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Articles Blog

Santa Marta, Colombia

Karyn Planett

Shrine to Simon Bolivar 

A whole host of cities are famous and immediately recognizable as the birthplace of something or someone. For example, there are important historical figures like Benjamin Franklin born in Boston, Massachusetts. The Beatles were all born in Liverpool. You might even recall that Porbandar, India is the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. 

Basketball was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. New Orleans is “The Birthplace of Jazz”; Rigby, Ohio, the birthplace of television. Levi’s 501 jeans were definitely born in San Francisco, California.  

Occasionally a major event then carries the host city’s name like the Yalta Conference. And we all remember that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. 

But, who among us can name the place where the great South American liberator, Simon Bolivar, died? Well, if you took as a hint the fact you’ll soon visit Santa Marta, Colombia you’d be a right proper sleuth.

Though born in Caracas, New Granada (currently Venezuela) in 1783 Simón José Antonio de la Santísma Trinidad Bolívar Y Palacios, (Simon Bolivar for short) did pass away in Santa Marta’s La Quinta de San Alejandrino on December 17th, 1830. And even though this sad event occurred nearly two centuries ago, Simon Bolivar lives large in the hearts and minds of South America’s citizens to this day. You’ll hear more as you explore Santa Marta. 

El Libertador 

In his youth, Bolivar was tutored in New Granada. He then undertook his higher education in Spain before returning back to Venezuela. It was about that time he formalized his dream for a united South America, unburdened by the yoke of colonial power. His mission was to create something similar to the United States of America. 

But, as Bolivar’s dream was beginning to take shape, Napoleon announced the appointment of none other than Joseph Bonaparte as the King of Spain as well as of its colonies. This action provided the fuel that fired up Bolivar’s passion to resist foreign control, a flame he then fanned across the continent.

In 1828, Bolivar declared himself dictator through something called the “Organic Decree of Dictatorship”. Though quite successful in advancing his roadmap toward liberation, the title of dictator enraged some of his critics. There was even an assassination attempt. As a result of this discontent, Bolivar abandoned the title and prepared to leave South America to seek exile in the Caribbean or Europe. While doing so, he fell fatally ill. 

Even though the great “Libertador” succeeded in his mission to liberate many South American homelands, he lost his fight against tuberculosis. On December 17, 1830 he passed away at the young age of 47.

Despite the fact his life was shortened, Bolivar’s legacy has lived on for nearly 200 years. And the site of his last moments on this earth, the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, has been declared a “sanctuary of the fatherland” that now houses the Museo Bolivariano. This manicured quinta, or estate, dates back to 1608 when it was founded by Don Francisco de Godoy. 

Beyond Bolivar 

Well, there’s more to Santa Marta than this story. There are the highlights of the town itself. It is the capital of the Department of Magdalena and was founded by Rodrigo de Bastidas, a Spanish conquistador, on July 29, 1525. One of the oldest cities in South America, Santa Marta is an architectural marvel and worthy of a leisurely stroll. 

You should start in the Bolivar Plaza with its Spanish colonial architecture and signature 17th century whitewashed cathedral. Some say Simon Bolivar’s heart is buried within the cathedral walls.

There’s also the former Customs House, from the 16th century, today the Gold Museum with important exhibits of pre-Colombian pottery and gold metalwork from the indigenous Tayrona people.

A meander through the Historic District let’s you peek into the past or sip a cup of world-famous Colombian coffee in a tiny cafe. Maybe sample regional cuisine influenced by African, Spanish, Asian and Arabic tastes using fresh seafood like lobster, goat, chicken, and pork. A real treat is an aborrajado, a delicious cheesy fried sweet plantain. Sugarcane juice is a take-away favorite. 

Just as you’re ready to set sail, locals will be enjoying a stroll along the Bastidas Promenade. Others will be settling in for an evening of music and merriment at the tony beach resort, just a bit out of town, known as El Rodadero. Draped along the Bay of Gaira, it’s got a spot-on view of the setting sun. They might order a tropical smoothie blended from local fruits like cassava, papaya, or dragon fruit. Or they could be discussing some of the claims made by fellow Colombians--that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta foothills form the world’s highest coastal mountain or that Santa Marta is the “deepest port in the Americas”, or that Santa Marta is, in fact, the oldest city in South America. 

Superlatives aside, this is a pretty spectacular backdrop for a day in the Colombian Caribbean in what’s touted to be “The Pearl” America.