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Santa Marta, Colombia Trip Journal

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January 17, 2010, Santa Marta, Colombia

We had an interesting early morning experience just as we were arriving in Santa Marta. The Ship’s Captain had informed us yesterday that he would be checking the magnetic compasses and in order to do so, he must turn the ship completely around. This is only done once a year, so we felt lucky we were on board to enjoy the experience. He started the turn-around about 6am, and we were docked at the pier by approximately 7:15.

Our port information indicated we were to use tenders to go ashore today. However, there must have been a change in ship schedules, as we were able to pull in to the pier. Another cruise ship is also in today – one from Spain.

Absolutely beautiful day – clear blue skies, temperatures in the mid-80’s and a soft breeze. We couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Santa Marta is the oldest surviving colonial town in Colombia, founded in 1525. The location was chosen for a couple reasons – a convenient base for the gold treasures of the Tayronas Indians, and it also served as a gateway into the interior. One of the most important dates in Santa Marta’s history is December 17, 1830, when Simon Bolivar died there.

Santa Marta is Colombia’s third largest seaport and is also a popular tourist destination. We went ashore with our hosts from Cruise Specialists and thoroughly enjoyed learning about Colombia and Santa Marta. We spent a good part of the day gathering a lot of information and taking photos, so more content and perhaps a new map can be added to the Colombia page.

We learned quite a lot about the Colombian way of life – the economy is based on 50% jobs in the service industry, 25% from agriculture and fishing and 25% from mining. We were told this is one of the best places to buy emeralds, since so many are mined here.

Many of the working people only earn a salary of $280 to $300 (U.S.) per month. The average yearly income is $8,800. Obviously a lot of people live in poverty.

We visited the Catedral today where Simon Bolivar was originally buried in 1830. The construction of the church began shortly after the first permanent European settlers arrived, but was not finished until the end of the 18th century, due to many utilitarian concerns. It was packed as we arrived there during Mass. The front of the church was filled with white roses. The plaza outside the church had many vendors selling everything from dresses to purses to jewelry, cold drinks and other souvenirs.

We visited a 17th century villa on the outskirts of Santa Marta, the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, where Simon Bolivar died of tuberculosis at the age of 47 years. Some of his personal effects are on display along with art. The estate was originally a sugarcane mill and distillery – primarily producing rum. It was beautiful. One of the most exciting things we saw was iguanas (at least I enjoyed seeing them). They’re quite large and seem to be very content in one of the large trees on the estate.

The downtown area and the El Rodadero beach were busy – many, many people enjoying the plazas, the restaurants and of course, the beach. Lots of kids, lots of parents, grandparents were having a relaxing Sunday. Rodadero means a high sand dune adjacent to the beach.

The Museo Del Oro Tairona offered a lot of information about the metal smiths and farmers who lived in the Sierra Nevada for over 1,000 years. The jewelry on display was quite beautiful. The metal crafts showed the high level of the artisans who produced the objects.

Of particular interest was use of some of the items. Made of metal, a Bat-man would alter the appearance of shamans and priests, simulating bats, in order to reach a unification between man and animal. Various birds are shown in metal, shell and pottery, depicting their domination of the air. Snakes and frogs were used in ear and nose rings, pendants and chest plates. Felines were primarily depicted in clay pots or handles of staffs that were made out of bones.

Our last visit for the day was a local resort, where we were able to see local entertainment. The young men and women put on quite a show – beautiful costumes, vigorous dancing. We thoroughly enjoyed the time. There were several vendors around the resort also – offering handmade items, including purses and hammocks. The hammocks were quite inviting – strung between the palm trees with the sandy beach and the beautiful blue of the Caribbean.

Our drive around Santa Marta offered such contrasts – from shacks on the side of the mountains to high-rise hotels and condominiums. Trash was strewn everywhere – trash bins are virtually non-existent. It reminds us of Rome where we have to look long and hard to find a trash can on the streets.

Colombians are not in a hurry – they seem to have their own time system. Manana (tomorrow) can mean anytime in the future…not necessarily tomorrow. If you ask (for example) “when is the bus coming?”, the answer is ahorita viene, meaning it’s coming. However, that could also mean anything from a few minutes to a few hours. Obviously, patience is a good attribute.

The exchange rate today was 1900 pesos to one U.S. dollar.

A great day, lots to see and do and a city we would definitely recommend to anyone and one we would revisit.

Tomorrow is a day at sea, then on Wednesday, we visit Isla de Providencia.

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About the Author

John Moen is a cartographer who along with his wife are the orignal founders of worldatlas.com. He and his wife, Chris Woolwine-Moen, produced thousands of award-winning maps that are used all over the world and content that aids students, teachers, travelers and parents with their geography and map questions. Today, it's one of the most popular educational sites on the web.

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This page was last updated on June 16, 2020.