I first came to Guadalupe Colombia in June 2016. It was one of the last places I visited in South America before I flew home, and was one of my favourites. This tiny town in the Santander region of Colombia was barely on the map back then, I’d read one blog article about Las Gachas, the natural plunge pools nearby, and my hostel in Bucaramanga recommended that I come here. So, I came. There was one hostel, one decent restaurant, one tour guide, and I was the only foreigner in the village. When I came back over a year later, I wasn’t sure what I would find. Scores of gringos tearing up the town? Tacky souvenir shops on every corner? Not quite.
***IMPORTANT UPDATE FROM GUADALUPE COUNCIL: BATHING IN LAS GACHAS, LA GLORIA AND EL SALITRE WILL BE PROHIBITED FROM 17TH FEBRUARY 2018 TO 17TH MARCH 2018 TO ALLOW THE AREAS TO RECOVER FROM USE, AND PRESERVE THEM FOR FUTURE VISITORS. YOU CAN STILL VISIT TO VIEW THEM, BUT NOT TO BATHE OR SWIM.***
Guadalupe has changed, but not much. Yet. There are more hotels, or posadas, as the locals open up their homes to visitors. New restaurants have opened, including a crepe restaurant which I never thought I’d see here! But the hordes of tourists have not appeared. At the weekends, there are groups of Colombians who come from Bucaramanga, Bogota and Medellin to visit Las Gachas, after a video like the one below went viral. And there are definitely more foreigners. On the day I arrived there were 5 more on the 4×4 transport from Oiba. A French couple, and three girls from the UK & Australia. The following week, more came. More French, a couple of Austrians, German, Irish, and Brazilian backpackers. Guadalupe certainly isn’t overrun, but its reputation is growing.
Guadalupe has changed, but so far for the better. It is a fine line, a delicate balance, between tourism being a blessing and a curse. Guadalupe was a prosperous town before the tourists came, and they don’t need tourism to survive. In some cases, the increased popularity has pushed up house prices. But those who offer services that visitors have used have seen the benefits too.
With tourism set to increase in Colombia, there is no doubt that more people will come to Guadalupe. Lonely Planet paid a visit here not long ago, so in the next edition expect a section on Guadalupe and Las Gachas. This will undoubtedly bring more backpackers and foreign visitors, and through word of mouth from each person who comes here, tourism is not going to disappear. Some changes are definitely for the better. The road from Oiba to Guadalupe, which is currently half paved, half dirt track, is scheduled to be fully paved in the next year. Another unexpected surprise is the free wifi in the main square, which is handy if you don’t have a Colombian SIM card.
José Navarro, the guide I had met last time, is still leading groups of visitors to Las Gachas, and to the other sites around Guadalupe. He has changed his business, leaving the restaurant he had last time to open two small hostels in town. However, there are other guides working here now, other hotels to choose from, and now several restaurants where visitors can enjoy excellent local food, and friendly service. Although more people are welcoming tourists, there is now more competition too.
What the people of Guadalupe must do now is work together to make sure they maintain Guadalupe’s charm – for them, and for visitors. A group I spoke to are hoping to set up a Tourism Association to make sure the whole community benefits from tourism, and to put together a plan for the future of tourism in Guadalupe. The key is to conserve and protect Las Gachas, and the other natural attractions around the town, as well as Guadalupe itself. The charm of Guadalupe not only lies in it’s natural resources, but in the people too. Everyone I met was welcoming and kind, and I fell in love with the whole town. I hope that if I come back in a few years’ time that Guadalupe is still a peaceful place that visitors can enjoy, without changing it too much!
What to Do in Guadalupe Colombia
For such a small town, Guadalupe has a wealth of natural treasures all around. Most tourists come for a day or two to visit the Quebrada Las Gachas plunge pools, but there are also waterfalls, natural swimming pools, caves, viewpoints and plenty more to explore if you have a few days to spend here. If you would like a guide to any of the areas around Guadalupe, José can take you anywhere you’d like to go, or just give you a map if you prefer to explore alone.
