Cartagena Vs. Santa Marta: Best Colombia Beaches & City Living in the Caribbean
While Colombia’s beaches aren’t on the level of those in the Dominican Republic, you can still find some stunning sand and sea life in the South American country.
Two of the best places to do just that? Cartagena and Santa Marta – both located on Colombia’s Caribbean coastline.
Both Cartagena and Santa Marta are mid-sized cities located in the Caribbean. Both places are filled with unique tourism opportunities, some of the best Colombia beaches around, and decent nightlife.
But which city is better for the traveling gringo? Which city would be ideal for a digital nomad? Let’s dive in.
Colombian Coast Disclaimer
Personally, I do not recommend basing up or living in either of these cities. Things simple don’t function perfectly in Cartagena or Santa Marta like you expect them to in Bogota or Medellin.
While the tourism in both cities can be spectacular, they are not ideal for getting work done. Check out the Caribbean coast of Colombia and see some of the best beaches in Colombia.
Then head back to the center of the country when you plan to stay awhile.
Cartagena Vs. Santa Marta: Best Colombia Beaches & City Living in the Caribbean
Cartagena is bigger than Santa Marta. Cartagena has a little over one million people, if I remember correctly. Santa Marta sits around 500,000 in total.
Neither of these cities I’d consider big, but they aren’t small towns, either. For most travelers, Cartagena’s city size if preferable – as Santa Marta is just too small after a few weeks.
- Winner: Cartagena for the majority of travelers.
To be honest, neither city has infrastructure that is first-world. Both Medellin and Bogota have much better public transportation, and that’s not saying much when talking about Bogota.
Another issue to consider is things working properly. The Internet can have issues in both places, electricity may go out, and stunning high-rise buildings may not have working elevators 24/7.
Overall, I don’t expect things to work perfectly when I visit the Colombian coast. You can definitely find amazing neighborhoods and apartments in these cities, but be prepared for a few road bumps.
- Winner: Tie. Neither city has fantastic infrastructure as of yet.
Cartagena and Santa Marta are both on the coast. Both cities are really, really hot. I’m talking wake up in the morning, walk outside, and instantly start dripping sweat HOT.
I’m talking you won’t be able to sleep if your air conditioner stops working type of heat. Santa Marta and Cartagena are both hot and humid. If you don’t like the heat, you won’t be much of a fan.
The average high temperature year around in Santa Marta is around 90 degrees (source). Cartagena has an average high temperature of around 88 degrees throughout the year (source). Still really, really hot.
- Winner: Tie, both these places are hotter than Hades all year around.
Cost of Living
Santa Marta is significantly cheaper than Cartagena in almost every which way. You can find cheaper hotels, Airbnb apartments, and more in Santa Marta.
Cartagena is an expensive city – especially for Colombia standards. Apartments are costly, especially in Bocagrande and the old city areas. You can find reasonable rentals, but it’ll take some effort.
On the other hand, you could stay right on the beach in Santa Marta for pretty cheap. Hotels can be found for as low as $15 a night in the center and Rodadero neighborhoods.
- Winner: Santa Marta. The city is significantly cheaper than Cartagena.
Quality of Life
Personally, I didn’t find the quality of life to be super high in either of these coastal cities. Cartagena has some fantastic amenities, but it comes with a cost. Without a ballin’ budget, you can expect things to go wrong and quality of life to diminish in the city.
Santa Marta offers better quality at a reasonable price, but the city lacks some of the modernity that Cartagena can offer. To sustain a high quality of life in the city, you’d need to really do some dig and prepare properly. Hell, there isn’t even Uber in Santa Marta.
- Winner: Cartagena, but just barely – as Santa Marta doesn’t have Uber.
Now, here’s where these cities start to shine. Both Cartagena and Santa Marta offer some unique beach experiences. You can find most of the best Colombia beaches in or around these cities.
When comparing inside the city beaches, neither place shines. Bocagrande is comparable to Rodadero. Both neighborhoods are filled with huge high-rise apartments, modern amenities and lots of beach.
