Navigating the Colombian Coast: Tips for Traveling from Cartagena to Santa Marta

Are you planning to explore the breathtaking Caribbean coast of Colombia, with its vibrant cities and stunning beaches? In this comprehensive guide, I will cover everything you need to know to get from Cartagena to Santa Marta including insider travel tips for both cities.

With this guide, you’re set to make the most of everything these incredible destinations have to offer. Whether you’re only looking for transport tips between both cities or looking for amazing experiences along the way? Keep on reading!

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cartagena santa marta map

Distance between Cartagena and Santa Marta

While both are located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia in South America, it’s a relatively short distance of only 234 kilometers.

Best Transportations options from Cartagena to Santa Marta

There are multiple ways how to get to Santa Marta from Cartagena and I will include all options below with step-by-step tips, how to book tickets, and the pros and cons of each option. With this, I will make it easy for you to make the right choice for yourself to decide how to travel between both cities.

🚌 Option 1: from Cartagena to Santa Marta by Public Transport

The shuttle bus is the best option for getting from Cartagena to Santa Marta. I’ve done this route myself. The route will take around 4 hours but adding traffic may take up to 5 hours. Daily busses leave from both Cartagena and Santa Marta every 20 minutes.

  • Pros: Best budget-friendly option from Cartagena to Santa Marta. Great for backpackers. Most eco-friendly travel option. Departs every 20 minutes.
  • Cons: Getting to the bus terminals. Shared shuttle. Slowest option. Not recommended after dark.

Transport tip: I’ve booked most of my buses in Colombia with Busbud and highly recommend checking them out! It’s cheap and super easy!

shuttle bus cartagena santa marta
cartagena travel guide

Step 1: Cartagena Center to Bus Station

The first step is to get from the city center to the Berlinastur Bus Terminal. Grab a taxi and head towards the bus terminal which is located outside the city center. It’s fairly easy to find a taxi in Cartagena but you can always arrange one through your accommodation if you don’t want to wander around too long with all your belongings.

This short drive should cost you something around 20.000/25.000 COP (€5). Make sure to confirm the price with the driver before getting in, to avoid misunderstanding or being ripped off.

Step 2: Cartagena to Santa Marta Bus

Once you’ve arrived at the bus station and you’ve bought your bus ticket at the office, wait for the bus and confirm the destination with the bus driver. They will (most likely) label your bag and give you a sticker to reclaim it in Santa Marta.

Make sure to bring a small backpack with your valuables with you in the cabin. Without that much bad traffic, it will take around 5 hours to reach Santa Marta from Cartagena.

Step 3: Santa Marta Bus Station to City Center

When you arrive in Santa Marta, you’re mostly dropped off at the bus terminal in Santa Marta or the Berlinas office. Either way, take a taxi to your hostel.

santa marta skyline
taxi view

Bus Companies

Berlinastur

Known as one of Colombia’s best bus companies, Berlinas Santa Marta aka Berlinastur is the best and most reliable company to travel from Cartagena to Santa Marta.

Their buses are small and can fit up around 15 people, with comfortable seats and AC. However, there’s very limited leg space and their vans don’t have a lot of space to store luggage. Daily buses leave every 20/30 minutes, so it’s likely that when one’s leaving, there’s already another bus arriving.

Do notice that Berlinas and Berlinastur are different from each other. It’s the same company but offers different routes. I checked the Berlinas website where you can book tickets for other trajects in advance, but there’s no Berlinas Cartagena Santa Marta bus on there.

Marsol

Next to Berlinastur, there’s another reliable and good company, like Marsol. Marsol offers door-to-door service, saving you the hustle of needing to get to the bus terminal.

However, this also takes quite some time if you’re one of the last being dropped off at your accommodation.

Reservation is necessary and shuttles only drive every hour. Prices are also a bit higher compared to Berlinastur.

shuttle bus

How to book a bus ticket

It’s not possible to book the Berlinastur bus tickets online, so you must buy your bus ticket at the bus terminal. Bring enough cash as most of them don’t accept any cards. There’s no rush, as you won’t need to wait longer than 20 minutes for the next available bus. 

