as a solo female traveller. However, the blog post also provides general advice that can be useful to other types of travellers.

While I loved Santa Marta for its nature and Tayrona National Park quickly became one of my favourite places in Colombia, Cartagena’s colonial architecture stole my heart. Santa Marta is great for nature lovers while Cartagena is much better if you have an interest in architecture and history.

Santa Marta or Cartagena?

While Colombia is much more than Santa Marta or Cartagena, we all know people love visiting coastal cities. Why is that? Because no holiday is perfect without a few days on a beach, swimming, and sunbathing. 

Almost everyone I met during my travels in Colombia visited either Santa or Cartagena (and sometimes both if they had time). So, visiting Santa Marta or Cartagena is a must if you are already planning your holidays in Colombia.

Next, let’s look at Santa Marta and Cartagena, compare the two and see if they fit your requirements, and it’s worth including either of them (or perhaps both) in your itinerary for your holidays in Colombia. 


Santa Marta is the oldest city in Colombia and one of the most popular holiday destinations on the Colombian coast. 

It is much quieter than its rival Cartagena, but still, many tourists prefer to include Santa Marta in their itinerary as it is close to the Tayrona National Park, the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Lost City hiking trail.

How to get to Santa Marta?

Since Santa Marta is an important holiday destination, getting there is straightforward. You can travel to Santa Marta by bus, plane and private vehicle. 


You can easily travel to Santa Marta by public transport. The city has connections with the most important places in Colombia. 

Below, I provided a table with the main cities in Colombia where you can travel to Santa Marta. While some are closer (e.g. Barranquilla), other cities, especially the capital, take considerably more time to get there. 

The main cities in Colombia Travel time according to Busbud
Travel from Barranquilla to Santa Marta 2h
Travel from Cartagena to Santa Marta 5h
Travel from Mdelellin to Santa Marta 17h
Travel from Bogota to Santa Marta 20h
Travel from Cali to Santa Marta (via Bogota) 24h
Travel time between Santa Marta and the main cities in Colombia by bus

TIP: Based on my experience with buses in Colombia, the time journey is usually much longer than the one stated online. Many factors can make your bus journey longer such as traffic jams (very common in big cities), road works (common across Colombia) and even car accidents. 

I witnessed every single one of these which added a few hours to my already long bus journeys. Luckily, neither of the buses I rode were involved in any car accidents. But some of them were held in traffic because of car accidents. 


Santa Marta is close to the Simon Bolivar International Airport, which operates domestic and international flights.

According to the website, the airport operates domestic flights to Bogota, Cali, and Medellin so you don’t need to travel over 12 hours to reach any of Colombia’s biggest cities.

The airport website states that it also operates international flights, which include destinations such as Panama, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica and the United States.

While some tourists use internal flights to travel from Santa Marta to certain cities in Colombia, the majority of budget travellers still use the bus to travel between places in Colombia. 

I did not take any domestic flights during my stay in Colombia, yet I travelled by bus between Santa Marta, Cartagena and beyond these 2 cities because it was affordable, safe and more or less comfortable. 


Although I did not do it, I met people on short holidays in Santa Marta and Cartagena who did hire a car and drove around. You can use the Colombian roads if you feel confident to do so. 

I must say that traffic jams in big cities can be tough to navigate. You won’t need a car in Santa Marta since the city is small. You can easily visit the city centre in one afternoon. Yet, if you want greater flexibility, hiring a car can be the best option for you.  

Santa Marta is easy to reach by bus, car or plane. It is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Colombia and attracts many local and international tourists all year round.

How many days should you allocate for visiting Santa Marta?

Santa Marta is not a big city so anywhere between 2 to 3 days should be enough. 

If you want to venture outside Santa Marta (which most tourists do), then you will need at least an extra day to visit the Tayrona National Park. If you plan on hiking the Lost City Trail, then consider adding anywhere between 3 to 4 extra days in the region. 

You can of course travel further and explore any of the small villages nearby. I chose to visit Aracataca because it’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s birthplace, so I added a few extra days to my initial itinerary to Santa Marta. 

