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The History of Santa Marta - What Every Traveler Should Know

The History of Santa Marta - What Every Traveler Should Know

The history of complex human civilizations in the Santa Marta region stretches back far before the arrival of Europeans. Over at least a thousand years, the Tairona people built cities, traded salt and created amazing crafts. Spanish conquest eventually wiped out their civilization, though many traditions survive in indigenous groups like the Kogui and Wayuu.

Here's how is how it began: Rodrigo de Bastidas, a wealthy Spaniard with experience on Columbus’s second voyage to the New World, convinced the crown to let him sail on his own. Financed with his own fortune, de Bastidas became a conquistador of northern South America and Panama. In 1525, he encountered and subsequently "founded" Santa Marta, a jewel laying between Carribbean ocean and the world's tallest coastal mountain range. 

De Bastidas hoped to live in the new city himself, and so enforced policies of relative respect and peace with the neighboring indigenous people. However, the life of de Bastidas in Santa Marta was short. Stabbed in his sleep by a jealous group of his own men, he died soon after, in 1527.

The conflict in Santa Marta, however, was far from over. De Bastidas’ more repressive successors eventually faced a violent revolt from the Tairona people, which eventually led to the end of the Tairona civilization. Then, repeated attacks by pirates led Santa Marta to fall behind landlocked cities like Bogota and Medellin in wealth and prestige.

Still, so many years after it became the first European-founded city in South America, Santa Marta remains a vibrant, important city and an essential destination on any trip to Colombia.

Statue of Rodrigo de Bastidas on the ocean boulevard in Santa Marta, Colombia