Is Santa Marta, Colombia Safe? Travel Safety Guide in 2024

is Santa Marta safe?

Located in Northern Colombia on the Caribbean Sea, Santa Marta attracts cultural enthusiasts, beachgoers, and nature lovers alike. A warm breeze welcomes you as you step off the plane, and life ticks by a bit slower here. Before packing your bag, you might ask yourself, is Santa Marta Colombia safe?

Like much of Colombia, Santa Marta has been focusing on improving its reputation as a superb tourist destination for some time now. Trading in the theme of drug cartels for endless sunny days and rough neighborhoods for charming cafes.

Even with improvements, both tourists and expats should take caution to avoid any sticky situations. If you keep your expensive belongings out of sight, are aware of what’s around you and avoid traveling at night, you can answer yes confidently to the question of, is Santa Marta safe?

Is Santa Marta safe to live?

Sunset view of island in Santa Marta
Photo by Envato Elements

For those thinking of moving to Santa Marta, one of the main questions you’ll want to know the answer to is if the city is safe to live in. Unlike Medellin or countries like Portugal, which have a large expat community, Santa Marta is just beginning to become a more popular area for expats and retirees. Its low cost of living and casual lifestyle are the major drawcards, yet the city still has some work to do to be a well-known spot within the expat community.

Always keep your valuables out of sight

Even so, Colombians and expats alike find Santa Marta relatively safe to live in, especially if you use common sense and don’t put yourself in tricky situations. Because petty crime is the most common crime, as long as you do not walk around with your phone and valuables out or things in your pocket, you likely won’t have a problem. There’s even a Colombian saying to express this valuable lesson, ‘No dar papaya’ or don’t give papaya. It means you shouldn’t flaunt something others want, like your phone, a fancy watch, computer, or cash. This will only draw unwanted eyes and likely leave you without your phone.

Santa Marta Neighbourhoods to avoid

It’s also important to avoid bad neighborhoods. Some barrios to avoid include María Eugenia, Pastrana, Tayrona, María Cecilia, Ciudad Equidad, Los Fundadores, San Martín and Cerro de las Tres Cruces. Always do your research or ask a trusted local before booking accommodation, and if you live in Santa Marta long-term, always change the locks on your door. You never know who has a spare key.

Don’t get complacent while living in Colombia

Finally, always keep your whit about you. The longer you’ve lived somewhere, the more complacent you’ll become. Even if you feel safe in an upscale neighborhood, you never know who’s eyeing up your phone or other valuable. No matter how long you’ve called Santa Marta home, the risk of theft and petty crime is always lingering in the background.

Is Santa Marta safe to visit?

View from Santa Marta lighthouse
Photo by Envato Elements

Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different response to the question of ‘Is Santa Marta safe to visit?’ Even though Colombia has made huge strides into making the country a safe place to visit, its bad rap has proven even harder to get rid of. However, in saying that, those who have visited and spent time in Santa Marta will confirm – as long as you travel smart, Santa Marta is indeed a safe place to visit.

Choose your hotel or hostel in Santa Marta wisely

Picking the right hotel in the right location will have a strong impact on how safe you feel. Always look for hotels or hostels with 24-hour security as you’ll want someone around in case you need help booking a taxi, have trouble with your keys, or generally feel unsafe. If you have the budget, stick to private rooms rather than the more budget bunk rooms. Also, if you walk into a place and it just doesn’t feel right, move on. There are plenty of safe hotels and hostels to pick from, just do your research and read reviews.

Santa Marta is also an area to be wary of Airbnbs. Pictures don’t always match what you get, and because you’ll be staying in someone else’s property, they likely won’t have security. Plus, you don’t know who else has the key or code to get into your Airbnb.

Never do drugs in Colombia

Okay, this one may seem obvious. However, many tourists come to Colombia and Santa Marta for the easy to get drugs, and this will no doubt get you into trouble. The government and locals have put in a lot of time, effort, and money to clean up Colombia’s drug scene. By supporting it, you’ll not only be disrespectful to the locals, but you can also get into sticky situations with drug dealers. Plus, don’t forget, drugs are still illegal in Colombia, and you certainly don’t want to end up in a Colombian prison.

Stick to the more touristy locations of Santa Marta

There’s plenty to do and see both in Santa Marta and the surrounding area, and there’s no reason you can’t enjoy the natural beauty, delicious Colombian food, and fascinating culture here. Some of our favorite things to do include:

  • Visit Tayrona National Natural Park – located just 25 minutes from Santa Marta, you’ll reach this stunning stretch of coastal landscapes. Stick to the beautiful forested trails and coastline, and the only thing you’ll have to worry about is if you brought enough water and snacks.
  • Trek to the Lost city – the main reason many adventures find themselves in Santa Marta, the Lost City rivals the famous Machu Picchu. Choose a guide you trust and get ready for a mentally and physically challenging (but safe!) five-day trek.
  • Visit Playa Blanca – another short drive from Santa Marta will take you to Playa Blanca. This secluded spot is well-maintained and home to tasty local restaurants. Be sure to keep an eye on your belongings, but besides that, with many other tourists around, you can relax in the sun without worry.

