Santa Marta, Colombia:
The Port of Santa Marta, Colombia, is shown from the balcony of a Silversea vessel. For cruisers, a visit to Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, Simon Bolivar’s last home, is a highlight; the courtyard of that hacienda is shown above.*
By Susan J. Young
If Cartagena is the crown jewel among Colombian port calls, Santa Marta is the backbone.
This working class city rises from the sea in the lumbering shadow of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range (see photo at right of the port and landscape.*).
No, these majestic mountain peaks aren't part of the Andres. The Sierra Nevada is an isolated range. But some peaks soar to more than 17,000 feet in height.
SouthernCruising.com breezed into this city -- Colombia's oldest -- on a Panama Canal cruise operated by Silversea Cruises’ (www.silversea.com).
Here are our personal gleanings for readers whose upcoming cruise may feature a Santa Marta port call. But first, let's set the stage with a bit of history...
Indian Roots, Spanish Influence
Prior to the arrival of Spanish explorers, native Indian tribes including the Karib and the Arawak inhabited the area around Santa Marta.
But the Tairona boasted the most complex social and political structure. These Indians were also superb goldsmiths.
That did not go unnoticed by Spanish explorers seeking plunder for "Mother Spain." The conquistadors coveted the area's easy access to the mountainous Indian communities and its superb natural harbor.
Thus, on July 29, 1525, a settlement at Santa Marta was founded by Spanish conqueror Rodrigo de Bastidas (depicted in military garb in the painting at left*).
Today, Santa Marta is the oldest city in Colombia. It's either the first or second oldest city in South America (some say Cumana, Venezuela, is older), depending on your source.
Dramatically sandwiched between the sea and the mountains (see photo at right*), Santa Marta prospered as a vibrant Spanish port, although it lost some favor to Cartagena in later years.
Several fortifications around the port area were constructed to keep the fierce pirates of the Caribbean at bay.
How did the city get its name? Some believe it was named in honor of Santa Marta de Astorgas, a city in Spain that Bastidas had previously visited.
Others say Bastidas named the South American city after the Catholic festival day of Saint Martha.
Historically speaking, Santa Marta’s greatest "claim to fame" is that Simon Bolivar, "The Liberator," lived his last years on a peaceful hacienda just outside Santa Marta.
Bolivar, who had traveled extensively throughout South America once remarked that Santa Marta had the most beautiful bay he'd ever seen.
This champion of independence for several South American countries died at his hacienda on Dec. 17, 1830. One of the many paintings of Boliva is shown at left.*
Bananas, Coal and Tourism
During the 20th century, the Port of Santa Marta and the surrounding areas gained favor with multinational corporations that exported bananas and coal.
Today, the busy port bustles (see photo at right*), but the city is now feeding a new economic engine -- tourism!
That said, Santa Marta is off the radar of many southern Caribbean cruise itineraries. Cruise lines tend to call here only on Panama Canal voyages.
Go to the beaches or cafes of Santa Marta and you'll see that the city is primarily a tourist destination for Colombians and travelers from other South American nations.
Interestingly, few western hotel chains operate in the city. Most travelers overnighting in Santa Marta book condominium or local beachside resort stays.
What’s to see? Santa Marta has a historic core that’s a mish-mash of older structures and modern buildings.
After seeing Cartagena, some tourists on our cruise were disappointed. We weren’t.
It’s a lesson in “not comparing” destinations and in looking at a city on its own merit.
Yes, Santa Marta wasn’t as vibrant as Cartagena. Just keep in mind, Cartagena has a population of more than 900,000 while Santa Marta's is half that.
While Cartegena has a big city feel, Santa Marta exudes a small-town aura.
As shown above, bikes are a popular way for many local residents to get around.*
Santa Marta is also a blue-collar town. The tour guide didn’t learn his English at a university but rather at a local trade school.
People are down-to-earth. Old men sit on street corners shooting the breeze.
Vendors push fruit carts -- competing with modern cabs and cars for the right-of-way on local roadways (see photo at right*).
This cityscape delivers a kalaideoscope of layers -- vibrant on one level, laid back on another.
Santa Marta for Cruisers
Some cruisers who have visited Cartagena or other major tourism ports in the region may find Santa Marta a bit rough around the edges.
For example, we overheard a few luxury cruisers on Silver Shadow telling the crew that they found the port a bit "scuzzy" and not up to their standards.
That said, we believe Santa Marta delivers a true Colombian destination experience – not just one concocted for tourists as happens so many places in the world.
If you go, look beyond the obvious. Amid modern buildings and commercial venues, you'll discover cobblestoned streets, lovely squares (as depicted at left*) and historic homes with overhanging balconies.
From soft sand beaches to historical fortress ruins, the city entices with many tourism draws. And the seaside setting in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada range is stunning.
On our recent visit, we took the only shore trip offered by the luxury line – an affordable half-day “Santa Marta Highlights” tour priced at $47 per person.
Similar tours are offered by other lines including Holland America Line (www.hollandamerica.com) on some Panama Canal sailings.