Bus ticket price: 60.000 COP (€13)

Safety Cartagena Santa Marta bus

There have been a few reports of robberies on the specific travel route, as the bus drives through some rough areas/cities like Barranquilla. I’ve heard about these stories happening mostly when the pandemic started (2019/2020) as people were going through rough times and therefore petty theft was way more common. Next to that, most reports happened after dark or with buses with a bus change in Barranquilla.

As for me, I’ve done this route together with 2 male friends at night and I would HIGHLY recommend avoiding this for solo travelers!

Even as a small group, this wasn’t a wise decision as we knew about the reports, but due to circumstances, we did it anyway. Luckily, everything went well and we made it to our hostel safely. But please save yourself the stress.

Overall, the bus felt safe and the driver was very kind.

I would highly recommend taking one of the morning buses so you’ll arrive during the day in Santa Marta.

busy traffic south america

Tips for taking the Bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta

  • Even though it may be 30 degrees outside, it’s freezing cold on the bus so make sure to bring a sweater. My friend forgot one and was literally so cold he put on my tiny extra sweater for some extra warmth.
  • Colombian bus drivers, drive hard (!). Try to get used to this, I know it’s hard but they know what they’re doing (at least, I hope so ;)). Don’t be shocked when they don’t follow the traffic rules, as this is pretty normal as well.  One of the reasons, why I would never drive a car myself in Colombia.
  • Try to get the direct bus to Santa Marta, so you don’t have to transfer buses to Barranquilla.
  • Bring important valuables inside the cabin with you and bring a padlock to secure your bag.

Bus from Santa Marta to Cartagena

You can easily use the exact above-mentioned route, you just need to reverse it. On both routes, you’ll see lots of other travelers as some start in Cartagena while others in Santa Marta. 

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cartagena wall art

🚗 Option 2: from Cartagena to Santa Marta by Private Transfer

Another option to travel from Cartagena to Santa Marta is by private transport, which is the quickest way to get from Cartagena to Santa Marta. This could be convenient when you travel in a family or with a group of friends. Check Bookaway for all available options, from minivans to large tourist shuttles, with some even hotel-to-hotel service.

Getting a taxi from Cartagena to Santa Marta would be possible too and is best arranged with your accommodation in Cartagena to ensure a good price or through Bookaway.

Prices: Private transfers start from €80.

  • Pros: Quickest option. Family-friendly travel option. Hotel-to-hotel service – no need to look for a taxi to bring you to your accommodation.
  • Cons: It’s expensive, and not suitable for budget solo backpackers.

✈️ Option 3: from Cartagena to Santa Marta by Flight

Both Cartagena and Santa Marta have an international airport with flights all over Colombia and beyond. However, unfortunately, they’re not connected directly, so if you’re planning to take a flight from Cartagena to Santa Marta, you’ll always have to transfer through Medellín or Bogota.

Because of that, travel times may add up pretty quickly if you’re counting all the hours getting from the center to the airport as well. Therefore, I would not recommend taking a Cartagena to Santa Marta flight.

  • Pros: No hustle with buses. 
  • Cons: No direct flights available. Long travel times with traveling to/from the airport and check-in. The least environmentally friendly option.
airplane colombia

Best Things to do in Cartagena

As you’re starting your journey in Cartagena, you want to make sure to have experienced the walled city of Colombia properly. I’ve created a complete blog post about all the top things to do in Cartagena and a 2-day Itinerary, but I will include some of the best here.

Explore the historic Walled Center

The old walled city is by far the prettiest area of town full of boutique shops, historic landmarks, and lively squares. Roam through small colorful alleys and soak up traditional culture.

Artistic Neighborhood of Getsemani

I’m sure you’ve already seen pictures from Cartagena’s most colorful and trendy neighborhood. Here you can find street art around every corner, salsa bars to dance to until the early morning, and cute coffee shops. Join a walking tour to learn all about the city and this area of Cartagena.

colombia 3 week itinerary cartagena
traditional local colombia
getsemani cartagena street

Day trip to the Rosario islands

Only 1 hour away from the bustling city of Cartagena, you’ll find the exotic Rosario Islands. Snorkeling, kayaking, or going on a boat tour are some of the best ways to explore all the islands have to offer!

rosario islands day trip

Where to stay in Cartagena

Getsemani and the old walled city are both great options to base yourself on for exploring the city of Cartagena. Getsemani is filled with cheap social hostels famous among backpackers, lots of street art, and cute coffee shops. The old walled city has shops and restaurants around every corner and is within walking distance from basically anything. 

cartagena hostel recommendation
Hotel Recommendation:

República Hostel
Cartagena, Colombia
Book Here!

