All those beaches! Travelling along the Caribbean coast of Colombia was one of our best beach experiences in South America. We spent a little over 2 weeks just in this strip of coast between Palomino –and the Tayrona National Park– and Tolú, the gateway to the San Bernardo islands. You can experience Colombia’s Caribbean beaches based on your preference, as there are several beach towns offering very different experiences. The two main spots are of course the large cities of Cartagena and Santa Marta. But regarding how you travel between them, there are also a few alternatives. In this travel guide we’ll drive you (see what we did there?) through the options on how to travel between Cartagena and Santa Marta.
Cartagena and Santa Marta sit in the middle of Colombia’s Caribbean coastline, therefore are handy points to reach the sea. Travellers often spend a few days mesmerised by the colourful Cartagena, perhaps relaxing on the paradise-like beaches on the nearby Rosario or San Bernardo islands; and then head towards Santa Marta to explore a very different landscape or dive into a jungle adventure.
We did the journey the other way round; after an active and adventurous outdoors week in Santa Marta, we wanted to explore travellers’ favourite city Cartagena.
Whichever direction you travel, let this guide tell you how to get from one city to the other! We’re giving you the different options, practical travel tips, how to get the best deals and what to expect.
How far is Cartagena from Santa Marta?
Pretty close, actually. The distance from Cartagena to Santa Marta is only 240 km (150 miles); that’s around 5 hours on a bus or 4,5 hours by car.
The road between the two cities is quite scenic, very pretty, following the coast almost the whole way. A particularly beautiful part is Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta; a wetland area where the narrow road stretches in between two wide expanses of water. Tiny villages are scattered on one side. Fellow passengers saw us clinging at the window, watching pure, very local life far away from tourist crowds. I remember kids with indigenous and black features playing football or chasing chickens.
Another noteworthy, but rather uninteresting place along the way is Barranquilla; Colombia’s fourth biggest city and actually the largest on the coast. All buses and minibuses stop in Barranquilla to pick up more passengers – and that is a major time-waster (more about it later).
How to travel
There are a few options to travel between Santa Marta and Cartagena. Which option you’ll choose will depend on how much you are willing to compromise between saving money versus comfort.
Local bus, the cheapest option
Now, when it comes to intercity buses, it’s important to know that in South America –and so in Colombia too– many bus companies don’t have their timetable or even their services online. So your best bet is always to ask at the terminal.
Most of the time there are several companies doing the same route, so it’s worth asking around and comparing prices. In Colombia it’s also common to negotiate the bus ticket price. We usually collect all price offers and departure times and then negotiate a lower price for our 2 tickets together.
When you arrive at the bus station, local men try to lure you loudly into buying at their company’s counter. Although that may seem dodgy to our European/North American eyes, there’s really no harm in it. These men work for the bus company and can often arrange a discount for you, if you barter hard enough. Also, you don’t have to spend time looking for the companies travelling to Santa Marta – they’ll lead you there.
Bus service from Cartagena to Santa Marta
Taking the local bus will be your chance to meet locals doing the same journey. Choose this if you want the cheapest option.
Colibertador, Expreso Brasilia, Copetran, Berlinas, and Unitransco companies all have bus routes between Cartagena and Santa Marta. A direct bus takes only 5 hours (not less because of the stop in Barranquilla), so a daytime bus is a better option than travelling by night.
Cost & times
Each of these companies has buses departing multiple times a day, so there’s no need to book tickets in advance. The cost of a bus ticket in 2019 between Cartagena and Santa Marta is 25,000 COP per person (6.80 € / 7.60 USD).
Shuttle bus between Cartagena and Santa Marta, the most convenient option
Since demand is high as many travellers take this route, smart men started private minivan or minibus businesses between the cities. There’s definitely less hassle there, but it’s also more expensive; and it’s more likely that you’ll share your journey with fellow tourists instead of locals.
Minivan service from Cartagena to Santa Marta
The companies offering a shuttle minibus service are Berlinastur and Marsol.
Marsol is the more upmarket option of the two. It has a free hotel pick-up and drop-off service in selected neighbourhoods both in Cartagena and Santa Marta. See the full list of neighbourhoods here. Some of their vans stop in Barranquilla, in which case the journey takes 5,5 hrs, instead of 4 hours for the direct service.
If you don’t want the pick-up and drop-off service, you can board and get off at Marsol’s own bus station. While the door-to-door service can be convenient, skipping an uninteresting visit to the bus station, it also takes time to drop off every passenger; that adds up to your overall bus journey time.