What can you visit in Santa Marta?

Santa Marta is not a big city, but it is worth including it in your itinerary. 

There are two things you should not miss out on in Santa Marta: the city centre and the promenade. You can easily check out these two in 1 full day of walking around. Perhaps allocate 2 days if you want to go slow and want to sit down and relax at any of the colourful restaurants in the old town.

The beach in Santa Marta is not exactly the best. I have barely seen any tourists using it, only locals go for a swim in Santa Marta. 

Santa Marta city centre
The Promenade in Santa Marta

The best beaches are near Santa Marta in Rodadero

Rodadero is an extension of Santa Marta, an area where new hotels have been built in recent years. You can easily catch a bus to Rodadero or get a local taxi from Santa Marta. 

Rodadero is only 10 minutes away from Santa Marta. Please note that UBER does not operate in Santa Marta. If you are not a big fan of public transport, then a local taxi is your next best option. Make sure you agree on the price before getting into the car. 

I always ask someone local to confirm the price for a taxi ride (usually the hostel/hotel receptionists have a good idea of how much taxi rides cost). Knowing this before negotiating the price with the taxi driver will help you not get ripped off. 

Activities you can do around Santa Marta

If you feel like Santa Marta is rather small and might not be worth your time, let me tell you what else can you while in the region.  

Below I listed the top activities you can choose from while in Santa Marta. 

From hiking in the forest, and learning about Colombian chocolate to visiting the memorial house of the Nobel winner Garcia-Marquez, these are all well worth activities you should consider for your holiday in Santa Marta.

The Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park it’s perhaps the most famous attraction near Santa Marta. 

The National Park is gorgeous and the water is perfect for swimming. You are not on an island, although you will feel like being on one. I was amazed at how beautiful everything was. 

I chose to combine two of my favourite activities: hiking and swimming, so I chose a tour that offered both. Yet, you can choose what suits you best. If you want to spend more time swimming than hiking inside the park, some trips offer that.

The Lost City Hike

This activity is for people who really are into hiking. This isn’t something I did, but spoke with plenty of people who did it. 

If you are into hiking through the jungle for several days, don’t mind eating whatever food the tour will provide and don’t have high standards when it comes to where will you lay your head down every night, then this is something you could do. 

Note that this tour is one of the most expensive activities in Santa Marta and perhaps the most physically challenging one.

Minca Village

If you are into nature but want to experience a rather cultural and more chilled activity, then a visit to Minca can provide you with that experience. 

Minca tours focus more on cultural activities with an emphasis on the chocolate & coffee culture in Colombia. You will learn about coffee and chocolate production processes (which are quite similar) and even get involved in the process. 

You will also be able to buy artefacts, walk through the Minca village and swim in the local river. Minca village tours are affordable and usually are scheduled to last for 1 day.   


A visit to the village of Aracataca might not be high on everyone’s list when visiting Santa Marta, but as a literature passionate and Gabriel Garcia fan, I could not miss visiting it knowing I was so close. 

Aracataca is Gabriel Garcia’s birthplace and while there are day tours from Santa Marta to Aracataca, it is easy to organise a visit to the village by yourself.

If you want to know more, I wrote a blog post on how to organise a visit to Aracataca by yourself. 


These are the most popular activities you can do near Santa Marta. 

You obviously can do so much more if you travel along the coast as many smaller towns are worth visiting. Palomina is just an example, but there are many more.

It depends on how much time you have in the region and your budget. 

Is Santa Marta a safe place to visit for solo female travellers?

Based on my experience in Santa Marta, I found the city safe. Like everywhere else in Columbia you will see quite a few people on drugs walking around during the day. They are usually inoffensive. 

There might be instances when you will be approached by some people who will ask for money. It is quite a regular occurrence in Colombia and you should not panic. Simply reply politely and move on. 

If they insist and follow you, get into a supermarket or restaurant and wait for them to go away. Being followed is not something I experienced often in Colombia although I was a solo female traveller. Yet, it happened once, in Santa Marta (Parque Bolivar) that I was offered drugs which I politely declined. The seller understood the message and eventually left me alone. 

