Santa Marta History

Santa Marta is positioned in a small bay on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, to the east-northeast of the mouth of the Magdalena River, to which it is connected by swampy channels and lakes.
Santa Marta on a historical level is very important, as it is a place full of history being the oldest city in Colombia and the second oldest in South America.
It provides visitors with a mix of history, indigenous cultural heritage, charming people, and an extraordinary diversity of landscapes and beaches.

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Historic Santa Marta
Historic Santa Marta

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Founded in 1525 by Spanish Conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas who named the city after the Catholic Saint Martha, which in Spain is celebrated with inordinate festivities and was Spain’s first settlement in Colombia. Up to this day Santa Marta has been serving as a major trading port of Colombia. Initially, it became a gateway for colonial New Granada, though it was of lesser importance than neighboring Cartagena.

At the base of the Sierra Nevada, the establishment of Santa Marta was no mistake. Folklore had it that there were large amounts of Tayrona Indian gold to be had and Rodrigo de Bastidas wanted to secure these riches for Spain. The Tayrona people fought the Spanish off as much as they could, but by the end of the 16th century the Spanish had decimated the Tayrona people, and much of their gold had been melted and shipped back to Spain.

Santa Marta has always played a gateway role, today being a halting place for visitors to Tayrona, Taganga and many other gems. In the past, it was the access point to the interior of Colombia, along the Magdalena River.  Jimenez de Quesada left Santa Marta in 1536 to explore the interior, two years later founding Bogotá.
Santa Marta was one of Spain’s principal ports, and as a result, was open to constant attack and pillaging by pirates and would-be buccaneers. As Cartagena gradually took its place as Spain’s most important port, Santa Marta was left in relative peace. Early in the 20th century, it regained its position as a major port exporting bananas from the Urabá region and also coal.

Taganga bay, Santa Marta
Taganga Bay, Santa Marta

Also known as the death place of Simón Bolívar, the liberator responsible for freeing several countries including Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru from Spain. Prior to leaving for Europe, Bolívar died at an estate on the edge of the city in 1830. Santa Marta charms with a sense of history and colonial architecture. As Colombia’s premier beach destination, there are plenty of beautiful beaches, markets, traditions, and folk yore.

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For the indigenous peoples living on the steep slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, sustaining the balance of the spiritual and ecological world is their sacred task. They consider themselves the guardians of the earth, while the rest of modern civilization´s abusive practices are destroying the ecosystem and by extension, the remainder of the planet.

The four indigenous groups of this region – the Kogi, Wiwa, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo – deem the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to be the beating heart of the world. What happens here happens universally and when its rivers run dry, its ice caps melt and its endemic species disappear, and so do all the others in the world.
Though the tribes speak different languages, they have nevertheless retained a common spiritual tradition.

Prior to colonialism, the Sierra Nevada was inhabited by many indigenous communities. Thanks to Colonial plundering, little is known about the original inhabitants of the area. Archaeologists have unearthed pottery, gold, and stonework that reveal the Tayrona’s high level of craftsmanship and maturity.

The four surviving indigenous tribes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are the remnants of a sophisticated pre-Columbian civilization known as the Tayrona. When the first Spaniards set foot in Colombia in the 16th century, they found a civilization that practiced sustainable farming through crop rotation and vertical ecology. They built terraced drainage systems that minimized erosion and produced astonishing gold and pottery work. But the conquistadors drove the tribes high up into the mountain, where they tried to protect their culture through isolation. The Kogi were able to maintain the most traditional culture while the Wiwa and Arhuaco experienced different levels of assimilation. The Kankuamo, who had all but disappeared, is now working to recover their language and culture. Estimates for the total number of native people living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range between 35,000 and 50,000.

Indigenous Wiwa Santa Marta

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Temperatures in the city of Santa Marta range from 18c/64f to 31c/ 88f at sea level, but the metropolis of Santa Marta stretches all the way to the highest snowy peaks of the aforementioned Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This includes a vast range of climatic zones across seventeen miles, from the Caribbean Sea to the perpetual snow and glaciers of the mountain tops. Santa Marta itself has a tropical semi-arid climate.
With a rainy period from May to November and a dry period from December to April, the rains are most frequent from August to October. Precipitation amounts to 545ml/21¨ per year

Southeast of the city lies the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The nearest mountain is Cuchilla San Lorenzo, 2,866 meters/9,402 feet high, but the highest is Pico Cristóbal Colón, the highest peak in Colombia, at 5,700 meters/18,700 feet. Perennial snows, which are now threatened by global warming are found above 5,000 meters/16,400 feet. To the north of the city is the Tayrona National Natural Park, dotted with green hills that receive the moisture of the northeast trade winds. To the southwest, near the city of Ciénaga, a marshy area exists, the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta. Santa Marta lies on the edge of the hurricane zone over which the tropical cyclones of the Atlantic Ocean can pass.

Get all the information you need to start planning your trip to this magnificent destination, check the weather and climate facts of Santa Marta here!


Santa Marta is a beautiful city, full of visitor attractions that are worth experiencing. Most imagine that the principal places to visit are the beaches, but in fact, this city is full of history and culture. A good starting point is the museums.

