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Umpalá [English]

(La versión en Español aquí.)

This Sunday I went with Caminantes de Santander to Umpalá, a near-ghost town in the bottom of the Chicamocha Canyon. It´s located near the Pescadero and Panache. The day began with a familiar sequence of events – ridiculously early meet-up time in San Pio Park, sleepy bus ride for an hour, and a typical breakfast of soup, arepa and chocolate.

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Photo by Manuel Guacaneme Franco


Our leader, Manuel, took this photo while lovingly shouting “La gringa! La gringa!” and motioning for everyone ahead of me to move out of the shot. [Photo by Manuel Guacaneme Franco]

After climbing up a hill for a bit we stopped to rest at an abandoned house and then began our descent into the Chicamocha Canyon. There was an impressive view of the green mountains across the way.

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Soon you could see Umpalá at the bottom of the valley, like an oasis in the middle of the desert.

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Umpalá in the background. [Photo by Manuel Guacaneme Franco]

Umpalá was once a prosperous town. It was an obligatory stop for mule drivers carrying goods between Bucaramanga and Bogotá. Before that it was inhabited by the Guane indigenous people. In the Guane language “Umpalá” means “the place where only the gods go”. However the construction of a highway between Bucaramanga and San Gil left the town isolated and spurred its abandonment. Additionally, the period of violence in Colombia from 1948-1958, during which there was civil war in the countryside, also drove people from the town. Today Umpalá has a population of perhaps 100 people.

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But we weren’t to Umpalá yet! We were in the hot, hot desert with few trees to shade us. When we made it to the bottom of the canyon we were greeted with shade and the Umpalá river to take a dip in. The river was shallow, but the current was strong. We spent a good while sitting in the cool water.

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We continued a short way to the pueblo of Umpalá. We passed old, abandoned buildings and fields of tobacco, plantains and papaya.

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The pueblo of Umpalá is little more than the park, church and the surrounding houses. Most of the people who come to the pueblo are weekend hikers or come on Sunday for mass. I’ve mentioned before that you can find empanadas around every corner in Colombia and ghost towns are no exception. Despite its dwindling number of residents there were still plenty of empanadas and homemade ice cream for sale. We sat around and had a leisurely lunch.


Photo by Manuel Guacaneme Franco

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Manuel and la gringa. [Photo by Manuel Guacaneme Franco]

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Umpalá from above. [Photo by Manuel Guacaneme Franco]

Our hike back to the buses followed the river and took us through a lush forest. Eventually we climbed out of the valley and our palm trees were replaced with cacti. We ended up at the Pescadero where we swarmed the convenience stores, drinking cold beverages by the bottle.

Umpala 032Caminantes de Santander have been a lovely part of my time here in Bucaramanga. My family in Colorado loves to hike and I’ve felt fortunate to find my own hiking family here. As well, it’s been an incomparable opportunity to visit lesser-known corners of my department, Santander, that I never would have discovered on my own. Many thanks to Manuel and all my other hiking friends for lots of fond memories.



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