Having lived in the shadow of Cartagena for many years, Santa Marta is now emerging as a serious contender to the crown of Colombian tourist capital.
While Cartagena serves as the Caribbean coast's main attraction for package tourists and anyone else with relatively deep pockets, Santa Marta and the surrounding region has emerged as the coast's most popular destination for backpackers and budget travellers.
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Most of the attractions, hotels and restaurants of the city lie between the beachfront and Carrera 5 (also called Avenida Campo Serrano). The beachfront is pleasant, although the beach itself is not. By the end of day the narrow strip of sand is typically covered in a variety of litter. Better to save your beach sunbathing for the stunning sands of Parque Tayrona.
On Carrera 1 (the beachfront street) are many restaurants offering various dishes including of course a range of fresh fish. Prices are above average. At night the atmosphere becomes lively as the restaurants turn into bars and music fills the street.
About halfway along Carrera 1 is Plaza de Bolivar, the city's main plaza which streches back for two blocks. It's an attractive place with plenty of shade providing relief from the strong Caribbean sun.
Pretty much every town and city in Colombia, and indeed in much of South America, has a Plaza de Bolivar, but in Santa Marta it is particularly poignant as it was here on 17 December 1830 that the great liberator Simon Bolivar died. Bolivar's remains were transfered to his birthplace of Caracas, Venezuela, but a statue in the centre of Plaza de Bolivar depicts the liberator on horseback.
Opposite Plaza de Bolivar on the beach promenade is a monument to Rodrigo de Bastidas, founder of Santa Marta back in 1525.
The plaza is surrounded by all of the major Colombian banks. On the Calle 14 side of the plaza you can also find the Museo del Oro (the Gold Museum) and the Alcaldia (Mayor's office) housed in a large yellow colonial building.
Walking one block up from Plaza de Bolivar along Calle 15 and then one block right down Carrera 4 brings you to Plaza de la Catedral upon which sits the whitewashed Cathedral that claims to be the oldest church in Colombia.
Four blocks south of Plaza de Bolivar lies Parque Santander (photo, right). The area has recently been remodelled and pedestrianised and at night young people congregate in the park and in the street bars that surround it.
About 4km from the city centre is Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the hacienda where Simon Bolivar spent his last days and died. It is now a tourist attraction and has been converted into a small museum. There is also a pleasant botanical garden within the grounds.
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