Things to Do in Santa Marta
Simón Bolivar is viewed as the Liberator of much of northern South America and is considered one of the most important Latin American political figures who ever lived. He was born in Caracas, the son of wealthy landowners, and led the independence movement, eventually achieving independence from Spain for what was then called Gran Colombia, covering most of northern South America.
Simón Bolivar spent his last days at La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino near Santa Marta, a quinta (large house) and hacienda (farm) built in the 17th century. At that time the estate produced rum, honey and panela, a sugar cane product. Bolivar died of tuberculosis in one of the rooms there on December 17, 1830. Now the Quinta is a tourist site, museum and historical landmark. The main house, painted a deep yellow color, is where Simon Bolivar breathed his last breath.
Former Colombian football player Carlos Valderrama is known for his athletic ability and his outgoing personality, and this 22-foot-tall bronze statue of him in his hometown conveys both qualities. He is known as “El Pibe” or “the kid” and for his blond curly head of hair. His distinct personality has made him one of the most recognizable figures in football worldwide. Part of the Colombian national team in the 1990s, he represented Colombia in several international tournaments and became known for his skills in passing and accuracy in assisting. He is one of few foreign players who joined Major League Soccer in the United States.
His statue is the work of Colombian artist Amilkar Ariza, standing tall outside the Estadio Eduardo Santos in Santa Marta. It was erected in 2006 in honor of his contributions to Colombian national sports.
The Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida, is the archaeological site of an ancient indigenous city in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Thought to have been a commercial center for trade around 700 A.D., its population probably ranged between 1,400 and 3,000 inhabitants. Hidden in the jungle for over a thousand years, the Lost City was found in 1972 when treasure hunters followed a series of stone steps leading up to an abandoned city.
The Lost City is open to visitors, but the trip is not for the faint of heart. The nearly 30 mile trek takes visitors through farmland and jungle on an unforgettable six-day journey. Part of the adventure includes trekking over mountains filled with exotic plants and animals, climbing stone paths through dense jungle, bathing in waterfalls and sleeping in indigenous villages.
Upon arriving at Lost City, climb more than 1,000 stone steps to the top of the site for incredible views of the surrounding mountains and jungle.
On the edge of Tayrona National Natural Park and the northern coast of Colombia, Crystal Beach is one of the most picturesque white sand beaches in South America. Its clear turquoise waters provide ideal conditions for swimming and snorkeling. Many come to relax on the soft sand shaded by coconut palms or to eat fresh seafood caught right off the shore. It is also a great base for exploring the Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most important protected ecological areas, for the day.
Marine life in the waters off Crystal Beach includes sea turtles, dolphins, and several species of fish. Even without spotting one these creatures, the coral and sponges of the reef provide colorful underwater scenes. The Caribbean reefs offshore also attract those seeking scuba diving and other water sports.
Santa Marta, surrounded by beaches and mountains, was the first city founded by the Spaniards in Colombia. Due to its cultural and historic importance, the historic center of Santa Marta was declared a national monument in the 1960’s. Five years ago it underwent a costly renovation and is proud to show off its new face and is best explored on foot.
The best place to start is from the center point of all towns in Colombia, the Simon Bolivar Plaza. The nearby Bank of Republic Library presently houses the Tayrona Gold Museum. Take time to see the displays of the fascinating gold pieces made centuries ago by the Tayrona indigenous group. Construction of the white-washed Santa Marta Cathedral was completed towards the end of the 18th century. Some of the features of the cathedral are its dome-shaped bell tower, the floor plan in the shape of a cross, the main area’s vaulted ceiling and the side chapel marble screens.
For a tropical paradise experience, Playa Blanca is about as good as it gets. A short boat ride from El Rodadero beach on Santa Marta, this calm beach away from the larger concentrations of tourists is ideal for leisurely swimming as well as snorkeling and water sports like banana boats or mini diving classes.
Every day boats head out in the morning from the El Rodadero beach. The boat ride is a bit rough and fast but is an adventure to remember. There are no docks when you arrive at Playa Blanca, so be ready to jump from the boat.
Playa Blanca is set in a protected bay with mountains rising in the background. As its name suggests, the sandy beaches are white and are lined with palm trees. Thatched roof huts, ranging in size from individual to large buildings, line the beach. The smaller ones near the water are available to rent for the day, and don’t be afraid to haggle to get a good price.
The Rodadero Sea Aquarium and Museum (Acuario y Museo del Mar del Rodadero) is a public aquarium and marine museum located in the Inca Inca Cove off the El Rodadero beach in Santa Marta that has been operating for almost 50 years. The aquarium is a quick 10 minute boat ride from the El Rodadero beach.