Is Santa Marta safe for a solo female traveler?

Solo female traveler
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Overall, Colombia is safe for solo female travelers, and this applies to Santa Marta too. As long as you are aware of your surroundings and are smart about the situations you find yourself in, solo female travelers can have a wonderful and rewarding time experiencing the landscapes and cultures of Santa Marta.

Take extra precautions and join other travelers

If you’re nervous as a solo female traveler, try and meet other travelers so you can explore together, especially if you’re planning to go out at night. Of course, a solo female traveler should always follow the same precautions as other travelers and be even more aware at night and when alone in sketchy areas. If you’re walking alone, especially in less touristy areas, you may find yourself victim to cat-calling or staring. As long as you keep your confidence and don’t react to the attention, you’ll pass by undisturbed.

Female solo travelers should also take extra precautions when taking taxis. Be sure to have your hotel or hostel book a taxi for you, or use a highly rated Uber driver. Also, plan your rides in advance. It’s never a good idea to have your phone out trying to book an Uber or hop into a taxi waiting on the street.

Is public transport safe in Santa Marta, Colombia?

As long as you stick to known public transport companies, do a bit of research, and apply the same precautions you would wandering around the streets of Santa Marta, public transport is safe to use. A few different public transport options include:

Colectivo – this is a shared van or small bus that fits between 6 to 12 people. While they are typically privately owned and may appear a bit sketchy, they are plenty safe and very cheap. As Colectivos don’t have a set path, they simply call out destinations they’ll be passing, getting to your destination can be an adventure in itself.

Public buses – While you’re in Santa Marta, it’s more likely public transport will consist of its public bus system. Look for the companies SETP and STU Santa Marta with their blue buses, and keep in mind you’ll be buying a ticket from an employee on the bus, not from the bus driver. Public buses are generally safe, but always be sure to keep your phone and wallet in a secure pocket and keep your bag on your lap, not on the ground where prying fingers can have a look inside.

Taxis – Though taxis are not necessarily public transport, they’re still a great and safe way to get around and are typically much faster at getting you from A to B than the public buses or Colectivos. Just be sure to call and book a taxi in advance and never get into a random vehicle. Even if it looks like a taxi and the driver claims he’s a taxi – it doesn’t necessarily mean it is one.

Overall, public transport is a wonderful way to get around Santa Marta and its nearby attractions. You’ll get glimpses into the local way of life, save money and experience the country in a much more authentic way than renting a car.

Is tap water safe to drink in Santa Marta, Colombia?

a tap
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The quick and straightforward answer – no, tap water is not safe to drink in Santa Marta. Besides Bogotá and Medellín, tap water in Colombia should not be drunk, especially if you’re only visiting for a short stay.

Long-term visitors and locals in bigger cities drink tap water. However, as your stomach can take some time to get used to the different composition of the water, it’s important to ease yourself into drinking it. Start by using it to brush your teeth, wash your vegetables, cook with and drink small amounts. This will prevent you from getting an upset stomach, and gradually you can start drinking water straight from the tap.

In more rural areas like Santa Marta, it’s best to stick to bottled water or use a water purifying tablet. Also, always be sure to check that the bottle you buy has a sealed cap. Tourists have been caught out buying bottled water that has been filled up with tap water and resold. Luckily, a 1.5-liter bottle of water is less than US$1, so buy a few big bottles, and you’ll be good to go.

Top 7 safety tips in Santa Marta

Blue waters along coast
Photo by Envato Elements

Staying safe in Santa Marta doesn’t have to be complicated or lucky. Follow these 7 safety tips below, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time in Santa Marta.

  1. Purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against theft, illness, injury, and the unexpected. It will also give you the peace of mind that if something does go wrong, you won’t have to worry about the extensive bills that could add up.
  2. Don’t travel alone at night. Always be sure to stick with your friends, family, or other travelers. If you’re alone, you’re much more likely to be a victim of theft. 
  3. Learn some Spanish. Knowing a bit of Spanish will not only help you navigate the country better, but it can also come in very handy in case of an emergency.
  4. If you’re being threatened, give the attacker your stuff. You can always replace your things and get reimbursed with travel insurance. The alternative will likely be much worse.
  5. No dar papaya, don’t give papaya. As we’ve mentioned a few times above, never have your expensive belongings and wallet out in the open. This is just begging someone to snatch it.
  6. Stay in accommodation with 24-hour surveillance. Not only will you and your belongings be safer, but you will also have someone you can trust to help should you need it.
  7. Chat with your travel doctor before traveling to Santa Marta. Your travel doctor will have the most up-to-date vaccination information. If you are traveling to any of the surrounding natural areas, be sure to get your yellow fever vaccination at least 15 days before visiting.

For more than 11 years, Joe has worked as a freelance travel writer. His writing and explorations have brought him to various locations, including the colonial towns of Mexico, the bustling chowks of Mumbai, and the majestic Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not crafting his next epic blog post on the top Greek islands or French ski resorts, he can often be found engaging in his top two hobbies of surfing and hiking.

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