Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | October 6, 2012

City Life in Santa Marta

N 11° 14.56′   W 74° 13.08′

Santa Marta, Colombia.

Sunrise over the city. One of my rare mornings up before 6 pm. The sun rises here around 5:45 am and sets around 5:45 pm. Being this close to the equator there is just a little variation in time throughout the year.

Our second week in Santa Marta has passed and we are settling into a comfortable routine. Bob has been engrossed in studying lithium technology and is perfecting his article to describe the lithium battery installation. I have been absorbed in Spanish study. Elsa doesn’t waste our time in class doing tasks that I can easily practice on my own. The homework is piling up. I could spend all waking hours on Spanish study and still not keep up. Boat projects and social activities are taking a back seat right now, but I am enjoying this rare opportunity.

We make small excursions, usually in the mornings when it is cooler, to explore different areas. I don’t think the marina folks really understand that we are interested in experiencing different aspects of life here. They try to steer us toward the more traditional tourist sights and the nicest parts of town. We are starting to get a feel for the classes of Colombian society that we have read about. We have seen a variety of residential areas and explored the shops which range from a huge open air city market to several upscale shopping malls that would rival the nicest ones at home. We have observed some correlation of skin color to class, with lighter-skinned Colombians often holding the higher paying, professional jobs.

The city streets are a web of economic activity. The number of street vendors that supplement the brick and mortar shops is astonishing. Along the major routes, the sidewalks are packed with vendors selling goods and services oriented toward local demands. They have umbrella-shaded tables or carts, or simply lay their goods out on a tarp on the pavement. If you need a new cell phone cover or reading glasses, there must be at least 20 vendors to meet those needs. There are vendors who specialize in sandals, sunglasses, DVD’s, belts, hats, children’s clothes, specialty cleaning items for your pots and pans. If you need more minutes on your cell phone there are vendors sitting on the sidewalk who can dispense time. Fresh produce abounds with stationary and roving carts carrying items like avocados, coffee, snacks, fresh sliced fruit wedges and salads, juices, ice cream. If your motorcycle breaks down, there is a mechanic with a curbside station and tools to make a repair. If your watch breaks, you can find a sidewalk jeweler. Blender need fixing? At home, we would toss it in the trash. Here, small appliance repair can be accomplished right on the street.

The city market, or mercado, is an extensive and fascinating place with blocks and blocks of stalls. Some have covered roofs, some are less protected from the elements. Stall after stall offers bountiful fresh Colombian grown produce. There are an amazing number of seafood vendors offering the same medium to small-sized tuna, snapper and similar fish, and some offer smoked fish. The fish is not kept on ice but it looks fresh. We can’t imagine how all the vendors could possibly sell so much fish each day and wonder what they do with the excess merchandise.  There are barrels full of rice, grains, even pet kibble, to purchase by weight. Beef vendors display their goods on hangers in the open air. Many small stalls have household items like toilet paper, canned goods, and just about any basic supply you might find in a larger supermarket. Compared with city markets we have experienced in other areas of the Caribbean it was much more comprehensive and totally geared to the locals, presumably the lower socio-economic classes. We were the only obvious non-locals there on our morning visit, and I was uncomfortable enough to keep my small point and shoot camera in my pocket.

The bigger stores, the supermercados, are like Walmarts, but heavier on the grocery items and lighter on the ancillary products. Some of the larger supermercados have cafeterias or delis with seating, a variety of ATM’s, clothing, and appliances. Some sell motorcycles just inside the front doors. For groceries, we have explored two Exito stores, three Olympicas, the Carrefour in the Ocean Mall and the new market in the Arrecife Mall in Rodadero. While there are a few products we miss, our needs and desires have been quite adequately met. Bob has been searching since the Eastern Caribbean islands for suitable and reasonably priced Bermuda shorts. Here he found a selection of very nice Colombian-grown and crafted cotton Bermudas in a variety of colors for less than $20 at Exito.

One of the initial challenges was getting used to the currency. One US dollar equals about 18,000 pesos, with a variable daily exchange rate. Once we got over what felt like sticker shock with prices containing lots of zeros, we have found very reasonable prices on most items. On our first visit to the ATM I ended up with a bunch of 20 mil and 50 mil bills and had to bring them home and get out the calculator to make sure I hadn’t hit the jackpot or inadvertently cleaned out my account. Turns out “mil” is a thousand, and a thousand pesos is about 60 cents. A taxi ride within the city costs 4,000 pesos, dinner for two at a very nice restaurant 100,000 pesos, 500 g of flour (roughly a pound), 1,090 pesos, a dozen eggs, 3,800 pesos, 500 g of coffee, 8700 pesos. The President here has proposed changing the currency to drop the extra zeros,which can be mind-boggling – even more so when prices are quoted verbally in Spanish. With a calculator handy, it is easy to multiply by .0006 or whatever the daily exchange rate is to get the USD equivalent. We have learned to drop 3 zeros, divide by 2, and then add about 20% to make a quick estimate. So the taxi ride is about $2.40, the nice dinner $60, flour, $.65, eggs, $2.30, coffee $5.20. In general, prices for routine grocery and household items are cheaper than in the Eastern Caribbean, and many are much cheaper than at home.

