Cartagena is the starting point for most travelers visiting the Caribbean coast of Colombia, thanks to an international airport with plenty of affordable direct flights. But too often, visitors to Cartagena don’t venture outside of the city limits and explore the rest of this amazing region. That’s a HUGE mistake! There are a zillion amazing destinations to visit outside of Cartagena, from Minca to Palomino to Isla Baru to Taganga to Parque Tayrona to the Lost City to the Tatacoa Desert. If your’re headed to Cartagena for the warm Caribbean water & sunny beaches, the best beach in Cartagena is actually on an island just offshore – read our guide to Isla Baru and Playa Blanca.
But before you can dive into all that the coast has to offer, you’ll have to get from Cartagena to Santa Marta, which is the jumping-off point for most of these spots. Luckily for you, we’ve traveled between Cartagena and Santa Marta many times over the years. Here’s a step by step guide to getting from Cartagena to Santa Marta!
Table of Contents
Psst: Planning a trip to Colombia? We’ve got a BUNCH of posts about Colombia that will help you plan your visit.
- What to Pack for Colombia: The Ultimate Packing Guide
- A Traveler’s Guide to Transportation in Colombia
- 30 Things Nobody Tells You About Backpacking in Colombia
- 12 Hostels in Colombia: Where to Stay & Where NOT to Stay!
- The Best Colombian Food: What to Eat in Colombia
- Travel Guide to Playa Blanca & Isla Baru
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to get from Cartagena to Santa Marta?
The bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta should take about 5 hours. That’s Colombian time, though, which means don’t be surprised if it takes much longer for absolutely no reason – plan for 6+ and hope for 5.
The bus first heads to Baranquilla, which is about 2 hours away. It makes a few stops in town, sits in traffic for a while, and then heads up to Santa Marta, where it makes a few more stops.
Which bus should I take? Berlinas vs. MarSol
There are 2 bus companies servicing the route between Cartagena and Santa Marta: Berlinas and MarSol. We’ve taken both. They’re a bit different: MarSol is cheaper and the buses are larger. Berlinas is more expensive and the buses are smaller. But we’ve done this trip enough times to know which option we prefer: we hands down recommend Berlinas over MarSol.
Why do we recommend Berlinas? Well, the only time we took MarSol, our bus broke down and we ended up spending 3 hours standing on the side of the road in the rain with our luggage while our poor driver flagged down 18 buses to try and seat all of the stranded passengers. It was not fun. We did make it to our destination … eventually. We were just wet. Also, we had to stand for 45 minutes on the way back.
Meanwhile, we’ve never had an issue with Berlinas, and we’ve made this trip around 10 times.
I’m not saying MarSol is going to break down and leave you on the side of the road, but we’re not particularly eager to try our luck again.
Where should I disembark in Santa Marta?
We usually disembark at the 1st Berlinas bus station, because there’s usually a taxi nearby which makes it easier to get to our next destination.
Often when we’re visiting Santa Marta we’re actually on our way elsewhere, like Minca or Parque Tayrona, which requires another leg of transportation. The 1st bus station is close to the city center, so we usually take a cheap taxi to the city center to hop on the final leg of our journey.
Important note: don’t be alarmed when locals start hopping off at seemingly random destinations, like along the side of a highway or at someone’s house. Most of the locals taking the bus probably live in Santa Marta or know their way around the city, and you may end up being the last passengers off the bus and the only ones who actually head all the way to the bus station. This is because the buses in Colombia will drop you off anywhere along the route that you like, if you’re able to ask the driver for it and they’re willing to accommodate you.
Don’t worry: you’re not going to miss your stop! The driver or another passenger will likely let you know if you need to get off. This is one of those general Colombian travel rules: Colombians will go out of their way to help you, particularly if you’re very clearly a traveler/gringo. For example, on our most recent trip, the entire bus spent a good 20 minutes giving us restaurant recommendations just because one of us said we were hungry. It was the sweetest thing. Incidentally, it turns out that there’s a pretty good restaurant right outside of the Berlinas bus station.
