San Carlos is a small pueblo near Medellín that hasn’t yet been discovered by many foreigners. But it’s a hidden gem surrounded by mountains, rivers, waterfalls and nature.
I was looking for a new pueblo to go to on a long weekend. And a Colombian friend recommended San Carlos. So, I went recently and I was amazed by all the water activities and hiking available near this small pueblo. Unfortunately, my friend didn’t tell me how long some of the hikes are in the area or I would have spent more time there.
Note the above photo is of the Parque Principal in San Carlos.
History of San Carlos
San Carlos can be seen as a major success story of a troubled pueblo in Colombia with a bloody past that has completely turned things around with the help of the Colombian military and it is now considered a generally safe place to visit.
San Carlos was once a ghost town after fighting between leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries scared away most of its inhabitants. Reportedly torturing and killing locals branded as sympathizers was common in the pueblo. So, in the late 1990s many residents left and reportedly by 2004, 80 percent of the pueblo’s over 20,000 inhabitants had fled turning the pueblo into a ghost town.
A government military offensive pushed the rebels out of the town and over the past decade many residents have returned and the pueblo now has a population of about 20,000. This reportedly is possibly the biggest homecoming of internal refugees of any town in Colombia.
There is a constant visible presence of police and military in the pueblo and the military even has a 1,500-man battalion based near San Carlos to ensure none of the violence ever returns to the area. The battalion provides services in San Carlos as well as nearby municipalities such as Concepción, Santo Domingo, Alejandria, San Rafael, Guatapé, San Luis and Granada.
The small shops are now sometimes bustling in San Carlos and it has become a popular tourist location for Colombians. But the pueblo remains completely off the beaten path for foreigner tourists.
5 of the Best Things to Do in San Carlos
Here is a list of five of the best things to do in San Carlos based on my recent trip and talking to many of the locals living in San Carlos:
1. La Viejita – A Nature Trail With Waterfalls
La Viejita is a nature trail of approximately one mile (900 meters) with easy access. It’s one of the most beautiful trails in the area. The trail was developed by the utility company EPM that has several hydroelectric power plants in the area, which reportedly generate nearly 20 percent of the electricity for Colombia.
This area reminded me of Parque Arví in Medellín with the addition of waterfalls. The start of the trail is located about a 15-minute walk from Parque Principal in San Carlos.
This is located a nature reserve with an ecotourism trail that enables enjoyment of the flora and fauna in the area. There are some small fish lakes and a laboratory for the conservation of fish. In addition, there are some pools of crystal clear water for swimming.
Towards the end of this trail there is a climb of over 120 steps to a waterfall of about 100 feet (30 meters) high. Sometimes there are even rappelling lines set up at this waterfall.
Climbing up further along the trail you come to a second waterfall known as “La Cascada” that has a pool of water at the bottom for swimming.
In addition, it is possible to drive to near these waterfalls in a Motocarro or car. But you miss the enjoyment of the hike through the nature preserve.
2. Parque Principal and Iglesia San Carlos de Borromeo
Parque Principal is the main park in San Carlos. The daily life in San Carlos is typically centered around this park, which is a one square block plaza that is filled with several trees for shade. In addition, this park is surrounded by several small restaurants, bars, and shops and a few hotels plus a church.
I found restaurants with decent steaks, pizza, Chinese and typical Colombian food near the park. Also, I found some shops near the park that have prices that are lower than in Medellín for several things.
Parque Principal is considered by locals to be a convenient place in San Carlos to meet up with friends. And there is a very helpful tourist information booth at the park, which can provide a map and information on things to do in San Carlos.
Iglesia San Carlos de Borromeo is the church at the park, which is worth seeing. There are many pieces of religious artwork to be found throughout this red-brick church. This Republican-style church was built between 1930 and 1940.
In addition, there is a Motocarros stand in the park, which is the local “taxi” transportation. So, it’s easy to catch one to easily go to other places in San Carlos and nearby. The Motocarros are relatively inexpensive and the most I paid for a bit longer trip was 7,000 pesos.
3. Piedra del Tabor – The Huge Stone Monolith
Piedra del Tabor is a huge stone monolith near San Carlos that reaches about 9,500 feet (1,800 meters) above sea level. This is reportedly a difficult hike/climb that I unfortunately didn’t have time to do. I was told it takes about four hours to reach the peak through some thick vegetation. So, it’s about eight hours roundtrip.
But this hike/climb is worth it according to some Colombians I talked to after their trip. They said they really enjoyed the nature in the area and the views of different locations in Antioquia. The ascent is made from San Carlos where it is recommended to hire a guide. The tourist booth at the park can recommend a guide.
Note this hike requires a good physical condition and good hydration.
4. Cascada La Chorrera – The Biggest San Carlos Waterfall
This is another hike/climb to get to the biggest waterfall in the area, which is known as La Chorrera. The total height of this set of waterfalls is reportedly about 263 feet (80 meters), which can be seen in the above video.
It’s about a two hour hike from San Carlos to get to this waterfall and a guide is also recommended. This is a geographically beautiful place, with lots of wooded areas along the path to get to La Chorrera.
5. Cielo Escondido – Hidden Sky
This is a more difficult hike for the more adventurous. It’s more appropriate for someone in good physical fitness. Some sections are easily accessible. But it can become more complicated as several parts must be avoided with smooth stones, scattered roots, high precipices, loose terrain, wild forest and steep ascents. So, a guide is highly recommended.