Best Cartagena Tours

⛵️ Sailing tour to the Rosario Islands on a catamaran, including snorkeling!

🌅 Sunset Cruise with amazing views of Cartagena!

🏝️ Best of both worlds with this full-day tour to the Rosario Islands, Barú & Playa Blanca

🌋 Half-day tour to the Totumo Mud Volcano 

Best Things to Do in Santa Marta

Santa Marta may not be one of the best cities in the country, but it is a must on your Colombia Itinerary as it’s the perfect base to head to some epic places along the Caribbean Coast, like Minca which is only a 45-minute drive away, or the Lost City Trek that departs from Santa Marta.

Many will only pass the city to head further to either Minca, Palomino, or Tayrona. It is however worth staying a night or two to relax or stay the night after a long travel day.

Wander around the beachfront

Santa Marta has a family-friendly beach with a beautiful view during sunset. Gather your new hostel friends, get some beers, and enjoy the sunset before heading out for dinner!

Historic City Center

The historic city center kinda reminded me of Cartagena and was surprisingly pretty and colorful. Santa Marta is a busy city, which can feel overwhelming. Therefore, after your stroll through the old historic center of Santa Marta, grab yourself a coffee at Ikaro Cafe, located next to Parque de los Novios.

santa marta beach
sunset in santa marta colombia

Best hostel to stay in Santa Marta

I’ve stayed two nights in the Masaya Hostel Santa Marta. It’s within short walking distance of all the restaurants and shops but also from the bus station towards Palomino and Minca, which was very convenient. Masaya offers great sleeping pods with lots of privacy, a beautiful rooftop with a pool and bar, and a working area for those needing to get a bit of work done.

masaya hostel santamarta
Hostel Recommendation:

Masaya Hostel
Santa Marta, Colombia
Book Here!

Best time to travel from Cartagena to Santa Marta

The best time to travel in Cartagena and Santa Marta is from November to May. However, the Caribbean coast of Colombia has warm weather year-round with an average of 30 degrees in Cartagena. Avoid the rainiest months of September and October if you don’t want to be surprised with an afternoon shower. Here are some dates you should avoid for other reasons:

🏖️ The high season is from December until March when you can expect big crowds and high prices.

🎄 Christmas & New Year are important days for Colombians and many of them head to the coast to celebrate with family. Expect lots of people, parties and high prices. I was in Cartagena during Christmas and still had a blast, but do expect to pay more and book in advance.

🚫 Tayrona National Park is closed in February for the indigenous community.

🐰 Easter at the end of March is largely celebrated in Colombia causing more crowds as well.

If you’re finding yourself in Cartagena or Santa Marta during carnival, head to Barranquilla where the world’s second-largest carnival is celebrated with big parades, cool and extravagant outfits, and parties in the late hours.

best time travel cartagena christmas

Where to travel to after Santa Marta?

As I said, Santa Marta is for most people just a passing-through hub to get to other places along the northern coast. So here are a few places to travel to after your time in Santa Marta.

Lost City Trek

The first thing I highly recommend doing if you’re in Santa Marta is booking the Lost City Trek.

The Lost City aka la Ciudad Perdida, is one of the most unique things to do in Colombia and one of my favorite travel experiences. This multi-day tour takes you through dense jungle where you sleep in nature and come across indigenous communities you get to know all about their culture and the area and why la Ciudad Perdida is so important for the indigenous.

You’ll get totally disconnected from the outside world while creating lifelong friendships and core memories in the Colombian jungle.

colombian jungle
ciudad perdida colombia

You can book the Lost City Trek at the MagicTour office in Santa Marta or make a reservation on their website.

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lost city jungle

Minca

Only a 45-minute drive in land, you’ll find the mountain village of Minca. This tiny little village is such a relaxing area to calm down for a bit after spending some time in two big cities such as Santa Marta and Cartagena.

