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Physical Landscapes century, European engineers considered this soggy depression as a possible route for an interocean ship canal. They eventu-­ ally abandoned the idea, though, because they decided that building a canal there would cost too much money. In the early twentieth century, U.S. engineers would finally build such a canal, but they chose to dig it across Panama (Colombia’s Cen-­ tral American neighbor to the northwest). At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Spanish made Colombia’s Caribbean coast their main gateway for settlement on tierra firme, present-day northwestern South America, Cen-­ tral America, and the western Caribbean. A close examination of a map of the coastline reveals four large natural harbors. Three became sites of early coastal ports and entry points for inland settlement and trade. The most westerly harbor is the Gulf of Urabá. This ­ raindrop-­shaped bay will never become a ­ first-­class harbor because it is too shallow for large ships. As a result, to this day, it does not have a major port town. In contrast, the next two harbors to the east are large seaports. Cartagena, which is the site of an important colonial fortress, is the next harbor to the east, while Barranquilla, which is just northeast of Cartagena, is the country’s most important sea-­ port. The fourth and most easterly harbor is the site of Santa Marta, the oldest city in ­Colombia. The Santa Marta Mountains (Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta) rise out of the Caribbean and overlook the city of Santa Marta. This range is impressive for its ­ cloud-­shrouded sum-­ mits, some of which reach nearly 19,000 feet (5,800 meters) above sea level. The mountainous area has a colorful history of coffee cultivation and illegal marijuana production. The Guajira Peninsula, which juts into the Caribbean Sea, makes up the extreme northeast coast. Colombia shares an international border along the full length of the peninsula with Venezuela. As we shall see, this dreary piece of land has become a haven for drug traffickers because of its remoteness and strategic location on a key ­drug-­trafficking route to North America and ­Europe.



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