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. Most of the cargo is legitimate, but Santa Marta also handles more contraband than any other Colombian port. In the 1970s that meant mostly marijuana; today cocaine reigns supreme. Santa Marta is mostly nonchalant and friendly, but inquisitiveness in this feral, fascinating city is unwise; some of its residents carry weapons as a matter of course.