Rodrigo de Bastidas planted a Spanish flag here in 1525, deliberately choosing a site at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to serve as a convenient base for the reputedly incalculable gold treasures of the indigenous Tayrona.

As soon as the plundering of the Sierra began, so did the inhabitants' resistance. By the end of the 16th century the Tayrona had been wiped out, and many of their extraordinary gold objects (melted down for rough material by the Spaniards) were in the Crown's coffers.

Santa Marta was also one of the early gateways to the interior of the colony. It was from here that Jiménez de Quesada set off in 1536 for his strenuous march up the Magdalena Valley to found Bogotá two years later.

Engaged in the war with the Tayrona and repeatedly ransacked by pirates, Santa Marta didn't have many glorious moments in its colonial history and was soon overshadowed by its younger, more progressive neighbor, Cartagena. Despite this, on December 17, 1830, Simón Bolívar died here, having brought independence to six Latin American countries. His body was later returned to Venezuela in 1842, where it continues to lie in a mausoleum in his native Caracas.