Back in early March, as part of our quest to see as much of rural Colombia as we can, we took a weekend road trip to the off-the-radar little towns of San Rafael and San Carlos in our home department of Antioquia. Little did we know that it would be our last trip before the entire country went into quarantine. As we enter our fourth month of lockdown, we’re anxious to duck the daily firehose of bad news and dream about the days when we can once again hit the road and experience more of this beautiful country. We’re willing to bet there are lots of fellow travelers out there feeling just as antsy as we are.

On the Road to San Rafael and San Carlos

Since we rented a car, we were able to take our two dogs along on a “pup-cation” to a place where they could swim. San Rafael and San Carlos are both picturesquely situated on rivers, which made them a perfect pup-cation destination!

The municipality of San Rafael is about three hours by car from Medellín and 50 minutes beyond the popular tourist destination of Guatapé. Most visitors to Medellín are familiar with Guatapé, a charming town that’s easy to visit in a day. We didn’t stop there this time, since we’ve made four other visits (here’s our post about our first visit). San Carlos is another hour’s drive beyond San Rafael.

Huge rock near Guatapé Colombia on a trip to San Rafael and San Carlos
El Peñon, Guatapé’s famous landmark. Yes, we climbed it once! (Not this trip.)
Mountain view on road trip to San Rafael and San Carlos, Colombia
The road up to San Rafael from Guatapé is seriously twisty and wind-y (as shown on the map) but the mountain vistas are spectacular!

San Rafael: A Bustling Riverside Town

Situated on a pretty stretch of the Rio Guatapé, San Rafael was founded in 1864 by miners who were attracted by the abundance of gold in the region. San Rafael is rich in water resources, located in Antioquia’s largest area of hydroelectric reservoirs (the biggest being the one that fronts Guatapé).

While San Rafael might be a pueblo pequeño, there is always a lot going on at the main square. It’s a true farming community, and like most small towns in Colombia, this one prominently features a bustling main parque with a church at the center. You’ll see men on horses driving cows around town, avocado carts, children playing games, older Colombians relaxing in the shade of the square, and people trading gossip and buying fresh veggies.

We were there Saturday morning, so the parque was alive with hordes of people from nearby towns and farms who had come to San Rafael to do their weekly shopping.  We sat down amongst the locals to enjoy a tinto – a rich and satisfying cup of coffee – for only 600 pesos (about 30 cents), and take in the lively and authentic Colombian scene around us. Besides the river (which really is lovely), there’s nothing of great note to visit. But if you’re looking for a taste of authentic Colombian small-town life, you can’t go wrong with San Rafael.

(Note: click on the first picture to view each in a slide show.)

The Rio Guatapé is a popular destination for weekending Colombians with its inviting, crystal-clear water and its natural swimming holes such as Las Tangas or El Trocadero. We stayed in a hotel right on the river at the El Trocadero swimming hole – it was muy tranquilo and a perfect place for all to swim, dogs included. There are not a lot of hotel options in San Rafael, but that’s bound to change as tourism comes back to Colombia.

River view at San Rafael, Colombia
The path down from our hotel to the river
Two dogs swimming in a river near San Rafael Colombia
Both of our pups are swimming fiends and loved El Trocadero!

San Carlos: Land of 100 Waterfalls

San Carlos is a hidden gem: a quaint Antioquian town in the mountains an hour’s drive beyond San Rafael. Situated on the Rio San Carlos, the town is surrounded by breathtaking nature. San Carlos is known as one of most naturally beautiful places in Colombia, and for good reason. There are hiking trails galore, swimming holes, and over a hundred waterfalls with sparkling water where many people from Colombia come to swim, relax, and connect with the nature all around them. While it’s a popular destination for domestic tourists, there is little-to-no foreign tourist traffic in the town. This makes San Carlos an ideal destination for true Colombian immersion.