That was the only time when someone was that persistent on the street. I travelled the country for 7 weeks and have not experienced a similar experience. Not even in places that are notoriously known for being the drug dealers’ paradise like Medellin, Cali and Bogota. 

Except for this experience in Santa Marta, the rest of my time in the city was problem-free. One time, I even returned home after 7 pm. The city centre seemed perfectly fine to walk back by myself. Although this is not something I would encourage you to do frequently (especially as a solo female traveller). 

If I had to pinpoint one area in Santa Marta that I did not like the vibe of, that would be Parque Bolivar-where I was also approached by the drug seller. Everywhere else in the tourist area looked and felt safe to me. 

Is Santa Marta expensive for solo female travellers?

Having travelled to Costa Rica and Panama before arriving in Colombia meant that I found Santa Marta incredibly affordable, even though locals told me that the coast is one of the most expensive regions in the country. 

For me, that meant the opposite of what I had experienced in Central America. I paid 5£ a night for a bunk bed in a mixed dorm and 8£ a night for a private room with a shared bathroom. Note that I am a low-budget traveller. Of course, there are luxury accommodation options in Santa Marta too. 

I found day tours affordable too. One tip I would like to give here: book them with the agency directly. Not through intermediaries such as hostels, online platforms etc. 

I paid 150,000 Colombian pesos for my day tour to Tayrona National Park because I bought the tour directly from the agency. A couple I met on the day paid 200,000 Colombian pesos because they booked the tour through their accommodation. Still is a bargain to pay 22£ for a full day trip.

When to use online travel platforms to book your tours?

It might be worth mentioning that some tour agents don’t speak English. I was able to negotiate the price and ask questions because I’m fluent in Spanish. If you find it difficult to communicate with the local tour agency, I recommend you book your tours through specialised platforms like etc. Even if you might end up paying a bit more, at least you know what you’re buying. 

You might consider booking your tours in advance if you visit Santa Marta during the high season so you don’t risk being left out. In this case, the online travel platforms will be your best friends.

Is September a good month to visit Santa Marta?

Every month is a good month to visit Santa Marta. That’s because the weather on the Colombian Caribbean Coast stays the same almost all year round. With highs of 30 degrees Celsius almost all year round, you won’t be that bothered if it rains sometimes. 

Santa Marta in September

The Coast has a short rainy season starting in September for 3 months (this is what the locals told me). But this does not mean it will rain every single day. There will be days though when you can experience short periods of rain. But they usually do not last long. And it’s good because it cools down the city.

Despite the lovely, summery weather all year round, Santa Marta is humid which can make some people feel uncomfortable, especially those who come from colder climates (Northern Europe, the UK etc.). I know I had a hard time coping with that much heat and high levels of humidity. 

Despite the humidity, Santa Marta remains one of the most popular holiday destinations in Colombia.

More F&Qs about Santa Marta answered

Is it difficult to pay by card in Santa Marta?

Not as difficult as it is in other Colombia cities (for example, Barranquilla). As it is quite a touristy destination, Santa Marta is quite card-friendly. Except for street vendors (although some might have POS devices), most places accept card payments. So you won’t have that many issues paying by card in Santa Marta. 

How accessible is Santa Marta for solo female travellers who don’t speak Spanish?

In my experience, Santa Marta is not that accessible. In fact, most of Colombia doesn’t have a good command of English, so speaking some Spanish will make a big difference. That being said, this doesn’t mean you should not visit Santa Marta. Just be aware of the limitations that come with it. 

During my time in Santa Marta, I met English native speakers struggling to communicate with tour guides. Funny enough I had to act as an interpreter during one of my day trips because the tour guides did not speak a word of English and the person who booked the trip did not speak a word of Spanish. So I think a basic level of Spanish would be useful (but not necessary) to get by in Santa Marta.  

Does Uber operate in Santa Marta?

No, unfortunately, Uber is not available in Santa Marta. However, you can use a local taxi. 

TIP: Before getting into the car, make sure you agree on the ride price. For the right price, always ask someone local (the receptionist/AirBnb owner etc.) as they have a good idea of the local tariffs.   

