Caño Cristales is (rightfully) becoming one of Colombia’s most iconic sights: next year it will appear on Colombia’s new banknotes, and people from around the world are coming to Colombia and leaving enchanted with the ‘river that escaped from heaven.’ However, this trip is not easy to undertake or cheap; for many people it’s a step too far on a budget trip to Colombia…Enter Guadalupe, a small pueblo of a few thousand people in southern Santander department. Before visiting Guadalupe I had little idea of it even existing; there is very little information online (save a Wikipedia page!) and tourism there is very limited to some puente weekenders from Santander itself. And, in fairness, Guadalupe is much like many pueblos in Santander: white-washed, low buildings, with red-tiled roofs and cobbled streets. The climate is hot, the skies are blue, and the people are friendly…so far, so Colombia, right?! However, what Guadalupe has to give it an advantage and make it worthy of your visit is it’s own little answer to Caño Cristales: Quebrada Las Gachas…
Quebrada Las Gachas is a small(ish) river that runs through the green, hilly countryside surrounding the little town: it’s easy to reach: just walk out of the town towards the smaller church, past the gas-station and you’ll see a sign for it: it’s about a 4km hike through some lovely, rural countryside, occasionally interrupted by a herd of cows blocking the path! It takes about an hour to hike there (set off early if you can, the heat gets intense towards midday!), but it’s well-worth the sweat…
Las Gachas isn’t red for the same reason as Cano Cristales: there the redness (and other colours) is caused by algal plants, here it’s the colour of the rocks and an oxide they contain that makes the river appear red. However, the advantange of that is that there is no ‘season’ at Las Gachas; it’s like this all year round (but it looks better when the sun has been shining, and the jacuzzis are clearer if it hasn’t been raining recently!). The flow of the water has also added another bonus element to a visit here: the ‘jacuzzis.’ These are the deep, round holes you can see in the above photo: they are up to 2/3 metres deep and perfect for sitting in and relaxing in the water after a hot, sweaty hike! The distant views of the Andes and the calm, quiet countryside around, the silence punctuated only by birdsong and occasional cow-sounds, make this place like something out of a slightly trippy dream! It might not be as iconic as Colombia’s other red river, but that certainly doesn’t make it any less beautiful or unusual…
2017 UPDATE – There have been worrying recent reports from Guadalupe about tourists leaving large amounts of trash behind when they visit Las Gachas – please, please, please (and we really can’t emphasise this enough) clean up your rubbish and take it back to town to dispose of it properly! Las Gachas is a wonderful natural treasure and needs to be properly protected.
And, best of all: as gorgeous as Las Gachas is, it’s the not the only sight worth seeing in Guadalupe and the surrounding area. I only spent a weekend there, and I already need to find a spare weekend to go back, as there were extra activities I didn’t have time for! Most focus around rivers, waterfalls and caves: I didn’t manage to visit Salto la Llanera and the nearby caves of Perico and Indio, but they look amazing! The town itself also has it’s charms: the ‘Casa de Cultura’ on the main square is interesting and free, you can hike a short distance out of the town and enjoy a wonderful panoramic view, and the main church is one of the more beautiful I have seen in a country of beautiful churches!
On my second day in the town however, I did manage to enjoy a hike through the countryside again to visit Quebrada del Salitre and Pozo La Gloria, another river and swimming hole that were almost equally beautiful as Las Gachas. Both are just 10 minutes walk from the town, but can be turned into a lovely little hour long hike: simply walk to Salitre and then hike 2km up along the shallow river, before turning off into the countryside over a hill and coming to the man-made swimming spot La Gloria. This could be tricky to find by yourself: we went with excellent local guide Jose, from the Hostal and Restaurant Bonanza. He was born in the town and returned here about 18 months ago to realize his dream of bringing tourism to the town: we were having breakfast in his (excellent) restaurant, just off the main square, and asked him about visiting Salitre – he told us to come back in an hour and proceeded to take us on a totally gratis hike along the rivers, and I hadn’t even name-dropped the blog!!
The trip was lovely: a relaxing (if sometimes slippery) hike through the actual river, enjoying the cool waters running over my feet, basking in the warm Santander sunshine, and marvelling at the (still red) waters of El Salitre. La Gloria is a deep swimming hole, fed by a river and dammed up (apparently for over a hundred years) to create a safe and peaceful swimming spot. It’s not radically different to visiting Las Gachas, but if you like gorgeous scenery, sunshine and swimming in beautiful rivers…then you can’t go far wrong with a visit to Guadalupe!
Jose is an excellent guide (and I’m not just saying that cause of the price!) – I’ve rarely had a more attentive, passionate and knowledgeable tour guide in all my travels: he clearly cares deeply about the place and it shows in the information he has to give a visitor. He charges around 15.000 for a trip to the waterfalls and caves mentioned above, and it’s certainly worth that fairly small sum. His restaurant is the best I went to in the town as well (the churrasco was especially good) and, although I stayed in a different hotel, the location of his is great. He even helped my friend and I buy some unroasted coffee from the local coffee cultivator’s collective, and then walked us around the town, explaining the history, before taking us to the ‘bus station’ to buy a return ticket! What a guy, right?! Look him up, even just to say hi, if you pay attention to this blog and visit Guadalupe…which you really should! You can contact him through his new Facebook page here or email him in advance of a visit at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Practical Guide: visiting Guadalupe is pretty easy really: from Bogota take a bus bound towards Socorro or Bucaramanga and make it clear that you want to depart in Oiba: from Salitre terminal this trip should take 6 hours, more like 5 from Portal del Norte. If you arrive in Oiba before 5:30pm then grab a colectivo to Guadalupe (cost: 6.500 for a one hour trip); if you arrive later, enjoy the main square in Oiba and sleep over – we stayed at Hotel Los Balcones, directly over the road from where the colectivos depart. It was clean and quiet and a double room cost just 20.000.
In Guadalupe we stayed at Hotel Remanso Colonial, one of several lovely old hotels near the main square. The rooms were high-ceilinged and airy, and a room with both a double and single bed cost just 35.000 (a steal when split between 2 people or more). Breakfast and lunch are easy to come by – breakfast at around 6.000 and ample, and lunch at around 8-10.000. Dinner, as in many small towns, is more limited to fast-food.