Off the beaten path Santander, a Colombian department, is rarely visited. Santander is on the east side of Colombia between two mountain ranges one of which borders Venezuela. It’s a region with green mountains that go from tropical valleys to high plains, tumbling rivers, deep gorges, sleepy Spanish colonial villages and bustling medium sized cities.
Not many people know much about Santander because it’s not on the road to any significant stop in Colombia. It’s a 15 hour – 450 mile bus ride from Cartagena to the north and 250 miles and another 10 hour mountainous bus ride to Bogota to the south. Why bother? It’s one of the cheapest areas in the country offering bargain adventure, colonial lodgings, a great climate and country food.
Bucaramanga – the main city you arrive at is the capital. It’s a modern industrial city of about 500,000 and the capital of the department of Santander. It’s out of the way but a good place to stop, relax and enjoy another side of Colombia. It’s especially appreciated after traveling the coast with its the crushing heat.
Not too many people have ever visited this town. Everyone has heard of it, but few have gone – which is maybe why I liked it. I didn’t see one foreigner the whole time I was there. The city of Bucaramanga is a tad congested and not the most walkable city in Colombia. Called ‘the city of parks’ but all of the vegetation in the parks has been drying up and dying due to global warming so don’t expect to see all that much greenery.
My favorite parks are Jardin Botanico Valezuelo, also known as ‘El Paraguitas’ – a large park in Floridablanca up the mountain. The Rio Frio runs through it and it’s an oasis, a quiet, shaded park where turtles, birds and sloths roam freely.
In the center of town Parque Garcia Roviera (Calle 36 Cra. 20), near the government buildings and courthouses, has a lot of palm trees, empty benches and pigeons.
Located near the park is the Casa Cultural (Calle 37 #12-40a). It’s dedicated to Simon Bolivar and the fight for independence. But it is even more memorable for it’s nice display of well preserved mummies.
Calle 35 (between Parque Santander and Parque Garcia Roviera) is a very interesting street. It is closed to traffic, full of shops and little malls and street vendors.
And just off this avenue is the central market of Bucaramanga. A large, four story structure. It is very clean with hundreds of stalls selling everything from food to clothes. There are also restaurants and a row of jugo or fruit juice stands on the third floor.
Just up from Plaza Bolivar is the Museum of Modern Art (Calle 37 Cra. 26) Entrance is free.
There plenty of restaurants and hotels in all different price points and thousands of taxis that will take you anywhere for a dollar or two. I stayed at the Hotel Hormiga Cra. 17c No. 55-56 in the center by the new market. It had an outdoor pool, private room with private bath, air, t.v., desk and a window for just $20 a night.
Hormiga means ants and in Santander they eat ants – Hormigas Culonas or ants with big butts. They are sold as boxed novelties, a conversation piece found all over the place. Like the early American settlers in America would eat grub which was whatever they found crawling around under a rock – squashed and heated up in a tin cup. A cheap sort of protein. No one actually east grub anymore but we call catching a bite, ‘getting some grub’. You get the idea. The ants are roasted and are crunchy like coffee beans.
Around Bucaramanga – there are places to visit – enough to fill up 2-3 days with plenty of time to relax.
Ecoparque Cerro del Santisimo is a new structure built a few years ago. You take the cable car up into to a mountain offering a ‘mirador’ or lookout over the city. Here there is a huge Christ statue, one of the largest in South America and you can take an elevator up into the head of the statue for a better view. Below there are food stalls and a nice horse shoe plaza offering exhibits and performances.
Also outside the city is another park called Mesa de las Santas y Panachi. It has another cable car that will take you across a huge gorge to an amusement park – all rather expensive.
Like Giron and Floridablanca, Piedecuesta is a village about a 30 minutes drive outside of Bucaramanga. But it refuses to be a suburb and demands to be considered a town in its own right.
Giron is outside of the city of Bucaramanga there’s the delightful gem of a colonial town – Giron which only the locals seem to know about. It reminded me of Mompox. It’s a nice town for a stroll. There’s a nice Church in the main plaza and a market off to the side. And down by the river there are more market stalls, tejo courts and an old bridge going over the river.
Foreigners, mostly senior citizens from Europe, are seeking out these colonial towns to come and winter in – a week here – a week there – biding their time till spring when they return home. The villages are quiet, quaint, the locals are friendly and the prices of food and lodging – practically a steal.