Is Santa Marta worth visiting?

If you intend to visit the Colombian Caribbean Coast, I would say including Santa Marta on your list is a must. Despite being a small city, you can do so much while being based in Santa Marta. So yes, Santa Marta is worth visiting because it has so much to offer and it’s a good destination for solo female travellers. 


Cartagena (or Cartagena de Indias) is a vibrant city on the Colombian Caribbean Coast and the number one choice for most international tourists looking to enjoy the Colombian coastline. 

Based on the number of tourists I saw while visiting Cartagena, I can for sure say that this city is more popular and at the same time more crowded than Santa Marta.

Should you choose the more tranquil city of Santa Marta or the vibrant city of Cartagena? Let’s find out if Cartagena is the right place for you.

How to get to Cartagena?

Similar to Santa Marta, it’s easy to reach Cartagena by road and air.


Similar to Santa Marta, Cartagena is also served by an international airport. The Rafael Núñez International Airport comes in handy because travel distances by land are significant in Colombia.

I met quite a few US citizens flying to Cartagena from the US. The airport also operates domestic flights since cities like Cali and Bogota are quite far from Cartagena. It can take over 12 to get to either Bogota or Cali. The closest big city to Cartagena is Medellin which is only 12 hours away by bus.  


I used public transport to get to Cartagena and to travel from Cartagena to Medellin. The city is well connected to the rest of the country by a network of buses.

I used public transport to travel from Aracataca to Cartagena (via Barranquilla) as there is no direct bus between these places. Yet, there are direct buses connecting Cartagena to the main cities in the country. 

I travelled from Cartagena to Medellin on a night bus (it took almost 12 hours to get to Medellin). Although the journey was long, the bus was quite comfortable and the price was affordable.

Cartagena also has bus connections to Barranquilla, and Santa Marta and can go beyond Medellin, but it takes significantly longer.

Bellow, I prepared a table with the bus travel times between Cartagena and the main cities in Colombia. They are based on the times provided by Busbud, a platform I used to purchase bus tickets in Colombia. 

The main cities in Colombia Travel time according to Busbud
Travel from Barranquilla to Cartagena 3h
Travel from Santa Marta to Cartagena 5h
Travel from Mdelellin to Cartagena 12h
Travel from Bogota to Cartagena 23h
Travel from Cali to Cartagena (via Bogota) 25h
Travel time between Cartagena and the main cities in Colombia by bus

TIP: I found Busbud useful when purchasing some of my bus tickets since the smaller bus stations don’t always offer card payment facilities. If you want to avoid withdrawing that much cash while in Colombia, using platforms such as Busbud to purchase your bus tickets can help. 


I do not have any experience driving in Colombia, but I did meet people who have done it. It is particularly common in Cartagena that tourists hire a car as it offers them more freedom.

However, make sure you can handle the Colombian traffic and the Colombian way of driving. 

All in all, Cartagena is well connected to the rest of the country and indeed to locations outside Colombia, making it easy for you to plan a visit to this charming, colonial city.

How many days should you allocate for visiting Cartagena?

To get a feeling of Cartagena, you will need at least 4 to 5 days in the city. You could split the days this way: 2 days visiting the historic centre (including museum visits), half a day visiting the fortress, half a day walking around the walls of Cartagena, and 2 days at the beach.

You will need extra days for any booked trips near Cartagena such as the Rosario Islands, the Bari Island etc. or you can cut short your visit to the historic centre of Cartagena, although I would not recommend it because it is beautiful.

What to visit in Cartagena?

Cartagena is a lovely coastal city with a beautiful colonial architecture. 

The city is the main attraction on the Colombian Caribbean Coast which also makes it one of the busiest and touristy places in the country.

The city of Cartagena is bigger than Santa Marta and offers more tourist attractions than its rival. As a female solo traveller, I found Cartagena easy to navigate. If you base yourself close to the historic centre you won’t need to use Uber/public transport to get to places as everything seems to be quite nearby. 

The only place I had to get an Uber back from was the Bocagrande beach because I got too far away from my hostel to walk back. 