You need to book your Marsol ticket one day in advance – you can do that directly at your hostel.
Berlinastur is a more budget option. The minivans pick up and drop off passengers at their own bus station, where you can buy tickets on-the-spot. So it’s really similar to the local bus service, except for the size of their buses.
Berlinastur Marbella station is in the east of Cartagena, outside of the centre. Berlinastur in Santa Marta is just off Rodadero beach, which you can reach by local buses from the city centre.
They’ve got another drop-off station outside of Santa Marta, at the Mamatoco roundabout; from there, you can change to a bus heading downtown or to the Tayrona National Park. Having said that, we really don’t recommend entering Tayrona Park in the afternoon (see why below).
Cost & times
Marsol: Buses leave every day at every hour. The one way ticket on Marsol’s minivan is a steep 55,000 COP (15 € / 16.50 USD). Quite excessive compared to the local bus.
Berlinastur: buses leave regularly, the one way ticket costs 40,000 COP (about 11 € / 12 USD). Just go to their bus station and you can get a seat on the next one out.
Hitchhiking from Cartagena to Santa Marta
Hitchhiking in Colombia is not advised in general. We heard stories of passengers being robbed after getting into a car, so we didn’t try it. Of course, people like telling such stories everywhere in the world. But remember that Colombia is not particularly safe.
For the same reason, locals are reluctant to stop. Hitchhiking is not common in Colombia, so you’d have a very hard time getting a ride like this. If you are a hardcore hitchhiker, we recommend you learn a bit of Spanish and ask people at gas stations. They’re very helpful once they see that you’re harmless.
Is flying an option?
Because we want to limit the impact of our travels, we don’t recommend flying in South America in general. The 5-hour journey by bus Cartagena to Santa Marta is really not that long, is it? Especially compared to other bus journeys we’ve taken on the continent! (Salvador de Bahía to Ouro Preto, anyone?)
The other thing to consider is that there’s no low-cost airline in Colombia, so the ticket is really not backpacker-friendly. I’m even scared to write it down here… 110 € (120 USD)! Adding up the travel time to and from airports and the waiting time, you probably wouldn’t save any time nor hassle.
How do I go to Cartagena bus terminal from downtown?
The bus station lies 6 km away from the centre of Cartagena, on the east side of the town; so you must take some sort of transportation to get there.
Getting to the bus terminal is not difficult in Cartagena, as there are local buses going directly from downtown. In general, look for “Terminal” written on the bus; but the best is to ask your accommodation where to take them from, they will know what’s best for you. Count with more time than necessary, as traffic can be heavy in Cartagena and there’s no dedicated bus lane.
Some buses will drop you right in front of the terminal building, some others just drive past, so stay alert. We usually ask the bus driver to call out for us when we reach the terminal. In addition, we follow the route on maps.me, an awesome map app that works offline; we heartily recommend it for your trip anywhere in Latin America!
How do I go to Santa Marta bus terminal from downtown?
Santa Marta bus terminal (Terminal de Transporte de Santa Marta in Spanish) is outside the city centre; so if your accommodation is in downtown, you’ll need transportation to get there.
There are local buses serving this route, for example 03G, although it sounds like an internet provider. But the best is to ask at your accommodation.
The other option is to take a taxi. Now, we don’t usually advocate taxis due to their price but in Santa Marta they’re quite cheap. Especially if you’re staying outside of the city center, your best bet might be taking a taxi.
What to expect on the bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta
If you travel more around Colombia or in other South American countries you’ll surely have longer travel times; these 5 hours will seem to fly past quickly. Having said that, there are a few things to keep in mind.
These are our best travel tips for bus journeys between Cartagena and Santa Marta:
- The roads between Cartagena and Santa Marta are in fair condition, so the biggest time-waster is the stop in Barranquilla that gets you stuck in heavy traffic around the city.
- Buses are old, in a poor state, so prepare for a bumpy ride.
- Air-con may or may not be on at full blast, depending on the mood of the driver; so make sure you have a pullover or 2 at hand on board.
- Keep all the valuables and items you need on board in a separate bag, as big backpacks will be placed to a separate compartment or in the front.
- When buying the bus ticket at the counter, ask for the platform, as it’s not written on the ticket.
- No one at the ticket counter or on the bus speaks English, so prepare your useful phrases in Spanish.
- Arrive a few minutes early to the platform, as seats are taken on first come first served basis.
