PLAYA DE BELEN & LOS ESTORAQUES: WHERE NO TOURISTS GO
When traveling from San Gil to Santa Marta, we wanted to break the long bus journey in two days. After a quick look at the map, the city of Ocana came out as an option where to spend a night, and it was how we found out about nearby Playa de Belen and Los Estoraques Unique Natural Area.
TRAVELING IN NORTH SANTANDER DEPARTMENT
The truth is, not so many foreign travelers make it that far north when exploring Colombia. The northernmost point is usually San Gil, a city known for adventurous activities and then the most popular route move to the Carribean Coast.
Also, some parts of the region are relatively close to borders with Venezuela, which is nowadays a country better to avoid, but here we must forego that we felt completely safe in both Ocana and Playa de Belen, around 200 km from borders between Colombia and Venezuela.
INFORMATION ABOUT PLAYA DE BELEN AND LOS ESTORAQUES
Another reason, why Playa de Belen and Los Estoraques are not more often on traveler's map is lack of updated details about the area. We found a mention about Playa de Belen in Lonely Planet guide, but to get up-to-date information about the tiny village and one of the smallest Colombia's protected areas Los Estoraques seemed to be impossible.
Not only that nearly 100% of all articles are in Spanish, but also information we were seeking the most - if the park is open - was missing. The guidebook says that the park is closed, but visitors can still go in. Well, it is a little bit vague when you're trying to figure out if it's worth to make a side trip from the main road, considering that traveling even short distances in Colombia takes time.
We found a couple of blog posts about the area without mentioning a single word about park closure, but then we discovered a government website where was explicitly written that the park is closed. We were back at square one. We also tried to contact representatives of Playa de Belen via Twitter with no success, and as a last attempt, we shot them an email. How surprising it was when we received a reply. Unfortunately, in the email was only a text in Spanish saying that they don't speak and write English. Well, patience is not one of my strengths, but I took my previous email, ran it through Google Translator and sent it again, now in Spanish. And after another two days, we received a long and detailed reply, saying that the most of the park is closed, but Los Estoraques area near Playa de Belen is still accessible. The next day, we were ready to go.
PLAYA DE BELEN
The small village virtually consists only of three streets all leading to the tiny square featuring the Temple of Saint Joseph of Bethlehem with an unnaturally white facade and two golden domes.
We believe that only because of the slightly off-the-beaten location is not Playa de Belen more visited. Yes, there is not much to do, but the village lives at its own pace and the picturesque setting near Los Estoraques is perfect. Also, Playa de Belen was one of the cleanest places we've seen in Colombia, and it is obvious at first sight that inhabitants take care of their pueblo.
There is a visitor center with an enthusiastic worker, who shook hands with us when we arrived (we were probably the only visitors that day) and was extraordinarily helpful.
MIRADOR SANTA CRUZ
To get a view of Playa de Belen and rock formations behind, you can walk 15 minutes up to Mirador Santa Cruz. But to be honest, we did not get to the top, and the decision to go is only at your own risk. We started from the square and because Playa de Belen is so small, after about two minutes, came to the gate where the trail starts. There was a sign: Beware, dangerous dogs behind the fence. We should've sensed that when the message is in English (very unusual in Colombia), they probably mean it. Well, we gave it a try and continued. After we were about 10 meters from the gate, three barking dogs emerged from behind the corner and started chasing us. I think we've never run that fast in our lives. We sprinted back and closed the gate behind us just in time. Unfortunately, there was a hole in the fence, and one dog got through on our side. Martin used a tried-and-true trick and grabbed something from the ground and pretended he throws it on the dog and fortunately it worked out. We were lucky enough that the dog got discouraged because when we later looked at what he has in his hands, it was not a wooden stick or piece of rock, but only a weak twig. So this is the story how we did not visit Mirador Santa Cruz.
To get to Los Estoraques, walk on Carrera 3 and when the pavement ends, continue approximately another 350 meters. The entrance to the park will be on your left. There is a small kiosk where visitors should pay admission.
The park is open every day from 9 AM to 5 PM, but when we arrived around 10 AM, there was still no one, so we went in and paid on the way back. The admission fee is not official - we were asked to pay COP 5 000 each.
Meanwhile, when in the park, we met a small group with a guide. He asked us if we paid, so we replied that not yet because the counter was closed. He started to claim that he is the owner and we should pay him straight away, but he did not have tickets with him and honestly, he did not even look like a guide, so after quite a long conversation, we decided rather pay at the counter later because we were worried how many "owners" we can meet until we get to the exit.
And what should you expect when visiting Los Estoraques? It is an area of impressive weathered rock formations. Over the centuries, the rock eroded, and unique skyward columns were created.
There is no official trail so you can generally walk wherever you want, but it is better to follow well-worn paths around.
The best view is from Mirador of the Sun, right at the beginning on your right.
You can hire a guide for COP 25 000 (Spanish only) who will take you to the forbidden part of the park and to another viewpoint, we are just not sure how official this is.
When in the park, watch out for snakes and also don't forget to put sunscreen on, the sun is incredibly strong as I can confirm from my own experience.
I didn't do the rookie mistake, and put a sunscreen on, but I kind of forgot to spread the lotion carefully also on the back of my arms and the result was really painful.
If time and energy allow, you can visit Los Aposentos, similar rock formations, approximately 3 km from Los Estoraques on the way to Ocana. Not far from the park is Los Pinos, pine forest where you can hide from the sun for a while or have a picnic.
HOW TO GET TO PLAYA DE BELEN
From Ocana, take an irregular bus from the bus station at 8:30 AM (there must be more buses coming later, but we were not able to find out other times), or better, take a colectivo waiting on the main square. It leaves when full. Bus cost COP 6 000 and colectivo cost COP 7 000 per person per one way. To get back, it is easier to take colectivo again because bus leaves Playa de Belen only four times a day. The ride takes 45 minutes.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed in nearby Ocana in a decent hotel Marialu and visited Playa de Belen only as one day trip. It was more convenient for us because we did not have to pack our heavy backpacks again and also we needed to make sure that we will catch our next day connection to Santa Marta. There are few accommodation options in Playa de Belen, or you can stay in Ocana and check rates HERE.