The historic centre of Cartagena

The historic centre of Cartagena is full of colourful, colonial buildings. The European-inspired architecture has charmed many of us over the years.

As you walk down the narrow streets of Cartagena, you will have the feeling that you’ve miraculously been teleported to Spain. 

You will find vendors, shops and restaurants everywhere. Most squares host local artists who will put up a show in exchange for some Colombian pesos. Women wearing traditional costumes will try to sell their services, usually, that implies taking a picture with them.

I found the historic centre animated and somehow overwhelming because it is always crowded. The historic centre of Cartagena will feel busier and more animated than the one in Santa Marta. 

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is a fortification built in the XVI century and it is today one of the top attractions in Cartagena. 

You can visit the castle by purchasing an entry ticket. I recommend the visit as the tour includes a small documentary about how the castle was built and consolidated over time, but also other significant historical facts.

One of the historical facts that stayed with me was the fact that South America is predominantly speaking Spanish because the English army lost an important fight against the Spanish Empire at the time also thanks to this fortification.  

Visiting the castle should take more than 2 hours. Plus, you will enjoy some really good views of the city. I liked how accessible the castle still is. You will be able to explore its corridors and many of its strategic spots. 

Walking along the ancient city walls is free of charge and it’s another way to admire the fortress in all of its glory. I’ve been surprised to see how well has been looked after. The walls are in perfect condition and you are even allowed to walk on top of them, so you can walk around the city by following the ancient city walls. It’s an enjoyable activity as you can skip the crowds. 

But make sure you get the right clothes and good soon protection because there is no shade if you do the walk in the middle of the day. 

The beach

The busy beach area in Bocagrande
The less crowded beach area in Marbella

Despite its historic importance, nowadays Cartagena is mostly known as a beach destination. And it does not disappoint. If you travel to Cartagena in high season, expect busy beaches and big crowds.

I visited Cartagena in September and still experienced crowded beaches. I don’t think you will ever enjoy an empty beach in Cartagena. From this point of view, Santa Marta was much more quiet.

The most popular beaches as well as the busiest ones are in Bocagrande. Yet, I did notice that the beach area in Marbella was less crowded. 

Perhaps because the beach in Marbella is closer to the road. If you don’t mind that (I know some people do), you could trade the beach area in Bocagrande for Marbella, so you don’t need to fight that many people to find a good spot on the beach.

If you venture to the beach by yourself, make sure you don’t bring anything valuable with you. The beach is so crowded (especially in Bocagrande) that I’m not sure your things will be safe unless you can have them on you all the time. 

Activities you can do around Cartagena

Since Cartagena is primarily a beach destination, many people also choose to visit some of the nearby islands.

The Rosario Islands

The most popular destination near Cartagena is the Rosario Islands. Many tours are being organised daily to the islands. Usually, the tour includes visiting the islands, having one of the meals or more on one of them, perhaps some swimming activities and then stopping for a party where music and drinks are available (you usually need to pay for them).

Some tours focus on one activity, whether it is partying or exploring the local fauna and flora through diving sessions, there is something to please anyone visiting the islands. 

El Totumo Mud Volcano

Another interesting activity is a visit to the mud volcano. A day tour to the mud volcano is less expensive than a tour of the Rosario Islands and somehow less hectic because you will be staying in one place most of the time rather than doing island hopping all day long. 

The volcano’s mud is known for its health benefits which make it such a popular attraction in the area. But it can also simply be a fun activity and a good alternative to a swimming day. 

In conclusion, Cartagena and its surroundings can keep you busy for days. It doesn’t matter if you decide to explore the colourful city centre, visit the fortress or do island hopping, there is something to do for everyone visiting Cartagena de Indias. 

Is Cartagena a safe place to visit for solo female travellers?

Cartagena felt pretty safe while I was there. You will not have issues if you venture out by yourself and walk around the touristy parts of the city. 

At times, you might experience stares, but they don’t compare to the catcalling I experienced in Central America. I have not ventured out at night, so I cannot provide any insight here, but the area where I lived in Cartagena was quite animated even after dark.

