Colombia has been steadily rising on the tourism radar over the past decade, and it’s for good reason. The country offers something for every type of traveler, has become significantly safer, and is easy on your budget. I first visited Colombia 10 years ago, just before it became a big tourist draw. While the country has changed a lot between then and now, it has mainly been for the better. Sure, there are quite a few tourists, but it’s not overrun by tourism quiet yet – so go, before it is!
Now, the destinations that you’ll hear the most about are the likes of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, Medellin and the coffee region, and Bogota – the country’s capital. But there is much more to explore – and Santander is one of these world-class destinations that is often not on a typical Colombian itinerary. It’s best known as Colombia’s adventure sport capital, but there are plenty of other attractions – tiny colonial towns, lovely hiking trails, and the stunning Chicamocha canyon. Here are just a few things you can do in Santander.
Get Adventurous in San Gil
As I mentioned before, Santander is usually referred to as the adventure capital of Colombia. And truly, this is a paradise for adrenaline junkies! In fact, one of the top attractions here is paragliding over the Chicamocha canyon, which comes highly recommended. You can also go bungee jumping, white water rafting, repelling, caving, climbing, mountain biking, and trekking. As always, it’s best to go with a trust-worthy company for any of these activities – the good ones offer insurance, have all the proper gear and well-trained staff to guide you through the activities.
Having said this, if you don’t enjoy adventure sports, there are plenty of other, more laid-back things to do. In the city itself, there is the wonderful Parque El Gallineral, which runs along the Fonce River. San Gil also makes for a great base to explore the surrounding area. Pozo Azul and Pescaderito are lovely areas for swimming in natural river pools. The Chicamocha canyon is nearby, and there are plenty of picturesque hikes around the city.
Climb the Chicamocha Canyon
The absolute top attraction in the area is the Chicamocha Canyon. First of all, it’s simply a stunning place, about 2000 meters deep and offering beautiful landscape views. But in Santander, you can really experience the canyon in many ways. First of all, it offers really good climbing tracks and many companies offer both beginner and more advanced climbing excursions. There is even a hostel on the side of the canyon that specifically caters to climbers called Refugio de la Roca. Please keep in mind that I would only recommend it for climbers – I stayed here for 1 night and it wasn’t ideal unless your only goal is to climb. It has a lot of potential, but there doesn’t seem to be proper management, so I’d look elsewhere for rooms with stunning views!
Other Ways to Experience the Canyon
Of course, like me, you might not be a climber or have an interest in spending your budget on gear and lessons. Not to worry – there are other ways to experience the canyon. You can head to Parque Nacional de Chicamocha instead. It’s sort of like an amusement park, but built right on the edge of the canyon. Try to go during the week and when students are in school, then you are likely to have the park basically to yourself. It was such a weird but great experience! There is a water park overlooking the canyon, which was absolutely stunning. Inside, you will also find a really cool monument, and some fun attractions like repelling, a giant swing over the canyon, go karts, etc.
Now, one thing that should not be missed is the Chicamocha Canyon cable car. It’s one of the longest in the world – 6.3 kilometers and the ride lasts about 20-30 minutes, with breathtaking panoramic views of the canyon. The cable car runs from the amusement park, takes you down to the bottom of the canyon and climbs back up to the opposite side of the canyon, dropping you off in Mesa de Los Santos. Here, you’ll find some shops and cafes, and you can go back to the park to get transportation back to San Gil or Bucaramanga. We actually took some time to walk around Mesa de Los Santos, and it’s a lovely way to see the rural way of life in the area.
Relax in Barichara
My favorite town in Santander was definitely Barichara. It’s a beautiful, very well-maintained colonial town, with small cobbled streets, artisan shops and tasty restaurants. It offers beautiful views over the surrounding country-side, stunning sunrises and a really laid-back atmosphere. Barichara is the perfect place to relax after all of the excitement of San Gil and the Chicamocha Canyon. Additionally, you can do some really easy and scenic hikes, such as the walk from Barichara to Guane or Cabrera. If you have a little extra money to spend, then I highly recommend staying at the Casa Barichara Boutique. We stumbled upon it after not loving our first accommodation, and it is the perfect boutique hotel experience. They only have a few rooms, a lovely pool with a view over the surrounding mountains, delicious home-made breakfasts, and impeccable service – the perfect place to relax.
You will likely have to go through Bucaramanga at some point on your trip to Santander, since it is the department’s capital. And if you have the time to spend a couple of nights here or more, then it’s definitely a good idea. The town is surprisingly lovely, clean, and well-organized. It has an eternal spring climate and offers a few attractions of its own. Just 10km outside the city center, you’ll find the charming town of Giron. It’s nice to walk around the cobble streets, see the handicraft shops and sample some of the area’s popular cuisine. You should also visit the eco-park called Cerro del Santisimo. You can either walk up or take the cable car up to the top, where you’ll see a giant Jesus statue. The views over the city from here are beautiful, but if you visit at night, there is also a pretty cool fountain lights show, depicting the history of Santander.
Getting There and Around
Santander sounds great – but how do you get there? Well, it’s actually pretty easy. The most convenient way is of course to fly, there are multiple flights daily from Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena and other destinations in Colombia. There is also a daily flight to Panama City. For a more budget-friendly option, there are plenty of buses serving Bucaramanga from all directions. It’s about 10 hours to Bogota and 15 hours to the Caribbean coast. You can also take a bus from Bogota directly to San Gil, which only takes about 8 hours. Once in the area, there are plenty of buses that travel between all of the main destinations, and minivans that go to the smaller villages and areas of interest.
A little word of caution: the budget airline – VivaColombia flies here and tickets can be very cheap. If you do choose to go with them, be warned that flights get cancelled regularly! We had no issues getting in from Bogota, but on the way back our flight was cancelled. They gave us the option to fly out the next day or to refund the fare. Because we had a flight out of Bogota the next day, we took the refund and paid way more for a different airline. The point is, book with them at your own risk and make sure you don’t have any connections with a different airline on the same day!