Spending a weekend in the small Colombian town of San Rafael is the perfect excuse to break out the bathing suit you have been hiding away during rainy season. Located just a three hour bus ride from Medellin, San Rafael Colombia is one of a few dozen little pueblos within reach for a day trip. But this small town is set apart by its Caribbean-blue swimming holes, making it an ideal spot whether you’re looking for a relaxing escape or a wilderness adventure.
We started our weekend on a Saturday morning, leaving from Medellin on a 10:30am bus (19.500 Colombian pesos, one way) and arriving in San Rafael just after 1:30pm.
Like most small towns in Colombia, this one prominently features a bustling square with a church at the center. Open-air restaurants line the square, and crossing the streets requires darting between the motos, avocado carts, and high-stepping horses.
As the first order of business, several of us broke off to find last minute accommodation, which we found right off the main square at Gran Hotel (inexpensive but sufficient, in a you-get-what-you-pay-for kind of way), while the rest of the cohort piled into tuktuks to head to their hostel, Ritmo del Rio. Located smack dab in the middle of the jungle, this is the perfect choice if you are looking for complete nature immersion.
About a 25 minute drive from the main square, the recently opened ecolodge is tucked way off the road, requiring you to cross a footbridge to access the hostel itself. It features spacious outdoor lounging areas, access to nearby hiking trails and swimming holes, and bar offerings from cappuccinos to cocktails to thin-crust pizza.
If you do have more than a day in San Rafael, as we did, a walk around town is definitely worth it. While there’s nothing hugely of note to visit, you get a great feel for local life just from a quick stroll, as the area is not a heavily touristy one. There are a number of spots around town from which to view the river or just get a quick empanada.
When Sunday dawned bright and early, we got up and out to La Cristalina, a stop along the perilously bumpy road to Ritmo del Rio. A restaurant, bar, and hangout space in one, this spot is situated right along Río Guatapé and is a great place to start the swimming-hole-hopping. We ended up postponing our hike and staying for several hours. It wasn’t our fault, really.
No one can resist beer and some well placed hammocks. Plus, on a Sunday, this is definitely the place to be. You’ll more than likely encounter lots of families having full on barbecues and engaging in friendly cliff diving competitions. Although fun to watch, after a while we decided to leave the boisterous barbecuing and splashing children for quieter waters.
Across the street from La Cristalina starts the hiking trail, which takes you right along the rivers’ edge. While there are dozens of spots to choose from to set up camp and do some more swimming, we only made it about 20 minutes in before we bunkered down. In-keeping with the Colombian way, there are little to no regulations on any of these spots. Dogs, beer, music: all allowed and even encouraged.
We happily passed the remainder of our Sunday lounging in the sun and watching more amateur cliff-jumpers. But if you’re feeling more ambitious, the hiking trail continues well into the mountains and, rumor has it, will even lead you back into town if you keep walking. We took the easy way out, in the form of a tuktuk, and made it back just in time to catch our bus, capping off the trip with a scenic ride home through the mountains.
Featured image: San Rafael Colombia nature reserve. Photo credit: The Bogata Post
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