The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

From the soundtrack of ‘From the Heart of the World’:-

‘Imagine a pyramid standing alone by the sea. Each side a hundred miles long. It’s a mountain, nearly four miles high. In its folds, imagine every different climate on earth. This is the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The people hidden here call the Sierra the Heart of the World. And themselves the Elder Brothers.’


The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the highest mountain between Alaska in the north and Ecuador in the south, and is the largest coastal mountain in the world. It looks as if it should be the northernmost tip of the Andes, but is in fact is a separate tectonic plate. It covers an area of approximately 8,000 square miles, and, within 30 miles, rises from the tropical coasts of the Caribbean to the permanent snowfields of the peaks at 17,000 feet.

As well as supporting its indigenous peoples and ‘colonos’ farmers, it is also home to an immense amount of plant and animal species, about 50 percent of which are unique in the world. The nine biomes that exist in the rest of Colombia live together here. In the Sierra Nevada, one finds coral reefs and mangroves swamps, deserts, dry woods, rain forest, Andean and sub-Andean forests, plains, high plains, and the snow-capped peaks of Colon, Bolivar and Reina. It was named a Human and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1986.

Politically and administratively speaking, the Sierra has been divided into three provinces, ten municipalities, two indigenous reserves, (Arhuaco and Kogi-Malayo), and two National Parks (Sierra Nevada and Tayrona).

The Sierra is vital for the well-being of the whole area. Thousands of creeks, streams, and rivers flow from the peaks, through canyons and hills, forming 35 watersheds along the way. These in turn can be divided into three major areas: the Caribbean Sea, the Great Marshlands of Santa Marta, and the Cesar River. Approximately 20,000 indigenous people and 180,000 ‘colonos’ depend on this water, as well as the inhabitants of Santa Marta, Riohacha, Valledupar, and ten municipalities, with their respective villages, plus the watering canals of banana and cattle farms.

There are two main seasons; the ‘wet’ from April to early December, and the ‘dry’ from late December to March. The effect of the prevailing winds means that these seasons are more marked on the northern and western slopes of the mountain. Here, the rainfall is heavier and forest cover is more extensive.