One must-do for visitors is La Viejita, a beautiful nature trail on the outskirts of San Carlos that follows the river to a series of waterfalls. The river has many pools for cooling off and plenty of scenic views of the mountains and meadows surrounding San Carlos. We hiked with the pups up to the second waterfall, which has a wonderful swimming hole. The hike was a highlight of the weekend for the whole family!

Tragic Past, Vibrant Present

San Carlos was founded in August 1786, but its bloody recent history is what put this little town on the map.  In the late 1990s, San Carlos was one of the epicenters of the terrible civil war that had gripped Colombia since the 1960s. In a vast oversimplification of a really, really complex situation, the FARC, a left-wing guerrilla group, was fighting with right-wing paramilitaries for territorial control of routes in and out of Medellín. The local citizens were caught in brutal crossfire and many were tortured and killed. By 2004, 80 percent of San Carlos’s inhabitants had fled their homes and San Carlos had become a ghost town.

Where did the people go? A lot of them fled to the hills ringing Medellin and built makeshift housing, coming together to form urban barrios like San Javier/Comuna 13, Moravia, and La Sierra. Many of these neighborhoods have undergone their own stunning transformations from terrible guerrilla, paramilitary, gang, and drug cartel violence to relative peace and prosperity. We’ve written about two of them here and here.

Like the urban neighborhoods of Medellin, San Carlos and many other formerly war-torn towns have undergone their own miracle transformation. Today, San Carlos has risen from the ashes and is now a vibrant city of more than 25,000 neighborly citizens. At the time of our visit, it was also re-surging as a tourist destination, with support from the city of Medellin and the Colombian government. Just as it’s done worldwide, the current health crisis has dealt a huge blow to tourism all over Colombia – so it remains to be seen how soon these small towns will re-emerge as tourist destinations. The only good news is that this part of Antioquia has been relatively untouched by the virus (so far).

Memorial garden to honor the victims of the armed conflict

Today, the main parque is a pleasant place to hang out, much larger and a bit more sedate than San Rafael’s. The plaza has almost anything you’d need: shops, restaurants, street vendors, nightlife, etc. We had lunch at a corner chicken restaurant that had no menus, just fresh roasted chicken that was fantastic. With two beers, it came to about $7.00 US.  No utensils, just plastic gloves so we could eat the chicken with our fingers, together with an arepa and a single boiled potato. When in Rome . . .

San Carlos feels bigger and much more spread-out than San Rafael, and it skirts beautiful and green mountain hillsides. Walking along the busy side streets, we were astonished by the beautiful street murals depicting country living and the area’s multicultural past. We have seen a lot of street art in Bogota, Medellín, and Cartagena, but the artists of San Carlos really have done an amazing job of capturing the personalities of the local people and the beauty of the countryside.

(Note: click on the first picture to view each in a slide show.)

Our tips

  • Getting there. It’s possible to get all the way from Medellin to San Carlos by bus, and the Rome2Rio site is a good resource for up-to-date schedules and other bus info. We had the pups and wanted more travel flexibility to explore the area, so we rented a car. Our go-to car rental place is Triple-A, with friendly and helpful service, reasonable prices, and high-quality vehicles.The roads are in very good shape and easy driving. You can also hire a private guide/driver; we highly recommend Juan Camilo Aguila. He’s available on WhatsApp at 57-316-833-4225.
  • Lodging. Our choices were limited since we had our dogs with us. We used to find a pretty decent pet-friendly place right on the river near the Trocadero swimming hole in San Rafael, but we can’t recommend it wholeheartedly. (Folks without pets will have a lot more choices.) We recommend spending at least a night in San Rafael and at least two in San Carlos to take in the waterfalls and hiking opportunities.
  • Bring cash. As we said, this area is still pretty much off the tourist radar, so it’s hard to find places that take credit cards. We even had to pay for our hotel with cash. In San Rafael, we found a living, breathing ATM in the Bancolombia off the parque: a lady who scanned our ATM card and gave us cash in return! We did see a couple of other ATMS in both towns but can’t vouch for them.
  • Food, beverages, restaurants.  This was a bargain trip. The further out of the big city you go, the lower the prices. Most restaurants serve typical Colombian food at a bargain (cash only). These aren’t tourist towns so there are no souvenirs and no one trying to sell you stuff. Enjoy the true Colombian vibe, fresh country air, and friendly locals.

