The Magic of Santa Marta: This Colombian Maritime Port on the Caribbean Is Renowned for Its Tourism, Culture and History

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Santa Marta's crescent beaches sparkle against the dramatic backdrop of the world's tallest coastal range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Just up the coast, beyond the low-key charms of the P fishing village Taganga, Tayrona National Park promises an endless succession of secluded coves framed by verdant rainforest. It is not surprising that this pleasant city on the Caribbean coast has long basked in the approval of Colombians seeking sun and sand.

But Santa Marta offers more than a pretty face. The mountains whose snowy peaks soar above bathers and beachgoers conceal traces of millennium-old cities built by the Tayrona, the advanced civilization that rivaled the Inca in its creativity and intellectual development.

In contrast to the modern high-rises that line Rodadero Beach and Bello Horizonte, somnolent colonial buildings like the Customs House (Casa de la Aduana) bear witness to pivotal events that played out here, from the founding of the country to the death of the Liberator Simon Bolivar. Besieged first by pirate attacks and later by civil wars, the history of Santa Marta reads like a compendium of natural disasters and other calamities interspersed with improbable tales worthy of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.

As he researched The General in His Labyrinth, much of which takes place in Santa Marta, Garcia Marquez himself recounts " ... sinking into the quicksands of voluminous, contradictory, and often uncertain documentation." For instance, by some accounts, the deed authorizing the founding of the city disappeared during a 1543 attack by the pirate Robert Waal. Others say that the document was lost during the fire that burned the main altar of the Cathedral in 1860. The Cathedral, described in the local newspaper as "full of mementos and legends," was completed after 30 years of construction starting in 1766. The massive white structure, the Mother Church of Colombia, replaces earlier churches that had succumbed to pirate raids, floods, and earthquakes.

A statue of Rodrigo de Bastidas, the city's founder, just inside the main entrance, shows a heroic figure genuflecting as he plants a banner that marks the beginning of Spanish rule here on July 29, 1525. The founding date of 1525 makes Santa Marta the oldest surviving city in Colombia and one of the oldest colonial cities anywhere on the continent.

Rodrigo de Bastidas was no newcomer to the Caribbean. He had explored the coast of Panama with Vasco Nunez de Balboa and navigated the mouth of the Magdalena River, giving it the name Rio Magdalena in 1501. He traded for gold and pearls with the natives along the coast. After malting a life as a prosperous rancher in Santo Domingo, he received a charter to found a settlement on the Caribbean coast between Cabo de la Vela and the Magdalena River. The following year, accompanied by 450 settlers plus livestock, slaves, and building materials, the aging conquistador sailed into Santa Marta Bay.

The new community was named for the patron saint of July 29, Saint Martha. Since the biblical Martha, along with siblings Mary and Lazarus, were residents of Samaria, people born in Santa Marta acquired the nickname "Samarios."

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Bastidas, who is said to have treated the natives more fairly than most, had obtained six hundred pesos in gold from a native. His plans to use the bounty for the collective good of the colony rather than parcel it out to his men led to a brutal attack one night during his sleep. Seriously injured, Bastidas set sail for Santo Domingo in search of medical help, but the winds and tides forced his ship to Cuba, where he died of his wounds.

Santa Marta became the gateway through which Spanish adventurers set out to subdue the indigenous people and search for the source of their gold. In 1536 the chief magistrate of Santa Marta, Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, led 800 men inland along the Magdalena River. …