This is an area with abundant crystalline waters, several waterfalls, pools and large stones. Along the route you’ll enjoy great varieties of humid and wooded areas And it’s a suitable place for the observation of flora and fauna.
Other Things to Do in San Carlos
Besides the above list of five of the best things to do in San Carlos, there are many more things to do in the area. Here’s some of the other things to do:
- El Chispero (The Bubbles) – a nature reserve with a waterfall with opportunities to jump into the water below from the waterfall.
- Los Patios – an area with three waterfalls.
- Pasitos (Little Steps) – a natural waterfall with the appearance of child’s footsteps.
- Cajones (Drawers) – a secluded space under the forest canopy with crystal clear water that is good for swimming.
- La Planta – a small beach area along the Rio San Carlos river that is normally quiet during the week but will normally have many locals and Colombian tourists on the weekends.
I didn’t realize how many things there were to do nearby or I would have stayed much longer.
Here is a map showing some of the things to do in the pueblo and nearby.
In addition, the tourist booth at Parque Principal was quite helpful in my experience. This booth has information about many things to do in and around San Carlos. And they can also provide recommendations about restaurants and shops. This was helpful, as there isn’t much information available about this small pueblo online.
Learn Spanish in San Carlos
Surprisingly, even though San Carlos is a relatively small pueblo, it has a Spanish language school. Spanish Adventure is a school in San Carlos that offers Spanish classes for foreigners.
Spanish Adventure was started by two Colombians with experience teaching Spanish in Medellín. They offer a combination of professional teachers, immersive cultural experiences and exhilarating adventures in the nearby area.
Spanish Adventure offers a several packages that can be seen on their website. For example, their Scout Package costs 550,000 pesos for 1 week and includes:
- 10 hours of classes per week (2 hours per day Monday to Friday)
- Adventures every afternoon Monday to Thursday
- Accommodation in a dorm
- Lunch every day Monday to Friday
- A big adventure on Saturday
Or the rate drops to 525,000 pesos per week for 2 weeks and goes down to 480,000 pesos per week for 4 weeks. There are also discounts available for couples and groups. In addition, Spanish Adventure offers the ability to not take classes, stay in their dorm with lunch and go on their adventures for only 250,000 pesos per week.
Spanish Adventure has had success in attracting students looking for an off the beaten path location to learn Spanish that also offers many things to do with the amazing scenery in this pueblo that is surrounded by mountains, rivers, waterfalls and nature.
For example, here’s Spanish Adventure’s video of one of their big Saturday “adventures” hiking to El Chispero and a waterfall jump:
Where to Stay in San Carlos
Since San Carlos is completely off the beaten path for foreigner tourists, there aren’t yet apartments to be found on Airbnb (an opportunity for someone?).
But you can find rooms in the Hotel Campestre listed on Airbnb for 71,736 pesos per night. This hotel is located in a nature area near the two La Viejita waterfalls. But it’s located away from the pueblo and Parque Principal. And it doesn’t have hot water in the rooms, which is common in hotels that cater primarily to Colombians.
I recommend staying in a hotel near San Carlos’ Parque Principal, as you can conveniently find many restaurants, bars and shops nearby.
I stayed at the Hotel San Carlos Plaza which is located right next to the church at Parque Principal. It’s a nice hotel with comfortable rooms but it also lacks hot water in the rooms.
Another hotel near the park is Hosteria La Cascada, which is the largest hotel in the area with 76 rooms and it has a nice pool. But it also doesn’t have hot water available in the rooms.
Location of San Carlos
How to Get to San Carlos
The pueblo of San Carlos is located about 75 miles (120 kilometers) east from Medellín. From the North Bus Terminal in Medellín there are regular buses to San Carlos from Transoriente that make a stop in Granada. To get the the North Bus Terminal in Medellín you can take the Medellín metro to the Caribe station, which is located at the bus terminal.
The scheduled departures from Medellín for Transoriente buses to San Carlos are at 6 am, 8 am, 10 am, noon, 1 pm, 3 pm, 4 pm and 5:45 pm. The cost is only 21,000 pesos each way.
The windy mountainous bus ride to San Carlos takes about 4 to 5 hours. When I went recently, the trip going there took 4.5 hours. Part of the road after the stop in Granada is a dirt road with slower going. And the return trip to Medellín took 4 hours.
For the return trip to Medellín, you can buy bus tickets at a ticket window near a Zeuss gas station on the other side of the Rio San Carlos. And this is where you also catch the bus to return to Medellín. Any of the Motocarros in San Carlos will be able to take you there. Or it’s about a 10-minute walk to the gas station from the Parque Principal.
It is also possible to get to San Carlos from Gutapé by bus.
The Bottom Line: San Carlos
San Carlos is a small pueblo near Medellín that is definitely worth visiting, particularly if you like hiking and nature. And it’s a hidden gem, as it’s completely off the beaten path of foreigner tourists.
The other pueblos near Medellín that are popular with expats such as Guatapé, Jardín, and Santa Fe de Antioquia are found in the English-language guidebooks with additional information available on the Internet. Yet San Carlos isn’t found in any of the 10 English-language guidebooks that I have. In addition, it’s difficult to find much information about this small pueblo on the Internet.
When I visited San Carlos recently, I didn’t hear English once in the three days and two nights I was there. Furthermore, some local shopkeepers told me there are rarely foreign tourists in the pueblo.
I wish I had stayed longer than two nights, as there is so much to do nearby. In addition, the hikes tend to be between 3 to 8 hours roundtrip. So, I definitely plan to return and spend some more time in this amazing little pueblo.