Taganga & Santa Marta – the art of hedonism

11 May

Arriving in the coastal village of Taganga feels something like stepping into the Twilight Zone. A world of contrasts – where brightly painted boats line the shore and fishermen darn their nets as they have done for centuries whilst simultaneously, scantily clad tourists dance the night away in beach front clubs to thumping tunes. This once tiny fishing village has been transformed in just a few years without much concern for the landscape or local heritage. Now proudly one of the most visited places on the Caribbean coast, Taganga has become infamous for its chilled beach culture by day and ‘party like there’s no tomorrow’ vibe at night. It’s a cross between a hippy retreat and a Club 18-30’s holiday! Despite the in your face hedonistic lifestyle, Taganga is a cool little place to spend a few days, and those who visit tend to stay longer than they intended. If you arrive with an open mind and remember the saying: ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’, you can’t help but have some fun!

Taganga is just 5 kilometres or a 15 minute drive north-east of Santa Marta, making it a good base to explore the surrounding area if you prefer smaller places to big cities. Trips to Cuidad Perdida (The Lost City – a beautiful 3-5 day trek through the jungle to impressive ruins) or to National Park Tayrona can be arranged here and most of the hostels and B&B’s will store your large backpack for free if you’d prefer to take a smaller bag on these trips.

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There’s a decent range of accommodation, most set back from the revelry, offering peaceful havens. We stayed in the budget option of Oso Perezoso, with its small but neat rooms and breezy rooftop terrace with hammocks. It was a reasonable choice for a few days. We also heard good things from other travellers who’d stayed at Hostal La Tortuga and Casa de Felipe, both a little more expensive, but offering stylish accommodation, large gardens with sun decks and swimming pools.

Despite an explosion of restaurants, bars and clubs along the beach strip, the village setting remains remarkably picturesque, with jungle covered mountains rippling inland in every direction and shacks built into the cliffs behind the yellow sand beaches.

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The wooden fishing boats are kept in remarkably good condition and bob up and down on small ripples as they drift towards the shore. Fishermen sell their catches from the beach in the early morning’s long before many tourists have risen from their beds.

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The stretch of beach in front of the village is a pretty grubby so follow the small coastal trail out of the centre and along the cliffs to discover small coves with nicer beaches. As with many things when travelling, the further you’re prepared to walk, the wider, cleaner and quieter the stretch of sand you’ll find.

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Rustic wooden shacks based at the back of the beaches serve up drinks and grilled fish and there are some chilled out accommodation options along this stretch if nature, rather than partying, is more your thing. If you decide to stay for sunset and then walk back to the village, remember to take a torch as there are no lights along the cliff side path which has the occasional steep drop.

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Scuba diving is very popular in Taganga and there are plenty of reputable dive schools to be found. The clarity and visibility in the water is not first class, however this is one of the cheapest places in the world to take your PADI and become a certified diver. It’s an excellent way to meet like-minded travellers and learn a new skill at the same time.

There are plenty of places to party the night away from small bars with plastic seating outside to open air clubs with bay views and gigantic sound systems. One of the most popular places is El Mirador with plenty of disco and party tunes. El Garaje is another good spot on the promenade where you can’t fail to be impressed with the locals salsa dancing the night away.

We celebrated Halloween whilst we were in Taganga and enjoyed people watching that night. Several locals arrived from Santa Marta and had made the effort to dress up – the image conscious Colombian ladies went for the ‘glamorous goddess’ look whilst the men were happy to embrace the gore factor turning to Dracula and Frankenstein as their role models!

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For a day trip to Santa Marta, take one of the frequent mini-buses from Taganga that will drop you in the historic centre. Santa Marta is the oldest surviving city in South America, founded in 1525 when Rodrigo de Bastidas planted the Spanish flag here. The Spanish developed a rich colony and used the city as a base to explore Colombia’s interior. Whereas Cartagena has a more developed tourist infrastructure, Santa Marta feels much more like a big South American work-horse, with minimal renovations made to the crumbling colonial buildings, frenzied traffic and gritty street life. Colourful produce markets and road-side stalls sell regional delicacies and one of our favourites was sugar cane juice, amber nectar for those with a sweet tooth.

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The cruise liners have not yet made Santa Marta one of the stops in their schedule as they have done Cartagena and there are noticeably fewer overseas tourists, however, we felt very welcomed with warm smiles from people we encountered.

The Santa Martains are starting to recognise the importance of tourism and a number of improvements to the city centre have been made. The regeneration of Parque Santander and the pedestrianisation of several surrounding streets offers some public space and the huge whitewashed cathedral, said to be one of South America’s oldest, is an interesting building to explore whilst escaping the heat of the day.

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The city and its coastline is a popular holiday destination with Colombian families, who come for the sandy beaches, excellent regional cuisine and lively nightlife. The main seafront promenade, Av Rodrigo de Bastidas, offers great views across the bay – to the bustling port, the old town and a rocky offshore island called El Morro.

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We found the beaches themselves to be dirty because it’s a big city, but they were a hive of activity with locals setting up camp for the day and traders selling food and drink.

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We couldn’t resist trying a delicious prawn ceviche from Cocteleria Juancho, recommended as one of Santa Marta’s foodie institutions and where locals have been flooding for more than 33 years to get their seafood fix.

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After a day in the big city, we headed back over the hills to tiny Taganga. We planned to spend just one more night there and in the morning we’d travel to National Park Tayrona. We had to hand it to Taganga – there aren’t many destinations that breed so many mixed emotions as this one does. It’s a Marmite destination – you’ll either love it or hate it. But whatever you think about Taganga, one thing’s for sure, it’s quickly becoming a must-do stop on every backpackers Colombian itinerary.

2 Responses to “Taganga & Santa Marta – the art of hedonism”

  1. infused exposures May 14, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

    Hmmm….I am a big hater of Marmite so not sure how I would feel about Taganga. I think we’ll save that one for the party people, however, your advice on the hostel in Santa Marta sounds good for us & of course, we are going to hunt down that ceviche! You both make a persuasive case with those cervezas beachside though!

    • latinchattin May 15, 2014 at 11:10 am #

      If you fancy escaping from hustling, bustling Santa Marta for a few hours, just drive over the hills to Taganga on a colectivo bus for a look around…you never know, you might just get a taste for it. We can imagine you guys with glow sticks in your hands grooving to a few tunes :o)

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