Cartagena is Colombia's number-one draw for foreign tourists. However, just 150 miles up the Caribbean coast is Santa Marta, a much lesser known destination that offers sandy beaches, calm waters, excellent diving, an upbeat and energetic culture and one of the best Caribbean lifestyle options you'll find anywhere in the region. Cartagena is a great place to visit, but it's Santa Marta where you might want to think about settling in retirement.
Santa Marta doesn't have Cartagena's impressive collection of colonial structures, but neither does it have that city's prices or tourism annoyances. If you're shopping for a retirement in the Caribbean, Santa Marta is an option few people consider, but that could be ideal. And with the current resurgence of the U.S. dollar versus the Colombian peso, prices in Santa Marta are better than ever. You could own your own Caribbean seaside apartment for less than $50,000.
Christopher Columbus visited Santa Marta on his second voyage to this part of the world in 1499. It was officially founded as a city in 1525, making it the oldest in Colombia. It was here that one of Columbus's crewmen documented the wealth and riches of the local indigenous people, giving rise to the myth of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold.
It's always warm in Santa Marta, with highs hovering in the high 80s to low 90s year-round. The rainy season lasts from May to November, turning the surrounding mountains a lush green. It's much drier the rest of the year.
As recently as three or four years ago, Santa Marta could have been described as a "work in progress." The formerly seedy downtown was undergoing a rebirth that included the restoration of the town's colonial homes, parks and churches.
Now that work has been completed, Santa Marta is a different place. The rejuvenated downtown features an attractive seafront park, as well as small cafes, bars, coffee shops, boutique hotels, excellent seafood restaurants and even a cruise ship port. The long-rumored 256 slip marina is completed and operational, and tasteful condo projects have sprouted up around the area.
As you might guess, all these improvements have pushed up property prices. However, the current strength of the U.S. dollar rolls back the clock a few years.
The Santa Marta metro area extends 13 miles from Taganga in the north to the airport in the south. This stretch of Caribbean coast is home to an impressive diversity of beachside destinations:
Santa Marta city proper contains the original historic center and the cruise ship port. This is the area that has benefited most from the recent investment in restoration. Santa Marta also includes a number of inland neighborhoods, including Bavaria, that would be great for full-time living away from any tourist traffic. If you're willing to be a block off the beach, you could own in Santa Marta's refurbished downtown for less than $100,000.
Taganga is a small village surrounded by tall mountains and situated on an expansive, deep blue bay. The beach is long and unspoiled and bordered by a new boardwalk. Taganga's bay is great for diving and snorkeling. This is not the cheapest neighborhood in Santa Marta, but it's certainly affordable. Here you could own an ocean view condo for less than $100,000.
El Rodadero lies about 10 minutes south of Santa Marta. Historically, this was the main draw in the area, as people sought to avoid the once-seedy historic center. The beaches are far longer, wider and better kept than Santa Marta's, creating a giant crescent-shaped shoreline that is several miles long. El Rodadero offers a small town feel that you won't find in the city. This is unpretentious Caribbean with a friendly, laid-back feel. It's also a very safe neighborhood.
Santa Marta's southern sector consists of neighborhoods Rodadero Sur, Playa Salguero, Pozos Colorados and Bello Horizonte. It lies south of Santa Marta and El Rodadero but before the airport. These areas feature quiet, well tended and more exclusive beaches than in Santa Marta or El Rodadero.
This southern sector is the current direction of expansion for the region, where most of the new construction is taking place. The condo projects here are generally higher end, bigger, better finished and have more and nicer amenities than elsewhere.
The southern sector is also long on natural beauty. Bello Horizonte has the widest beach in the area, and most of the beaches along this stretch are frequented only by neighboring residents. There's little to no tourism, making this a quiet, peaceful choice.
Perhaps the most affordable choice in Santa Marta is El Prado, where a two-bedroom, third-floor penthouse was recently offered for 95 million Colombian pesos. At the current rate of exchange, that's about $46,000.
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group.
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