Surely not on everyone’s bucketlist, Bucaramanga for most foreign visitors is a travel hub towards surrounding colonial villages or the Canon Chicamocha. But if you want to get a feel for the pros and cons of Latin big cities, Bucaramanga is the one for you.
Because for a city you have never heard of, ‘Buca’ is quite big wth its 1.2 million inhabitants. You will rub your eyes when you arrive here, with views of the valley and its countless high-rise buildings. This here is definitely urban jungle… although they call themselves the ‘city of parks’.
(you can see more pictures of Bucaramanga here)
Capital of Santander province and therefore the economic and transportation hub of it. Bucaramanga is located in a sprawling valley. It could function as a blueprint for other big Latino cities: a colonial city center which is slightly dilapidated, bustling and not very safe. High-rise office towers from the 70s and 80s, accompanied by surprisingly luxurious residential flats and the odd shopping mall. And the gaps are filled in with barrios, some lovely sedate, others gritty.
It’s easiest to see that division in the center. Carrera 27 is a good divider. On the western side you have the older, more colonial heart of the city. Great to get a feeling for how the majority of the population lives, but it is chaotic and therefore not very safe.
The eastern part is more modern. This is where you can find decent cafes and restaurants and, yes, a throbbing nightlife. Especially around carrera 31 and 33 and around Parque San Pio. The biggest attractions of Buca are though more outside of the center.
Food and drinks
Most good restaurants can be found in the Zona Rosa (the Latin word for nightlife district). Penelope Casa Gastronomica is a refined small place with a menu that changes every three months.
Mercagan is said to have the best parrilla (grill). There are two branches, one in carrera 33 and the little brother called Parque San Pi in calle 34.
If you want to get a taste of local cuisine, go to Cabron for carne oreada or, even better, cabrito con pepitoria (baby goat). To finish the night, get a beer or tequila sunrise at Vintrash, playing a mix of indie and the unavoidable reggaeton.
Activities / things to do
- Museo de Arte Moderno: nice, little museum in a colonial house. It has a sculpture garden as well, which is connected to a good lunch cafe. All good for a quick visit
- this is where Bucaramanga ought to excel. But… most of these parks are actually not much more than small squares. Parque de los Ninos is slightly bigger, Parque Centenario is nice as it is surrounded by colonial buildings. Parque Garcia Rovira is the only one that feels more airy and safer, as it is on the edge of the center and there aren’t huge crowds trying to sell or buy anything
- on the eastern side of carrera 27 is the small San Pio Parque, which has a Botero sculpture. More to the north is the Parque del Agua, a vibrant nice place
- city center: all of the aforementioned parks are within walking distance of each other in the historic center. The streets are narrow and overcrowded. Take care of your valuables, but walk the walk anyway to get a sense of this city. The Sagrada Familia church is worth a visit, as is the Cemeterio General (calle 45 opposite Parque Romero)
- Casa del Libro Total: when in the old center, don’t forget to visit this complex, which is a cultural institution. Located next to the pleasant Parque Garcia Rovira
- Jardin Botanico: for me the biggest and most pleasant surprise of Bucaramanga. Located in the suburb of Floridablanca in the southeast, this one was closed for public holidays but the guard opened the gate anyways for me. Turtles, an impressive birdlife and of course many different plants and trees can be found in this garden that surprises at every corner
- Cerro del Santisimo: if you continue your walk beyond the Jardin Botanico, you will end up at the cable car. That will get you to this big Jesus statue, with accompanying big views of the city
- Sky Bar: more big views? Go to the Holiday Inn (Transversal Oriental & calle 93) to the rooftop bar. Also open for non-guests, drinks are a bit more expensive here and the guests predictably spoilt, but the views beyond the pool over the entire city center are not to be missed
- Giron: want to visit a colonial village but not spend too much time? Giron literally is a suburb of Bucaramanga, plenty of local buses will bring you there, but even a Uber won’t break the bank
Getting to Bucaramanga and getting around
- the airport is a twenty minute drive west of the city and has good domestic connections. For many destinations you will have to make a stop-over in Bogota
- bus: the massive bus terminal is located in the south of the city. A taxi or local bus will take you to the center, if that’s where you want to stay. Long-distance buses from Bucaramanga go literally everywhere. Most tourists use Buca as a stop-over to either the northeast (La Guajira desert, Palomino), northwest (Cartagena, Santa Marta, or south (San Gil/Barichara, Villa de Leyva, Bogota)
- within the city: you can walk a lot, but it’s a lot of walking. For safety reasons, at night stick to taxis to get back to your accommodation
- Weather: can feel quite hot in the valley, but it should always be a pleasant 25-30 degrees here as well
- Safety: it’s a big Latin American city. The old center feels like it, take care of your valuables here and don’t show expensive photo cameras etc. The Zona Rosa and around is generally safer. Don’t be scared and don’t be naive at the same time