Santa Marta is a nice town with some old architecture and what would be a pleasant beach but for the huge tankers that leave oil deposits in the water. It’s a pleasant place to be though and the nearby villages have clean water and a good scuba diving scene.
Santa Marta is one of the places that more sordid travelers seem to wash up. In the cheaper guesthouses there are some who seem to come here only to make the most of the cheap cocaine and local whores.
Cartagena is the big name and is a beautiful city that receives the bulk of Colombia’s scanty tourism. That means the locals can be fairly sharp but there’s no danger from the FARC here as the army guard this peninsula carefully. From here you can take boats out to pristine beaches like playa blanca, a paradise that you can actually afford.
This is where the Colombians from the cities go on holiday and they mean to have a good time. They head for Cartagena’s main beach where all the visitors get hassled to death by people selling stuff on the sands. Good place to make a date for the night though..
Lastly, Parque Tyrona is a national park outside of Santa Marta which is basically safe to visit. Rent a car and find amazing beaches or catch a bus there and walk in.
The north coast is thought to be less at risk from kidnappers than the rest of the country and so many travelers take buses between towns. Don’t stroll off into the jungle like these tourists did.