Edited by: Stella Shon
& Keri Stooksbury
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The majority of foreign first-time visitors to Colombia are drawn to the charming colonial city of Cartagena, located on the country’s Caribbean coast. While Cartagena has a lot to offer visitors with its colorful walled city, world-class restaurants, bustling nightlife, and beautiful beaches, well-off Colombians prefer to vacation in Santa Marta.
Located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Santa Marta is only a 4-hour drive from Cartagena. Santa Marta not only has more beautiful beaches, but it’s also less crowded and more affordable compared to Cartagena. Plus, the city is surrounded by the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which happens to be the highest coastal mountain range in the world!
For these reasons, my family and I decided to check out Santa Marta as part of a 2-week trip we took in the summer of 2023 to Colombia. We used the newly opened Hilton Santa Marta as our home base while we explored and enjoyed the beach town.
Read on to find out more about our visit to this beachside hotel!
The Hilton Santa Marta is a quick 10-minute drive from Santa Marta’s Simón Bolívar International Airport (SMR). A taxi from the airport to the hotel will cost you approximately $5. The hotel is situated in a posh neighborhood, only steps from the beach and next to the popular Irotama Resort complex.
While the hotel is not located in the city center, guests can reach the heart of Santa Marta’s downtown and marina neighborhood by car in 20 minutes. The hotel is also conveniently positioned as an ideal launching point for excursions to the renowned Tayrona National Park, with its golden sand beaches and ancient ruins.
If you’re interested in visiting Santa Marta and staying at the Hilton, you should know that there is presently just 1 route from the U.S. to Santa Marta, which is operated by Avianca and departs from Miami twice weekly.Hot Tip:
If you want to fly to Santa Marta using points and miles, you can redeem Avianca LifeMiles to book your award flight. Award rates start at 8,500 LifeMiles miles one-way from Miami (MIA) to Santa Marta (SMR) and vice-versa. Avianca LifeMiles can be transferred from Amex Membership Rewards, Capital One miles, and Citi Thank You Rewards at a 1:1 rate, from Brex Rewards, at a rate of 1.67:1, and from Marriott Bonvoy at a transfer rate of 3:1.
With close friends joining us for the last leg of our Colombian vacation in Santa Marta, I knew that we’d be staying at the Hilton Santa Marta. The hotel was the perfect location as our friends own an apartment in the Irotama Resort complex, which is just next door to the hotel. We wanted to be close to each other so that our families could socialize and our children could play together.
I had just enough Hilton Honors points for 1 night, so I knew that I would have to pay cash for my 4-night stay. Therefore, I went directly to the Hilton website to check rates for our stay at the Hilton Santa Marta and was pleased by the reasonable rates. I booked a room with a king bed (with a sofabed!) for $124 per night. The total cash rate was $498.62 for all 4 nights, including taxes and fees.
For comparison’s sake, it cost 43,000 points per night to stay at the Hilton Santa Marta during the period we were there.
We value Hilton Honors points at 0.5 cents each, so redeeming 43,000 points would have been the same as spending $215 worth of points per night. Given that I nabbed a nightly cash rate of $124 per night for my entire stay, this would have been a very poor use of Hilton points since cash rates were so low.
Since cash rates were so reasonable, I contacted the hotel about adding a connecting room to our King Bed room so my family of 5 could be even more comfortable. I received an email with a rate of $111 per night for a connecting room with 2 double beds, which I accepted.
I used my Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card to book my hotel reservation. The card comes with complimentary Hilton Honors Diamond elite status, which includes perks such as free breakfast and space-available room upgrades. The Hilton Aspire card also earns 14x points per dollar spent on eligible Hilton purchases.
Automatic Hilton Diamond status, an annual free night, and a travel and resort credit make this the perfect card for those who stay in Hilton hotels.
Paying hundreds of dollars for an annual fee on a co-branded hotel card might seem ridiculous, but you should know that the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card is much more than your run-of-the-mill hotel credit card.
The Hilton Aspire card is not only a phenomenal card for Hilton Honors loyalists, but even those who visit Hilton hotels just a few times a year can still get excellent value out of all the benefits that are packed into this card.
