Travelers heading to Colombia’s eastern Caribbean coast have three towns to choose from for their stays. Santa Marta is the principle port and the oldest town. In fact, it was the first Spanish city founded in South America, officially established in 1525 by Rodrigo de Bastidas. El Rodadero is the youngest, coming into being as the port’s balneario (seaside resort) in the 1950s. Taganga’s past is lost in the mists of time, but erupted onto the international backpackers’ circuit in the 1990s after being “discovered” by two mochileros.
The three destinations appeal to different types of travelers. V!VA Colombia takes a look at what each town as to offer to vacationers and wandering backpackers.
Taganga is one of the lost popular international backpackers’ destinations on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It has not only a small, pleasant beach in town, but also Playa Grande a short walk or boat ride away. Taganga also is the place to go for scuba diving shipwrecks and coral reefs. Travelers can also spend the day with a local fisherman to learn the tricks of his trade.
Admittedly, Santa Marta’s beach isn’t as glamorous, but it is very popular with locals. The history of this first Spanish South American city seeps to its very core, from its colonial cathedral, to Simón Bolívar’s deathbed at Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino, to the 20th century Bananatown. A bevy of museums and cultural centers also lures visitors. Despite being Colombia’s second-most important Caribbean port, the city feels like a village with close-knit neighborhoods. It also has that slightly gritty edge that harbor towns often have. In crannies of the night, young women work the corners, a scuffle might happen between sailors at a rundown bar. Nonetheless, safety is good in Santa Marta, making it a favorite port-of-call for international yachts and cruise ships.
Despite El Rodadero being the most popular with Colombian families, backpackers will find much to do as well. This resort has the area’s longest beach, stretching for more than a kilometers. Another premier strand is Playa Blanca, accessible by boat. On the way is Rodaderos’ aquarium (the first in Latina America) and sea museum. Water sports, like kayaking and banana riding, are other popular pastimes in El Rodadero.
Lodging costs about the same in Santa Marta, Taganga and El Rodadero. All three towns have backpacker hostels; El Rodadero and Taganga have camping. An attractive option in El Rodadero is renting an apartment for a week or so. The trio all offer local and international cuisine, with seafood specialties. Either Santa Marta or Taganga can be used as a stepping stone to Tayrona National Park or to Ciudad Perdida. Most tour operators now have offices in both towns. It’s important to keep in mind that busetas between the three only run until mid-evening, which can put a cramp on backpacker’s agendas. No matter where you decide to stay, you’re guaranteed a perfect sunset view.
Check out V!VA Travel Guides for the most comprehensive, up-to-date information to help you navigate through Colombia—no matter your budget or interests—and to help you choose which is the best destination for you.
Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Colombia, updating our 2011 edition of the book. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.