Best Ways to Travel from Cartagena to Santa Marta

Cartagena and Santa Marta are two of Colombia’s most beloved and popular tourist destinations. Cartagena has the lively nightlife, the beautiful old town and the nearby islands while Santa Marta is the gateway to the amazing Tayrona Park, the Lost City and the mountain escape of Minca.

Two amazing and quite different beach destinations that are just 220 km apart along the coast. It is very possible to do both during your trip but there are a range of travel options, with each with a range of pros and cons.

I have lived and traveled around Colombia for 15 years and this is a journey I am familiar with. I will discuss the available options and give my recommendation on how best to make the trip depending on your circumstances.

In Short ⚡

There are a range of options available depending on your priorities.

  • The way to do it quickly with minimal stress is to book a spot on a minibus from Marbella straight into Santa Marta for less than US$15 with Belinas (recommended) or Marsol.
  • If you want a little more comfort at a good price, then get a taxi to the main transport terminal and take a coach with WIFI, private screens and reclining seats for US$12. It would be a perfect option but that taxi ride to the terminal can be slow and add significant cost.
  • When traveling with a big group then you could book a private bus to avoid any hassle but you will pay a premium, the same applies for a taxi.
  • Don’t bother flying, slow and expensive on this route, and I wouldn’t recommend renting a car as driving in Colombia is incredibly stressful.

Option #1: Flying to Santa Marta: More expensive and slower

There are no direct flights from Cartagena to Santa Marta which makes this option more expensive and almost certainly slower than the alternatives.

Flights usually have a connection in Bogota and the time from takeoff in Cartagena to arrive in Santa Marta is around 5 hours minimum.

One-way flights generally cost around US$50 plus you have US$5 to get to the airport in Cartagena from the old town and around US$8 to get to Santa Marta.

You will also have to arrive at Cartagena airport at least an hour ahead of departure and potential drop off then collect bags.

Realistically the total journey door to door will usually cost US$70+ and take 6-7 hours.

Option #2: Book a ticket on the bus: cheap, comfortable but you need to get to the bigger terminal

There are coaches available from the Cartagena bus terminal to the terminal in Santa Marta.

The declared journey time is estimated at between 4 and a half and 5 hours, although this of course can vary depending on traffic and you will be very lucky to do it in less than 5.

The cost is around 50,000 COP (US$12) with national companies such as Expreso Brasilia, Exalpa, Copetran and Unitransco offering the service.

The coaches are generally very comfortable with reclining seats, air conditioning, Wifi, USB charging points and Copetran offering seat back TVs with on-demand films. There is usually a toilet onboard and there is plenty of space to store luggage.

You will have to take a taxi or an Uber to the bus terminal which will take at least 30 minutes from the old town, potentially up to an hour, and costs around US$5. The terminal in Santa Marta is also at the edge of the town and it will be an around 15-minute taxi ride to the main tourist areas. There will be lots of taxis waiting at the terminal.

Luggage can be stored overhead inside the coach or in the storage area below. When you hand over your bags they should tag them and give you the matching number to collect when you arrive. When you get to Santa Marta head outside to make sure you are ready to receive your bag.

Some drivers and companies take this process more seriously than others. It is unlikely the storage will be opened between departure and arrival. The bus may stop briefly halfway through the journey to get a snack or a drink but the storage should remain locked.

Be aware that air conditioning on buses in Colombia is often extremely strong and you will see passengers with hoodies and blankets as they drive past the tropical beaches.

Option #3: Take a minibus: Quick, convenient but it can be a tight squeeze

As well as larger coaches that operate between the bus terminals, you can also book a place on a smaller minibus which departs closer to the center.

The two most well known companies offering this service are Marsol and Berlinas. Both have offices and departures points in Marbella, on the coast a short distance from the old town on the road to the airport.

I have heard that Marsol can be quite unreliable and multiple stories of breakdowns on the road. Berlinas are slightly more expensive but have a good reputation.

Both buses have air conditioning and WIFI, although it can be a tight squeeze particularly if passengers have a lot of luggage.

Prices are around 90,000 COP (US$21) if you book online from a third party website such as Red Bus or around 60,000 COP (US$14) if you book at the terminal. Each company has its own offices and terminal, Berlinas is here and Marsol is here.

The larger buses are more comfortable and cheaper but with a minibus you can leave closer to the center of town saving on a taxi out to the terminal. The journey time is comparable, hope for under 5 hours but be prepared to arrive later depending on traffic.

Option #4: Renting a car: Offers flexibility but it is expensive, stressful and not recommended

Renting a car:

I wouldn’t recommend driving in Colombia unless you have to. While it could be slightly quicker, I see few upsides to this option.

You can rent a car for around 50,000 COP (US$12) to 100,000 COP (US$24) per day in Cartagena. This means it is unlikely you will find value for money with this option.

The main road between the two cities is generally quite well maintained and one of the easier routes in the country but driving in Colombia is incredibly stressful.

I haven’t decided if Colombian drivers are very good or very bad. The reaction skills are incredible, people are very good at improvising their way out of trouble and swerving away from danger. That said, there is a reason that these qualities are so well-honed and it will not be a relaxing 3-and-a-half-hour journey.

You also need to find somewhere to park in Santa Marta, which can be a challenge in the narrow downtown streets. Overall, this is an option that is available but would be of no interest to me.

Option #5: Book a private shuttle: Easy, convenient option for groups but more expensive

If you have a large group of up to 6 passengers you could book a private shuttle bus which can take you door to door quickly and in relative comfort.

This option means you won’t have to get to either the main bus terminal and you may be able to make the full journey in around 4 hours.

This option obviously comes with additional cost. There are some offering travel for up to 6 people for US$170 online. If budget is not an important factor and you have a large group then this could be a solid workable option. If you fill the bus then it will also be quite tight, depending on luggage.

Option #6: Hiring a taxi: Comfortable, direct but expensive and quite challenging with no Spanish

The quickest and in many ways easiest option is to get a taxi driver to make the journey. He picks you up then takes you straight to your desired destination using the quickest possible route.

With some fearless, terrifying overtaking you could make the trip in comfortably under 4 hours depending on the time of day.

The challenge will be negotiating a fair price and finding a driver who is prepared to potentially spend 10 hours on the road to get there and back. You could probably negotiate with a driver to do the journey for 700,000 COP (US$165) or book a private driver who may charge a little more.

It isn’t really a necessary expense but if you want maximum speed and comfort it is an option.

Cartagena to Santa Marta: Comparative Table

Time Price Pros/Cons
Flight 6-7 hours US$70+ 👍 Easy to book, uncomplicated.

👎 Slow, expensive, limits on luggage.

Bus 5.5 – 6.5 hours US$12 👍 Comfortable, cheap, fairly reliable, air con, WIFI, spacious seats

👎 Trip to the terminal can add 1 hour and added taxi cost

Minibus 5-6 hours US$14-21 👍 Direct, convenient departure, affordable, relatively quick

👎 Occasionally unreliable and fairly cramped

Rental car 4-5 hours US$50+ 👍 Direct, quick, flexible

👎 Likely very expensive, stressful and potentially dangerous

Private shuttle bus 4-5 hours US$170+ 👍 Quick, very convenient, direct, flexible and good for groups

👎 Expensive, potentially cramped and with limited storage

Taxi or driver 4-5 hours US$160+ 👍 Quick, comfortable, direct, flexible, potential to stop on the way

👎 Potentially trick to negotiate and expensive


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