“Where the hell is Bucaramanga?” That question popped into mind after I found out that I was going to live in this town in Colombia that I had never heard before, for more or less 4 months. Only finding very little information on the internet, I finally got a definite answer after 40-something hours of flight and transit time, from Jakarta to Amsterdam, Lima, and Bogotá, after a quick nap, shower, and a welcoming ceremony at the Cancilleria that obviously was just a blur to me. Apparently, if you draw a straight line from Jakarta, to the other side of the world, you’ll end up in Bucaramanga (or somewhere near it). Yep, I was going to live literally on the other side of the world!
So I tried to ignore my massive jet lag and kept my eyes open as we drove out of Palo Negro International Airport of Bucaramanga, a 50-minute flight from Bogotá, into a vibrant town nestled between hills and mountains. Bienvenida a Bucaramanga…
About 40 minutes later we arrived in Cabecera del Llano, an area where most of my Indonesian friends and I lived during our scholarship program. It’s a lively middle to upper class area with lots of parks, beautiful houses, modern apartment buildings, shops, restaurants, and nightclubs. Almost everything is within walking distance, including our campus, Universidad Autónoma de Bucaramanga (UNAB). This area has wide sidewalks and with lush trees and the city infrastructure seems to be in good condition. Public buses run often and look relatively well maintained, and the drivers love to crank up some music. Taxi is relatively cheap too, with a starting fare of COP 4,800.
Bucaramanga is not the most popular city in Colombia, simply because it’s not as big as Medellín or Bogotá. But, don’t underestimate this city. Because Bucaramanga is called La Ciudad Bonita (The Beautiful City) and La Ciudad de Los Parques (The City of Parks) not without any reason. Its approximately 1.2 million inhabitants live among hundreds of parks, and many of them welcomed me with warmth and curiosity about other culture, especially Indonesian.
Looking back now, what I enjoyed the most from my time in Bucaramanga was the fact that I could practically walk everywhere. Every weekday morning I spent good 15 minutes walking to campus, whether in El Jardin (where most of campus activities and administration are held) or in Las Terrazas (the student sports center or CSU). I’m only a little exaggerating when I say that the walk was a bit of a hike. But really, UNAB is perfectly situated in forest/valley-like area, that everyday was just a perfect exercise for me.
Staying with Luz Stella, her son David, and his wife Paula, and their dog and 2 cats in a 3-bedroom apartment on the 7th floor, facing Parque San Pío, was the best decision. Not just because they’re such a nice bunch and a bit on the bohemian side. But also because the park, one of the biggest one in town, was so awesome! Waking up everyday to a green view outside my window was something that I’d miss so badly. The park has gym equipments that are free to use (which admittedly I never had the chance to use at all), and it’s a popular venue for all kinds of activities, from dog gatherings, music concerts, culinary festivals, art performances, to political demonstrations and campaigns. Don’t expect to sleep in on weekends. Car honking, and reggaeton or vallenato music blaring from car stereos, were basically the soundtrack of my life in Bucaramanga.
Many of the city’s activities are held in parks. It’s no surprise really, considering Bucaramanga has approximately 220 parks that are neatly managed by the government. Other than San Pío, there’s Parque Santander in downtown, commonly referred as “park of the retired”, as it’s a popular spot for elderlies enjoying their time there, playing chess, reading newspaper, while sipping on tinto or a little cup of black coffee.
There are some other parks that I managed to visit. Like Parque de los Niños that were such a hot mess during a culinary festival, Parque Las Palmas where an old gypsy woman approached me and told me that I looked like Virgin Mary with my long hair and no make up (I know, right), and Parque de los Leones which at night reminded me of Montmartre in Paris with its stairs and classic street lamps.
Other than parks, Bucaramanga also has interesting places worth a visit, such as Casa Bolívar, which houses some of the most important historical and archeological pieces from Santander; La Sagrada Familia, white cathedral from 1921; or Capilla de los Dolores, a humble chapel established in 1701 on the corner of Parque García Rovira in downtown Bucaramanga.
(to be continued)
originally published in Femina Magazine Indonesia