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.
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.
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).
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.)
- 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 Booking.com 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.