The aquarium’s 13 pools have a direct connection to the Caribbean Sea and the 15 glass aquariums house over 800 sea animals, the majority native to the area. Visitors can see sharks, sea turtles, shrimp, sea horses, triggerfish, snappers, cojinoas, groupers, tarpon, turtles, lobsters, manta rays, anemones and more. There are three dolphin and sea lions shows a day. Visitors can also swim with or get their photo taken with dolphins. The Aquarium also has a museum with a permanent collection that exhibits shark jaws, shell collections and nautical equipment, as well as an exhibition that focuses on the pre-Columbian culture of the indigenous Tayrona.
More Things to Do in Santa Marta
Deep in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Park in northern Colombia, there is a green valley surrounded by mountains that is home to descendants of the Tayrona people, the Arhuac. Nabusimake is the spiritual center for the Arhuac people, the place where they say the sun was born.
Visiting this indigenous tribe in their own village is an adventure. The only road to get there is from Pueblo Bello, and is a rough trip even in the toughest off-road vehicle. The roads to get there are in bad shape, there are no signs indicating the way to the town, and there are no hotels for visitors. Strange as that may seem, it is no doubt partly due to the Arhuac’s lack of interested in having outside visitors in order to protect their culture and way of life.
But entering Nabusimake is stepping back in time to a different world. Walk around the peaceful village and see the variety of plants, flowers and birds.
Tayrona National Park, just 34 km from Santa Marta in northern Colombia, has abundant natural and archaeological attractions. Named after one of the most important indigenous tribes in Colombia’s history, the Tayrona National Park was established in 1969 with an area of 19,000 hectares. Eco-tourism is popular in this complex biological ecosystem. There are over 300 bird species, including the endangered Andean condor and woodpeckers. Puma, deer, bats, howling monkeys, iguanas, jaguars and marine turtles also call this forest home. Hikers can spot multicolored land crabs, reptiles and butterflies on the trails. To get to the beaches, visitors walk along marked trails or hire a guide with horses. Explore the many golden sand beaches and snorkel near coral reefs and underwater treasures hidden around the huge rock formations. The largest archeological remains in the park are found in Pueblito, an ancient commercial center used by the Tayrona Indians of the Sierra Nevada.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a unique natural ecosystem along the of the northern coast of Colombia. This majestic mountain range is the tallest coastal mountain range in the world, with the snow covered Simón Bolívar and Cristóbal Colón peaks rising 18,700 feet above sea level.
Amazingly, all the climatic zones and biomes present in Colombia can be found within the 6,600 square miles of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. That makes it an excellent place to come into contact with animals and plants from around the country in just one park. Jaguars, tapirs, páramo deer, condors, endemic parrots and important groups of endangered wildlife call the Sierra Nevada home. The Sierra Nevada and Tayrona parks have a combined 300 recorded archaeological settlements along the coast and in the highlands. The largest is the Teyuna Archaeological Park, known as The Lost City (Ciudad Perdida), testimony of the country’s most important ancient Indian civilization.
Taganga is a sleepy fishing village and beach town near the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Tayrona National Parks. The view from Taganga’s coast is spectacular, as are the sunsets. The small town has just a few paved roads and the rest are dusty - or muddy – depending on the season.
Taganga is next to the stunning Tayrona National Park, though it’s a bit of a trek getting there. If you’re interested in visiting the beaches at Tayrona, it takes an hour by bus to get to the park, followed by a couple of hours of hiking through the national park to get to a beach. Another option is to get a boat directly from Taganga to the beaches of Tayrona. Both diving and getting a diving certification are inexpensive, which draws diving enthusiasts to Taganga. Many of the activities that can be booked in Santa Marta can also be booked from Tayrona. This is the place to head out not only to The Lost City and Tayrona National Park, but also farther east to La Guajira.
Barranquilla is one of Colombia’s most vibrant cities. The fourth largest city in the country, it is best known for its annual Carnival, second in size only to Rio de Janeiro’s. The event takes place four days prior to Ash Wednesday and has been recognized by UNESCO for its cultural significance.
The city is highly industrialized and is home to Colombia’s largest port due to its location on the delta of the Magdalena River. Barranquilla is also known for its active nightlife, from dancing and high-end clubs to smaller neighborhood bars. Other notable sights include the Teatro Amira de la Rosa, a beautiful building that is both a library and a museum, the Museum of Gold, and many Art Deco buildings scattered throughout the city. Many also visit the Bocas de Ceniza, the site where the Magdalena River and the Caribbean Sea meet.
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