Currently being considered as one of the wonders of the world, Chicamocha’s Canyon walls rise high and powerful. The rich green foliage seen all over Colombia clashes with beautiful shades of red and orange clay on every part of the 900 meter walls.
The hike to Chicamocha Canyon is called the Camino Real. It encompasses a one or two night backpacking trip through five different colonial towns in the Santander department of Colombia. Starting in Cabrera, the path goes through Barichara, then Guane, Villanueva, Jordan, and finally Los Santos. The historical trek was originally used by the indigenous of Guane, followed by the Spanish to transport goods and finally restored by a German settler.
Barichara to Guane –
We originally learned about the hike in San Gil while flipping through the hostel booklet of activities, so thats where we began. Stashing our stuff at the hostel, we left from San Gil with camping gear and loaded packs around 11am. The late start caused us to miss the first bus to Cabrera so we decided to skip the first part and begin from Barichara. We hopped off the bus and quickly found the beginning of the path at the edge of Barichara.
Automatically we realized how epic the hike was going to be. Barichara lies at the edge of the Suarez Canyon. On the opposite side are the incredible mountains of Nautral Serranía De Los Yariguíes National Park. It’s a breathtaking view and a perfect way to start the journey. The first part of the hike was on a wide stone path with semi-flat rocks. It winds through lush farmland with friendly farmers and happy goats.
After a couple of hours descending towards the canyon floor we arrived at Guane. A tiny town with a soccer court in the main plaza. A couple of shuttered houses and restaurants surround the square with the church as the centerpiece (as always). It’s a quaint town with friendly Colombians. It was a perfect spot to enjoy a packed lunch before getting back on the road to see whats next.
Guane to Villanueva –
After a while the stone path dies out and the path turns into a dirt road weaving between small tobacco farms. It’s easy to get lost on the hike, we relied heavily on locals to tell us the way. Yellow markers line the trail but it’s not always clear. The locals see hikers pass through occasionally and were quick to tell us where to go before we could even ask.
The hike to Villanueva is a steady uphill that eventually leads to a beautiful lookout point. We reached a vista and got a full view of the mountains bordering Rio Suarez. It was a clear enough day to see Bucaramanga nested in the mountains off in the distance.
A final burst of climbing uphill brought us to the top of the ridge where a vast expanse of colorful farmland lay below. Villanueva was hidden just behind a hill but we knew we were on the right path.
The descent to Villanueva brings you through a completely different environment. Red, orange, and brown clay is covered with dry brush. It looked like prime snake habitat and our guess was right. A friendly serpent was lying right on the path in front of us and we finally got to see one of the beautiful snakes of Colombia.
Circumventing the snake we descended into Villanueva just as evening was setting in. The plaza was filled with old men relaxing on benches and young kids running around. We sat and enjoyed the scene for a second before finding the only hotel to ask where we could camp.
The hotel owner told us that we could pitch a tent in the plaza. The center plaza. He said it casually like it was no big deal putting a tent up in the middle of town with a ton of people around. We quickly asked if there was another place to camp and he told us about an empty soccer field on the outskirts of town. We got the impression camping spots are pretty laid back in this part of Colombia.
After setting up camp we fell asleep exhausted and woke up to voices. It turns out the soccer field is a bit of a late night hangout spot. Realizing sleep was going to be minimal and feeling slightly uncomfortable, we barely got to the hotel in time to snag a room (about USD $8) for the night.
We woke up around 5am the next day to get a head start on the long hike. Villanueva wakes up early (even on Sundays) so we had plenty of people to ask for directions.
Villanueva to Jordan –
Winding through beautiful Colombian countryside and watching the sunrise made for a great start to the day. Flatbed trucks with 20 people in the back would pass us heading into town to go to church or the market (most likely the local “bus”). Eventually, we crested a hill giving us the first peek of the canyon below.
Following rusted signs and local guidance, we meandered through some cows and farms to a small shop resting on the edge of the canyon. Folks were drinking beer and enjoying their day off, we laughed because it was 9am. They pointed us to a gate and we found the trail cutting into the side of the canyon.
Gravel and large rocks clutter the trail and the downhill is steep. As we rounded different bends we got better and better views of the vastness Chicamocha encompasses. Huge walls and falling waterfalls make it look like a location where Jurassic Park might’ve been shot.
As we descended we became aware of the extreme humidity and heat of the canyon. The packs should’ve felt heavier but the views kept us captivated and distracted.
Jordan lies along the Umpala River at the bottom of the canyon. It’s a small ghost town nearly abandoned with incredible views of the massive walls all around.
We followed the road into town. Abandoned buildings and empty roads made up the two main streets. A few workers were building the plaza (not sure why) and almost every shop was closed. We had read that on the other side of the bridge you could maybe find a house that served food.
Turned out to be a farm owners house with a dirt floor kitchen. They served us two massive plates of food and a couple coffees for (USD $3). The food was delicious and after hiking on not much of a breakfast, it really hit the spot. We left pretty soon after eating to try and beat the afternoon heat.
Jordan to Los Santos –
The uphill climb out of the canyon is a consistent calf burner. In the midday sun it became apparent how brutal it was going to be. Nearly 3,000ft of path ahead and we were already dripping with sweat.
Our water ran out halfway up and we began periodically stopping in the shade to rest. Eventually the stops turned into lying down on the path in the shade and dreaming of the cold water and ice cream at the top.
Los Santos rests on the edge of the canyon and is the final stop on the Camino Real. The climate changes abruptly when you get to the top. The sweat soaking our shirts and bodies was quickly dried by the consistent breeze and cool shade. We sat down at a small shop and chugged ice cold water.
Meandering into the plaza we found a clutter of stands selling pineapple, mango, and of course, ice cream. All the treats that make up a perfect reward after a tough hike.
Looking back on the hike we might’ve done a two-nighter and done the entire trek. Camping somewhere between Guane and Villanueva for the first night, and Jordan for the second would’ve allowed us to avoid the heat on the final climb up. Regardless, we didn’t regret a minute of it. Seeing such incredible landscapes is always inspiring and humbling. It’s exactly what we look for when we travel.