So let’s have a look at what makes the card so valuable to travelers.
After retrieving our luggage from the airport’s baggage claim, we were whisked away in a private transfer and arrived at the hotel within 10 minutes.
As I walked through the lobby and up to the check-in desk, the first thing that came to mind was how modern and vibrant the hotel appeared and felt.
A large seating area with mid-century modern furniture and a big, flat-screen TV adorned the lobby.
During check-in, the front desk agent affirmed my room type but did not acknowledge my Hilton Honors Diamond elite status, nor did he explain any of the hotel amenities or benefits. I took it upon myself to ask about the complimentary breakfast benefit I was entitled to and see if there were any room upgrades available.
The hotel opened its doors in January 2023, so the agent informed me they didn’t have property maps just yet. On a brighter note, the agent informed me that I was being upgraded from a King Bed Mountain View Room to a King Ocean View Junior Suite with a sofabed. With the additional connecting room I had tacked unto our stay, we had more than enough space to accommodate 2 adults, 2 kids, and the baby.
With room keys in hand, we headed up the elevators, eager to check out our Junior Suite on the sixth floor.
As the hotel opened its doors in January, a few amenities were still missing. However, the hotel staff informed me that more amenities will be added throughout the year. Let’s look at what the Hilton Santa Marta had to offer.
The hotel offered 2 outdoor infinity pools. The first was on the second floor and was aimed toward families with young children, while the rooftop pool was adults-only.
The kid-friendly pool had a restaurant and a bar. There were also several areas where the water was shallow so that babies and young kids could have fun splashing about.
There was plenty of seating available, including lounge chairs with umbrellas, patio tables with chairs, and pool loungers.
The adults-only pool had a vibrant bar with plenty of seating, including exclusive private cabanas for 2, pool loungers, and love seats with coffee tables for socializing with friends.
Both pools provided breathtaking views of the Caribbean Sea and the Sierra Nevada mountains of Santa Marta. The views from the hotel’s adult-only pool may have been the best in town.
While there were no official pool hours posted anywhere, a hotel staff member cleaning the pool deck informed me that the family pool opened at 9 a.m. I assume the pools also shut after sunset since I never saw hotel guests in either pool at night.
The hotel is situated on Playa Bello Horizonte, one of Santa Marta’s top beaches.
Waves were gentle, and the water was clean, if a little murky. Fortunately, the hotel had a dedicated covered seating area for guests.
Although the hotel had a designated beach area, the beach was open to the public. Therefore, many vendors will offer anything from food and drinks to jewelry and handbags. It’s reasonable that visitors are likely the main source of revenue for many of these sellers, but after politely declining their offers for a few hours, it became a little tiresome.
If you want to remain on the hotel grounds and sit on a sun lounger with an umbrella, the resort provided an area for guests to enjoy without having to deal with beach vendors.
However, in early July, the water temperature was picture-perfect in the Caribbean Sea, so we spent several hours at the beach each day.
I wanted to break a sweat and burn off all the empanadas I had, so I headed down to the second floor to get a workout in.
When I arrived, I was astonished by Hilton’s lack of creativity and attention to detail in designing this hotel gym. The compact room housed a few treadmills, an indoor bike, a bench, a weight machine, and free weights.
One of the mornings that I went to the fitness center, the drinking water ran out and there were no more cups left. I worked out for an hour and no one came to replenish the cups and water during this time, and I got the sense that the fitness center was simply an afterthought.
While I didn’t receive any intel on whether the fitness center I experienced was the final product, for a hotel of this size and stature, a large and contemporary fitness center complimenting the hotel’s ambiance and style was what I expected.
Nevertheless, I was able to get a good workout in with the equipment provided, but I still left the fitness center feeling that Hilton had really mishandled the fitness center at this hotel.
While I didn’t see any pets at the hotel during our stay, the Hilton Santa Marta is a pet-friendly property if you are looking to take your pooch with you on vacation. Guests will need to put down a nonrefundable deposit of $50 and the max weight of the pet cannot exceed 25 pounds.