    A great lunch stop/break on the drive over is
    Alto del Chocho, between Medellín and Guatape and about ten minutes before you reach El Peñol. It’s a pretty stop with three restaurants to choose from and great prices. 

  • Bring bug repellent and refillable water bottles. 

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  1. Larry Wilkinson Reply

    Very nice, especially the several murals toward the end.


  2. What a lovely post! Informative and the murals are exquisite. When we do manage our move to Medellin, this route will definitely be on our ‘things to do’ list. Thank you!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Jofannie! There really is so much to see and do, right here in our own backyard. We’re looking forward to the day when we can get out and explore some more. Here’s hoping you can make your move pretty soon 🙂

  3. Looks like a great area. We went to Guatape, of course, but didn’t know of these two. We liked Guatape but San Rafael looks like we would see more ‘real’ Colombia. Something to keep in mind for next time! Great post!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We completely agree with Guatapé – it’s a sweet town but very touristy. We’ll take off-the-beaten-path places like San Rafael and San Carlos any day! We know we’re in the right place when we show up and we’re the only gringos 🙂 Hope you get to visit these little towns someday.

  4. The trails and waterfalls look lovely. Very nice street murals, too. Thank you John and Susan for sharing your road trip with us.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you for reading, Natalie! Hope you’ve had a great week.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Mel! Yes, we do feel very grateful to be here, even in the current situation. Hope you’ve had a great week and you’re staying safe!

  5. Oh, you are making me miss Colombia very much even if we never made it to these two towns. Your San Rafael streets evoked memories of Jericó for me with the cowboys and the marketplace. Glad to hear that San Carlos has had such a grand (and affordable) renaissance. We’d planned on stopping there on our road trip but the Captain had enough by the time we neared the place, so we made our way back to Medellin. Looking forward to seeing you back on the road when that is a possiblity.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Does that mean you might come back to Colombia someday?? Oh, we hope so! If you do, we might have to figure out a junket to San Carlos and San Rafael since you missed them last time. And maybe Jericó since WE haven’t seen that one yet. Hope you and the Captain are having a lovely day there in sunny La Paz!

  6. Another great post about yet another Colombian destination we’ll likely not see. And a ‘big dammed pool’ is right. Keep it coming, we miss it already.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Haha, that pool was dammed but hopefully not damned! Glad you enjoyed it. I dunno, I just have a feeling you two will be back here someday. Time will tell, I guess 🙂

  7. San Rafael sounds like many of the smallish towns here..bustling and full of local life, no great happenings or monuments to draw the crowds but lovely to stroll through and people watch as daily life goes on 🙂 A lovely read and some great images love the art work 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you so much, Carol! I’m a small town girl from way back myself, so I always enjoy visiting little places like these. They feel like home, even though I’m a long way from West Texas! Hope you’ve had a lovely week.

      • You are welcome, Susan… Yes we have thank you it is low season and the rains have settled in. I am just looking at the flooded fields around me which the rice loves so all is well… I hope you have a joyous week and stay safe and well.. 😊

  8. Both towns sound like places I would like to spend time in. Thanks for another lovely word picture!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Mimi! Who knows, maybe we can take you to these little places someday! Hugs.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you so much for reading!

  9. Just loved this foray into real rural Colombia. So many thoughts came to mind: like how lovely it is to get a glimpse into ordinary life in a country that was considered so dangerous for such a long time, to see that really it’s all okay, and no matter what there are still ordinary Colombians living their lives, in much the same way as they’ve always done. San Carlos of course highlights the troubles of the past, but also highlights for me two things – one is that nothing is permanent (which Covid-19 certainly spells out!) and that change and renewal happen. All the time. There’s nothing so certain as change, and renewal always seems to come from it. Even though we spent 6 months in South America, we didn’t make it to Colombia (though I was there for 3-4 weeks back in 1978) – I think we’d better come back!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Oh Alison, you really encapsulated so much of what we love about Colombia and its people, who are some of the most resilient on the planet. Change and renewal – that could be the motto of Colombia and Colombians. And even though the virus is raging here at the moment, somehow that keeps things in perspective. After all they’ve been through, we’ve no doubt Colombians will get through this and come out the other side even stronger than ever. And when it does all blow over, we sure hope you and Don can plan a visit someday!

