Discover a New Travel Destination in Colombia: Santander and Bucaramanga
To have a break from the chaos that exists from living in a popular beach destination like Cartagena, we were introduced to the idea of traveling to a city inland a bit between Cartagena and Bogotá called Bucaramanga. So, we took 5 days and traveled the sites in Bucaramanga, and the surrounding towns including the historic Girón, Guadalupe, San Gil, Barichara, and Guane.
Enjoy the View of Bucaramanga
Bucaramanga is a metropolitan area of over a million people nestled on a plateau among the Colombian Andes. The city itself is sprawling with many designated areas and neighborhoods, each with their own character. Bucaramanga is not yet a popular tourist destination, more of a middle-class working city, but with the increase in tourism in all of Colombia after the recent peace agreement, it will continue to grow in Bucaramanga too.
Walk Quaint Girón with an Alarming Past
Leaving the airport, we arrived in the nearby city of Girón, which is part of the greater Bucaramanga metropolitan area. Girón is a National Monument of Colombia, with its mandatory white-walled, dark brown painted doors, and red-tiled roof buildings. In the city square is the beautiful and imposing Basílica Menor de San Juan Bautista.
The city also has a popular park that runs between Calle 27 and the Rio de Oro (River of Gold) that was packed on the Sunday afternoon that we visited.
It is where you can order fritanga from any number of vendors in the park, which is essentially a pile of various fried meat products.
Gondola to Santísimo
A relatively recent addition to the area of Bucaramanga is the 120-foot statue of Jesus found in the Ecoparque Cerro del Santísimo, which is technically in the town of Floridablanca. Taking a gondola up to the top of the mountain, the sight is similar to the Christ the Redeemer statue found in Brazil. For a nominal fee you can even take an elevator to the top of the statue and look down upon the city of Bucaramanga below.
The park also has a main stage where there was a dance troop demonstrating various traditional Colombian dances.
Plus, there is a nightly water show where the fountain in front of the stage is coordinated to water and lights.
Santísimo also provides a good view of the lighted bridge in Bucaramanga called the “Puente de la Novena.” It is a two-pillared cable suspension bridge that the city has lit with LED lights that change.
Sleep Comfortably at the Hotel Dann Carlton
We spent the first night at the Hotel Dann Carlton in Bucaramanga. The bellhop was attentive, the reception desk staff were a pleasure (and spoke English), and the rooms were perfect. Located on the roof deck, overlooking the city below, the hotel offers a great breakfast with the best view of the city.
For more in-depth information about our trip to Bucaramanga, including additional photos and video clips, select here.
Journey to Chicamocha Canyon
After a delicious breakfast at the roof top restaurant at the Hotel Dann Carlton, we started our journey to Chicamocha Canyon, and ultimately Guadalupe.
We stopped at the entrance to the Chicamocha National Park and got out to stretch our legs and enjoy the view. The park is located on the side of the green covered canyon. We didn’t enter the park, as our ultimate destination for the day was the small town of Guadalupe, but the park does include a water park (which did not appear to be open when we visited), a very recognizable monument to the local culture, and most notably a cable car system that stretches across the canyon.
Stop at the Fruit Stands
As we continued our trip on to Guadalupe, our guide stopped at a local fruit stand to let us sample some fresh squeezed jugo de mandarina (mandarin orange juice), which was delicious.
Welcome to Guadalupe
We continued our journey which likely took over 6 hours and finally found ourselves in the very, very small town of Guadalupe. I loved this town. It was small, and quaint, and beautifully maintained, with a traditional town square and obligatory catholic church.
We ate at the only spot in town that was still open for lunch given that it was a Monday holiday. I do not even know if it had a name, but it was located right on the square next to the church and served us delicious roast chicken with baked potatoes.
Slide into a Plunge Pool in Las Gachas
The purpose of our journey all the way to Guadalupe was for their recently publicized natural swimming holes, called Las Gachas.
Las Gachas is a shallow river with a naturally red stone as its riverbed, and the stone has these large, deep holes in it. Some holes are several meters deep and over a meter wide. The river and stone is reminiscent of Caño Cristales, another rainbow river found deeper south in Colombia. But the color for Las Gachas is the result of the colored stone, rather than colored algae in Caño Cristales, so you can visit Las Gachas any time of the year and see the beautiful color because it is not seasonal.
Our guide parked our vehicle in his favorite, non-descript spot at a home along the road and we hiked approximately 30 minutes into the river.
