Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta: Earth’s highest coastal mountain

My friend Maria met me in Medellín, and from there we flew north to Santa Marta, located on the Caribbean coast. Santa Marta was founded in 1525, and is the oldest surviving Spanish settlement in Colombia. Prior to the Spanish conquest, the native Tayrona people had lived in the region for thousands of years. In a story common throughout the Americas, arriving Europeans decimated the indigenous population and caused the remaining people to abandon principal settlements such as the Ciudad Perdida (lost city) that we visited (theme of next post).

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (SNSM) is a triangular-shaped, isolated mountain located southeast of Santa Marta. It is called the highest coastal mountain on Earth. Just 42 km (26 miles) from the coast, Pico Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus peak) reaches an estimated height of 5,730 m (~18,800 ft). Although the Andes extend south–north through most of Colombia, the SNSM is separated from the Andes and is higher than any of the Andean peaks in Colombia, including the active volcanoes.

This Google Earth image shows Santa Marta—the city on the left (west) side of the map, Parque National Tayrona—the coastal park northeast of Santa Marta, Palomino—the town east of Tayrona park at the north end of La Guajira River where our trek to Ciudad Perdida began, and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (SNSM)—the snowy peaks in bottom center of map. The green symbol in the SNSM is the location of Pico Cristóbal Colón, Colombia’s highest mountain. See the maps in my previous post for this location in the context of the rest of northern Colombia:

Unfortunately, we never saw the high peaks of the SNSM because of cloud cover and because we were too close and could only see the forested northern slopes.

Geology of the SNSM

This geology map of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta (SNSM) is from Volume 3 of the Geology of Colombia series that is available online: The yellow, red and white symbols, and the circled profiles, are places where geologists collected rocks to calculate their ages and to figure out when the mountain range was lifted up to its current great height. The northwestern end of the Kennedy profile is at the city of Santa Marta, and the Fundación profile is on the slope south of the SNSM high peaks.

Even in this small region, rocks have a wide range of ages, from Proterozoic (~1 billion years old) to Quaternary (young sediments now being deposited in the low-lying areas surrounding the triangular-shaped mountain). Rocks such as granulites, gneisses, and mica schist are metamorphic rocks that were altered by high temperatures and pressures, indicating they were deeply buried before being uplifted 10s of kilometers (even 10s of miles) to achieve their current elevation of nearly 6 km (~19,000 ft) above sea level. “Acid intrusive rocks” are silica-rich rocks such as granite that were formed from the cooling of magma underground. All rocks that overlaid these deeply-formed rocks eroded away long ago.

And so it is! Geologic data (see geology map above) indicate that the Sierra Nevada has been lifted vertically many times during the past 66 million years because of plate interactions such as those shown in my first post: Evidence suggests that the most recent pulse of uplift has been occurring during the past 1–2 million years—that’s super recent in geologic time. For millions of years the region has been in a challenging location among four interacting tectonic plates that have separated this mountain from the Andes to the south, rotated it in a clockwise direction, and uplifted it to heights greater than any other in northern South America.

Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park

Although we spent most of our time hiking in the Sierra Nevada, we found a little time to explore the city of Santa Marta and the adjacent Tayrona coastal park.

In the next post, I’ll show photos of our two treks in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta.

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  1. Jane on March 22, 2023 at 11:31 am

    Thanks for your interesting and lucid posts!

    • Landscapes Revealed on March 22, 2023 at 3:44 pm

      Thanks for reading Jane!

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