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Port of Santa Marta

Upcoming gateway for auto trade and reefers

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The Colombian port of Santa Marta already has a creditable track record as a deepwater multipurpose port, able to handle a wide range of traffic, from containers and rolling cargo to dry and liquid bulks and coal. In recent years the port has built on its status as a multipurpose facility by investing in new dedicated facilities for handling specific types of cargo.

Following the demise of the Colpuertos state monopoly in Colombia, the Port of Santa Marta was established in 1993 as a mixed-capital company by 60 organizations that included banana traders as well as shipping companies and local authorities.

At its inception the port company focused its efforts on the agro-industrial sector and particularly the banana-producing regions of Urabá and Magdalena.

Over the years, however, the Port of Santa Marta has invested heavily in the development of a modern and efficient multipurpose port able to provide handling and logistic support services for a wide range of cargo including vehicles and reefer containers.


In the ro-ro sector, the Port of Santa Marta has recently formed an alliance with Fast Terminal International, which manages ro-ro terminals in the United States and Mexico, thus opening up new opportunities for the Colombian port in the automotive sector.

This alliance is good news for the local job market and the port is investing in special training.

Over the past year more vehicle brands have chosen the Port of Santa Marta as their import gateway in Colombia. The port’s customers in this sector include Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and General Motors.

Santa Marta has the advantage of a dry climate with low salinity, a key factor in preventing automobile corrosion. The port has dedicated equipment, including automated vehicle tracking, as well as a first-rate security system. 

The port has a 30,000 square meter yard for ro-ro units with another 300,000 square meters available in the Las Americas Free Zone. 

Santa Marta handled in excess of 60,000 ro-ro units last year and this figure is set to rise to more than 100,000 vehicles in 2015. 

Reefer cargo

Refrigerated cargo has become a specialty for Santa Marta. The lion’s share of fast food sales in Colombia are transacted on the Caribbean coast, so Santa Marta is well positioned to handle this traffic. About 60 per cent of the port’s containerized throughput is refrigerated, an amount that has remained stable in recent years. 

The container terminal in Santa Marta is operated by SMITCO, a joint venture between the Port of Santa Marta and the leading terminal operator SSA International. Currently, SMITCO has a discharge rate of 30 containers per hour and is focused on Columbia’s import and export traffic.

SMITCO aims to make Santa Marta a hub for imports and exports of refrigerated products, taking advantage of the port’s strategic location and its experience in handling this type of cargo.

Just over half of the nation’s reefer cargo is handled by SMITCO. The container terminal has 576 reefer plugs and 144 power pack connectors. SMITCO is looking to expand its capacity to 1,250 reefer plugs as and when required. 

Santa Marta has the potential to be a transshipment center for containerized fruit within a radius of 500 to 600 nautical miles. This would allow shipping companies to deploy larger vessels and reduce space-related costs.

The container terminal has a 320 meter wharf and there are plans this year to install a dolphin that would allow it to handle two vessels with a combined total length of 385 meters. The terminal has a yard capacity of 6,000 teu.

Cold storage

In response to customer demand, the port is to build a 10,000 square meter refrigerated warehouse for imported cargo. 

This new facility – the largest in the country – will strengthen the role of Santa Marta as a distribution hub for reefer cargo en route to consumer centers in Colombia. 

Initially, the warehouse will have 8,600 positions for temperature controlled and frozen cargo.

Free zones

Free zones have proved their worth in ports both in the Caribbean and around the world as an effective way to promote exports, boost domestic production, attract foreign investment and create local jobs.

Santa Marta has been taking advantage of the free zone concept for several years now. In particular, the logistics support services now available in its free zones are a good selling point in terms of attracting cargo owners in specialist areas such as vehicles and reefer products to use Santa Marta as their port of choice.

Tayrona Free Zone covers an area of 100 hectares, of which 50 per cent is already occupied. After only five years of operation, 14 companies have set up shop there, creating about 300 direct and 2,300 indirect jobs in specialized industrial and logistics sectors.

Residents of this free zone include manufacturers of pipes, steel cables and wire. Investment in the logistics and agro-industrial sectors has attracted food companies, inventory management companies and specialists in the preparation of vehicles and general cargo.

There is an alternative access corridor linking the Tayrona Free Zone with the port, while the Caribbean Highway connects the free zone with the rest of the country and Venezuela. Furthermore, this is the only free zone with direct rail access. So the Tayrona Free Zone has an excellent future as a provider of international logistics support. 

Santa Marta Industrial Free Zone, opened in 1978, is located beside the Caribbean Highway only 10 km from Simón Bolívar International Airport and 8 km from the seaport. It has a total area of 307,945 square meters, of which approximately half is available space.

Customers of this free zone include Almaservicio, Induservicios Zona Franca, Chemcarmp, Royal Petroleum Corporation, International Fuels Santa Marta, Litex, C.I. Liber del Sur and Smart Services Colombia.


Green Port status

The Port of Santa Marta claims to be the first and only port outside Europe to be certified by Lloyd’s Register as a Green Port that complies with international environmental standards. This reflects the port’s commitment to protecting the environment and assisting people in the local community through programs to improve their living conditions. In response to a serious shortage of fresh water in the city, the Port of Santa Marta has undertaken a project to install a seawater desalination plant. This will bring relief to the city as well as providing the port with water for industrial operations. The port is also involved in projects to protect the coral habitat of schools of young fish and to conserve the local population of iguanas.


Bulk cargo milestone

In December 2013 the Panama-registered ‘Santa Ursula’ became the largest carrier of clean dry bulk to be received by a public port in the history of Colombia when it called Santa Marta with 55,000 tons of maize from Brazil. With an access channel depth of 120 ft and a depth alongside of 60 ft, the port had no difficulty in accommodating the 200 meter long, 35 meter wide vessel.


Magnets for investment

Setting up business in Colombian free zone areas has key advantages for industrial users of goods and services. They include a unified income tax rate of 15 per cent compared with 33 per cent when operating outside the free zone system. Another advantage for companies in the free zones is that their imports are exempt from customs taxes and tariffs, while their exports from the free zones benefit from any trade agreements signed by Colombia. From any of the free zones, resident companies can sell their goods to both domestic and international markets, thus significantly expanding the field of action for investors.