The famous activity to do at the river is to run and slide head first across the rock (think Slip and Slide from your childhood days) and dive into the holes. Our guide, and eventually my husband, was brave enough to try. The kids and I were happy to just jump in the holes. And it is recommended to bring water shoes and an old t-shirt. The shoes are for walking on the slippery rock and the t-shirt is in case you want to protect your chest and bathing suit as a you slide across the rock on your belly.
Sleep Comfortably in the Hostel
Because Guadalupe is such a small town, there are no traditional hotels, only hostels. We stayed at one run by José Navarro located right on the town square, who also runs his own adventure tours in and around Guadalupe. We had his hostel all to ourselves which consisted of 3 bedrooms, a bathroom (with a shower, but no hot water), an open courtyard, a sitting room with hammocks, and a kitchen. And José is so nice and an incredibly gracious host. He doesn’t speak any English, but we communicated with him in our gringo Spanish just fine.
For more in-depth information about our trip to Guadalupe, including additional photos and video clips, select here.
Dare the Adventure Capital of Santander
Heading back towards Bucaramanga we stopped for a night in the city that is known as the adventure capital of the region, San Gil. In this city you can find plenty of adventure tour companies willing to take you paragliding, repelling down waterfalls, white water rafting, bungee jumping, etc. We chose to pass on these adventure activities and instead did some more kid-friendly activities.
Taste the Local Fruit…and Hormigas?
The drive from Guadalupe to San Gil is at least 3 hours, especially when you stop to learn to identify the bushes growing coffee beans and cacao along the way. We even hopped out of our vehicle along the road and our guide harvested a cacao fruit so we could taste the white, slimy fruit with a seed inside that could eventually be dried to make chocolate.
We also saw scores of people all along the roads we traveled with bags of what looked like small plums for sale. But we soon learned that they were ants. Hormigas culonas to be exact, which literally translates to “big ass ants.” And they certainly lived up to their name. They are sold alive or dead, fried or not, with or without the legs and wings. We chose to keep on driving and not partake in tasting this customary snack, thank you very much.
Visit the Attractions in the City of San Gil
The city of San Gil itself seemed like a somewhat typical sprawling Colombian town with hilly streets reminiscent of San Francisco at times.
We tried to visit the Pozos Azúles, which are typically beautiful blue pools of water that are great for swimming, but the recent rains turned the pools to cloudy, brown and not very inviting for swimming. So, instead we headed to a restaurant across the street from the pools and enjoyed watching Colombia play in the semi-finals of the World Cup on a large TV screen.
When Colombia and England tied, we decided to continue our adventure in Gallineral Park. The park is best known for the hanging moss that covers the trees, and provides a kind of mystical landscape.
Relax by the Pool
After a long day of driving and some adventures, we decided to return to our hotel, the Hotel Santa Catalina, and enjoy some time in the pool. We also played some mean games of ping pong and air hockey.
Eat Like a Gringo
We decided to dine in a local establishment that is well-known to our types…Gringo Mike’s. The food was scrumptious and for a time we even forgot we were in a foreign country as it was so reminiscent of the U.S.
Get in a Round of Tejo
After dinner we tried to play Tejo at the large Tejo Court in San Gil, but it was closed for some unknown reason even though the sign said it should have been open. We suspect that Colombia’s loss in the World Cup that day perhaps soured the mood and they decided not to open for the night. We were going to find another court, but our son passed out in the backseat of the vehicle after such a long day and we decided to call it a night.
For more in-depth information about our trip to San Gil, including additional photos and video clips, select here.
Meander through Barichara
The charming village of Barichara with cobbled streets, a large town square, and the requisite whitewashed walls and red-tile roofs, is just 30 minutes from San Gil.
It has a beautiful Catholic church on the town square that captured my husband’s attention as a great photographic point of interest.
We walked around the town, enjoying the artisan stores, including a non-descript building that educated women in town on the art of paper making and then sold their products to tourists.
The store opened up to beautiful grounds in the backyard where they had a garden displaying the various plants they used to turn into paper.
In the course of our day, we also dined a few times at this hip, but quaint bakery located right on the square, Nona’s Bread. Inside we found tasty pastries and breads, plus delicious lunch options.
Hike the Camino Real
At the top of the town is a gorgeous lookout into the canyon formed by the Suarez River.