Visit the Marinka Waterfalls or go bird spotting before dawn. Next to that, Minca is a great place to do some yoga or meditation and have some great vegetarian dishes at UNI Cafe. The spot where I hung out many times by myself to read, write in my journal, or call family while enjoying an amazing vegan lunch.

minca hostel
Hostel Recommendation:

Casa Loma Hostel
Minca, Colombia
Book Here!

marinka waterfalls minca
minca street

Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park is one of the most beautiful parts of the northern coast of Colombia filled with outstanding beaches, epic wildlife, incredible landscapes, and fun campsites.

There are multiple walking trails to choose from, therefore it’s possible to visit Tayrona as a day trip from Santa Marta or Palomino or make it a multi-day camping trip.

Spotting wildlife in the park is best done early in the morning, when to forest is waking up. One animal to look for specifically is the Cotton-top Tamarin – a monkey species only found in this part of the world. 

tayrona beach view

It’s the most popular national park in Colombia, so plan your trip wisely. Cabo San Juan is the most famous beach in the park and has also a large campsite for travelers wanting to stay the night.

Make sure to book your tent/hammock in advance at the entrance of the park. Be there as early as possible as they might fill up quickly in high season.

tayrona blog post

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Palomino

Located further east on the coast, Palomino is a laid-back village with lots of Caribbean influences. It’s the perfect coastal town for backpackers to relax and enjoy some beach parties.

You can find a party on the beach almost every night, with dancers, DJs, and shows and if there’s not a party on the beach, there’s one in a hostel. 😉

One of the most popular activities offered in Palomino is tubing along the Palomino River. Together with friends, you’ll enjoy a 2-hour ride along the river admiring the views and the tranquility of nature, while enjoying a beer!

palomino town caribbean coast

One place I highly recommend visiting if you’re in Palomino is the dog shelter. Stray dogs are a huge problem in many areas of the world, therefore a few people from Palomino decided to create a shelter for them and they now have lots of dogs and even cats.

You can pay them a visit, where they give you the chance to take the dogs out for a walk and a swim in the river. Please leave a donation, to make sure they can keep taking care of these puppies and make sure they’re healthy and safe.

Send them a message on Instagram here.

dog shelter palomino
colombia river tubing

A Summary of Cartagena to Santa Marta

  • The distance between both cities is 234 kilometers.
  • 3 options to travel between Cartagena Santa Marta, shuttle bus, private transfer, or by flight.
  • Shuttle Buses from Berlinastur is the best and cheapest option.
  • Private Transfer is worth considering for families or bigger groups of friends.
  • Travel during the day and don’t take buses in the dark.

Frequently Asked Questions

How far is it from Cartagena to Santa Marta?

The distance between both cities is 234 kilometers driving.

Is it safe to drive from Cartagena to Santa Marta?

Renting a car and driving yourself isn’t recommended in Colombia. Not only for safety reasons but also Colombian traffic isn’t like you’re used to in Europe or the USA.

I’ve rented cars all over the world, but I wouldn’t do so in Colombia. Between both cities, you’ll pass some rougher areas as well like Barranquilla and robberies have occurred with tourist transportation before.

Is Santa Marta Colombia worth visiting?

Yes. Even though most places head through Santa Marta to visit some popular spots in the area, it’s worth staying for a night or two.

Can you fly from Cartagena to Santa Marta?

Even though both cities have international airports, as of now (Sep 2023) there’s no direct flight from Cartagena to Santa Marta. You must transfer to either Medellín or Bogota

Is Cartagena or Santa Marta better?

Both cities are very different from each other as there’s way more to do in Cartagena and it attracts a lot more travelers. Compared to Santa Marta, which is most importantly a transfer city where people head to other places in Colombia. 

They both should be on your itinerary, but Cartagena as a city on its own, and Santa Marta as passing through!

Plan Your Trip to Colombia

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Simone Vromans

Simone is the owner and writer of Travel With Simone! By sharing these travel guides, she hopes to help you plan your epic adventures and inspire you to go on that long-overdue trip! 💛

travel with simone

About Simone

Hi there, I’m Simone and the writer behind this travel blog. By reading my guides, I’m hoping to inspire you to travel more mindfully and have epic adventures all over the globe!

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