While Cartagena may receive all the attention as the most cosmopolitan and best preserved of Colombia’s colonial Caribbean cities, it is Santa Marta that can lay claim to being the oldest. Founded in 1525, a whole eight years before Cartagena, it soon found its importance slipping as Cartagena became the main Spanish centre in the region.
Today, Santa Marta still plays second fiddle to Cartagena. While it can’t match the sheer colonial majesty of Cartagena, and it receives only a fraction of the international visitors, Santa Marta is a nice place to break the journey between the beaches to the east and Cartagena to the west. It has a scenic waterfront with bars and restaurants, some pleasant plazas, great food and it even has a smaller version of Cartagena’s gold museum (also free and air conditioned).
Today, Santa Marta makes much of the fact that it was home to Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar during his final years. Bolivar died at a hacienda on the outskirts of the city and was buried in the city’s cathedral for eight years – or to be precise, eight years, seven months and nine days – before his remains were transferred to his home town of Caracas in modern-day Venezuela.
Santa Marta is also a convenient start point for the four or five day trek to the ‘lost’ city of Ciudad Perdida, an ancient city of the Tayrona civilisation which inhabited the mountains that lay behind the coast. We didn’t have time to do the trek – although it is on my ever growing list – but a visit to the Museo de Oro in Santa Marta sheds a lot of light on the Tayrona culture and has numerous original artefacts on display. It also has an excellent scale model of Ciudad Perdida.