How to Take the Berlinastur Bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta
Taking the Berlinastur mini bus is our preferred way to get from Cartagena to Santa Marta. It’s easy, it’s fairly comfortable (not much legroom, but blessed A/C), and at 40.000 COP/$14 per person, it’s relatively inexpensive. Buses leave every 40 minutes from 4:40 am to 6pm.
- Note: We’re not totally sure what the difference is between Berlinas del Fonce, which doesn’t list Cartagena to Santa Marta on its site, and Berlinastur, which …. really seems like it’s part of same company, even though it has a completely different website. But the Berlinastur bus is the one you want. We double-checked with Berlinas del Fonce to just to make sure!
How to Get to the Berlinas Bus Station
The first step is to get yourself to a bus station. This is the easiest bit: simply step outside with all of your luggage and look lost, and a taxi will pull up immediately and offer you a ride. It’s like a fun magic trick. I’ve never had to wait more then 8 seconds for a taxi anywhere in Cartagena, night or day.
Once you’ve flagged down a taxi, tell your taxi driver that you want to go to the Berlinas Bus Terminal. If your Spanish isn’t great, just say something like “Berlinas a Santa Marta.” It’s important to specify “Berlinas” and “Santa Marta,” because there are several bus stations in town, and it’s all very confusing, even to us, and we’ve done this like 5 times. But don’t worry – your taxista will know what you mean.
You shouldn’t need the address or much more information than that – if you do, you managed to find the only taxi driver in all of Cartagena who doesn’t know where this bus station is (or is pretending not to, which is a huge red flag). Say adios and find someone who knows where they’re going instead.
This is very important: confirm the cost of your trip BEFORE you get into the taxi. Taxis in Cartagena do not have meters, and prices should be discussed before the trip. You’re well within your rights to haggle and negotiate the price, but it helps to know what a trip SHOULD cost before you attempt it – just ask any local “cuanta cuesta para un taxi a Berlinas?” and they should be able to help you.
The taxi ride should cost around 10.000 COP from the Walled City or Getsemani, maybe a little more from Bocagrande. The bus station is on the way to the airport a ways out of town, but it should take under 30 minutes to get there depending on traffic.
- Berlinas Marbella Office: Calle 46C # 3-80 (again, you really shouldn’t need this – your taxi driver should know where the Berlinas Terminal to Santa Marta is)
Buying a Ticket from Cartagena to Santa Marta
Once you get to the Berlinas bus terminal, head to the ticket desk to buy a ticket. You will need to bring enough cash for your tickets – they don’t take credit cards. We don’t recommend purchasing a ticket online, only because the site never seems to work for us and we’ve never once had a problem buying a ticket upon arrival.
Once you’ve bought your ticket, you can immediately board the next shuttle leaving for Santa Marta, and you shouldn’t have much more than 20 minutes to wait. Psst: the bathroom at the bus station costs money and they don’t give you much toilet paper, so it’s best to go before you arrive.
Your luggage will go in the back of the van and you’ll usually get a sticker to claim it after your trip, even though the van only seats around 20 people. I’ve never had a problem with my belongings getting lost or stolen with Berlinas, and we’ve taken them probably 10 times now.
You’ll have an assigned seat on your ticket that nobody will tell you about unless you happen to sit in someone else’s spot and they get cranky about it. One of the numbers on your ticket is the number of the van, and corresponds to the giant painted numbers on the side (someone may or may not alert you to this). The other one is your seat number. I literally did not realize there were seat numbers until the 10th time I took a Berlinas bus, when someone got pissy at us for sitting in their seat. To avoid irritating locals, you should probably just take your assigned seat.
Now sit back, and relax! You’ll be in Santa Marta in about 5-6 hours. (5 if there’s no traffic, 6 if we’re being realistic.)
Tips for taking the Berlinas Bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta
Taking transit in Colombia is a LOT easier than it seems at first, but it took us a while to get used to. (Psst: we have a whole guide about transportation in Colombia). Here are some of our most useful tips for taking the bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta.
- There is A/C blasting constantly, and it will get very cold. Bring a sweater! Yes, even though it’s insanely hot out.
