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Jumbled boulders beneath an opalescent sunset. Jade-green waves. Screeching parrots. Banana ships entering the harbor while local fishermen prepare to go to out to sea. Strolling along the seafront park. Taking a nighttime dip in the sapphire Caribbean.

Could this tranquility actually belong to the second most important Atlantic coast port of Colombia? Santa Marta hides her treasures well to the casual visitor who has come for the larger gems of her region: Ciudad Perdida and Tayrona National Park.

Santa Marta was the first Spanish city founded in South America, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where they cascade to the sea. On a clear day, their snowy peaks edge the horizon. This is a port that was repeatedly sacked by pirates and the place where SimĂłn BolĂ­var died. He lived his last days at Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, now a museum to the Liberator.

Santa Marta is a frequent host of music, theater and other festivals. Centro Cultural San Juan Nepomuceno and the Alianza Francesa offer movies, art exhibitions and lectures almost nightly. The free Museo de Oro, with a good archaeological collection and impressive vault of Tayrona gold, is a recommended visit before going to the Lost City; English-language guides are available.

To the south of the city are two pueblos of interest. Aracataca is the hometown of Gabriel García Márquez, author of the famous novel One Hundred Years of Solitude and winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for literature. His childhood home is now a museum. It is worth spending several hours—or even several days—in this real-life Macondo. García Márquez’ stories seem to leap to life here. Near the old train station is a statue of Remedios (a character from One Hundred Years of Solitude) and her yellow butterflies.

Ciénaga is a lagoon full of bird, animal and plant life. On its east shore is the town of Ciénaga, surrounded by banana plantations. The railroad station plaza is where the 1928 massacre of banana workers occurred, mentioned by García Márquez in his classic work.

Near Santa Marta are the beaches of Rodadero, offering all services for the higher budget tourist and excursions to an off-shore aquarium, and Tanganga, popular with backpackers and SCUBA divers.

The greatest pearl of this coast is Parque Nacional Tayrona. White sand beaches and emerald jungles filigree its crystalline waters. A paradise, many spend days here, lost to the outside world, snorkeling, swimming and swaying in a hammock. A pleasant walk through the jungle leads one to Pueblito Chairama, a Tayrona site.

Then there is the most splendid jewel: Ciudad Perdida. Not discovered until 1975, visitors can enjoy a six-day hiking tour to the most important of the Tayrona culture ruins.

Blinded by the shimmering wonders near Santa Marta, many overlook her simpler pleasures. Days spent waiting for trips to Ciudad Perdida and Tayrona National Park can be spent pleasurably basking in the tropical breezes, taking cooling mid-day siestas, wandering down narrow streets lined with colonial buildings, sitting beneath the shade of Parque Bolívar or cafés and enjoying the culture this small-town city offers.



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