1. Keep in mind, shore trips vary between departures and lines, but this story gives a good overview of some of the key tourism sites around Santa Marta.
2. Don’t expect the same quality motorcoaches as you might find at other ports of call, although ours was comfortable with air conditioning. But the bathroom location at the front of the coach seriously limited front visibility for passengers in the first few forward seats .
Cathedral and Agustin
Our first motorcoach stop after departing the port was at a historic downtown square dominated by the Cathedral. (see photo at right*)
Designed by architect Diego Rueda, the cathedral is built of stone masonry in the Roman Renaissance style.
While construction began in 1766, the structure was not completed until the latter part of the 18th century.
Inside, visitors will admire intricately carved Carrara marble sculptures (see photo at left*).
The cathedral also houses the ashes of de Bastidas, the city’s Spanish founder.
Until 1842, this holy building was also the final resting place for Simon Bolivar (before his remains were moved to Caracas, Venezuela).
The cathedral's exterior is simplistic in design, with an attractive, soaring belfry (see photo at right*).
Inside, the nave is grand but not ostentacious (see below*).-- a bit unusual for Catholic cathedrals in Latin America, which often drip with gold and elaborate decor.
With just a jaunt across the square, cruisers will discover the historic Madame Agustine House, a jewel of Colonial architecture. (The building is at center in the photo below right, while its balcony is shown below left.*).
Our tour stopped here for just a quick look-see. Still, it was sufficient for a sense of the interior courtyard, the beautifully tiled staircase, and the wooden exterior and interior balconies. See photos below.*
The highlight of a Santa Marta tour for many cruisers is a visit to Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, Simon Bolivar’s last home.
Located just three miles outside the city, this pristine, peaceful hacienda is now a national memorial to The Liberator, who is revered in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America. The gate to the hacienda is at right.*
Bolivar spent his last days at the ranch’s country house (shown at left*).
The property contains Bolivar's original house, plus sugar mills, distilleries and stables.
Visitors will enjoy strolling through the home's rooms and its large interior patio.
The home is now a museum with art and Bolivar artifacts.
Editor's Note: Our photologue of the hacienda is displayed here; the story continues further down so keep scrolling.
Throughout the property -- now a protected reserve -- you'll find breathtaking flora and fauna.
Check out the massive Banyan tree (at left*), a peaceful pond with a mini-waterfall (below right*)and, separately, a large iguana on a limb (far below right*).
In addition, a poignant white memorial was built here by the Colombian government in tribute to Bolivar. See a selection of photos below.*
This peaceful place of honor (shown below*) to one of South America's greatest patriots is reminiscent of other memorials to great leaders in capital cities around the world.
Beach and Mountains
Then our motorcoach continued on to El Rodadero, the area’s beach resort area. It’s nine miles south of Santa Marta.
Bathed by soft sands and warm waters, El Rodadero fields a plethora of condos and local hotels as well as relaxing cafes.
Here we stopped at a local resort for a walk to a beachside site for a rum punch and a folkloric show by local dancers. (See photos above, below and at left.*)
Be advised that vendors on the beach are very aggressive in selling trinkets and handicrafts. So, if you venture there, you will be approached.
The resort employed security personnel to keep the entrepreneurs on the beach – not bothering resort guests or cruisers attending the beachside show.
Our final touring highlight was a loop around Santa Marta for stunning views from atop a mountain locale.
Below are photos that showcase the vistas. We visited in December, when the landscape was somewhat arid; cacti are shown at right.*
Beyond Our Tour
Other Santa Marta area highlights not on our tour include La Casa de la Aduana, the city’s Customs House. It’s reportedly the oldest house in South America, built in 1530.
Today it is home to the Tayrona Museum, housing a fine exhibition of local gold artistry and artifacts.
To be frank, we may have motored by this. I just don't recall seeing it. Some cruise line tours may visit here. We had just completed touring a gold museum in Cartagena the day before, so our tour did not include a visit.
Two eco-areas also attract visitors to Santa Marta. Just 28 miles from the city lies Tairona National Park. This 15,000-acre natural preserve is considered by many as the most important ecological reserve in Colombia.
The Mamancana Natural Reserve is also a great spot for viewing flora and fauna. The locals and some tourists go here for extreme sports including rock climbing, canopy flying, and para-gliding.
Another impressive tourist draw are the ruins of a pre-Colombian-era Indian city called Ciudad Pueblito. Called “Lost City,” it's larger than Machu Picchu in Peru.
Ciudad Pueblito was built high in the mountains between the 11th and 14th centuries. It was only re-discovered in the 1970s.
Finally, Taganga, a fishing town near Santa Marta, is a popular place for scuba diving.
Santa Marta as a port destination doesn't overwhelm. Just keep that in mind when you visit.
Rather, it slowly simmers on your mind. But the longer you're away, the flavor of your time ashore intensifies -- leaving you to savor your "real" Colombia experience for many years to come.
For More Information
Colombian Tourist Board:
Silversea Cruises: www.silversea.com
*All photos used on this page are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Susan J. Young. All rights reserved. Do not copy nor link to these photos. Thank you.