- There’s not like, a LOT of legroom. Imagine the legroom of a budget airline, and that’s about what you get. It’s manageable for the 5 hour trip, but it’s not what I’d call comfortable. If you want comfort, you’ll have to upgrade to a private shuttle or taxi like this one, which isn’t cheap. To strike sort of a comfort/budget middle ground, you could take the Berlinas bus 2 hours to Baranquilla (20.000 COP/$7) and then pick up this private shuttle, which is the cheapest option I could find.
- If you’re prone to nausea, pop a Dramamine before you board. The roads are generally very good, but in Colombia, it’s really common to do things like veer into the other lane to pass somebody only to immediately veer back to avoid a collision, which makes me queasy for multiple reasons (we’ve never been in an accident in Colombia, but I would also NEVER drive here myself).
- Don’t be alarmed if/when your driver starts breaking road rules. If it makes you feel better, everyone expects everyone else to break the rules, which I guess creates its own kind of weird sense of safety.
- No, it isn’t easier, faster, or cheaper to rent a car and drive yourself. I would absolutely not recommend anyone to rent a car in Colombia. Just don’t do it. The insurance will cost you an arm and a leg, you won’t be able to find parking anywhere (not because there are a lot of cars, but because there are so few of them that most tourist destinations don’t have any place to park at all), the road rules are confusing at best, and there’s simply no reason to do it when transportation is inexpensive and will get you anywhere you need to go.
- At night, the bus will play a movie that’s usually in English with Spanish subtitles. Often they’re movies about Pablo Escobar, which is a lot of fun to watch while you’re traveling in Colombia. Often, the English is played so quietly that you can’t hear it at all. Reading the Spanish subtitles is a great way to practice your Spanish, but make sure you pop a Dramamine if you’re prone to reading-induced nausea.
- Your bus will probably make frequent stops. Some of them are at police checkpoints or other bus stations, like in Baranquilla, which will be about 2 hours into the trip. You can disembark here and use the restroom if you need, but make sure your driver sees you so he knows to wait if you plan to take a while (or make friends with a local and ask them to help you out – Colombians are insanely friendly). The stops are usually around 5-10 minutes.
- During these stops, vendors will board the bus selling snacks and drinks. We HIGHLY recommend purchasing some bus snacks! They’re delicious and as safe as the rest of the street food in Colombia. If you see a guy selling fresh tamales in a plastic bag (3 for 3.000 COP/$1) get them!! They’re freaking delicious.
What to Do in Santa Marta
I’m going to be honest with you: we’ve stayed in Santa Marta exactly 2 nights total, and they were underwhelming. Santa Marta is primarily a jumping off point for the surrounding areas.
If you’re planning to spend some time in Santa Marta and looking for a budget place to stay, we recommend Santa Marta’s famous Dreamer Hostel! It’s located away from the main areas in town, but this always-busy hostel is the place to be if partying is on your to-do list. (And if you’re in Santa Marta, it probably is.) The atmosphere is super social and you can’t help but have a good time – but it’s not so loud that you can’t sleep peacefully. They have a pool, bar, and even a party bus! Check current prices.
We did find some tours within Santa Marta that sounded interesting. Check these out:
How to Get Back from Santa Marta to Cartagena
The trip back to Cartagena is the exact reverse of the trip to get there. You'll need to get yourself to the Berlinas bus station, buy a ticket (same price, same hours) and boom, you're on your way! Simple as that.
We hope this guide to taking the Berlinas bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta is helpful for your trip! Don't forget to check out our guides to Minca and Parque Tayrona, 2 of our favorite destinations to visit in Colombia that are both accessible from Santa Marta.
We've also got a BUNCH of posts about Cartagena & Colombia that will help you plan your trip!
- Travel Guide to Isla Baru: Cartagena's Tropical Island Paradise
- The 10 Most Instagrammable Places in Cartagena, Colombia
- What to Pack for Colombia: The Ultimate Packing Guide
- A Traveler's Guide to Transportation in Colombia
- What and Where to Eat in Cartagena, Colombia
- Travel Guide to Playa Blanca & Isla Baru
Do you have any questions about taking transit from Cartagena to Santa Marta? Drop us a comment below!
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