  10. So intriguing to read about lesser known parts of Colombia. What a great experience living in such a vibrant country and really getting to know it.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you for reading! That’s what we love about the expat life – we are able to get a deeper sense of a place as residents. We feel grateful every day to be in Colombia!

  11. Columbia has always been a place I wanted to visit. It looks so diverse in it’s topography. The street art is stunning and the waterfalls look like such a great adventure to find. Thanks for sharing

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much for reading, Lynnette 🙂

  12. Thank you for the reminder of the delights of small town Colombia. Your pictures and words transport me right back there. I didn’t visit these 2 towns but would love to…

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you for your comment! Hope you can make it back to Colombia someday and visit these two little gems 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Kelly! It was a lovely trip. Dreaming of the day we can get back out on the road again. Have a nice week 🙂

  13. I’m so grateful for this post. I’ve never been to Columbia and probably won’t ever make it. I felt as if I were there with you. Thanks so much.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Oh, thank you so much for your comment! We hope you’re doing well and staying safe. And never say never 🙂

  14. Fascinating to read all about these two towns, it’s a completely different world so very interesting. The scenery looks immense and the colours and character of the streets and churches looks wonderful. Bet the drive was slightly challenging and exciting though?

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Jonno – thanks for your comment! It was a fun little trip. The drive wasn’t too bad – the road gets a little iffy between San Rafael and San Carlos but none of these are long distances. The trip really whetted our appetites to get out and roam, once we’re able. Hope you and yours are staying safe there in lovely England, where things seem to be improving COVID-wise – right??

      • Things are improving very quickly here as our restrictions are lifting now. As long as people are sensible and obey the rules then hopefully we will be ok.

        • John and Susan Pazera Reply

          “Obey the rules and be sensible.” That’s the big challenge, isn’t it? Let’s hope the British people have more of that capability than those in the U.S. We will keep our fingers crossed for you 🙂

  15. Wonderful post and beautiful photos of the countryside and the street art. I so wanted to club Colombia with Chile on our recent visit but we decided we would do justice to neither in a rushed visit. I hope we get to visit someday.

  16. Looks like it was quite a nice weekend outing. Both the places are lovely but I would rate San Carlos a little higher than San Rafael based on the pictures you show here. Also, the the hillocks and surroundings have a resemblance with the outskirts of Bangalore. Nice to see your pups enjoying the swim.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We agree with you about San Carlos – it’s a gem, and the natural surroundings are fantastic. Hope we get to see Bangalore someday! Thanks for your comment.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much! It’s a good memory to look back on as we wait out the quarantine and look forward to future travels. Wishing you all the best as well!

  17. Not only beautiful locations but fascinating and recent history. You have been in lockdown for a very long time. Is there any thought that things will begin to open soon?

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Sue! No, things really aren’t going well here, COVID-wise. There’s been a big surge in cases country-wide since the end of June. Quarantine has been extended to Aug 1, but who knows if it will be lifted then. International flights were supposed to resume at the end of August, but again, who knows. The virus is the timeline, as Dr. Fauci said a while back. Sigh. Anyway, we hope you and your family are staying safe and healthy!

  18. This is my kind of town to explore – the colonial churches, mountain vistas, friendly locals and yes the waterfalls. The murals are beautiful! Wow! What a trip you guys had.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you for visiting, Jane! Yes, it was a great little trip. Little did we know that we would soon be going into a lockdown that shows no signs of letting up, at least anytime soon. Someday we’ll be back out on the road again, though. Hope you and your family are safe 🙂

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