First Impressions of Bucaramanga

View of Bucaramanga from a shopping center
View of Bucaramanga from a shopping center

Visiting Bucaramanga was an afterthought.

I’ve wanted to visit the pueblo of San Gil, “adventure capital of Colombia,” since 2009, but it wasn’t until recently that Bucaramanga edged its way into my subconscience as well.

A few years ago, Medellin was receiving mentions as an up-and-coming retirement destination. As recently as this past February, Bucaramanga received similar accolades from US News & World Report.

In my never-ending quest to learn more about Colombia, and figure out if there’s someplace I’d enjoy living more than Medellin, I took a 45-minute EasyFly flight to Bucaramanga.

I arrived after dark. The taxi ride from Palonegro airport to Kasa Guane, the city’s only hostel, clicked in at 30 minutes.

Ryan had recommended the hostel, and once I arrived, I could see why. They’ve got an incredibly friendly, social community there.

I took a simple private room with shared bath for about $20 a night, and then went out to dinner.

[I’m going to dedicate a future post to the food of Santander, so I’ll be skipping the cuisine in this one.]

"Mujer de Pie Desnuda" by Fernando Botero
“Mujer de Pie Desnuda” by Fernando Botero

The following morning, I picked up a city map, and got directions to Centro. It was an incredibly short walk.

First, I crossed Calle 33, a main road a few blocks from the hostel, and walked over to Parque San Pio to see the Botero sculpture. The park itself wasn’t too interesting.

Parque Las Palmas is surrounded by bars and restaurants, making it a popular nightlife spot
Parque Las Palmas is surrounded by bars and restaurants, making it a popular nightlife spot

Bucaramanga goes by two nicknames: La Ciudad de los Parques (The City of Parks) and La Ciudad Bonita (The Beautiful City).

If Medellin weren’t already The City of the Eternal Spring, Bucaramanga could take that title as well, though I think all three titles apply to Medellin too.

In fact, I didn’t find better mountain views in Bucaramanga than we have in Medellin. Once again, it comes down to the fact that Medellin lies in a valley, so you’re surrounded by them.

By comparison, Bucaramanga is situated more like Bogota and Cali, with a backdrop of mountains on one side only.

View toward Parque Santander in downtown Bucaramanga
View toward Parque Santander in downtown Bucaramanga

I continued a little further on Calle 33, and then turned left (west).

Ten minutes later, I crossed the Modern Art Museum, which was closed while they installed a new exhibition.

I then proceeded to Parque Santander, which marks the center of the downtown area.

Catedral de la Sagrada Familia
Catedral de la Sagrada Familia

The city’s cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, faces one side of the park. It’s the only interesting thing I found down there.

After a brief siesta back at the hostel, I wanted to check out Giron, a pueblo 30 minutes southwest of the city (by taxi, up to an hour by local bus).

Catedral del Senor de Los Milagros in the pueblo's main plaza
Catedral del Senor de Los Milagros in the pueblo’s main plaza

Most of the buildings in the pueblo are painted white, and I imagine it is similar to Popayan in this respect.

There’s not much to actually do in Giron.

Like most Colombian pueblos, you walk the cobblestone streets, admire the colonial architecture, take a peek inside the churches, and simply hang out.

Capila de las Nieves
Capila de las Nieves

I ate dinner at a restaurant my roommate Wilson recommended, Restaurante La Casona, across the street from the Capila de las Nieves (Chapel of the Snows).

Later, he would tell me that his mother was from Giron, and that the wealthier Colombians would get married at Capila de las Nieves, as it was more expensive to have the ceremony there.

I didn’t want to leave Bucaramanga without getting a taste of the nightlife, so I made an effort to get out on Friday night.

But, most of my evening was spent hanging out at the hostel bar. There were at least as many, if not more, Bucaramangans there than foreign visitors or expats, so I didn’t mind too much.

They were all sociable, and curious to know what I was doing in town, and what I thought of the city. It reminded me of the curiosity paisas showed me when I first arrived back in 2009.

Inside Salsa Calison on a Friday night
Inside Salsa Calison on a Friday night

Eventually, some time after midnight, we got a group together to hit up Salsa Calison, which is one of the few salsa bars in the city.

It was so late, there weren’t a lot of people in there, but I was still happy to get a few dances in with my new friends from the hostel. And there was no cover which is always nice.

The photo above shows the original bar, with dance floor, however it had expanded into the adjacent building. I liked the old school decor of the original room more.

While my time in Bucaramanga lasted no more than three days and nights, I do feel as though I got a taste of what the city has to offer. I’m glad I visited, but I wouldn’t choose to live there over Medellin.

For visitors, Bucaramanga is a good waypoint if you’re traveling overland from the coast south toward Bogota, or vice versa.

You can also use it as a jumping off point to visit the Chicamocha Valley, or to go paragliding, but I believe both are more easily done from San Gil.

For expats like myself, I feel as though it’s too small and provincial. Many of the best and most popular restaurants are focused on the local cuisine, which is heavy on the meat. In due time, I expect to see greater variety, but it’s not there yet.

If you think Medellin feels small compared to Bogota, Bucaramanga will feel like a pueblo. This small-town vibe may appeal to retirees, but I imagine younger people may feel limited.

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  1. I think that Bucaramanga has a lot of potential and lower cost of living. If you end up returning Dave, the Couchsurfing group of Bucaramanga does a fantastic job.

  2. Bucaramanga is the only place I didn’t like in Colombia, not a very interesting city by my standards and girls were the unfriendliest I’ve met in the whole country (Santander in general have a reputation, I should have known better!).

    • Interesting Fred, because it’s my understanding that Bucaramanga has a reputation for having especially friendly people.

      I didn’t spend enough time there to get a true sense, but the Colombians I met through the hostel were all cool.

  3. I intend visiting Medellin before the year 2015 ends.however,I have the curiosity to visit Bucaramanga which has a slight resemblance with Medellin by looking at the city from the air.Colombia seems a wonderful country with lots of attractions and beautiful,hot-looking women.
    I’m a native speaker of Spanish which gives me the advantage to interact with the locals very easily despite of the fact that Colombian Spanish and Dominican Spanish sound a little different in accent and other dialects,but the language in general is still the same.

  4. A helpful contribution but instinctively I feel the city might have more to offer than appreciated here. Anyway I am planning to give it a t least a month’s trial in January – my sense of Medellin is that it has become a little ennured to its visitors and more wise to their cash potential. I enjoy the people but you need to get beyond the usual suspects around the Zona Rosa to find interest and authenticity. We’ll see and hopefully I can add to this picture.

    • Hi Alan, it’s certainly possible, which is why I titled my article “first impressions” as I wanted to be up front about the fact that I only spent a few days there and there might be more than meets the eye.

      On the other hand, I knew within a few days of first arriving in Medellín I wanted to spend six months there, and my experience not only lived up to but exceeded my expectations.

      • Hi Dave, I’m colombian and I liked this article… I have to say Bucaramanga isn’t the same Medellin and Bogota, its metropolitan area is made up by 3 cities, Bucaramanga, Floridablanca and Piedecuesta. What you have said is the truth … the main center of the city is not much to look at specially since the theater is being renovated and you didn’t go to the parque garcia rovira. The rest of the places that are actually interesting are hidden… like ruitoque were you can do paragliding, El Santisimo that’s a big ass jesus statue, huerta biologica which is in la Mesa de los Santos and hotel montefiore near floridablanca… there are some shopping centers specially cacique and caracoli … btw people in bucaramanga are not known in colombia for being the nicest they are actually known for the roughest most German like spanish in colombia, still nice people just a really hard accent. Hope you travel back and search for other places near the city