Colombia’s comeback continues. It started with Cartagena, which remained relatively unscathed during the country’s years of civil unrest. It expanded to the islands, because everyone was itching to return to them anyway. Now, it’s Santa Marta’s turn.
Santa Marta, in the northeastern Magdalena Province, is Colombia’s oldest city. It was founded, on the land of the Tairona people, in 1525 by a Spanish conquistador. The protected bay was an ideal place to establish a port. The colonial city thrived, and, eventually, the nearby beaches turned it into a tourist town. The drug wars halted tourism, though, and the city all but shut down. But people are now returning to the new marina, the fascinating historical sites, the nearby national park, and, of course, those beaches.
You’re staying in the heart of the colonial city at the adorable Hotel Boutique Don Pepe. You’re welcomed with iced lemonade, a nice treat in the humidity. The air is thick without a sea breeze right now. Your mostly white room has exposed brick and a jacuzzi, though the living space extends well beyond your walls. A central courtyard has a small pool and lots of shady spots, while the rooftop has another jacuzzi, as well as hammocks and daybeds in which to relax.
From the hotel, you’re steps away from the marina, museums, and parks. Walk through the narrow streets to Simón Bolívar Park, the main square where the first settlement was built in the 16th century. Tour the Gold Museum. The old customs house displays artifacts from ancient Tairona culture. See the whitewashed Santa Marta Cathedral, the oldest church in Colombia, with its marble altar and stone portico. Buy coconut water in the Park of the Newlyweds. The market square was built in 1830. It’s now filled with fragrant flowers and old men playing board games, and it’s surrounded by tapas bars and jazz clubs. Vallenato music is drifting from an open window.
Then go outside of the city center to explore the lush grounds of the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino. The estate is famous for being the location where military leader Simón Bolívar died in 1830. It now houses a museum, a botanical garden, and giant iguanas. Head back toward the coast. In Rodadero, you find the best beach, open-air markets, waterfront restaurants, and the Sea Aquarium and Museum, where dolphins, sharks, and sea turtles live in pools with sea access.
Tomorrow, you’ll hike through the tropical rainforest to Quebrada Valencia, a waterfall and natural whirlpools near cocoa plantations. Then you’ll explore Tayrona National Natural Park to see mantled howlers, montane solitary eagles, and miles of deserted beaches. Eventually, you’ll leave the coast and head into the snowcapped Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. But right now, you need to escape the heat. It’s time to pick a tapas bar and listen to the drumbeat of cumbia music. You might even be dancing by the time the sun sets.