Charming, rustic and incredibly captivating - Colombia's Caribbean coast will have you in its grip as easily as a siren trapping a sailor.
It makes you feel at home as if that's where you're supposed to be. The nature is incredibly beautiful - from wild beaches to high jungle to snow peaks - yes, just a bit up from Minca village you can see both at the same time - the Caribbean sea to the North and snow peaks of Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta to the South. Within two hours of traveling you can dive and swim with gigantic turtles and you can watch toucans gathering in the high jungle for their sunset chatter. And if you want to party like there's no tomorrow - that's available pretty much any day of the week.
Needless to say it was very hard to leave this "Bermuda" triangle which lies between Santa Marta town and Taganga village, Tayrona National park and beyond down the never ending beaches and up the high jungle around Minca village.
If you're coming from Cartagena it's easier to take a mini bus from the bus station (they all say it's going to take 3hrs, but expect about 5hrs, getting to Cartagena's bus station may take about 30 minutes depending on the route and traffic, so leave your hostel a bit in advance) In Santa Marta it's very easy to get anywhere with a taxi, pretty much anywhere is going to cost $2-5. The main tourist drag is by the beach, however it's quite cheesy there. Walk around the old part of the town, visit the central market around 8th-11th street (paralel to the beach), meet other travelers at one of the party hostels (e.g. La Brisa Loca) and it's going to be much better than the boardwalk. For much more rustic and hippie atmosphere head to Taganga - the mini buses for Taganga stop on the main 5th Avenue, just check the sign on the bus - should say Taganga (the taxi will cost about $10, mini bus - $1, it takes about 10 minutes to get there as it's just over a hill) Taganga also offers one of the cheapest PADI diving certifications in the world ($300 for 3 days/6 dives/all equipment/transport to the diving spots in the national park waters/study materials/lunches between dives) It is amazing to learn to do that!
Santa Marta is usually the jumping point to other destinations around, but it's also good for parties, especially in the hostels. Note that Santa Marta hostels are not cheap for those who want private double rooms (expect to pay $35-50 for an ok private double). So staying there for longer time might not be such a great idea, besides Santa Marta is very hot - you'll want to get out to where the breeze is in a couple of days. Another part of the town, Rodadero, offers some more beach options, but it's rather cheesy as well - big concrete hotels, etc., so I wouldn't stay there.
Most people from Santa Marta go to Tayrona National park - just for a day/two day hike. Local buses leave from the market (crossing of 11th and 11th street for Tayrona and further, and one block further - ask around - for Minca) Staying in Tayrona - camping or sleeping in hammocks - is quite expensive ($20 for a hammock if I'm not mistaken), but the hike is quite nice - avoid the crowds and you'll enjoy it. At the Cabo San Juan - keep going further down the trails that connect the beaches for most beautiful and less visited places.
For more beautiful beaches - head further East along the coast, there are several villages along the coast that have accommodation and amazing, less visited beaches, for example Palomino beach. Take a couple of days (or weeks :)) at Costeño Beach - a surf camp about 10 minutes from Tayrona park. You'll get basic but cozy accommodation right on the beach among coconut palms, hammocks and white sand, remote location, lots of sun, lots of fun with the local surfing crew and other travelers, and if you want to try surfing - the break is right in front of the camp (ask in advance about the season as in stormy season the waves are pretty crazy). To get to Costeño beach - ride the Tayrona park bus 10 minutes past the Tayrona entrance and ask the driver to stop at the Costeño beach turn - from there you'll need to walk about 15 minutes on a quite sandy path.
If you want to get away from everything, experience the beauty of the highland jungle and its creatures and make friends with amazing people - visit Casa Elemento, about 5km up from Minca in the hills overlooking the Caribbean sea. It's a renovated coffee farm house in the middle of lush forest, surrounded by green hills, hiking trails and great views. It also has probably world's biggest hanging-over-the-slope-of-the-hill hammock - perfect mind exploration place. The team behind this place are passionate and incredibly dedicated to their dream people from different countries. They will inspire you a lot (and will feed you like a king :)) and you'll leave having gained so much more than just a place to stay.