Founded in 1622, Bucaramanga has ballooned to become one of the largest cities in Colombia, with a metro population of more than 1.2 million people. Nicknamed Buca, the capital of the department of Santander is set on a plateau surrounded by the peaks of the Cordillera Oriental. The energy sector and footwear industry provide a growing number of jobs here, giving Buca a thriving middle class and quite a few uninteresting skyscrapers. There are many malls, comfortable hotels, and great nightlife, makings the city nice enough to stay for a day or two before setting off to San Gil or Barichara, as most do.

Situated on a plateau in the Cordillera Oriental, Colombia’s “Beautiful City,” or the “City of Parks,” is one of the country’s more undiscovered destinations, though its mountain setting and mild temperatures continue to lure new residents and visitors from Colombia’s larger cities. There is plenty to get excited about in Bucaramanga. Extreme sports and natural attractions are a draw, as well as the opportunity for eating hormigas culonas, a type of fried ant, which appeals to the occasional tourist.

Things to Do

Don’t miss Bucaramanga’s Parque Santander, where the 18th century Catedral de la Sagrada Familia, whose cupola hails from Mexico, stands proudly. Take a tour through the three room Museo de Arte Moderno de Bucaramanga (MAMB), which was was founded in 1989 and features rotating exhibition series from top national artists and changes every two months.

Nightlife and Entertainment

Lively bars and clubs like the always popular Mi Pais sit side by side in Bucaramanga’s Zona Rosa and in the Sotomayor neighborhood. Aguardiente, a potent firewater that is sold by the shot or by the bottle, is the drink of choice in most bars and clubs. A more laid-back scene can be found at Calle de los Mariachis, or Carerra 33 between Calles 37 and 39, where a handful of small bars feature nightly performances.

Restaurants and Dining

The hormigas culonas tend to get all of the hype in Bucaramanga, but there’s a wide range of contemporary cuisine as well. Restaurants and simple traditional eateries can be found throughout the city center. Peruvian ceviches and fine cuts of beef are offered at trendsetter Tavolo Gourmet, while the equally eclectic Cinnamon Gourmet serves lighter, cafe fare. You’ll even find an English style gastropub here, the Saxo Pub, which features the city’s best beer selection.

Active Pursuits

Bucaramanga and its nearby villages are known for adrenaline sports such as whitewater rafting, kayaking, canyoning, trekking, rappelling, and paragliding. Parque Nacional Chicamocha, sometimes called Panachi, is famous for its spectacular canyon vistas and an extensive six-kilometer cable car system that links to a number of adventure activities. San Gil, on the Fonce River, is Colombia’s unofficial adventure sports capital. You can hike to the Juan Curi waterfall or take part in any number of exciting guided tours.

On the Ruitoque Mesa overlooking the city, conditions are good for paragliding year round. Colombia Paragliding (Via Mesa Ruitoque Km 2;; tel. 312/432-6266) offers tandem rides from COP$60,000, as well as 10-day learn-to-fly courses and instructor training. They’ll also set up flights in Chicamocha and launch spots farther afield.