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Santa Marta

Santa Marta, Colombia

About Santa Marta

Founded in 1525 by Spanish conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas, Santa Marta is the oldest surviving city in Colombia and the second oldest in South America. Scenically tucked at the foot of emerald-clad mountains, where the sea connects to the mouth of the Magdalena River via a series of lakes and channels, the city boasts a generous harbor and rich history. In nearby mangrove forests, relics of the indigenous Tairona culture have been uncovered, from pottery to stonework, providing hints of life before European settlement. Agriculture was the main economy early on; pineapple, corn and yucca were top crops. Later the focus turned to bananas, cocoa and coffee, which are still exports today. Venezuelan-born Simón Bolívar, who liberated several South American countries from Spain, drew his last breaths on the outskirts of Santa Marta on December 17, 1830, and is memorialized at the hacienda Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino.

Beyond Santa Marta’s historic significance, clear waters, white sand, coral reefs, cool breezes and dazzling sunsets attract vacationing Colombians and international visitors alike. Its marina was completed in 2011, welcoming yachts from all over the Caribbean.

Santa Marta Lifestyle and Culture

The heart of Santa Marta lies in its Old Town around Plaza Bolívar, also known as Parque Simón Bolívar, where impressive remnants of Spanish colonialism still exist; some of the architecture here dates back to the 1500s. Wander the charming streets to explore beautifully restored homes, churches, plazas, whitewashed cathedrals and government houses. The park itself provides a lovely resting place with shady benches, a statue dedicated to the freedom fighter and Juan Valdez Café, a popular coffee chain.

In contrast to Santa Marta’s historic area is the modern suburb of El Rodadero, a coastal strip where upscale resorts and posh restaurants line the sand, attracting Colombia’s elite. Spend an evening here to understand why the city is perhaps best known for its fantastic restaurant and bar scene.

Annual events include the Festival of the Sea, celebrated with an array of water sports, music, dancing and cultural activities during the summer. The International Theatre Festival, an important gathering of theater companies and folk groups from various countries, also takes place here.

Santa Marta Sights and Landmarks

The city’s main landmark and beacon is the harbor lighthouse, perched on a rock and beautifully illuminated by night. The impressive cathedral is a vision in white, and also holds a claim to Bolívar: he was buried here in 1830. Twelve years later his remains were moved to Caracas, his Venezuelan birthplace. The cathedral reflects several different architectural styles, and also holds the ashes of Rodrigo de Bastidas, the city’s founder. Another notable figure, novelist Gabriel García Márquez, was born in Santa Marta, and his reconstructed house is an excellent museum chronicling his life and work. The Tayrona Gold Museum sits inside the Casa de Aduana, a renovated colonial mansion with fine wooden balconies. Here you’ll find a collection of pre-Columbian gold and pottery, reflecting life in ancient times.

One of the most popular attractions just outside the city is Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the hacienda where Simón Bolívar died. Roam the grounds and lush gardens to see several memorial monuments, including the huge Altar de la Patria, the Altar of the Homeland, then explore some of the rooms inside the quinta. It’s also home to the Bolivarian Museum of Contemporary Art, featuring art from the countries liberated by Bolívar: Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

Santa Marta Entertainment and Activities

Just north of Santa Marta is the small fishing village of Tapanga. With its horseshoe-shaped bay, bobbing wooden boats and laid-back vibe, it’s a great place for relaxing and watching colorful sunsets. Fresh seafood restaurants and food stands along the water beckon hungry beachcombers. The main beach is small, but good for swimming. For a larger strip of sand, Playa Grande is worth the short walk.

Tayrona National Natural Park lies north of the city at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains, encompassing thousands of acres of land and sea. Rainforest, coastline and arid desert comprise the varied landscape, providing a home to a number of endangered species. Beaches in the park are among the country’s best with shady coconut trees set against a hilly backdrop. Their strong currents make swimming a risky endeavor, so many come here just to take in the magnificent beauty. Vehicles aren’t permitted, so visitors either hike to the beaches (Cabo San Juan is the most popular) or hire a mule.

Santa Marta Restaurants and Shopping

Santa Marta is a food-loving town with an emphasis on locally caught seafood and a plethora of good restaurants. At Donde Chucho, located on Parque Santander, dine outside amid colonial buildings as you feast on fresh shrimp, calamari and lobster, all prepared in myriad ways.

It’s not exactly Colombian, but the Mediterranean menu at Ouzo makes great use of the area’s seafood and includes some other meat dishes as well. Roast octopus, Greek paella, baked chicken, wood-fired pizzas and an impressive wine list add up to a tasty and rewarding experience.

The spectacular Burukuka in El Rodadero is nestled into a cliff overlooking the sea. Come for a sunset cocktail or a romantic steak dinner; either way, find a table on their expansive outdoor terrace. Another beachfront spot in the same neighborhood is Isola Sarda. While more humble than Burukuka, the classic Italian food and unpretentious setting make you feel like you’re dining with family.

El Rodadero is the place for souvenir shops, but Colombian crafts can be found at Almacenes Típicos el Tiburón, which has two outposts: one near the Hotel Panamerican and the other in El Rodadero.