Things to Do in Santa Marta
The Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida, is the archaeological site of an ancient indigenous city in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Thought to have been a commercial center for trade around 700 A.D., its population probably ranged between 1,400 and 3,000 inhabitants. Hidden in the jungle for over a thousand years, the Lost City was found in 1972 when treasure hunters followed a series of stone steps leading up to an abandoned city.
The Lost City is open to visitors, but the trip is not for the faint of heart. The nearly 30 mile trek takes visitors through farmland and jungle on an unforgettable six-day journey. Part of the adventure includes trekking over mountains filled with exotic plants and animals, climbing stone paths through dense jungle, bathing in waterfalls and sleeping in indigenous villages.
Upon arriving at Lost City, climb more than 1,000 stone steps to the top of the site for incredible views of the surrounding mountains and jungle. Take time to explore the more than 250 stone terraces that were carved out of the mountainside, each of which was a space for living and working. The different areas of the city were joined to the fields by a network of cobbled paths and stairs, and an irrigation system channels rainwater downhill to avoid damage and erosion.
Members of local tribes, including the Arhuacos, Koguis, and others, continue to maintain many of their ancestral beliefs and customs. They visited the site regularly before it was widely discovered, and gave it the name Teyuna. This trek takes you through some of their villages where life has remained unchanged for centuries.
Just off the coast of northern Colombia, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park is home to a wealth of endangered flora and fauna as well as the world’s highest coastal peak. Dominated by mountains and popular among hikers, this UNESCO-recognized national park is home to bird reserves, archaeological ruins, and indigenous villages.
Ruins, reefs, mangroves, and beaches make up the 37,000-acre Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most popular ecotourism destinations. Visit to hike along the coast, relax on the beaches, snorkel among the coral reefs, or simply disconnect from daily life.
On the edge of Tayrona National Natural Park and the northern coast of Colombia, Crystal Beach(Playa Cristal) is one of the most picturesque white sand beaches in South America. Its clear turquoise waters provide ideal conditions for swimming and snorkeling. Many come to relax on the soft sand shaded by coconut palms or to eat fresh seafood caught right off the shore. It is also a great base for exploring the Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most important protected ecological areas, for the day.
Marine life in the waters off Crystal Beach(Playa Cristal) includes sea turtles, dolphins, and several species of fish. Even without spotting one these creatures, the coral and sponges of the reef provide colorful underwater scenes. The Caribbean reefs offshore also attract those seeking scuba diving and other water sports.
Simón Bolivar is viewed as the Liberator of much of northern South America and is considered one of the most important Latin American political figures who ever lived. He was born in Caracas, the son of wealthy landowners, and led the independence movement, eventually achieving independence from Spain for what was then called Gran Colombia, covering most of northern South America.
Simón Bolivar spent his last days at La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino near Santa Marta, a quinta (large house) and hacienda (farm) built in the 17th century. At that time the estate produced rum, honey and panela, a sugar cane product. Bolivar died of tuberculosis in one of the rooms there on December 17, 1830.
Now the Quinta is a tourist site, museum and historical landmark. The main house, painted a deep yellow color, is where Simon Bolivar breathed his last breath. Here you can find the bed he used, important documents and other objects that help recreate the Liberator’s life, and paintings depicting Bolivar and the area at the time he visited.
The house and grounds are open for exploring. Cool down in the extensive gardens under trees that are hundreds of years old. A statute of Simon Bolivar (without his ever-present horse) is one of the centerpieces of the garden. A monument called the Patrimony Altar (Altar de la Patria) was built on the site for the100th anniversary of Bolivar’s death. The museum also contains art donated by many of the countries he helped liberate.
The Tayrona Gold Museum contains some of the fascinating gold pieces made by the Tayrona indigenous tribe starting around 100 A.D and gives a look into the culture of those early inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Many of the objects on display were made using the lost wax method in order to create life-like hollow gold objects. The Tayrona also used alloys made with gold and copper calledtumbaga and would hammer out sheets of gold on rock slabs.
The Tayronas were a deeply religious community and their gold pieces were rich in detail and meaning. A common theme involved representations of animals, reflecting the custom of the political and spiritual leaders who adopted qualities and strengths they associated with certain animals.
To make gold figures, the lost wax method was one of the most common methods used. A wax figure would be covered with clay in order to create a mold. When the object was heated, the wax would melt out. Then gold or metal was poured in the resulting space. After the metal cooled, the clay would be broken to leave the gold figure, which was then polished.
The Gold Museum is normally located in the Custom’s House (Casa de la Aduana), a Cultural Patrimony building on the Santa Marta bay that is currently under restoration work. In the meantime, the collection has found a temporary home in the Bank of the Republic Library.