- Besides the driver there’s another guy working on the bus: his job is to pick up additional customers on the way.
- If you didn’t have time to buy some food for the ride, don’t fret! Roadside sellers will come on board and you’ll be able to buy basic food for cheap (nuts, cakes, crisps).
- There’s no individual TV for each seat; but sometimes there are old-school US blockbusters with Spanish voice-over and subtitles. If that’s not your cup of Colombian coffee, bring your own music or a book to read.
For more tips on how to survive a bus ride in South America, read our post.
Why travel to Santa Marta
While Santa Marta itself is an interesting town within South America, given its vibrant nightlife and local life, backpackers usually spend only an odd day or two before heading to the paradise beach Tayrona Park, mountain village Minca or to the demanding Lost City Trek.
Tayrona National Park is a coastal nature reserve with breathtaking, quiet beaches and hikes through palm tree jungle. It’s also home to Colombia’s few indigenous groups who maintain the park.
If you are travelling to Santa Marta only to go to Tayrona, we still recommend spending a night in town. Besides giving you time to plan and buy food, it’s also better to start in Tayrona in the morning; accommodation within the park gets booked up fast (first come first served).
Read our article why you should visit Tayrona Park and what to expect there
Minca is a tiny village in the middle of dense forest with several natural spots. If natural swimming pools, waterfalls and jungle hike is your thing, plan a day or 2 there. You’ll find cosy accommodation, craft beer bars and even a falafel place.
The road from Santa Marta to Minca takes only 40 minutes and is a curvy mototaxi ride.
Lost City Trek
The Lost City Trek is a 4 to 6 day hike, only possible in a group with an official guide. The walk is demanding but oh so rewarding. Imagine cutting through the jungle to (sort of) suddenly stumble upon old ruins of past glory. Somehow similar to the Inca trail in Peru, the path climbs through thick rainforest to end up at that ancient Indigenous village.
Santa Marta city
Contrary to what other blogs say, it’s definitely worth spending a little extra time in Santa Marta, beyond these activities. Although it’s a big city on the coast with busy beaches, the curious backpacker can observe a very local and typical Caribbean life here with garage dancing, roadside fruit juices, and street music.
The town centre is quite trendy and offers enough bars, hostels and hotels for an active nightlife.
Why travel to Cartagena
As opposed to Santa Marta, around Cartagena the main thing to see is the city. Dubbed as the Walled City, in downtown every street screams for a photo with colourful facades abundant with flowers. It is the single most visited place in Colombia, where you’ll see plenty of tourists and hear English spoken on the streets. The population and the customs are largely determined by the African origins: look out for the long, flowery dresses and colourful headbands locals wear. Street sellers often put on a costume with a bowl of fruit on their head posing for a photo. To get to know Cartagena have a walk in downtown, follow the city walls for a while and immerse in the street music often performed by locals.
Playa Blanca on Isla Baru
Around Cartagena, there are plenty of beautiful beaches, which are accessible by local bus or boat. The islands are particularly hyped, such as Isla Baru, Islas Rosario and Islas San Bernardo. One of the closest and most popular beaches is Playa Blanca on Baru Island. Imagine warm, crystal clear water and sandy beach. Have it? That’s Playa Blanca on Isla Baru, Cartagena’s most famous beach. Of course, due to its popularity, one cannot expect to have the beach for themselves, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that it’s downright crowded. Also, factor in that you need to pay for the boat transportation to-from the island, which adds to the budget.
Where else to go on the Caribbean coast
The Caribbean coast holds many different experiences to the curious traveller. If beautiful beaches are your thing but would like to enjoy them without entrance ticket or being stuck on an island, consider visiting Palomino near Santa Marta, a small beach town with cool vibes and backpacker infrastructure.
If you don’t have much time but still fancy a dip in the warm Caribbean Sea, choose Taganga beach just outside Santa Marta, or the more crowded Rodadero beach within Santa Marta.
For a more authentic local seaside town experience travel to Tolu or to Rincon del Mar west of Cartagena.
For a full list of awesome beaches in the country, read our beach guide to Colombia
Travelling in Colombia
If you are travelling onward in Colombia to Medellín, San Gil or Bogotá; or if you’re looking at planning an awesome holiday in the country, definitely read our full backpacking guide to Colombia.
Have you found here all the answers you need to plan your trip from Cartagena to Santa Marta, or the other way round? If not, tell us in the comments below!
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