San Vicente de Chucuri
is a torturous 3 hour ride north of Bucaramanga on gravel roads through green mountains and farms. San Vincente, not so long ago a stronghold of the FARC. The town is famous for its avocadoes, coffee and cocoa beans used for making chocolate. They even make a delicious coffee and cocoa breads here.
Berlin – an interesting day trip from Buca is to take a bus up into the mountains of the Eastern Cordillera, a two hour trip ($6) to the town of Berlin which is located at 4,350 meters above sea level. Here the air is thin and cool. Berlin is high in the mountain plains of the Cordillera Oriental and reminds one of the Scottish Highlands.
Pamplona — C0ntinueing on down the road you arrive at the quaint little colonial village of Pomplona. This village is a 4.5 hour bus trip from Bucaramanga. Pamplona is a university town and 40% of the inhabitants are students. At 6,600 feet above sea level, it’s warm during the day and cold at night. But like most college towns in Colombia (Popayan being the most famous) they are lively, laid back and extremely friendly and open. The main square, center of town, is Parque Ayueda Gallando where everyone gathers. There are lots of little museums in town but unfortunately most of them don’t open till 3.
Cucuta – further down the mountain from Pamplona lies the city of Cucuta. It is a hot, humid town on the Colombian/Venezuelan border. Probably the most important border crossing between the two countries, it has also been called the contraband capital of Colombia. It’s a town in crisis, overrun by desperate refugees who sleep in the parks and beg on the streets. More than 1.5 million Venezuelan refuges are now in Colombia. Thousands more are entering everyday. The U.N. says more than 3 million Venezuelans have left their country making this the largest displacement of people in Latin America history.
Chicamocha Canyon and the Chicamocha National Park
The Chicamocha Canyon is one of the national treasures of Colombia. Located just 34 miles (54 km) south of Bucaramanga on the road to San Gil. The canyon is 6,600 feet (2,000 meters) deep and 141 miles long (227 km.) making it the second largest canyon in the world.
There is a park right off the road, The Chicamocha National Park, established in 2007. This park is a must see if just for the views. There are plenty of activities in the park including a waterpark, ziplining, paragliding and an aerial cable car that crosses from one side of the canyon to the other – the second longest cable car ride in the world. The entrance to the park is 25,000 COP ($8) and another 25,000 COP with the cable car ride. The park is open Wednesday – Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the weekends.
Barichara – a few hours travel south of Bucaramanga there’s the town of Barichara founded in 1741 which means in the native Guane language “place of rest with flowering trees”.
Barichara is less expensive than neighboring Villa de Leyva. The streets are made of cobblestones and the whitewashed colonial houses have been kept original. They filmed many Colombian movies here. Inside the houses remind me of Tuscany with wooden beams, terra-cotta tile floors and terra-cotta roof tiles. The town has been named the most beautiful village in Colombia. I stayed at the ‘Mansion of Virginia’ in town. A nice little colonial style hotel with only a few rooms. It has a tasteful courtyard and breakfast is included in the deal.
Guane – is next to Barichara it is the smaller village of Guane a 30 minute bus ride away. The houses in town were all whitewashed colonial style like in Barichra and there was a nice church in town. Though the town wasn’t as clean or as well maintained as Barichara so a morning or afternoon day trip is sufficient. Neither village is even remotely being crushed by tourism like Villa de Leyva and the towns are not as pricey. Here they specialize in a drink called Sabajon -crème liquer -Baileys kind of drink mixed with alcohol and infused with coffee or whisky.
Magotes – the hour bus ride over the mountains from San Gil, through the coffee and sugar cane fields, is worth the trip alone. Mogotes is a small farming town where the village streets turn into dirt paths on the outskirts of town leading up into farming country. Here men with machetes and straw hats ride through the town on magnificient horses.
Socorro – is a town outside of San Gil where the scream of the cicadas in the trees on the main square is so loud it fills the adjacent dome of the Basilica with a surreal undulating high pitched screech. There a nice museum just up the street from the main square called ‘Casa della Cultura‘ and the ladies working there give a very nice tour.
