Sun-toasted and sultry, it’s one of the Caribbean’s hidden gems. Santa Marta is not just the oldest city in Colombia, but South America’s oldest city. It doesn’t instantly arouse you with the breath-taking good looks of Cartagena, but it’s laidback beach vibe, historical pedigree and revivified colonial quarter offer stimulation galore. My ebullient Viva Expeditions guide, Claudia, led me through the city staples, which starts with a visit to Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino.
This stately 17th-century hacienda is where the great liberator, Simón Bolívar, spent the last days of his epic life. Bolívar was a guest of the hacienda’s Spanish owner, Joaquín de Mier, who was a staunch backer of Latin American independence. The hacienda, which produced rum, honey, and sugarcane, has been transformed into a museum that commemorates El Libertador through a series of Bolívar-themed exhibits within the hacienda and monuments that dot the expansive grounds.
The hacienda is worth a visit alone for its evocative rooms preserved in period style, which include a chapel and the room where Bolívar died in 1830. Now doubling as a formal homage to the legend who liberated six countries from Spanish colonial rule, the impressive white-marble memorial is composed of three monumental statues that depict Bolívar in different stages of his life. The hacienda’s grounds are also graced with the lush 22-hectare Jardín Botánico is a relaxing place to stroll.
Adjacent to the hacienda, the eclectic Museo Bolivariano triumphs the work of Latin American artists; don’t miss Alejandro Obregón’s portrait of a withered Bolívar shortly before his death.
From there, Claudia whisked me to the heart of town, where we popped into Museo del Oro. It’s not quite the Aladdin’s Cave that you’ll find in Bogota, but Santa Marta’s gold museum showcases an impressive collection of artifacts and gold from regional tribes, in the former Customs House.
Somehow this pre-Columbian gold and ceramics withstood the avarice and bloodlust of the Spanish conquest. I drooled over displays of exquisite jade, copper, and gold work fashioned by the Tayrona and Nahuange, between 200AD and 1600AD.
Lording over the heart of town, the glinting white edifice of Santa Marta Cathedral beckons like a wedding cake, with a romantic aura and reputed to be the oldest church in Colombia. It’s a melange of varying architectural styles, but its lofty belltower and stout altar dome underscore its time-honoured grandeur.
The remains of Bolivar were buried here until he was reinterred in his birthplace of Caracas in 1842. Legend has it that his heart is still here, hidden in an urn in the cathedral walls.
Lover’s Square gives you an authentic taste of Santa Marta’s personality. Dramatically rejuvenated after decades of decay as a seedy enclave for prostitutes and drug dealers, romance suffuses this madeover square. You’ll see newlyweds posing for pictures in the park’s centrepiece, an ornamental, whitewashed gazebo.
Loved-up young things kiss amid potted flowers under burnished street lamps, salsa spills from nearby bars and even elderly couples are spurred into action, with impromptu salsa performances. Pedestrianized Calle 19, which runs east from the square, is studded with characterful bars, cafes, and restaurants, elegantly painted in a cheerful palate of pastel hues, that increasingly cater to a hip, discerning crowd. The area also abounds with tantalising street food , where backpackers swap stories over arepas.
I also soaked up the carnival atmosphere of Plaza Bolivar. With its shoeshine boys, street vendors, mustachioed men playing board games, and couples making out, Plaza Bolívar is your quintessential Latin American square, backed by the elegant mustard-yellow city hall. The new malecón (boardwalk) funnels south from the gritty port area, to the spiffy new marina, where there is also a small beach. Claudia warned me not to swim here – the water quality isn’t flash.
Edged with more street food vendors, I also swooned over Santa Marta’s iconic chiva buses, pimped out in shiny chrome and colourful paintwork. They are party central people-movers, transporting night owls from one nightspot to the next, while sipping rum and snacking on corn arepas. There is no better way to end the day than on the city’s expansive waterfront, which often frames a perfect sunset. Locals flock here to enjoy the sand, surf, and ice cream. On weekends live salsa bands can frequently be heard playing along the Avenida Rodrigo de Bastidas.
While in the region, my Viva Expeditions trip also incorporated a night with nature in Tayronas National Park, just 34km from Santa Marta Edging the Caribbean Sea, this protected jungle rises up dramatically from the coast, blanketing the tallest coastal mountain range in the world – the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The woolly-jungled slopes give way to untouched bone-white sand beaches, sans the crowds. I stayed a night at Ecohabs Tayrona, which rises up the verdant slopes from Canaveral beach. The riot of birdsong is transfixing – many of the guests had made a point of coming here from far-flung places primarily for the bird-watching riches of the park.
Irresistibly blissful and elemental, it was a deluxe, soul-rinsing digital detox. Inspired by ancient Tayrona indigenous building design, the bungalows are exquisitely built with native wood and high roofs, mop-topped in palm leaves. My heart-stealing abode was reached via a sequence of stone stairways, prompting me to handsomely tip my porter, George, who had the great misfortune of carting my heavy suitcase up to the heavens. Needless to say, the panoramic views across the Caribbean Sea and the emerald mountainside are beyond seraphic.
I was only there for the night, so time didn’t permit undertaking any intrepid hikes, but a plethora of walking trails are on offer, while admiring our feathered friends and ancient Tayrona ruins. If short and sweet walks is more to your liking, there’s a great beach-hopping trail which weaves you along the coast to Arrecifes, Cabo San Juan del Guía, La Piscina beaches. The truly adventurous can take the 6-day hike to Colombia’s version of Macchu Pichu, known as Ciudad Perdida. The on-site restaurant does a sterling job in showcasing local cuisine, including fish ceviche marinated in lime juice sheets; cassava shrimp with cheese, milk and chopped coca; sweet chili shrimp pie with avocado and brown sugar juice; and fried snapper served with coconut rice and fried plantains.
It just felt wrong to be only spending a night in this natural oasis, wrapped in comfort and splendour. No matter how long or short your time may be in Colombia, it’s a country that fast gets under your skin, casting you under its seductive, intoxicating and lusty spell.
Whether you’re flying into Santa Marta from Bogota, Cartagena or further afield, book your travel plans through Expedia. The Expedia mobile app gives Kiwis the flexibility to build their whole trip in one place. After booking, all itineraries are stored and are accessible even without internet access. It also delivers flight updates, check-in reminders, and lots more right in the palm of your hand.
My flavoursome foray to Santa Marta and Colombia was with Viva Expeditions, who operate a wealth of touring options across South America, with exemplary on-the-ground expertise and support, ensuring your South American adventure is seamless, stress-free and awash with magical moments. Their handpicked team of local guides and tour operators will ensure you’re immersed in the spirit, wonder and unshakable charm of Colombia.