After 14 hours on a freezing cold night bus we arrived in Santa Marta on the sweltering Caribbean coast. Once home to the Tairona tribe, Santa Marta was the first Spanish settlement on mainland South America, though it’s importance declined with the growth of nearby Cartagena. These days it is a Colombian holiday spot as well as an active maritime port.
By a statue of Santa Marta’s founder – Rodrigo de Bastidas
As one of the closest cities to the Venezuelan border, Santa Marta is struggling to cope with the influx of refugees following the economic collapse of Colombia’s neighbour. Over 1,000,000 Venezuelans have crossed the border in the last 2 years, placing a huge strain on Colombia’s resources and society. Refugees were everywhere; washing car windows, selling trinkets, begging or just lying in the streets. While some locals we spoke to were sympathetic to these people’s plight, others were fed up and felt the crisis was affecting the tourism industry.
Despite our early arrival the humidity was stifling, in marked contrast to the industrial fridge we had arrived in. We dove in to our air-conditioned hostel room, emerging periodically for bites of our delicious Arepa breakfast (fried maize dough filled with cheese/meat/veg) before the heat drove us back inside.
After breakfast we wandered along the sea front in the beating midday sun, darting between patches of shade and sweatily expiring in the heat. We were forced to abandon our exploration, seeking refuge in a bar where several rum and cokes proved restorative. We were later advised that doing anything between 11am – 3pm was ‘tricky’. That night we ate fantastic seafood dishes at a Caribbean restaurant; giant, fresh prawns accompanied by guacamole and fried banana chips.
The next day we checked out Parque de Novios, sampling novel fruit juices (‘Lulo’ is delicious, ‘Tomate de Arbol’… less so) in one of the many restaurants lining the park. After walking around the impressive Cathedral, we took a taxi to Quinta de San Pedro Alejandro, the quiet hacienda where Simón Bolívar died in 1830.
Quinta de San Pedro Alejandro
After freeing Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from Spanish rule, Bolívar’s dream of a united Latin America was dashed by the ambitions of regional strongmen and fear of his near-unlimited authority. Penniless, with Gran Colombia falling apart and his health failing, ‘El Libertador’ made his way to Santa Marta, hoping to recuperate before boarding a ship to Europe – a trip he was never to make.
We were taken on a tour of the hacienda, which was once a rum plantation and retains a relaxed, leafy vibe. The grassy fields were filled with giant green Iguanas, casually wandering the grounds and entirely unperturbed by the stream of visitors. In the small museum we’re a number of Bolívarian relics (locks of hair, uniforms etc) and a marble effigy of the man himself, surprisingly short at 5ft 6″.
Bolívar’s remains were exhumed and taken to Venezuela 12 years after his death. Despite this, a huge monument to him was built in the early 20th century – the imposing Altar de la Patria, a giant marble edifice that seems to borrow some design features from Mussolini’s Italy.
Altar de la Patria
That evening we had beers and burgers to the background of pounding Reggaeton music while Venezuelan kids wandered between the tables, selling sweets.
For a melancholy but irreverent exploration of Simón Bolívar’s last journey, try ‘The General in his Labyrinth’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. For a more general biography of this major historical figure, Marie Arana’s ‘Bolívar: The Epic Life Of The Man Who Liberated South America’ is partisan, but engaging and wonderfully written.