Although Colombia’s oldest city, founded in 1525, SANTA MARTA’s colonial heritage was all but swept away at the hands of English and Dutch pirates. The result is a busy beach city geared to middle-class Colombians on holiday, and international backpackers in search of jungle adventure. Though its narrow streets are clogged with traffic, restoration in the city centre over the past few years has manifested itself in attractive public spaces, such as the Parque de los Novios, the pedestrian area around it bustling with restaurants, and an international marina full of yachts.
Not far away are some of the country’s best beaches, particularly in and near Parque Nacional Tayrona, Colombia’s most popular national park. Also close by is the fishing/party village of Taganga, ultra-popular with backpackers, hippies and holidaying Colombians. Santa Marta also acts as the hub for organizing hikes to the Ciudad Perdida.
The large whitewashed catedral is the oldest church in Colombia, but the current structure, with its bulky bell tower and stone portico, dates mostly from the seventeenth century. Just to the left of the entrance are the ashes of Rodrigo de Bastidas, the town’s founder. Simón Bolívar’s remains were kept here until 1842, when they were repatriated to his native Caracas.
Whether or not you have a particular interest in Colombia’s liberation hero, the hacienda and sugar plantation 5km south of town where Simón Bolívar spent his last agonizing days makes for a great visit. The lush grounds, complete with an enchanted forest of twisted trees and creeping vines, are a pleasure to wander and you are very likely to spot numerous giant iguanas perched on the trees. Peek into the various mustard-coloured buildings for a glimpse of the Libertadór’s personal effects – an Italian marble bathtub, miniature portraits of the Bolívar family and military badges. Just to the right of the imposing Altar de la Patria memorial, the Museo Bolívariano features contemporary works by artists from countries liberated by Bolívar – Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela.
A striking building with wooden garrets underneath a pitched tile roof, the well-maintained Casa de la Aduana (Customs House) is the city’s oldest building, dating from 1531. Simón Bolívar stayed here briefly, and his body lay in state in an upstairs gallery after his death. On its ground floor, the Museo del Oro has extensive displays on ancient Tayrona culture and its modern-day descendants – the Kogis, Arhuacos and Arsarios. A large-scale model of the Ciudad Perdida provides a valuable introduction for anyone planning to visit the ruins.