If you do venture out, make sure you don’t go to areas you don’t know, stick to the areas you’ve been and felt safe during the day, and perhaps most importantly ensure the people you go out with can be trusted. 

Uber came across as a safe way of transportation across all of Colombia (I used it all over the country), so make sure you can book yourself an Uber ride should you need one.

Is Cartagena expensive for solo female travellers?

Although I have been warned that the coast is generally more expensive, I did not find Cartagena way more expensive than the rest of the country. Yet, Cartagena is slightly more expensive than Santa Marta. I paid 8£ for a bunk bed as opposed to 5£ which is how much I paid for a bunk bed in Santa Marta. I have to say that the dorm in Cartagena had fewer beds so I guess the price difference was justified.

There was not much difference in food prices between Santa Marta and Cartagena. Expect to pay more in both locations if you eat in the touristy places. Yet, if you decide to live on Colombian food, you will end up spending very little. On a good day, my food budget was ~10£ or slightly more. When I bought supermarket food my budget would be lower. It’s up to you and what type of traveller you are.

Like in Santa Marta, the most expensive items in Cartagena will be the booked trips (if you decide to do any). But the day-to-day activities in Cartagena should not be incredibly expensive, even if you are in one of the most popular tourist destinations of the country.

Is September a good month to visit Cartagena?

Cartagena in September

September can be the best time to visit Cartagena if you try to avoid the crowds, but still experience good summery weather.

I know September is regarded as a wet month, but the truth is it never rains as much as I thought. And when it happened it only lasted for 1h or so and then I was able to carry on with my day. 

Just note that Cartagena might never get quiet simply because it is such a popular holiday destination. But you will have to deal with fewer people in September when it’s the low season than in December-March when it’s the peak of the tourism season on the coast. 

More F&Qs about Cartagena answered

Is it difficult to pay by card in Cartagena?

Card payments are more available in Cartagena than in other regions of the country simply because the city receives so many international tourists. So based on my experience in Cartagena, I would say I found the city more card-friendly than many other locations in Colombia, including Santa Marta. 

How accessible is Cartagena for solo female travellers who don’t speak Spanish?

Similar to Santa Marta, it can make a big difference if you can speak Spanish, but I believe it will be easier to navigate Cartagena than Santa Marta simply because Cartagena receives more international tourists than Santa Marta. 

Does Uber operate in Cartagena?

As opposed to Santa Marta, Uber does operate in Cartagena and it is completely reliable. I used it multiple times and was happy with the drivers in Cartagena.  

Is Cartagena worth visiting?

You may skip a few places on the Colombian Caribbean Coast, but make sure you don’t skip Cartagena because it is worth visiting. 

Cartagena de Indias is known for its colonial architecture, colourful buildings, and delicious food. Not to mention the fabulous summer weather and the fabulous beach.  

Which one you decided for? Santa Marta or Cartagena?

If you’ve made it this far, thank you very much! Perhaps at this point, you’ve already decided which city to include in your itinerary. Is it Santa Marta or Cartagena? Or perhaps both if you have time? 

I liked Cartagena more because the city is bigger and more beautiful than Santa Marta. However, the nature is much more beautiful in Santa Marta. I simply loved Tayrona Park, the hiking trail, and its pristine, sandy beaches, not to mention the blue waters. 

I believe Santa Marta and Cartagena are excellent destinations for solo female travellers. As someone who visited both cities, I would say go to Cartagena if you like lively cities, colonial architecture, and beach parties. If you are more into nature and do not mind a quieter location, visit Santa Marta as it is less crowded than Cartagena is.

Whichever ends up being your favourite location on the Colombian Caribbean Coast, Santa Marta or Cartagena, make sure you do let me know why in the comments below. I would love to read what people choose.

Disclosure: Bear in mind that some of the links in this post are affiliate links, and if you go through them to make a purchase, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products I tried myself first and found useful. The decision is yours, and whether or not you decide to buy something using my links is completely up to you. I am thankful for every purchase made through my affiliate links, as they support this website to keep creating helpful content. 

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