Unfortunately, I had poor connectivity to the internet and spotty service for most of our stay at the hotel. At one point, my whole family had trouble connecting to the hotel’s Wi-Fi network. Maintaining a connection during our stay was a daily challenge, and when I finally did get service, it was weak.
If you are driving to the Hilton Santa Marta, self-parking is available for $10 per night. At the time of my visit, the hotel had not yet employed a valet service staff.
As I explored the property on the first day, I noticed that many spaces within the hotel had exterior signage indicating designated spaces for amenities.
For instance, the kids’ club and spa each had visible signs outside their respective front doors, but the doors were locked. I peered inside and observed that the rooms were empty.
Later in my stay, I spoke with a supervisor who shared with me that the hotel hopes to have the spa, kids’ club, and meeting rooms operational by the end of 2023.
I was completely blown away by the sheer size and layout of my Junior Suite as soon as we stepped into the entryway. As a family of 5 with 2 adults, 2 children, and a baby, the room was more than ample in space.
We were welcomed with a bite-sized dessert, which I believe was a welcome amenity provided by the hotel’s management staff since no note accompanied the delicious gift. Regardless, it was sincerely appreciated.
The living room area had a couch (which converted to a sofabed), 2 seats, and a coffee table.
Furthermore, the wall-mounted TV was situated above a spacious desk in the living room where we placed several of our belongings.
A coffee bar with coffee pods, cream, and sugar, as well as 2 water bottles, were also in the living room area.
Below the coffee bar was cabinet space where one would expect to see a minifridge, but the hotel was still waiting for minifridges to come from corporate.
On the opposite side of the room from the living room was a half bathroom, ideal for families with multiple children.
Just outside the door of the half bathroom was a wooden circular table with 3 seats, perfect for eating a snack or sharing a meal as a family.
Because the hotel is still relatively new, the king-size bed in our room was the perfect combination of firmness and support. Despite being a poor sleeper, I had wonderful sleep each and every night of my stay.
A stylish mid-century modern green chair with an ottoman and a chic light placed behind the chair provided a comfortable spot for reading right next to the bed.
The 2 nightstands that flanked the king bed provided an adequate amount of outlets for charging devices, as well as lighting controls.
The walk-in closet was open and wide, and it had amenities such as a safe, an ironing board and iron, lots of storage drawers, hangers, a hair dryer, and slippers. The closet was large enough for both my wife’s and my belongings, as well as those of our children, to be stored.
The bathroom had a double vanity sink with white and grey quartz countertops, just like I have at home. I loved the style of the bathroom and it was spacious for multiple people.
You may take a shower however you wish in the bathtub since it had a handheld shower handle and a rain shower. Regardless, the floor will get easily wet since the pane of glass covering half of the bathtub did nothing to stop water from spilling outside and into the bathroom.
The shower and bathroom amenities were from the Crabtree & Evelyn Verbana line, which is made specifically for Hilton and is available in all of their hotels.
And last but certainly not least, our balcony was one of the most jaw-dropping features of the room. It was immense in size and had breathtaking ocean views.
What struck me was the absence of balcony furniture, but I attributed this to the hotel’s newness and the fact that it was still waiting for furniture and other items down the line.
There were a few food and drink outlets on-site, while plenty of off-site dining alternatives were just a 5-minute taxi ride away.
Here’s a glimpse at the food and beverage outlets available at the hotel.
Nuggu is a multi-layered restaurant delivering contemporary Colombian soul cuisine. Located near the lobby and check-in area, Nuggu is where we ate breakfast every morning.
The buffet was complimentary for my family and me because of my Hilton Diamond status. However, guests who do not receive complimentary breakfast may pay $15 to enjoy the buffet in the morning, which is well worth the price.
Aside from the wonderful aesthetics of this restaurant, guests eating breakfast at Nuggu can anticipate a variety of local specialties.
You’d be remiss if you didn’t order the arepa huevo (an arepa with an egg fried inside … delicious!) and empanadas. You can also opt for made-to-order eggs and accompany them with a variety of fresh and varietal fruits.
If you love carbs like my kids do, there was a wide assortment of pastries and baked goods available at breakfast.