We soon walked down into that canyon using the “Camino Real” trail which leads to the even smaller town of Guane. The hike is beautiful and leads you over rough cobble stone pavers through the countryside. A former trade route, it is now only visited by people on pilgrimage from Barichara to Guane.
Guane is a very, very small town, with a small town square and not much else. We did nose around a bit in some of the shops on the square, but they were mostly filled with tourist trinkets, not artisan wares. Then we hopped a local bus back to Barichara and made our way back to San Gil, then Bucaramanga for the night.
Return to Bucaramanga
We made the 3 hour drive from San Gil to Bucaramanga as the sun was setting, which quickly turned into night. I would not recommend this drive at night. The road between the cities is mountainous, windy, and most importantly, packed with delivery and semi-trucks. And passing these slow moving trucks with all the curves of the road is death-defying, so take our advice and travel in the daytime.
Our night was spent once again at the Hotel Dann Carlton, and it was like returning home after so many full days of adventure. We cannot recommend this hotel enough.
For more in-depth information about our trip to Barichara, including additional photos and video clips, select here.
Hire Wolf Tours Colombia
We were met in the lobby of the hotel by the owner of the tour company we used, Dominic Wolf with Wolf Tours Colombia. They were recommended to us by a group of friends, and we are so thankful for their advice.
We have never used a tour company before in all of our travel, but it was fantastic. I trusted them implicitly and did not even do much research on the areas we were visiting, I simply left the planning and navigating to them. Dominic completely planned our itinerary based on our interests and dislikes (e.g., my son’s fear of heights).
Sebastian, our guide, was fabulous and from the beginning of the trip insisted that his only desire was for us to be best of friends by the end of the trip. Well, his wish was granted, as we, and especially my kids, loved having him around. I believe this was one of our first trips that my kids were really sad to leave and head home and that was mainly due to having to say goodbye to Sebastian.
We were driven everywhere in a private SUV, no public transportation (except as required after our hike to Guane). We were picked up directly from the airport and Sebastian never left our side through the entire vacation.
Logistically, everything was completely handled for us. Sebastian drove us everywhere, registered us at all of our hotels, led us to restaurants, and handled any complications we met along the trip. Plus, he provided interesting historic information on all of the places we visited, with some side stops to make the travel more interesting, and he was clearly very familiar and comfortable with all the towns.
Most importantly he generally was happy and fun to be around and provided someone for my kids to play with, like a big brother. Having a tour company take you to all of these towns is nearly required, as some are pretty remote, and we cannot recommend Wolf Tours enough. And I need to mention that everyone at Wolf Tours speaks English!
We woke in the morning and enjoyed yet another of the Hotel Dann Carlton breakfasts. Then we made our way to the airport for the relatively short flight home to Cartagena.
Some trips you take, you are ready to go home and sleep in your own bed. At the end of this trip, all of us felt we could have spent a couple more days traveling.
Our days were packed with activities and a lot of driving between towns. A few more days may have allowed us to slow down a bit and enjoy some of the towns more. For example, we would have liked more time in Guadalupe, another night in Barichara, and time to visit the leather shoe district of Bucaramanga.
But, maybe it just leaves us with some reasons to go back. Dominic, at Wolf Tours, is working on some new travel destinations around Bucaramanga and Sebastian has already agreed to take us wherever we want to go…
Location: The Department of Santander is located on the eastern side of Colombia. Bucaramanga is the largest city in that Department. Bucaramanga has its own international airport named Palonegro International Airport (Airport code = BGA).
Tour guide to hire: Wolf Tours Colombia
Extend your stay: Our trip was 5 days and 4 nights, but we could have extended the trip by a few days. First, I would recommend staying the night in Guadalupe and then visiting Las Gachas the following morning. It was a long day of driving to Guadalupe and then we visited Las Gachas that same day, so we were a bit tired at Las Gachas and probably cut our visit at the river short because of it. Second, we would recommend staying a night in Barichara so that you spend an entire day and night in the town. Yes, it is such a cute, quaint town to do so. Third, we never had time to visit the leather shoe district in Bucaramanga, which would have been nice.
Come prepared: Bring toilet paper. Many of the places we stopped to use the bathroom either did not have toilet paper or they charged you to use it. I kept a small plastic bag filled with toilet paper in my backpack and kept refilling it over the entire trip.
Bugs: Yes, there are plenty of insects along many of the hikes, especially through the grass on the way to Las Gachas and the El Camino Real hike. So, bring and use bug spray.