Little visited by tourists, Ocaña, the second largest city in Norte Santander, and its surroundings are charged with history, rooted in a reputation of revolt and rebellion. Four hours from Bucaramanga and eight from Barranquilla, this region boasts an interesting mix of Andean and Costeño culture and is the entryway to one of the most fascinating national parks in the country.
Just outside of Ocaña, the Parque Nacional Los Estoraques is one of Colombia’s smallest and most awe-inspiring national parks and was declared a Unique Natural Area in 1998. The beautiful journey from Ocaña to Los Estoraques involves taking a pickup or renting a taxi for the 30-minute drive, which winds through an ever-changing landscape. What begin as fertile, flat green fields gradually transform into a semi-desert wildscape with brown and red sculpted rocks poking out from the ground, encircled by flowers and small shrubs. At one point, huge sheets of rock jump forth from the soil as if clinging to life above ground while slowly being dragged under. But this is not yet the park, and the best is yet to come.
The pickup will leave you in a small colonial town, which instantly transports visitors back to the time of the Spanish. Playa de Belén is easily one of the most beautifully conserved towns in all of Colombia. The entry point to the National Park, its cafes and small restaurants serve as the perfect spot to recharge after hiking and walking all day.
Beyond the natural beauty of its surroundings, it is essential to explore the town, which has a lot to offer in and of itself. The striking, red roofed one and two story houses are uniformly painted white with either a blue or red strip running along the bottom. Each house features a cast iron number, complimented by steel blue, wooden window frames and shutters. Playa de Belén is dusty from the sand of the National Park, which stands guard over the town adding to the atmosphere of a village frozen in time, but at nighttime the town comes alive with frequent guitar concerts and annual artisan and kite festivals. There are even some small, beautifully decorated hotels for those not wishing to camp in the park.
Leaving through a small, dusty road at the far end of the city, the walk to the National Park entrance is only five minutes. Inside the park there are areas for camping, a highly recommendable option as Los Estoraques, which encompasses just 640 hectares, is humbling and awe-inspiring.
The park was formed over millions of years through a combination of wind and rain erosion. These forces carved deep caverns and thin, tall columns and etched intricate patterns onto each surface. Standing in narrow pathways and looking up at the rocks above gives the impression f walking through a modern city of skyscrapers. The highest formation is thin and crumbling but is known proudly as “El Inmortal.” Each corner and pathway reveals another facet of the local history and each rock represents a tale or a story – an embattled warrior, a galloping horse, even the face of the devil. It is possible to spend a week in the park and not get bored of the incredible formations, beautiful flora and fauna and fascinating fables of the guides.
While Los Estoraques and Playa de Belén are undoubtedly the highlights of this area, a tour of Ocaña should not be missed. It is possible to take a traditional chiva bus from Los Estoraques back to the town center. Various museums, historical and religious sites tell the history of Ocaña, from the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century to its strategic military past, wars with indigenous tribes, the formation of Norte de Santander and of course the Ocaña Convention of 1828, which marked the start of a new political and administrative structure for the burgeoning Republic. For a better view of the city, follow the 12 stages of the cross, which wind up a steep hill on the eastern side of the city. The views from atop the plateau are breathtaking and the community, which has grown up around the church, is very welcoming.
A trip to this area takes patience. The nearest airport is Cúcuta, four hours away, and arriving from cities such as Bucaramanga or Barranquilla by bus demands a change at Aquachica. However, between the tranquil pueblo of Playa de Belén, the historical essence of Ocaña and the wonder and excitement of Los Estoraques there is surely something to keep everyone occupied.