After Cartagena, our next stop was the Santander region of Colombia, known for its colonial villages, stunning scenery, dramatic mountains, adventure sports and hiking. We planned where to go and what to do entirely around one incredible hostel that I’d seen on the Internet, the Refugio la Roca. It was just as good as I had imagined and I would certainly plan a trip around staying there again.
Refugio la Roca is on the edge of the Chicamocha canyon (and I mean literally on the edge) near the town of Los Santos.
Getting there: this is the difficult part. We arrived at Bucaramanga airport and hired a car. We hadn’t pre-booked but the process was all pretty easy, other than the fact that the woman at the desk didn’t speak any English, so if you didnt speak Spanish it would be a lot more complicated! She was lovely and friendly though.
From there we drove to the Mesa de los Santos, meaning the saint’s table – a high, flat plateau up at around 1700m (5500 feet) altitude. The drive took just a few hours, first on a busy motorway-style road with lots of cars, lorries, and motorbikes. Then we turned off and immediately climbed steeply uphill, the view becoming more spectacular with every switchback. Eventually, the road straightened and flattened out so that it was just undulating – we were on top of the plateau. Refugio la Roca was situated just before the road began to descend to the small town of Los Santos and was well signposted.
But how to get there if you don’t want to or can’t rent a car? Numerous buses run in the region, including one from Piedecuesta to Los Santos, with a stop right by the hostel. Or if you are coming from San Gil, you can get a bus to the Chichamocha canyon and then the hostel will pick you up from there for a small fee. They also do transfers from the airport for about £36.
What its like: we drove in through the gate and up a very steep road, slightly nervous that our little hire car wouldn’t make it. We parked up and then continued walking up the steep path as friendly dogs ran out to meet us. One of the staff was at the bar, in a North Face fleece despite the warmth, and she checked us in and showed us to our room.
And what a room. The public areas of the hostel are situated right on top of the hill, right on the edge of the canyon. The rooms are set into the canyon itself. We were staying in one of the most expensive rooms, with its own private bathroom, but still reasonable at £28 a night shared between two. We walked down a few steep steps hewn into the rock and came to our patio, with stunning views over the canyon.
At the top of the canyon was the main hostel building, with a room to relax in with kitchen, TV and DVDs (we didn’t actually use this room). Then there is a bar with restaurant that served really simple, tasty dinners and breakfasts. The lasagna in particular was yum.
And finally – the second amazing thing about this hostel – the yoga studio. Perched up on top of a block with the canyon falling away sharply to three sides, the entire floor of the studio was one large mat, with soft benches around three sides so that it was also a comfortable, beautiful place just for reading and quietly relaxing. One wall was in fact floor to ceiling glass doors that could be opened to expose the wonderful views and to let the fresh air in. We went up three times for a yoga practice, using downloaded yoga videos on my iPad or just making it up as we went along. One of the most peaceful and beautiful places I have ever practiced yoga.
What to do: the main thing to do was something we didn’t even try!! That is, go climbing. You can climb by yourself or join a guided climb with one of the staff – all of whom looked like climbers from an incredibly superficial judgement of their clothes and body shapes. The La Mojarra climbing park is just 50m from the hostel with more than 200 routes. The hostel rents equipment and provides a climbing course and guides. But a few experiences of indoor bouldering on my part do not a climber make and mum was still recovering from her fall on our hike so we gave that a miss. I would love to go again and do some climbing!
Instead, we went cycling. We only had one full day in the area (two nights) and we spent the morning on a 20 mile cycling trip. We rented bikes from the next door lodge – £5 for half a day including helmets and then set off. We began climbing quite steeply up the hill before turning off onto a dirt road that wound through smallholdings and cocoa plantations, blissfully quiet, idyllic. We cycled side-by-side, chatting away.
The road went to the edge of the canyon, where we stopped at the Chichamocha National Park cable car (more on that in the next post). It was closed so we admired the views and then cycled on, now back on tarmac on a wonderful road that hugged the edge of the canyon with stunning views.
This was clearly a wealthy area from the houses we could see, some brand new and absolutely beautiful, and the number of crops growing and healthy-looking animals standing around. It was just idyllic.
Eventually we found ourselves back on the main road and struggled up the numerous hills, looking forward to that last downhill and hoping we would get back in time to return the bikes so we had just a morning’s use. We made it – and the friendly guy renting out the bikes was shocked to hear how quickly we had cycled the route! He understood slightly more when I told him we were both triathletes and that my mum hadn’t been cycling in the flimsy sandals she’d worn to come and get the bikes!
There are also lots of walks in the area – a back dirt track from right outside the hostel led down to the town of Los Santos, which was also the start of the ancient Camino Real – a stone walking path. After our morning’s cycle we were quite tired (and I was pretty sunburnt, having forgotten to put cream on the backs of my hands and inside of my elbows) and so we began a route that climbed up the hill facing Los Santos with great views back over the town.
We walked through open farmland quite a way before deciding to call it a day, go back to the hostel and do some yoga instead. The path was meant to lead to a viewpoint over the canyon but we didn’t make it that far.
Los Santos was a really pretty little town, very sleepy when we first arrived in the middle of the day but bustling with children running around and parents watching on from shaded doorways when we returned from our hike. There was a huge school and community area, and a lot of building works going on. The only negative note was our lunch – we arrived in the main square and saw two signs for restaurants – maybe we just picked the wrong one but at the Camino Real we ordered goat for me and chicken for mum. Mum’s chicken appeared within 2 minutes of ordering it and she said it was so horrible she couldn’t eat it (I tried a bit and it was unbelievably tough and chewy). My goat was okay but no more than that! Maybe we were just unlucky.
All in all – fantastic hostel to visit in Colombia, wonderful place to get off the beaten track a little and avoid the herds of backpackers in hammocks on the Caribbean coast – especially if you like climbing or hiking!