I am sitting at the table at the computer when suddenly the house in Bogotá begins to move. The curtains, the television and the water in my glass. At first I still think that a heavy truck is passing by, but when I run to the window and hear people screaming, I realize: an earthquake. I grab my phone, keys and shoes and run down one floor on my socks, out of the building. On March 10, 2015, 161 kilometers below the earth’s surface at La Mesa de Los Santos, hundreds of kilometers north of Bogotá, the earth’s crust was shaking wildly. A force of 6.4 on the Richter scale to be exact. By now my body, too, was trembling as much as the earth when I realized what had happened. The first earthquake I ever experienced was a reality. And it didn’t stop there, unfortunately. What about earthquakes in Colombia and why is La Mesa de Los Santos worth a visit?
Earthquakes in Colombia
Colombia is in a high-risk area in terms of earthquakes. The country lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area known for its many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions caused by various subduction zones of tectonic plates. Colombia is located on two main subduction zones, on the Nazca Plate with the South American Plate and on the South American Plate with the Caribbean Plate. The zones with an increased risk of earthquakes are Nariño, Chocó, Caldas (Manizales) and Santander (Barichara, San Gil).
Several earthquakes occur every day in Colombia, usually with a magnitude of around 1 or 2 on the Richter scale. More severe quakes occur regularly, and after many years of observation, a picture of frequency can be given.
Each year there are about seven earthquakes with a magnitude between 5.0 and 5.9 on the Richter scale and about one earthquake with a magnitude between 6.0 and 6.9. Every five years there is an earthquake with a magnitude between 7.0 and 7.9 on the Richter scale and every 30 years an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 or higher.
The most violent earthquakes in Colombia’s history
The earthquake that will go down in the books as the deadliest earthquake ever recorded in Colombia occurred on Jan. 25, 1999, in Armenia, Quindío (the coffee region). The earthquake had a magnitude of 6.4 on the Richter scale and was followed by 13 aftershocks in the following days.
The city of Armenia was destroyed, nearly 2,000 people lost their lives and some 4,000 were injured. In addition, the impact on the economy was immense, as many coffee fincas in the area had also collapsed.
More severe earthquakes occurred in the country’s history. Should you be interested in a complete list: you can find it here.
Earthquakes in Bogotá
Many Colombians are used to the frequent earthquakes, but in large cities such as Bogotá there is more fear.
The capital is vulnerable because of its location near two fault lines and because much of the city is built on the sandy bottom of a drained lake. Due to the high risk of earthquakes Bogotá has its own regulations regarding the construction of houses and flats, separate from the rest of the country. Unfortunately, many informal contractors do not abide by these rules because it also means more expensive building materials.
The last major earthquake in Bogotá was in 1917, and there has been speculation for years that the city of nearly 9 million can expect another “big one” soon. So far, fortunately, it has not happened, but if a major earthquake does occur, the consequences will be incalculable.
La Mesa de Los Santos: where the earth moves every day
Although earthquakes occur regularly throughout Colombia, there is one place where the earth trembles 365 days a year. In La Mesa de Los Santos, there are between 20 and 40 earthquakes every day, most with a magnitude between 1 and 3 on the Richter scale. This makes La Mesa the most seismic site in Colombia.
La Mesa de Los Santos is a mountain plateau at an altitude of 1,600 meters overlooking the impressive Chicamocha Canyon. The plateau is found about a 40-minute drive from Bucaramanga and a little closer to San Gil. In particular, La Mesa de Los Santos is characterized by beautiful country houses and large plots of land. It is a popular weekend destination for local residents. The inhabitants are completely accustomed to the daily movements of the earth and therefore do not worry much.
What is there to do in La Mesa de Los Santos?
Besides its status as a place-where-the-most-earthquakes occur, a visit to La Mesa de Los Santos is also worthwhile.
Chicamocha Canyon & paragliding
Canyon Chicamocha is an unmissable piece of Colombia. Nature is fantastically beautiful and the mountains impressive. The most famous part of Chicamocha, of course, is Panachi, or Parque Natural Chicamocha. Here you will find a cable car that will take you to La Mesa de Los Santos for a lot of money. You can also paraglide here and enjoy views of the impressive canyon. Read more about Panachi and paragliding in Chicamocha Canyon here. Also fun (and challenging): riding from San Gil to Bucaramanga and back again. Very scary, but beautiful views guaranteed.
Los Santos is the village located in the canyon. The village has about 1,200 inhabitants and is all white. I have yet to go there myself, but it seems to be very cute.
El Salto del Duende
At La Mesa de Los Santos you will also find a beautiful waterfall. Unfortunately, we haven’t managed to visit this one either, but maybe it will fit into your trip. Come in the rainy season for the best experience. More information can be found here.
Take a long walk
In the year 1860, German Georg von Lengerke constructed a hike from the village of Los Santos to Panachi. The hike begins at an altitude of 1,500 meters and descends some 32 kilometers. You start with a temperature of around 18 degrees, but it can rise to around 36 degrees. So take plenty of water with you.
Mercado Campesino (farmer’s market).
Mercado Campesino is very well known in the area and Colombians are lyrical about it. Personally, I don’t think you need to make a detour for this, but if you like German beer and lots of meat, it’s definitely worth it.
Eat an arepa de choclo
The specialty in this area: an arepa made of corn and filled with cheese. You get the arepa in a corn leaf and it is certainly very tasty. So don’t skip it if you come across it somewhere.
From where do you have the best view of Chicamocha Canyon?
At La Mesa de Los Santos, there are several points from which you can get a great view of the canyon. The best known, of course, are the cable car stops and from the cable car itself, but there is more.
A few years ago I was in that cable car myself, this time we went from Girón by car toward La Mesa. Along the way you will come across beautiful points where you can stop. Ultimately, any glimpse at Chicamocha is already fantastic, so if you don’t have a car or little time, Panachi is a very good option. The point from which many paragliders take to the air is also stunningly beautiful. Read more about viewpoints over Chicamocha Canyon here.
How to get to La Mesa de Los Santos?
The easiest way to get to La Mesa de Los Santos is by cable car from Panachi. This is pricey though and during high season you can expect a lot of tourists. And therefore long waiting times. I also personally don’t find the place where you come out particularly special. But as mentioned, for views of Chicamocha, it is well worth it. Another way is by road by car or bus from San Gil, Girón or Bucaramanga. Here you will find La Mesa de Los Santos on the map.
To visit La Mesa de Los Santos, it is not necessary to stay there as well. After all, from San Gil, Barichara, Girón or Bucaramanga, it is a short drive. Still, there are many beautiful places in Los Santos and its surroundings. Especially if you want to hike in nature or explore the region on mountain bike, a stay in La Mesa is worthwhile. Take a look here for inspiration.
Do you really feel the earth moving?
If you spend several days in the vicinity of La Mesa de Los Santos, there is a chance that you may experience a small earthquake. However, you hardly feel an earthquake of 1 or 2 on the Richter scale. Besides, you notice pretty little from earthquakes when you are in the car or on the bus, unless it is a very violent quake.
I myself am quite sensitive to earthquakes. I had one time when I ran out of my apartment when no one else had felt the earthquake even though it was there. Also, once I was at work when there was a small earthquake that only a few people, including me, noticed. In an earthquake with a magnitude of 4 or more on the Richter scale and you are not on the road, there is a good chance you will feel it.
Have you ever experienced an earthquake?
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