Curiti – is a little gem of a pueblo just 30 minutes bus ride outside of San Gil. It was hands down my favorite and one to which I will be returning soon. There’s a nice colonial hotel right on the main plaza called Hotel Colonial Vizcaya where the rooms are only $20 a night. There are a few food restaurants offering local fare. But the town is mainly known for its arts and crafts using the local ‘fique‘ fiber. There’s a cooperative factory called Ecofibras, right in town that offers free tours of the fique weaving process. This craft dates back a thousand years to the Guane tribes who extracted the fibers from agave type cactuses and weaved them into clothing. The locals have taken this ancient art and marketed it as an ecological alternative to plastic.
After stripping the cactus of its fibers, the threads are manually combed to extract the impurities then died with 70 different naturally extracted colors. Then the fibers are weaved into a course cloth used to make fabrics, bags, rugs, shoes, wall hangings and numerous other products. The weave can be of pure fique fibers, which tend to be somewhat course, or mixed with cotton producing a softer material.
The town markets their material as an eco-fiber. For household use they make shopping/tote bags. And for commercial use gunny sacks for Colombia’s coffee shipments and large fique fiber rugs for export – a hot item in Switzerland they tell me.
Excellent swimming holes are located just a 30 minute walk downhill outside of Curiti. Tuk Tuks can take you down for cheap and an occasional bus comes by every couple hours to take you back up the hill into town. The place is called Pozzo Azul, or the blue pool. The locals call it El Balneario de Pescaderito. Just take the path going up river and there is one deep swimming hole after another. There is a restaurant/bar on the road by the river.
San Gil – in juxtaposition to these laid back villages, just a 30 minute trip from Barichara, a 3 hour trip from Bucaramanga, is the town of San Gil – nicknamed the extreme sports adventure capital of Colombia. Located between two rivers the town is larger town than expected but laid back. Here there are plenty of hotels and restaurants. The town’s main park is Parque Liberdad a nice place to sit and soak in the energy of the town.
Down by the river along the malecon there is Parque Gallineral, a 20 acre park on the edge of town down by the Foce river. It has huge Chiminago trees covered with long silvery tendrils of Spanish moss called barba del Viejo (the old man’s beard). A great place to find a bench and relax. They also have a very nice pool in the park next to the bar, which is hardly used during the weekdays. The entrance fee wristband is only $2, with use of the pool, and you can come and go all day.
San Gil – Capital of Adventure Sports – This is this only place in Santander adventure seeking young travelers will visit, putting up with a 14 hour all night bus trip just to get here. If you’re an adrenaline junkie and have adventure sports on your bucket list, this is your Colombian destination. Just check them off one by one at a small fraction of what it would cost you back home. San Gil is even a lot cheaper than other South American adventure destinations like Banos in Ecuador.
The sports take place on and around the Rio Fonce, which doesn’t go through San Gil, as I had expected, but is short trip down into a valley gorge, the deepest gorge in Colombia after the Colorado River.
Adventures For Hire:
Here one can go paragliding through the deepest gorge in Colombia for 30 minutes with transportation, lunch, tandem guide, sails, equipment – just $60
River Rafting down the Rio Fonce rapids – the #2-#3 stage for 1.5 hours always with transportation, lunch, guide, equipment – $13
River Rafting at the fourth level for 24 km. down and insanely fast stretch of the Rio Fonce river just – $48 – you know you want it.
Abseiling, known as rappelling in Colombia, up 180’ through a three-tier waterfall – $20.
Caving or Speleology through caves half filled with water leading to bat filled rooms and saloons with waterfalls – $10
Bungee jumping from 210 feet up over a river – $25
An all-day bicycle tour with a guide, breakfast, lunch, bikes 75 km. – $90
Horseback riding with lunch and guide – $35.
The agencies in town will organize everything. They’ll even do combo packages where you can squeeze as many activities as you can possibly endure into 1-3 days. Then there’s kayaking, swimming and hiking activities you can pretty much do on your own.
To get there: I traveled there from Urbino in the Guaijara Penninsula. Stopped for one night in Valledupar – a four hour trip from Urbino. The next day got a bus to Bucaramanga which is an 8 hour trip about 420 miles from Bogota. The city has an airport and you can fly in from Panama City or any major city in Colombia. Most people going to San Gil come from Bogota or the Atlantic coast. From the Bucaramanga bus terminal it is a six hour trip through the mountains to Barichara. To get to San Gil it’s a four hour bus ride from Barichara to Tunja ($2). It’s an 8 hour bus trip from Medellin.
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