La Quebrada Las Gachas: The Caño Cristales of Santander
The natural plunge pools and jacuzzis of Las Gachas are what first put Guadalupe on the tourist map. Dubbed the Caño Cristales of Santander, the river is coloured red from the rocks beneath the shallow water. Unlike Caño Cristales, there is no season to visit Guadalupe to see the ‘rainbow river’ here, as the water is coloured red from the rock, not the plants in the water. It is also much easier to get to than Caño Cristales, doesn’t involved a plane journey, and is a lot cheaper! So, if you are looking to visit Caño Cristales on a budget, then Las Gachas in Guadalupe is an excellent alternative to get your gix of the coloured river in Colombia, with natural plunge pools too! Las Gachas river is around 45 minutes’ walk from Guadalupe, and you can take a guide to explore some of the areas around, or just get a map and be on your way. In the rainy season, hiking boots come in handy as parts of the path are muddy.
Take a dip in the jacuzzis, or if you’re feeling brave try sliding & splashing in the pools – wearing socks helps to stop you slipping, and a lycra shirt helps you slide along the rock. It is not as easy as it looks, trust me, but José is a pro (most of the time at least)!
At the end of the river, the rocks disappear to leave a waterfall, if you’re on your own then ask at the little house nearby for how to get down to the falls. Candelaria and her husband also have a cave on their land you can pay 1000 pesos per person to visit, and it is worth a look. I didn’t have a torch with me so didn’t venture inside, but you can walk all the way through it. Be sure to try one of the homemade desserts at the house too!
Balneario El Salitre and Balneario La Gloria
These are two more swimming holes walking distance from Guadalupe. El Salitre has similar pools like Las Gachas, but the rock is a paler colour. Follow the river to reach La Gloria, a large natural swimming pool, with a restaurant and barbecue area.
Casacada La Llanera, a Cavern & the Viewpoint
There are several waterfalls around Guadalupe, and some are easier to find than others. I would have no clue how to find this waterfall again, as José led us through fields and through barbed wire fences, along paths that could easily be missed. There are some fascinating rock formations around Guadalupe, and this cavern has been carved out of the rock. We continued along an adventurous path to walk behind the waterfall, and down to swim in the pool below, before suddenly coming across a mirador with spectacular views across the countryside. On the way back to Guadalupe we called at a house where the owners make guarapo, and had a few bowls of home brewed sugar cane alcohol!
Other Things to Do in Guadalupe
The Casa de la Cultura on the main square has an exhibition about Guadalupe, including some old photographs. They also arrange cultural events like cinema nights, and the entry is free so pop in and see what is planned while you’re in town. The church in Guadalupe is beautiful, and presides over the park and main square.
Extreme Sports in Guadalupe
Following the success of the MTB Guadalupe Biking Expedition in July, organizers Jaime Zapata and José are running another expedition in November, for hardcore bikers who cover 90km in two days, across rivers, down waterfalls, through a lot of mud, and of course stopping for a swim in Las Gachas.
Hardcore Tubing in Charalá
A couple of hours’ drive from Guadalupe is the town of Charalá. In the river here you can go tubing, but it’s not a gentle river – some parts are, but others are rushing rapids with low-hanging trees which mean a helmet & life vest are vital! I loved it, but fell in the water a few times. If you lose hold of your tyre then it can get very scary so it’s not for the faint hearted!
How to Get to Guadalupe Santander
From Bogota to Guadalupe
Take any bus heading north from Bogota to Bucaramanga or San Gil, and get off at Oiba. There are several bus companies which run this route, including Copetran, Reina, Berlinas, just go to the Northern section of the main bus terminal in Bogota, and ask which bus leaves next. They will drop you off in Oiba across the street from where the company Cootrasaravita runs 4×4 trucks from Oiba to Guadalupe. The 4x4s aren’t very frequent, so try to arrive in Oiba as early as possible – before 12pm – to get to Guadalupe in good time. The 4x4s take around an hour to reach Guadalupe, the road is only part paved & very bumpy & muddy in places! The road is currently being paved, which will eventually speed up the journey time, but in the meantime it is heavy going.
From Bucaramanga or San Gil to Guadalupe
From Bucaramanga there is one transport per day that is direct to Guadalupe, leaving Bucaramanga at 1.30pm. Otherwise, take bus towards Bogota, and get off at Oiba to take the 4×4. From San Gil, you can take a mini-bus from the small terminal to Socorro, then take one of the direct transports from there, or hop on another bus to Oiba, then take the 4×4. Alternatively, from the main bus terminal in San Gil, take any bus going to Bogota, and get off in Oiba.