I looked forward to my freshly-squeezed passion fruit juice every morning.
Nuggu was open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Waku is an outdoor restaurant by the family pool serving light fare, burgers, sandwiches, and fresh seafood. At lunch, shareable bites and burgers ranged in price from Col$22,000 (~$5) to Col$52,000 (~$12).
According to the website’s hours, Waku was only open for dinner from Tuesday through Sunday from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. However, when we were there, we saw people eating lunch at Waku while we were relaxing in the neighboring family pool. Waku is undoubtedly open for lunch and dinner.
The pool bar known as Uzu was situated next to the restaurant Waku, and in front of the family pool on the second floor. Guests could order a variety of cool beverages at the bar or place orders with the pool wait staff.
We received 2 complimentary cocktails or soft drinks each day at Uzu as a perk of being a Hilton Honors Diamond member. The bartender never made things difficult for us and let us swap out cocktails for beers and soft drinks for freshly-squeezed lemonade.
Uzu was open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., Monday through Sunday.
The rooftop bar of the hotel is called Sikunu. It’s the tallest rooftop lounge bar in Santa Marta, featuring a full-service bar, lounge, pool, hot tub, and adults-only deck on the 16th level. I sneaked up there for a few minutes at night to check out the ambiance, and the sights were spectacular.
People were dressed in casual resort attire, and the ambiance was predictably social, with the Caribbean Sea and the city of Santa Marta in the background.
The views were absolutely jaw-dropping.
If you come for the sunset, you may as well stay since the rooftop sometimes has a live DJ spinning the latest sounds. Sikunu was open from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily.
The Little Shop, a food pantry next to the reception area, was open 24 hours a day. Soft drinks, beer, baked goods, and other snacks were available for purchase in the pantry.
My girls went down for this white chocolate candy they fell in love with on more than 1 occasion, and we were able to charge it to the room.Hot Tip:
If you’re staying at the hotel and want to dine off-property, there’s a shopping center named Centro Comercial Zazue Plaza approximately 3 minutes away with a plethora of restaurants. There is a grocery here, as well as stores and favorite Colombian restaurants, including Crepes & Waffles and El Corral.
I must confess that I was not blown away by the service at the Hilton Santa Marta. Despite the fact that the majority of the staff I interacted with were welcoming and friendly, I noticed a lack of precision in their service levels.
During the first few months following the opening of a new hotel, however, service quality should not be judged too harshly. Excellence takes time to accomplish, so I will have to return next year and look for improvements in this area.
Nonetheless, 2 staff members stood out during my stay. Catalina Sanchez, a group coordinator I spoke with at the hotel, was able to secure a crib for my infant daughter despite the fact that the front desk staff claimed to be out of cribs. And the other noteworthy staff member worth mentioning was our waiter Mario at Nugga, who, despite the breakfast rush, was remarkable and took the time to provide my family with personalized service.
Before we checked out on our last day at the Hilton Santa Marta, my wife was already planning a possible return to the hotel and Santa Marta for New Year’s Eve with our entire family in tow. The hotel has a magnificent rooftop pool and bar area, is positioned on one of Santa Marta’s nicest beaches, and is visually stunning.
With Avianca operating direct nonstop flights from Miami to Santa Marta twice weekly, returning to the Hilton Santa Marta is almost guaranteed for me. Still, the hotel still lacked notable amenities such as a spa, a kids’ club, a minifridge in the room, and high chairs in restaurants for families with small children.
My hope is that when I return to the Hilton Santa Marta, not only will the hotel seem more polished, but so will the service.
The information regarding the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.
The 4.5-star Hilton Santa Marta opened its doors for guests in January 2023.
The Hilton Santa Marta is located 3 miles from Santa Marta’s Simón Bolívar International Airport (SMR).
The Hilton Santa Marta has 261 guest rooms across 16 floors.
Bello Horizonte Beach, one of Santa Marta’s best beaches, is a 2-minute walk from the hotel.
Santa Marta is well-known for being the starting point for trips to Minca, the Lost City Trek, gorgeous beaches, and Tayrona National Park. Santa Marta is also known as Colombia’s oldest city.
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