The ants took to hot oil as popping corn in butter. With every crackle and sizzle, the line got longer, with teenagers and grandparents waiting for their chance to take home a paper bag of deep fried “buttocks” – the red leaf-cutting ant known as a “culona.”  Even if Spiderman were showing at the local movie club, the locals couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the critters, which for two months every year turns into a harvest and gets under the skin of visiting tourists to Santander.

If ants and bats freak you out, then brace yourself for the outdoor adventures in Santander because this department gives new meaning to the word “dramatic.” The swells of the river Fonce get our adrenaline going and as we are in San Gil, we want to tame the noble river. But it will take more than eight oars to get us down stream.

Fried ants in the Santander Department by Régine Debatty

Truly a unique aspect of Santandereano culture, hormigas culonas (fried “big-butt” ants) are a snack for braver travelers.

Team work is our only option – and knowing when to scream when the waves hit! Of course, you don’t want to end up in a raging river, so grabbing hard on the rubber handles of the dingy is a tummy-saving recommendation. Some tourists, having drank too many gallons of river water, end up seeing Santander from roadside rest stops, where in this department, washroom paper is charged at $200 pesos. If you don’t have enough small coins, this can make for an  embarrassing vacation.

Ranking “3” on the international rafting classification of “5”, the Fonce is as much of a rush as it is a beautiful waterway. As other adventure tourism attractions in this mountainous corner of Colombia, the river commands physical stamina and an appreciation for nature.

The town of San Gil prides itself on its idyllic setting on the Fonce. As one climbs the streets of the town, the red and blue painted houses promote the best of outdoor pursuits, everything from abseiling, kayaking, canoeing and cave exploration. There we go, with the bats!

Dubbed the ‘pearl’ of the Fonce valley, San Gil is the heart from which to explore the Guanentá region characterized by rolling hills, red earth, rocks and white walled colonial villages. The town has an airy Cathedral and several  cafés for enjoying an evening drink. English-speaking guides and necessary safety measures are obligatory for enjoying ‘extreme’ outdoor adventures.

San Gil is also home to one of the country’s most beautiful parks – El Gallineral. Four hectares of preserved woodland are covered by ghostly Higuerón trees, which take on an eerie beauty in the afternoon light. The park has a restaurant, which serves local platters such as the carne horneada or smoked beef.

Cañon de Chicamocha by Guillermo Vasquez

Santander is well-known for its incredibly dramatic landscapes, like this view of the Cañon de Chicacmocha.

The towns of Santander are charming and steeped in history. Get to know the names of places such as Aratoca, Pinchote and Curití and you’ll see why the mountainous terrain for centuries has attracted outsiders.

Locked in time, Barichara is 20 minutes from San Gil and perched on an arid plateau. Declared a national monument in 1978, it is home to stone artisans who ply their trade and several interior designers have renovated some of the characteristic waddle and daub houses into pottery workshops. Among the many restaurants available, Color de Hormiga, offers dishes with our favorite ant. Bug gastronomy isn’t everyone’s idea of a romantic night out, but knowing the creativity of the Santanderanos it wouldn’t surprise me if next time I return, they’ll be serving ant ice-cream in the town square.

Among the free roaming goats and patchwork of passageways in nearby Guane, you can check the town’s 17th century chapel and the unique paleontological museum crammed with dusty fossils, including the remains of one dinosaur that roamed these rift valleys when everything, including the Fonce and Suaréz rivers were underwater.

The Chicamocha Canyon rises from the river which carries its name, to breathtaking heights at Mesa de los Santos. From the look out point at the Chicamocha National Park you can appreciate a cinematic view of arid mountain tops. If one were to compare landscapes, you could be on the road to Kabul, except for the Swiss-made cable car which spans the gorge and from where some very dare-devil gliders punch-off to catch the wind.

Santander must be traveled at leisure. Give yourself time from getting from rock face to valley by bus. There are good connections across the department and frequent service to the department’s capital, Bucaramanga. Just make sure, you bring a camera and plenty of small change in case you eat too many “culonas” and wash them down with river water. Dramatic.