Dynamic Duo: Cartagena and Santa Marta, Colombia

If the historic old city of Cartagena, Colombia, is the darling of cruise travelers taking a deep Caribbean voyage, Santa Marta is its more obscure, but endearing, sister. Although just 113 miles separate the two ports of call, the port destination personalities are quite different.

port of santa marta

Port of Santa Marta

We recently sailed to both ports on a Silversea Cruises’ voyage. Although many travelers have heard of Cartagena, few know about Santa Marta. “Cartagena has the name,” says Sigrid Scatliffe, a destination specialist in Silversea’s shore excursion department. “Yet, while Cartagena is often touted as the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere, surprisingly Santa Marta was actually founded before Cartagena.”

Characterizing Cartagena as a tourism “gem,” Scatliffe also believes “it’s refreshing to have something new [as a destination for cruisers] like Santa Marta. I would hope Santa Marta gets more exposure, as it’s more laid-back and not as touristy as Cartagena.”

Size-wise, Cartagena is a teeming metropolis of more than 1 million residents. In contrast, Santa Marta’s population is less than half that. Cartagena, boasting an extensive walled Spanish Colonial city and multiple fortresses, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Santa Marta’s historic Colonial core is a bit smaller, but the city is dramatically sandwiched between the sea and the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

From a tourism perspective, Cartagena evokes a bustling, cosmopolitan aura, while low-key Santa Marta exudes a working-class atmosphere and a small-city feel. Some luxury guests on my cruise disliked Santa Marta for just that reason. Others disagreed. One cruiser said of Santa Marta: “This is where the real people live.”

Both cities deliver history. But if your clients seek a cornucopia of well-developed tourism infrastructure, a port call at Cartagena is where they’ll enjoy world-class restaurants, shopping and many day-trip experiences. In contrast, Santa Marta’s popularity is primarily as a vacation destination for many Colombians, for its nearby national parks and for ties to Simon Bolivar, South America’s “Liberator.”

You’re likely to encounter fewer tourists and street vendors in Santa Marta. While Cartagena’s historic core is impressive, “the city itself is a bit intimidating,” acknowledges Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc., Fort Worth, TX.  “I always recommend taking one of the cruise line tours or making private arrangements in advance.

“Once you are outside the port, you will be surrounded by vendors and people wanting to take you somewhere or sell you something,” Turpin says, “so I never recommend doing things without a guide.” On our organized Cartagena city walking tour, we still encountered many vendors dangling necklaces and hawking fake Rolexes and T-shirts. Our guide advised us just to smile, keep walking and simply say, “No gracias.”

old city cartagena

Old City Cartagena

Colonial Cartagena
On our Silversea voyage, guests who wanted a city tour could pick from two options. We selected the 3.5-hour “Exploring Historic Cartagena” tour, priced at $39 per person; it included a 1.5-hour walking tour in the Old City. After viewing massive Spanish Colonial city walls, we disembarked our motorcoach, received a headset to listen to the guide’s commentary, waved off the vendors and entered on foot into the Old City.

We were immediately wowed by the stunning Colonial architecture. Residential balconies, constructed of intricate wooden scrollwork, dripped with blooming floral displays. This is a photographic gem of a city, so tell clients to leave plenty of space on their digital camera card.

We sauntered into the courtyard of a former Colonial home and toured the 16th-century Cathedral of Cartagena, the Gold Museum and the Naval Museum. Our group appreciated the cool tree-covered Plaza de Bolivar, a natural respite from the heat. It boasts an impressive statue of Bolivar.

Amusingly, eight or so luxury guests on our tour begged to substitute a brief visit to the 1770-era Palace of the Spanish Inquisition in place of their included entry to the Gold Museum—it seems they wanted to look more at instruments of torture than at gold and pottery. My take was that this was a “collectible” experience. People couldn’t wait to get back onboard and say they toured this place of past horrors.

At the Naval Museum, our group enjoyed refreshments and watched a Colombian folkloric dance presentation. En route back to the ship, the motorcoach made a five-minute photo stop at the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a majestic fortress, before meandering through a residential area with historic mansions.

Other cruisers on our voyage booked a different city tour, “Cartagena City Sights.” Priced at $42 per person, it featured entry to the fortress, as well as the 17th-century La Popa Monastery, along with a stop at the Colombian Emeralds Center. Travelers must be fit, active and able to climb steep grades to visit the fortress. The arduous journey, however, is rewarded with bird’s-eye views of both old and modern Cartagena.

Advise clients to consult the shore desk staff with any questions because city tours focusing on a fortress visit may not include the Old City walking tour and vice versa. Several guests on our cruise didn’t delve into the specifics and, thus, missed the sites they most wanted to see.

Shoppers might consider booking a private car and English-speaking driver/guide. Emeralds are the big draw, and most shore trips don’t have much shopping time; our tour had none. But tell clients making private arrangements or traveling by taxi to allot plenty of time to return to the ship; Cartagena’s traffic can be challenging.

port of santa marta dancers

Dancers in a folkloric presentation in Santa Marta

Historic Santa Marta
Santa Marta’s traffic isn’t so intense. Silversea offered one Santa Marta city tour, priced at $47 per person. Larger ships may field additional options. At press time, Royal Caribbean International was still fine-tuning details for its shore trips on Enchantment of the Seas’ voyages to both Cartagena and Santa Marta between December 2008 and April 2009.

Our Santa Marta tour involved a brief motorcoach ride to the main historic square and entry to the Cathedral of Santa Marta where Bolivar’s body was buried through 1842. This tour also included a visit to the Madame Agustine House, a jewel of Colonial architecture with an interior courtyard, beautifully tiled stairs and balconies.

But the highlight of any Santa Marta tour is Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the ranch on the outskirts of the city, where Bolivar spent his final days. Now a national historic site, this reserve boasts banyan trees, iguanas, bubbling ponds and the modest—but lovely—home where Bolivar lived. Visitors tour the house and stroll through its picturesque interior courtyard.

Onsite is a broad avenue lined with international flags. It leads to an impressive white Simon Bolivar memorial built by Colombia in memory of “The Liberator.” This peaceful place of honor is reminiscent of other memorials to great leaders in capital cities around the world.
Finally, our tour continued on to a beach area for an outdoor folkloric dance exhibition and refreshments. A final photo stop was made in the surrounding mountains for spectacular views to the city and sea below.

If clients go ashore in Colombia, they should take several bottles of water (it’s hot year-round), put on sunscreen and leave valuables and jewelry in the ship safe. From a safety and security perspective, taking an organized shore excursion set up by the cruise line is generally good advice for your clients going ashore at Colombian ports. For the latest conditions ashore, check the U.S. State Department site at www.travel.state.gov. We felt safe on our journey to both ports; tourism police were highly visible in Cartagena.

The dynamic duo of Cartagena and Santa Marta are increasingly featured on deep Caribbean or Panama Canal cruise itineraries. Advise your clients to savor each destination for its own distinct personality, though, rather than expecting the same things at both ports.
For more information, visit the Colombia tourism site at www.turismocolombia.com

Suggested Articles:

Discover The Palm Beaches launched a new incentive program for travel agencies and advisors that secure business to the destination. Learn more here.

Royal Caribbean Group bolstered its liquidity through the sale of common stock, senior guaranteed notes and a convertible bond issue. Here's more.

Circa Resort & Casino, Downtown Las Vegas’ first resort-casino built from the ground up in four decades, is now open. Here's what guests can expect.