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Santa Marta, Colombia: A city in transition

The revitalization of Colombia

Branded by the Western world as a crime-ridden haven for drug lords and thieves, Colombia has fought to shed its bad reputation. Five years ago, the highways and bus system were too dangerous after sundown leaving tourists to opt for eco-tourism in the Galapagos rather than risk a kidnapping in Medellin.

But that was then and this is now.  Today, Colombia is undergoing a cultural revolution focused on making the streets safer and encouraging tourism. It’s a great time to visit. While the government is busy approving plans and new structures, tourists have a bit more time to experience Colombia’s edgy past before construction and modernization take over.

Santa Marta is an example of a city in transition, moving away from Colombia’s shady past

Santa MartaOne city that eagerly jumped aboard the nationwide revitalization project is the laid-back city of Santa Marta in the coastal department of Magdalena. Santa Marta is nestled on the azure Caribbean coast and sheltered by the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

The city is comfortable and quiet. Those who come have a hard time leaving.

The warm morning air and breezy nights keep residents and the handful of tourists happy, and there is something for everyone. There are seafood restaurants like the busy Arena Caliente Restaurante on the main street Carrera 1, serving the fish special for $7 or for the less fussy, Restaurante Brisas de Santander on Calle 10 where the two course daily special costs $3 and fills you with carbs to get you through the day.

Although drugs and prostitution are still problems keeping Santa Marta from being a top notch tourist destination, locals hope the revitalization of the historic centre and the construction of Colombia’s first marina will push the problems out of the city centre.

“There will always be a problem with poverty in Colombia,” says Joseph Pallares, a police officer in Santa Marta. “But I think the development of the historic centre and the promotion of tourism are the best things for Colombia. To grow Colombia.”

Officer Pallares along with dozens of other officers patrol the windy streets of Santa Marta daily, in an effort to prevent problems before they start. They keep an eye out for tourists as well as drug dealers who roam the city 24 hours a day. Pallares is also learning English and his smile widens from ear-to-ear when he has the opportunity to show off his skills.

Locals hopeful that new Marina Santa Marta will stimulate city and economy

Santa Marta“In a few years when tourism is grown, we will all need to know English,” Pallares believes. He is referring to a time when an average hotel room on the main strip such as The Park Hotel raises its rates from $60 to $150 a night and the completed Marina Santa Marta hauls in sun-seeking yachters from around the world.

The Marina Santa Marta is aiming at partial completion of the 256 slips, heliport, and restaurants by July 2010. The success of the marina is hugely dependent on its strategic positioning just below the annual hurricane path that poses a threat to most other Caribbean nations and Mexico. Resort complexes and timeshares to follow.

Carlos Socarras Zuñiga, General Manager in charge of Marina Santa Marta is positive Santa Marta will be a very different place in a year. He believes the changes and development are for the better.

“The Marina is a project of the rich but it will bring jobs and money to the area and the local people,” says Socarras Zuñiga. The construction zone has made a pact to hire local workers and only look for foreign support when necessary. So far, they have kept their promise.

Now is the time to visit Santa Marta

Bolivar monumentSanta Marta will no doubt become a trademark of modern Colombia. And now may be the best time to visit while it still retains a glimmer of its colonial past and is not overrun by mobs of photo-snapping tourists. Now is the time to see Santa Marta’s market full of delicious and odd smelling meats and vegetables.  Now is the time to visit Tayrona National Park, where you can still find yourself a secluded spot on the beach

For those who like history, like crumbling hotels full of character, and enjoy wandering the uneven streets looking for $3 meals, Santa Marta is a must-see before the it gets its facelift.

In a few years, hostels like the popular gringo hangout Hotel Miramar on Calle 10 (dorm $5, private $10), will likely raise rates to suit the growing demand of visitors. Backpackers and budget travellers might find it increasingly difficult to find budget accommodation that are a few minutes from the beach.

If you happen to visit Santa Marta after the transformation and you find yourself craving a romantic colonial ambiance, be sure to visit the last home of Simón Bolívar before he died of Tuberculosis in 1830. The Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino, $6, where the Liberator spent his last days is now a museum and art gallery and gives you an idea of life in Santa Marta during the time of Bolívar. An afternoon at the Quinta will complement a morning of beaches and an evening of rum and warm Caribbean air.

Bolívar originally came to Santa Marta to rejuvenate and heal in the medicinal thermal baths. Once healed, he found it hard to leave  – as do many visitors.

Santa Marta offers history, an assortment of beaches and slow Caribbean living. There is enough to occupy the sightseeing tourists as well as those looking to laze around, beer-in-hand. Santa Marta is planning on catering to yachters with five-star demands and could jeopardize the city’s calm aura. Don’t wait until it develops into the next Cancun. You will be thankful you went sooner rather than later.

Looking to book a trip to Colombia? Check out the tripatlas.com/new Trip Builder where you can connect with travel agents who will give you custom prices on your trip.


Mari Suyama
Mari Suyama is a freelance writer from Toronto, Canada who is currently on a one-year journey working and volunteering in South America.  She is tripatlas.com/new’s South America Expert – go to our South America Trip Guide for more.

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