Only 137 miles (220 km) separate the two main cities of the Colombian Caribbean coast. The path from Cartagena to Santa Marta is well-traveled, and there are several ways to get from one to the other. Private transfer is the most comfortable option, a 3-4 hour journey (more with stops). Another possibility is taking a semi-private shuttle. These offer door-to-door service, and take about 5-6 hours to make the trip.
Flights are available, though all flights require a layover in another Colombian city. There are buses leaving from Cartagena every day and at most hours, but the journey may be hot, crowded, and long. You can also choose to rent your own car, though some caution is advised with this option—some roads are poorly maintained, and navigating the often erratic traffic here is not for the faint of heart.
By Private Transfer
Duration: 4 hours
The most comfortable way to get to Santa Marta is in a private car. English-speaking drivers are widely available, and the journey will take you through interesting scenery and small towns. It's possible to take a brief detour to Barranquilla on this route.
Duration: 5-6 hours
Seamless and convenient, private shuttle services between the cities abound. Of course, these services are more semi-private, as you will share the van with other travelers who are traveling north. Most companies offer hotel pick-up and drop-off, so you won't have to worry about finding transportation to your accommodation once you arrive in Santa Marta.
The drawback of this is that if your hotel happens to be the farthest from the main road, you will have to wait for other passengers to be dropped off, which can add to your travel time.
By Rental Car
Duration: 4 hours
Major car rental companies operate from the airports and other major points in both cities, and it's possible to pick the car up in one and drop it off in the other. However, inexperienced drivers are discouraged from choosing this option. Large sections of road may not be maintained, and reckless drivers are par for the course.
Duration: 4-9 hours (3 hour flight, plus 1-6 hour layover)
Normally the most convenient option, planes fail to effortlessly connect passengers between these cities. With no direct flights available, a layover will be required in another major Colombian city. Layovers can be as short as an hour and as long as six.
Duration: 6-7 hours
The last option is to head to the Transport Terminal, which is located around 45 minutes from the old town of Cartagena, and hop on a bus. Time varies depending on the number of stops and traffic, but the journey typically takes about 7 hours. Because the distance between the cities is relatively short, buses tend to be small and overcrowded.
Buses leave every 20-40 minutes, and almost all companies within the terminal will service the route to Santa Marta.