The fact that Santa Marta was once the first colonial city foundation on the American mainland can only be guessed by today’s visitors – unlike in Cartagena’s case.
The Santa Marta of today is a modern deep sea and banana port, industrial city, seaside resort and center of a tourist region that includes the beaches, underwater world and hinterland of the Parque Nacional Tayrona, the fishing village Taganga and the turbulent beach of El Rodadero. The foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the world’s highest coastal mountain range, also hide the ruins of the “lost city” (Ciudad Perdida), as the pre-Columbian site in the upper valley of the Río Buritaca, rediscovered in 1976, is called.
In Santa Marta itself, the remains of the historic old town, which are sparse compared to the size of the city, have been restored in recent years and have become more attractive through the establishment of cultural institutions and restaurants.
One of the most remarkable buildings around Plaza Bolívar and the Parque de los Novios, also known as Parque Santander, is the old Customs House (Casa de la Aduana), which now houses the Archaeological Museum dedicated to the Tayrona culture and the Museo de Oro. The former holy order hospital San Juan de Dios accommodates today the cultural centre of the same name. Another pretty colonial building from the middle of the 18th century is the Casa Madame Agustine not far from the cathedral.
Apart from the few colonial buildings and churches, the historic structure in Santa Marta’s centre dates from the so-called republican phase at the beginning of the 20th century.
The cathedral, also called Basílica Menor, is the oldest on the continent. Built in Renaissance style with early Baroque elements, the walls are home to the remains of Simon Bolívar from his death in the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino in 1830 until the transfer to Caracas in 1842. The former sugar cane hacienda from the 17th century is now a museum and is quite rightly a must for most visitors.
In addition to the historical walls with the death bed of the “Libertador” and the “Altar de la Patria” built in his honour in 1937, a museum of modern South American art and a botanical garden are also part of the extensive estate.
Santa Marta’s nightlife and restaurant scene is concentrated next to the beach boulevard of El Rodadero on the Parque de los Novios and Calle 17 in the historic center.