Santa Marta: Ecological capital of Colombia
Marcela Riomalo y Juan Carlos Sandoval
To get to Sindulí Nature Reserve on the spurs of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta we have to climb the mountain for an hour and a half. Neither the temperature of 30 °C nor the steep path deters us from achieving our goal of seeing exotic birds typical of the region. The Reserve’s director, Juan Carlos Sandoval, is our guide. We walk along dutifully behind him, talking in low voices and attempting to make as little noise as possible, so as not to frighten off birds and other animals that might be nearby.
The birdsong gets louder and more varied the higher we climb. “Can you hear that?”, Juan Carlos asks as he suddenly stops dead in his tracks and raises his binoculars to the heavens. “It’s a Tiranus Melancolicus, a member of the tyranid family. It catches flies while it’s in flight”, he says as he points to the branch of a tree where the bird has landed.
We are near Palomino, an hour and a half from Santa Marta and in the middle of a tropical rainforest. The view from here is one of total contrasts: on one side we can see the snow-capped Cristóbal Colón and Simón Bolívar peaks (the highest on the Sierra), and on the other, far beneath us, the white-sand beaches of the Caribbean. Every climate level between 0 and 5,775 meters above sea level is visible from this spot, making it a truly exciting place, with a unique biodiversity. Additionally, because the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a separate mountain system from the cordilleras, many of the species found here are endemic.
This combination of factors explains why Santa Marta has been called ‘the ecological capital of Colombia’, and why it is a ‘must’ for travelers interested in nature and adventure tourism.
Don Diego River
An hour and a half from Santa Marta in the Riohacha direction is Don Diego river, one of the most interesting areas in the region, ecologically-speaking. Along its banks are various forests and nature reserves that can be entered on foot or by canoe. We reach Taironaka around 9.00 a.m., and are welcomed by a woman who will take us on a tour. We visit a small archeological museum where various Tayrona artifacts are on display, a typical circular indian house where a Kogui family lived until recently, and some circular terraces that rise up the mountain. At the end of the tour we get back into the canoe and head for Yumake, a nature reserve and eco-hotel where we put on floats so we can go down the river to where it flows into the sea. The trip is both relaxing and didactic, because as the gentle current takes us downstream, the local guide accompanying us tells us that the water in this river comes from glaciers high up on the Sierra, which explains why it is so cold and crystal-clear, and points out exotic flowers, howler monkeys, butterflies and other animals we pass on the way.
In the city
Although many tourists visit Santa Marta because it is a resort or use it as a starting point for trips to nearby parks and beaches, the city itself has plenty to offer, as a tour of its historic center quickly reveals.
Ours starts on Simón Bolívar Square, from where the morro (hill), the image that typically represents the city, can be glimpsed. Third Avenue leads us to bustling Callejón del Correo, where several small restaurants have opened recently. We sit down at one of the tables in the street and order a soursop juice. We linger there a long time, relaxing and watching the passers-by. When we have got our strength back, we head for Santa Marta Cathedral. We stand near the statue of the Virgin whose name the church bears, watching some of the locals who bring her offerings. We end the afternoon in Parque de Los Novios, an emblematic spot in the center of the city where locals gather in search of shade from the sun under the trees or to eat on the terrace of one of the restaurants that border the park.
Green for everyone
The area between Tayrona Park and Riohacha has seen a significant growth in tourism over the last five years, principally because it is still, to some extent, unexplored, virgin territory, and this makes it a magnet for visitors who are eager to get close to nature.
Irrespective of whether the traveler is a bold adventurer keen to climb up to the Lost City or a pleasure-seeker looking only to relax on the exclusive beaches of Gairaca or Neguaje, if he likes ecology and nature, he will find a niche for himself somewhere in the Santa Marta area. “Here, we’re near Santa Marta, yet at the same time very far from it”, says Juan Carlos when we get back from our trip to the reserve. Geographicallyspeaking, only a few kilometers separate the Sierra Nevada from Santa Marta, yet mentally it seems a whole world away. Few places on earth condense the whole gamut of landscapes so majestically. And therein lies its true beauty.
- There are over 1,900 species of bird in Colombia, making it the leading country in the world in terms of diversity.
- Don Diego River is one of the most important indigenous and forestry reserves on the Sierra Nevada.
- The Tayrona ruins at the Old City archeological site are one of the region’s greatest treasures.
- There are around 10,000 members of the Kogui indigenous group.
- Some typical candies: cocadas, bocadillos, herpos and dulces de ñame.
- The El Dorado – ProAves Reserve near Minca is an ideal spot for birdwatching.
- The Koguis are one of the few indigenous groups that still live on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
- Kogui villages have between 40 and 180 circular houses, with conical roofs and walls made of wood or adobe.
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