Santa Marta, Colombia
Like many South American cities, the appetite for gold brought the Spanish to the site which became the town of Santa Marta. In this case, however, it wasn’t as much the town’s own gold resources as the goldsmithing skills of the region’s Tayrona Indians that drew the explorers to this coastal region.
Santa Marta was founded in 1525 by Rodrigo de Bastidas, a conquistador who had sailed with Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. The day of the town’s founding was the feast day of Saint Martha, which many believe gave the community its name; others are convinced de Bastidas named it for the Spanish town of Santa Marta de Astorgas.
From its earliest days, Santa Marta played an important role in maritime operations, serving as a commercial port and also a defensive position from which to protect the area from pirates. Eventually it became the capital of the province of Magdalena and a gateway to the region’s many attractions.
The Caribbean beaches of Santa Marta have transformed the port into a resort center; sites such as El Rodadero Beach now draw many visitors as well as Colombians who come to live in the high-rise modern apartments that overlook the seaside. El Rodadero, considered by many to be Colombia’s top beach, is lined with beach bars that hop to the sounds of salsa—as well as top shops that specialize in everything from jewelry to leather goods.
The modern skyscrapers are in sharp contrast to the Spanish Colonial buildings of the old city. The 1530 La Casa de la Aduana (Customs House) today serves as the Tayrona Museum, remembering the region’s native inhabitants. Another museum of interest to many travelers is the El Museo del Oro, which traces the history of gold in the area. History buffs also enjoy the San Fernando Fort, the structure built by the Spanish conquistador; constructed to protect the city from pirates. Today the fort is an important example of colonial military architecture. The Santa Marta Cathedral, a national monument built in 1766, is a popular stop for many visitors; here the remains of South American independence leader Simón Bolívar were interred until 1842 when they were moved to a monument in Caracas.
The memory of Simón Bolívar is also the focal point of the 17th century Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, located outside the city. This was the last home of Bolívar and today serves as a museum recalling his life.
For all its historic attractions, the easiest assets of Santa Marta to spot are its mountainous ones. The community is tucked at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a pyramid-shaped mountain that almost seems to rise from the sea. In spite of all the development within Santa Marta, this area remains remote and tropical, a lush getaway that’s a favorite with hikers and campers. The mountain is also the location of the Tairona National Park, a rugged jungle that’s home to monkeys, over 50 types of reptiles, and over 200 bird species including the paujil, a hen that centuries ago was often depicted the gold work of the Tayrona people.
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