The bus station in San Gil was dead when we arrived but we sussed out that buses passing through tout for business on the main road just below the park. We also found a bus company office opposite who go to Bucaramanga every half hour, so on the morning we came to leave we dragged our heels walking down the road and when nothing passed (it was a bit early for buses from Bogota to have got that far) went to the bus office. The 2 1/2 hour journey took us through the Chicamocha National Park and some cool high Andean/big mountain scenery.
Despite having a population of over half a million Bucaramanaga bus station was almost as dead as San Gil’s, and we weren’t sure how we were going to find a bus to the Caribbean Coast (our next destination) but we found a friendly bus driver who enlightened us and then proceeded to tell us that he couldn’t understand why people say that Colombia is dangerous. He travels all over Colombia and has never had a problem. He also told us that it is safe to travel to the coast at night, something that made us think because its hot, its a 12 hour journey, so a 2 day trip to do by day and its not cheap so we’re keen to save a night’s hotel costs. But anyhow that was leaving and we hadn’t seen the place yet…
We caught a cab into town to Parque Centenario where LP tells us there are lots of cheap hotels and knew it wasn’t a very desirable area as soon as we pulled up by the number of drunk and passed out men around. So we quickly headed up the main hotel street (ignoring the men who tried to tout us their hotel at the park’s edge, I mean as if we’d want to stay there!) and walked up it until it looked a bit nicer. There were loads of hotels so we picked one that felt safe with women working there since we figured we weren’t in the nicest area. Turned out to be our cheapest hotel in Colombia yet.
We dumped the bags and went off to explore and find food. There’s not much to see in Bucaramanga but we already knew that from the guidebook. The highlight of the afternoon was chatting to the local police in Parque Santander, they even bought us coffee. They confirmed what we thought – that we weren’t staying in a great area. Apparently staying round Parque Santander is safe, but staying where we were a few blocks over isn’t and the Parque Centenario should be avoided at all times of day and night. They told us to be in the hotel by 6pm, when it starts to go dusk! (which we were, although it didn’t seem that bad to us). Then we moved onto them saying how silly it is that people say that Colombia isn’t safe… They’d asked us the name of our hotel, but didn’t recognise it, which we took to be a good sign, and on our way back to the hotel we realised that many of the cheap hotels in the area were brothels, by the women hanging outside them.
Anyhow our hotel was fine, very quiet and safe and we had cable tv, so there was always something vaguely watchable. The next morning we caught a cab to the bus station, put our rucksacks in the left luggage and bought tickets for the 6pm night bus to Cartagena. Then we hopped on a local bus to Giron a few kms away which was the real reason for stopping off in Bucaramanga.
Giron was declared a national monument in 1963 and is another whitewashed colonial town, but with more character and more of a buzz about it than Barichara or Villa de Leyva, and we leisurely explored the place (it was too bloody hot!) before catching a bus back to the station.
- Lonely Planet Colombia really is shit, you CAN tell the main author never came to Colombia