Bucaramanga: Discovering the Food, Nightlife and Culture of Eastern Colombia

ceviche in colombia
Johan and Isabel, taking a shot
Johan and Isabel, taking a shot

Writer’s note: This is part one of a two-part story.

BUCARAMANGA — The plane landed on a plateau overlooking the city, a beautiful view common in Colombia but still breathtaking every time.

I have wanted to go to Santander for some time now. I had read about Bucaramanga and Barichara, and a couple of nice places in between.

I have arrived, I thought to myself, as I walked through Bucaramanga’s airport.

After an hour in the air, I took a taxi into the city, to KasaGuane, a modern hostel in the trendy Nuevo Sotomayor neighborhood east of downtown. I wanted to stay in Bucaramanga’s version of Parque Lleras, at least for my first two nights in the city, so that’s all I booked, two nights.

Buca, as locals call it, is a city of 1 million known for its nightlife. With 10 universities, it’s no surprise the rumba here is alive and well.

Too bad I couldn’t get to it immediately. I had homework to finish first. That’s right, homework. I’m two classes away from earning my TESOL certificate at Penn State.

I realized something else: completing any task on an empty stomach is hard to do, especially when your tummy is rumbling.

After I settled in at KasaGuane, I headed to Martín Vaz do Mar, a seafood restaurant about four blocks away overlooking Parque Las Palmas. The service was a little slow but the layout was nice.

It looked expensive, and it was. The ceviche I ordered cost me 18,000 pesos, about $9. But it might have been the best ceviche I ever had.

Finishing my homework was no problem now. Or so I thought. For some reason, the time I was there, the wi-fi was wavering more than Mitt Romney. But two of the owners at KasaGuane, two friendly Brits named Tim and Milo, were getting it fixed.

By now, I’m sure it’s up and running again. And at least I was able to get online a couple of times. I couldn’t pick up any wi-fi on my laptop in San Gil. But I’ll get to that later.

That first night I called my friend Isabel. I met her a few weeks earlier, shortly after I returned to Medellín from Florida. Daniel, the first friend I ever made in Medellín, introduced me. She was in town visiting family and when I mentioned I hoped to someday visit Bucaramanga, she offered to show me around.

The Highlights

1. The Food

Especially the seafood, a nice surprise in eastern Colombia.

Isabel and I went to a place near Kasa Guane called Cafe con Arte. We both got the mixed grill, although I got the carne, she got the seafood. I had chicken and steak with onions and red peppers that the chefs put in a huge chunk of maduro (sweet plantain) that they had carved like a canoe.

Isabel had a mix of shrimp and robalo with onions and peppers that were placed on a kabob. Each plate cost 22,000 pesos, or around $11.

The next night, I ate some of the best sushi ever at Biako Wok. My favorite roll was filled with salmon, avocado and cream cheese and was enveloped with a thin strip of maduro. Just that one roll cost 23,000 pesos, $11.50.

That’s expensive even in the United States. It was worth it, though.

2. The Music

I visited Isabel at the Universidad de Industrial Santander on Friday morning and she invited me to her music class.

One of the music genres was bambucos, a folksy music that features the guitar, the tambourine and an instrument called the bandola, which looks like a mix of an ukulele and a violin, and is picked like a guitar.

3. KasaGuane

The location was great, the rooms were clean, the price was right (only 20,000 pesos, or $10, for a dorm; 40,000 pesos, or $20, for a private room), and Tim and Milo could answer any questions I had. Best of all, there were really interesting people staying there.

I met a guy named Duncan who made his way to Colombia from Seattle, on his motorcycle. The only other form of transportation he used was the boat to get from Panama to Colombia since there is no safe road connecting the countries.

There was a guy there named Max from Argentina, and another guy named Fabian, a native of Bucaramanga, who invited me to have a couple of beers with them. And there was Dave, an Alaskan who had been backpacking through South America for three months.

4. New Friends

The people of Bucaramanga are not always as outgoing as the people of Medellín when you first meet them. But just be friendly and humble and they’ll warm to you. They did with me.

Fabian was really nice. So were Isabel’s friends, Angelica and her brother Johan — the four of us went out Friday night to a club called Conga & Bongo, where we danced salsa and merengue. And when Dave overheard me asking Milo about how to find the bus to San Gil, he asked to come along.

My plan was to return to Bucaramanga on Monday, but that changed.

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    • Colombia is such a beautiful place. I was lucky to grow up in Hawaii, and I’m lucky to live in Colombia now. And yes, the ceviche was amazing.

  1. Been living in Bucaramanga for 6 months, the people here are horrible. It is like a hot New York City. The men are aggresively jealous of foreigners, sometimes to the point of violence, and the women want you to take them on five or more dates before they will even take your hand, but while you are ‘courting them’ they will be having sex with a Colombian ‘friend’ behind your back.