Former Colombian football player Carlos El PibeValderrama is known for his athletic ability and his outgoing personality, and this 22-foot-tall bronze statue of him in his hometown conveys both qualities. He is known as “El Pibe” or “the kid” and for his blond curly head of hair. His distinct personality has made him one of the most recognizable figures in football worldwide. Part of the Colombian national team in the 1990s, he represented Colombia in several international tournaments and became known for his skills in passing and accuracy in assisting. He is one of few foreign players who joined Major League Soccer in the United States.
His statue is the work of Colombian artist Amilkar Ariza, standing tall outside the Estadio Eduardo Santos in Santa Marta. It was erected in 2006 in honor of his contributions to Colombian national sports.
Sandwiched between picturesque beaches and lush mountains, Santa Marta is both the oldest surviving city in Colombia and a gateway to Tayrona National Park. Explore the UNESCO-recognized historic center on foot, making time to visit highlights such as the 18th century cathedral, Tayrona Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Tairona), and Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino.
With more than 200 species on display, Santa Marta’s Marine World Aquarium (Mundo Marino Acuario) is a must for nature lovers of all ages. Discover sharks, turtles, starfish, octopuses, seabirds, and more, while learning about conservation efforts in the region.
More Things to Do in Santa Marta
Taganga is a sleepy fishing village and beach town near the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Tayrona National Parks. The view from Taganga’s coast is spectacular, as are the sunsets. The small town has just a few paved roads and the rest are dusty - or muddy – depending on the season.
Taganga is next to the stunning Tayrona National Park, though it’s a bit of a trek getting there. If you’re interested in visiting the beaches at Tayrona, it takes an hour by bus to get to the park, followed by a couple of hours of hiking through the national park to get to a beach. Another option is to get a boat directly from Taganga to the beaches of Tayrona.
Both diving and getting a diving certification are inexpensive, which draws diving enthusiasts to Taganga. Many of the activities that can be booked in Santa Marta can also be booked from Tayrona. This is the place to head out not only to The Lost City and Tayrona National Park, but also farther east to La Guajira. Or go take a short hike over one of Taganga’s hills to Playa Grande.
With a number of beach bars and a few discos, the nightlife is often considered to be better in Taganga than Santa Marta, attracting both Colombians and foreigners. Even if your travels take you away from the town during the day, head back to Taganga in time to watch the sunset and join the rumba (party) on the beach.
For a tropical paradise experience, Playa Blanca is about as good as it gets. A short boat ride from El Rodadero beach on Santa Marta, this calm beach away from the larger concentrations of tourists is ideal for leisurely swimming as well as snorkeling and water sports like banana boats or mini diving classes.
Every day boats head out in the morning from the El Rodadero beach. The boat ride is a bit rough and fast but is an adventure to remember. There are no docks when you arrive at Playa Blanca, so be ready to jump from the boat.
Playa Blanca is set in a protected bay with mountains rising in the background. As its name suggests, the sandy beaches are white and are lined with palm trees. Thatched roof huts, ranging in size from individual to large buildings, line the beach. The smaller ones near the water are available to rent for the day, and don’t be afraid to haggle to get a good price.
As on nearly all the beaches in Colombia, vendors will come along to offer necklaces, pearls, cocktails and beachside massages. That gives a chance to see the local culture and cuisine. Try Colombia’s version of ceviche or taste delicious cocktails like Coco Loco. Some huts offer a seafood lunch, usually fried fish with coconut rice and plantain.
At Playa Blanca, kick back and enjoy the incredibly clear water and beautiful white sand beaches with a cocktail in hand.
Deep in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Park in northern Colombia, there is a green valley surrounded by mountains that is home to descendants of the Tayrona people, the Arhuac. Nabusimake is the spiritual center for the Arhuac people, the place where they say the sun was born.
Visiting this indigenous tribe in their own village is an adventure. The only road to get there is from Pueblo Bello, and is a rough trip even in the toughest off-road vehicle. The roads to get there are in bad shape, there are no signs indicating the way to the town, and there are no hotels for visitors. Strange as that may seem, it is no doubt partly due to the Arhuac’s lack of interested in having outside visitors in order to protect their culture and way of life.
But entering Nabusimake is stepping back in time to a different world. Walk around the peaceful village and see the variety of plants, flowers and birds. The thatched roof huts and clay walls house the Arhuac, who wear traditional white tunics, tall coned hats and woven bags. Men and women alike have long hair long, and women use colorful necklaces.
Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest city, is also one of its most vibrant. Home to the country's largest port, this industrialized city sits where the Magdalena River meets the Caribbean Sea. The city is most famous for its Carnival, second in size to Rio de Janeiro’s and recognized by UNESCO for its Intangible Cultural Heritage.