Where to Stay in Guadalupe
As of yet, none of the hostels in Guadalupe are on Hostelworld. There are a couple of options on booking.com but be wary as they may actually be in Oiba, not Guadalupe. If you are coming during the week there is usually no need to book in advance, but on weekends and especially bank holidays, the town fills with visitors, so book ahead or try to visit during the week when Guadalupe is MUCH quieter,and you have more chance of getting your top choice of hotel in Guadalupe!
Hostal Donde José
José has a hostel right on the main square next to the 4×4 drop off point, which is a great option for backpackers. At the moment there isn’t any hot water but he has plans to add an electric shower. There is free wifi in the main square just outside, and there is kitchen where you can prepare your own food. Costs: approx. 20,000 pesos per person for a private room. Contact by Facebook or phone/whatsapp +57 311 835 1573
Casa Hostal la Quinta Porra
This casa is owned by teacher ‘Profe’ Cesar Tellez, and is nicely decorated with hot water, wifi, kitchen, and a camping area at the back of the house. Just a block & a half from the main square this is an excellent option, with prices for camping from 10,000 per person, and private rooms from 25,000 per person. Contact Cesar by phone or whatsapp on +57 311 277 4360.
Hotel Colonial Guadalupe
Another good option, this was one of the first hotels in Guadalupe. A block from the main square, I stayed here last time I came, in a private room with wifi and TV. Contact by phone on +57 313 394 4335.
Where to Eat in Guadalupe
Since the last time I was in Guadalupe, the restaurant scene here has changed completely. Bonanza is still open, although admittedly I didn’t eat there this time. On the other side of the square, Los Amigos does an excellent lunch including soup, main course of meat or chicken with rice & patacones or vegetables, a drink & dessert for around 8000 pesos. They also have a vegetarian option too.
Vegetarians in Guadalupe needn’t worry, as Graciela rustles up completely vegetarian meals from her house, known simply as el Restaurante Vegetariano. A soup, side salad and main course cost 9000, and I was stuffed! She also makes delicious chocolate dessert balls, which, when she has them, are incredible and well worth 1000 pesos a piece. She brought me 8 on my last day in Guadalupe and I was a happy bunny indeed! Her son also makes beautiful wooden money boxes which are great souvenirs of Guadalupe.
For something completely different, Crepes y Algo Mas have a menu of French crepes, including sweet and savoury options, as well as traditional Colombian meals. Even the French backpackers I met were happy with the crepes, and it was a very welcome change from the usual rice & patacones.
Across the street, Alfa & Omega do fruit juices, fruit salads and delicious frappes. There are several bakeries dotted around town, my favourite was Panaderia Guadalupe, a bit further down the street from Graciela’s veggie restaurant. They had a good selection of savoury & sweet treats. There are several ice cream shops too, I liked the one on the main square – Salon de Onces, who had a tiramisu flavour to die for!
Omar Parrilla does good burgers and hot dogs, and there is a great roast chicken place next to the Church. As more restaurants are opening all the time, ask around for recommendations.
Where to Drink in Guadalupe
La Clinica is somewhat of an institution in Guadalupe. So called for its location opposite the hospital, the saying goes that La Clinica cura todo – the clinic will cure everything. Don José sits and watches the world go by, plying visitors with home brewed guarapo (an alcohol made with sugar cane, water & in this case pineapple and grapes). Served up in tatuma bowls made from dried hollowed fruits, this stuff is deceptively strong! La Clinica closes at 6pm though, so stop in on the way back from Las Gachas for a bowl of guarapo for just 1000 pesos.
Sinaloa Café Bar on the main square is the weekend late night spot, although bear in mind that nothing in Guadalupe happens particularly late. Opposite, a mini supermarket/bar also sells beers which you can drink at one of their tables. It is no longer legal to drink on the streets, and although it is tempting to sit in the park with a beer or two, the police will not take kindly to it.
Overall, there are plenty of things to do in Guadalupe to spend several days here exploring. Time your visit to come during the week, and avoid the busy weekend and bank holiday days. In a town where motorbikes are the preferred method of transport, and people pop to the shops on horseback, I can’t imagine tourism changing too much in the near future. And although I would love to keep Guadalupe as a secret for myself, I simply can’t resist sharing what this wonderful little town has to discover.
Have you been to Guadalupe? Share your experience in the comments below.
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