There are many places to visit, dine and shop within walking distance of the marina and several transportation options for our more distant excursions. Rental cars here are expensive, we hear, $100/day and up. Taxis are inexpensive and charged at a flat rate with no taxi meters and no per person charge. It costs 4,000 pesos to get to most destinations within the city. So for about $2.40 per ride (no tipping is customary) it seems cheap. To go over the mountain to Rodadero , about a 15 minute drive, it costs 8,000 pesos (about $4.80). Collective buses, similar to those we used in Grenada, are inexpensive, with different rates depending upon where you want to go. A mototaxi ride (on the back of a motorcycle) within the city is 1,000 pesos (60 cents). We take taxis when we don’t want to walk. A typical shopping outing might involve walking to the store then taking a taxi back to the marina if we have lots of parcels. They don’t seem to use the “secure taxi” system here that I read about in one of the Colombia travel guides, where extra precautions are taken in summoning a taxi to ensure it is legitimate. We haven’t used the buses, which to me are a little intimidating mostly because of the language barrier. The US State department also recommends not to use them and does not allow US government employees to ride on them. But then the State Department doesn’t give good vibes about US citizens traveling here, either. I somehow missed the intensity of that warning in the trip planning process.

We are slowly meeting our boating neighbors. The marina had an organized cocktail party the first week we were here and last week the cruisers held a pot-luck dinner which was fun. We have started to invite folks over some evenings to watch the sunset & chat. It is an interesting and diverse community here. Conversations are a little more difficult since for most of the Europeans English is a second or third or fourth language and we typical Americans are limited in our linguistic abilities. It is horizon-broadening and a privilege to learn more about their homelands, travels and aspirations.

The humans are happier here right now than the dogs. Bandit still seems to mourn the lack of greenery. Her noise phobia has intensified and there are occasional thunderstorms, mostly in the distance, and “pops” in the mornings and evenings. The “pops” sound to me like gunfire, but I am told it is fireworks. Bandit has started associating evenings with more noises and sometimes refuses to get off the boat at dusk for walks. Lady has not been happy having to stay in the cabin when we go out, and we have not yet moved the boat to a different slip where she can’t escape. Being trapped in the cabin seems to exacerbate her fears and her howls when we leave are heart-wrenching.

I have found the Colombia Reports to be a good online source of English news and try to keep up with the current events each day. I was surprised to learn there has been more violence in the nearby area than I had anticipated. A group of journalists in Santa Marta allegedly received death threats for making news reports related to the various paramilitary conflicts. I have to wonder if everything that is going on here gets reported to the public, and perhaps the US State Department has very good reason to justify the stern travel warnings.

The glimpse we have seen of the striking disparity between the social classes is starting to give some perspective. What seems very encouraging here, unlike at home, is the economic growth potential that holds promise for improving the lives of the average person. Despite my paranoia at times, I have to admit that the people here seem to be happy. If there are safety concerns, they are accepted and dealt with as a part of life.

Street vendors and mototaxis at Calle 22 & Carrera 5

Plentiful yellow taxis outside the city mercado. You don’t have to worry about hailing a taxi, they will hail you.

The beach over the hill in Rodadero is nicer than the one next to the port and seems busy with local tourists. The beaches here are pleasant but the waters are not the spectacular blue-green that we have become accustomed to along the Gulf Coast of Florida, Bahamas and some of the Caribbean islands.

The walkway along the beach in Rodadero is the only place we felt somewhat accosted by vendors. Downtown Santa Marta is less tourist oriented and more low-key.

We found a Mar Azul restaurant on Vieques, a Mar Azul resort on Curacao, and this Mar Azul hotel in Rodadero. It is nice to be in a place where they don’t have to ask us to repeat our boat name, spell it, and ask if it is one word or two! We do need to remember to pronounce the “z” like an “s”, though. Another little yellow taxi awaits a fare.

The Dole ship has been a regular arrival in the port each Friday afternoon. With all the beautiful bananas and pineapples we see in the market we would guess it leaves loaded with fruit.

We have more cloudy, hazy moments here but still have great sunset views many days



  1. Wonderful article Elaine 🙂 I hope all will continue to be well there in Columbia for your stay. You two are brave. Not sure I would go there, but I’m not as seasoned a traveler at you two are. Continued good wishes and happy voyaging!

    • Thanks, Pollie! I am glad we opted to stay in the marina. One of our neighbors who arrived after we did anchored in Taganga, the next bay. His story was just published on Noonsite – armed robbery, crew injured, stuff stolen. Not good for the area, since they are working so hard to promote nautical tourism. We met a very nice couple who are having an extended stay in Colombia as the husband had some health issues and is now recovering from major surgery. They report a positive experience, and have traveled via land between Santa Marta and Baranquilla for medical appointments. It seems the Caribbean coast has a better reputation for safety overall than other areas of the country.

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