While both Rodadero and Bocagrande are ideal for a quick swim, you’ll constantly be pestered by hustlers while trying to relax on the sand. The water is fairly brown and the sand isn’t close to white colored.
Outside the cities, both areas offer some world-class beaches. In Cartagena, Playa Blanca and Isla Grande offer amazing beach experiences. Outside Santa Marta, you have the premier attraction in all of Colombia – Parque Tayrona.
Parque Tayrona features some of the best beaches I’ve seen in my life and is a must visit when heading to the Colombian coast.
- Winner: Santa Marta. You’ll find better overall beaches in Santa Marta, especially when Parque Tayrona is factored in.
Friendliness of Locals
I found it a bit difficult to make friends in Cartagena. The city is built on tourism and a number of locals see foreigners as more of a “mark” than a human being. This annoyed me to no end while I was in the city.
I found the people in Santa Marta to be a little less aggressive and more down to earth. If you were staying in Santa Marta for awhile, it wouldn’t be too difficult to make some local friends.
That’s not to say the majority of people in Cartagena aren’t good people. Just a little difficult to find them mixed in with all the hustlers.
- Winner: Santa Marta for sure.
Sadly, I wasn’t impressed with the education levels in either city. The coast just doesn’t take education as seriously as they do in Bogota.
I definitely noticed a large divide in the coastal cities between the wealthy, more educated people and the lower classes – who often couldn’t even afford their tuition payments or a bus ticket.
Life is harder on the coast, and many people simply cannot afford education. Still, there are certainly educated individuals in these cities.
- Winner: No winner here.
While formal education is somewhat lacking in these cities for lower classes, many people have a solid grasp on the English language due to all the tourism.
If you don’t speak much Spanish, both of these cities will be easy to navigate, as many people speak some English. Many of the professional tour operators and hotel managers are near fluent, too.
- Winner: Tie, as both cities speak a high-level of English.
You won’t be the only gringo rolling around in Santa Marta or Cartagena. These cities are built on tourism, so they’re constantly packed with foreigners from a variety of countries.
There’s more high-end travelers in Cartagena, as there are many luxurious hotels and apartments in the city. In Santa Marta, you’ll find more backpackers than any other Colombian city. Parque Tayrona is a huge draw on the backpacker trail.
- Winner: Tie, as both cities have experienced gringo fatigue.
For Colombian standards, neither one of these cities is up to par. You’ll see an insane amount of pretty girls in Cartagena, but the city is filled with “grey areas.” Prostitution is rampant and it can be difficult to tell if a girl is working or not. Not my cup of tea.
Santa Marta isn’t filled with as much prostitution as Cartagena, but I wouldn’t say dating is great in the city, either. While there are some stunners here, you won’t see as many cute Colombian girls here than in other cities.
- Winner: Tie, as neither city is great with regards to dating.
While dating isn’t that great in Santa Marta or Cartagena, the nightlife is fantastic in both cities. Cartagena offers a number of high-end spots catering to locals and tourists alike. Santa Marta features open-air rooftop bars that stay open late and fill up with people from all over the world.
If you like to party, both of these cities will suit you well. Cartagena has more of a high-end scene, while Santa Marta nightlife is laid-back and approachable.
- Winner: Tie, as both nightlife scenes have their pluses and minuses.
Outside of great Colombia beaches, both cities have some fun tourism to take part in. Cartagena features an old colonial city, stunning Spanish fort, mud volcano, and more.
Santa Marta offers a stunning mountain town, beautiful waterfalls, and a multi-day hike to a lost city.
It’s hard to pick which offerings are better. Cartagena’s attractions are easier to get to. Santa Marta offers more nature in the mountains.
- Winner: Tie.
Cartagena Vs. Santa Marta: Overall
It’s honestly tough to pick a winner here. If Colombia beaches are your only concern, then Santa Marta probably takes the cake. If high-end nightlife is what you’re after, then Cartagena is a clear winner.
Overall, if you have a big budget, then Cartagena may be better. If you’re tight on cash, then you’ll probably have more fun in Santa Marta.