Santa Marta lies at the foot of the snowcapped Sierra Nevada, the world's highest coastal range. The mountains are largely protected within Parque Nacional Tayrona. Hidden on their slopes are the pre-Columbian ruins of La Ciudad Perdida.
Although Santa Marta was founded in 1525, modern industry and architecture largely obscure its colonial heritage. Today the city's 200,000 inhabitants rely heavily on the deep-water port, where banana boats are anchored in thick clusters. The boom in high-end boutique hotels in the colonial center has completely changed the face of Santa Marta tourism for foreigners, from a simple stopover to a place to stay and take in some great pampering, eating, and nightlife options, before heading up the coast in search of palm-fringed beaches and adventure in the Sierra Nevada.
Most tourists will find themselves sticking to the area from Carrera 5 down towards the beach, and between Calle 20 and Calle 12. A stroll along the promenade towards the yacht club is pleasant, with plenty of restaurants to grab an overpriced but refreshing drink, while the spacious Parque Bolívar often hosts live-music events. As the sun sets, taking the edge off the biting heat, the Parque de los Novios comes to life, drawing locals and foreigners alike into a languorous tropical evening of easy smiles and gently cooling sun-touched skin.