SANTA MARTA, Colombia — The dedicated sun-and-sea worshiper will be enchanted by this pristine strip of Caribbean coast centering on the historic city of Santa Marta in the country's remote northeast.
The little-known region extends in a 50-mile arc from the rich fishing grounds of Cienega Grande lagoon to the eastern promontories of Tairona National Park.
Long empty beaches curve at the base of a verdant massif called the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The cobalt sea stretches away to north and west, shot through with luminous rivers of bottle green. Tropical gardens blaze with crimson poinsettias and purple bougainvillea.
Life on the coast has an age-old rhythm. It is unhurried, unchanging. At dawn along the main beaches--they lie in a garland of sweeping crescents a few miles south of Santa Marta--fishermen push off in their dugout canoes just as their forebears did centuries ago.
At this hour the air invariably is still and soft. Not until later will it become torpid and by mid-afternoon, with temperatures ranging year-round into the '90s, almost oppressively hot. Afternoons are for siestas.
Casting Their Lines
But at dawn, boys wade into the warm sea casting their lines for pargo --red snapper. Pelicans glide low over wavelets etched in white. Bathers splash through the littoral, murmurring "buenos dias" as you pass.
Before the sun becomes a molten penny is the best time to explore the architectural and historical treasures of Santa Marta. Founded early in the 16th Century by Spanish adventurer Rodrigo de Bastidas, the city of 300,000 sprawls low and white at the edge of a deep natural harbor cupped in an amphitheater of jagged hills.
Santa Marta wears a faintly disheveled look, like a once-elegant dowager whose gown has begun to fray. Still, attractions abound. In the center of town the 400-year-old customs house is an archeological museum displaying gold artifacts, legacy of the region's ancient Tairona Indian culture. Nearby, the oldest cathedral in Colombia, dating from 1617, appeals with a splendid baroque nave and barrel vault outlined with gilt.
Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino, the country's most hallowed shrine, is a short taxi ride away. This shuttered stucco mansion, built in colonial style around an open-air courtyard, is where Simon Bolivar, hero of Colombian independence, died in 1830.
Stroll along the palm-shaded seafront promenade, El Camellon. At every corner, barrows sag with produce and fruit. Good-natured crowds spill out into the dusty streets.
Stop for lunch at the casual Terraza Marina on Barrio Bellavista, among the best of the city's myriad seafood restaurants. The local specialty is cazuelade mariscos , fishermen's stew of squid, shrimp, snails and tiny clams called chipi-chipi .
Served with patacones , fried green plantains, the food is irreproachable and the setting--a cool enclosed patio with a grille of latticework giving on the sea--spectacular. Expect to pay about $10 for two, with beer or wine.
From Santa Marta, a 10-minute ride along a winding mountain road brings you to Taganga, one of the more colorful fishing villages on the coast. The small rustic settlement overlooks a sparkling bay embraced by headlands jutting from the sea.
Taganga is a favorite weekend haunt of Colombians. It offers an array of simple pleasures. If you saunter along the main street of hard-packed dirt, you will see fishermen mending their nets beside narrow boats of rough-hewn planks.
Music blares from ramshackle cafes where pargo is grilled to savory perfection. A short walk away, the shaded terrace of a comfortable new hotel, La Ballena Azul (the blue whale), is a good place to pause for a midday tinto --a cup of strong black Colombian coffee--and a sip of aguardiente , potent anise-flavored liquor.
The hotel is jumping-off point for guided seven-day backpacking treks to the Lost City of the Tairona, mysterious archeological ruins on the forested northern flank of the Sierra Nevada. More accessible, however, are relics of an old Indian civilization that lie half hidden at Pueblito in the green sanctuary of Tairona National Park.
To get there, you follow a twisting footpath deep into the 6,000-acre park from the oceanfront at Canaveral, some 15 miles east of Taganga. The path skirts the beach at Arerecifes and ends at Pueblito's stone foundations and ceremonial sites. The three-mile walk takes about two hours.
The park itself is also worth a leisurely ramble. The lookout point above Canaveral beach commands wonderful views of waves exploding on coral reefs. And 12 miles to the west, the Bay of Villa Concha is a palm-fringed outpost of sugary sand.
Connoisseurs regard Villa Concha as the glittering jewel of Colombia's Caribbean beaches. Promontories cloaked in luxuriant foliage shelter the bay, and the water here is the clearest and coldest of the Santa Marta coast.