The Caribbean coast was inhabited by various Indian communities long before the arrival of the Spaniards. Two of these groups evolved into highly developed cultures: the Tayrona in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and the Sinú in what are now the Córdoba and Sucre departments. The technological prowess of these people is best demonstrated in the construction of several villages, including Ciudad Perdida.
The coast was the first region conquered by the Spaniards. Santa Marta (founded in 1525) and Cartagena (1533) are the oldest surviving Colombian cities. Both proved valuable to the Spanish as staging posts for missions to the interior and port towns from which plundered riches were sent back to the Old World. Inevitable wealth was accompanied by pirate raids and the entire coast, especially Cartagena, was under siege for most of its early settled existence.
Post independence, the Caribbean coast continued to thrive economically, helped by the rise of industrial Barranquilla. The newest cash cow is, surprisingly, coal. Latin America's largest coal-mining operation is the El Cerrejón coal mine on the Guajira Peninsula.