  • The Tayrona Gold Museum: Contains a collection of ceramics, gold, and other ethnographic objects that throw light on the culture and history of Santa Marta.
  • The Bolivarian Museum of Contemporary Art in the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino has an exhibition of permanent works and other visiting exhibitions This museum was created to create reality through art with the intention of integrating the Bolivarian countries –  Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, and Venezuela – as a tribute to the Liberator of Nations, Simón Bolívar.
Museo Bolivariano Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino
Source: Fundation of Museum
  • Tayrona National Natural Park a Park far removed from modern life, this coastal stretch is a wide-ranging paradise. It has the classic images of an idyllic castaway island with dense jungle, palm trees, and pristine sand beaches that sweep down to the Caribbean.
Beach, Cabo San Juan, Tayrona Park
Beach, Cabo San Juan, Tayrona Park
  • The Lost City: Disregard Machu Picchu in Peru, the Lost City, or La Cuidad Perdida, predates the Inca by some 650 years, but this indigenous citadel is far lesser known. To arrive at the Lost City necessitates a four to five-day trek through a mosquito-infested, humid, deep jungle. It becomes a physical and mental challenge with a rewarding prize.
Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), Sierra Nevada
  • Playa Blanca: For a change of pace from hiking and other energetic activities, Playa Blanca is the answer. Somewhere off the beaten track, accessible by a short boat ride from Playa El Rodadero, a glorious beach awaits. A few rudimentary restaurants provide local fare along a well-maintained expanse of sand.
  • Taganga: The petite fishing pueblo of Taganga is only a short distance to the north of Santa Marta. A popular day trip up the coast, it is a very laid-back and relaxing environment. Scuba diving is immensely fashionable and exhilarating.
  • El Rodadero: Who doesn’t love a beach party?! El Rodadero, a 15-minute drive south of the center of Santa Marta, is the place to go. It really comes alive during the summer months, as Colombians come to relax on the beach during the day and once the sun has set, the music and dancing commence.
  • Coffee and cacao in Minca: A small village in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, is only half an hour from Santa Marta. Coffee and cacao farms, including one of Colombia’s oldest coffee farms, La Victoria, make for a most enjoyable tour. The Marinka Waterfalls are wonderful for a refreshing swim.
Cocoa in Minca
  • Santa Marta Market: Amazing hustle and bustle with ceviche, fresh fruit, lobster, and other delicacies all widely available from the ubiquitous street food stalls in Santa Marta Market. Hundreds of vendors sell food and other merchandise, including gifts and clothing. Around the corner on the ocean promenade Avenida Bastidas, delight in an outdoor dining experience with ocean views.
  • Parque San Miguel: Become a local at Parque San Miguel on the outskirts of the city. Here the residents come to spend time in the evenings with chess tournaments, basketball games, or even an energetic Zumba (fitness) class in this tree-shaded park.

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Regardless of where you decide to stay in the historical center of Santa Marta, you will never be more than a short walk from the beach. The old town offers innumerable lodgings, ranging from energetic youth hostels to family-run guesthouses to upper-end establishments. Look to the seafront just outside of the historical center for the most luxurious hotels and beach resorts. For a quieter experience, go to the nearby beach town of Taganga, just north of Santa Marta.

Old Town: The center of the city is really the best place to stay. Here, you will be among the bustling colorful colonial streets in a secure area. The Old Town is one of the safer areas in Santa Marta as it is busy and where most tourists tend to lodge.
The finest restaurants, cafes, and bars are to be found here. Only a short walk to get home after a delightful and satisfying meal, yet still super close to the beach!
There are plenty of accommodation options to choose from to suit all budgets.

Source: Hotel Boutique Don Pepe

El Rodadero: The beach with a splash of city life, and taller buildings give a more urban and commercial feel than the Old Town. Also, this is a much more residential area. There are definitely more resort vibes here compared to the boutique-style hotels in the Old Town. If you are seeking time on the beach, El Rodadero has an amazing shoreline, with a lot going on. Numerous restaurants, cafes, shops, bars, and a lively, invigorating nightlife.

Rodadero Bay

Bello Horizonte: Less than fifteen minutes to the airport, with great beach access. Ideal for a peaceful beach day.
Great area for those looking for some quiet time as Bello Horizonte is more of a residential area where the upper middle-class Colombians reside. Much calmer than Old Town or El Rodadero areas.
The places to stay in Bello Horizonte have a more upscale vibe about them. This is where you will find luxury hotels and stunning apartments.

Source: Marriott Resort Playa Dormida

*Planning your trip to Santa Marta?  See our lists of the top 3-startop 4-star, and top 5-star hotels in Cartagena.


Similar to other Colombian Caribbean destinations, the cuisine of Santa Marta has also been influenced by Indigenous, African, and Spanish foods. The principal ingredient in this coastal city is of course fresh seafood. Traditionally accompanied with yucca, patacones (fried plantains), and costeño (coastal) cheese and other local delicacies.

  • Caribañola or Carimañola: Unlike the arepa which is made from corn, the carimañola is made from cassava (yuca). Stuffed with cheese, meat, and sometimes chicken they are sold alongside arepas.
  • Stuffed Potato Another fried delicacy, they are stuffed with meat, chicken, and cheese and are totally delicious.

Papa Rellena

  • Cayeye or Mote A traditional snack of Santa Marta, it is made from green banana puree, kneaded with butter, and topped with a lot of cheese. A dish with a distinct taste, smell, and tropical look with a wide variety of flavors. It is one of the most emblematic dishes of the city. The majestic coastal cheese is the perfect addition.
  • Fried Fish: The most typical local lunch, which is offered in every restaurant at the beaches of Santa Marta. Fresh fish, coconut rice, patacones (fried green bananas), and salad. Generally served with a delicious fish soup as an appetizer.
  • Fish Sancocho: Brought from the sea to your table, a nutritious and absolutely delectable meal. It is the best opportunity to connect with the taste of the sea. A mix of vegetables, plantain, yuca, the inevitable avocado, and a large portion of rice. The very best fusion of flavors in a savory dish is thoroughly recommended.

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