Visiting Barrancabermeja, Colombia

 Cienaga San Silvestre - Richard McColl

Cienaga San Silvestre 

 Home to Colombia’s Biggest Oil Refinery and Birthplace of the ELN

Home to Colombia’s biggest refinery, and largely shunned by tourists, Barrancabermeja may be the perfect place to mix it up with some Colombians.

Located along the banks of the mighty River Magdalena, the sweltering city of Barrancabermeja may sit pretty in the province of Santander but in climate, style and thought it is distinctly part of an area known by Colombians as the Magdalena Medio, quite literally, the middle part of the course of the Magdalena River.


While there are artifacts that suggest the existence of indigenous communities such as the Yariguies in the area around Barrancabermeja, the settlement as we know it was late to flourish. Founder of the Colombian capital of Bogota, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada passed through the region in the 16th Century and commented that the area had an abundance of ruddy-coloured ravines – thus Barrancabermeja was named.

Oil Oil Oil!

In the early 20th Century, the Tropical Oil Company (Standard Oil) moved in and started to exploit the area’s substantial resources, this of course brought with it demographic growth and relative wealth and prosperity. The state-owned and run company Ecopetrol took over the refinery in the 1950s and to this day Barrancabermeja with its towering smoke stacks is the main base for all of Colombia’s gasoline and petroleum products.

The Colombian Conflict

Barrancabermeja has long been a focal point for Unions and leftist organizations and has the unfortunate history of being the birthplace of the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrilla group who remained powerful in the city until the 1990s. At this point the larger and more powerful guerrilla outfit, the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) moved into the region ousting the ELN influence. The violence did not stop there as in the late 1990s the rightwing paramilitaries, the AUC (the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia) massacred opposition and have a lasting presence here.

Culture and Sites of Interest

While the refinery and oil exploitation is the backbone of this city’s society, even a trip out to bathe in the cooling waters of the Cienaga San Silvestre takes you past some nodding donkeys relentlessly pumping oil from the depths. Here in San Silvestre or El Llanito one can swim safely from the shore, enjoy water-sports and have a BBQ right there at the water’s edge, just 25 minutes out of town. For another great fish experience, head to the Avenida del Rio in town, head to where the kiosks are, pick any one from 30 in which to feast on some freshly caught Bagre or Bocachico – a local specialty.

At first glance Barrancabermeja may seem a cultural wasteland if you take advice from the city government’s recommendation and visit the Museum de Petroleo (Petroleum Museum). This city has more than that and one can find it in the people. With the influx from Colombians from all over the country eager to participate in the oil wealth, there is no one style of music preferred as you can listen to Salsa, Vallenato, Reggaeton and Papayera, and there is no one accent for here you can tune in to voices from the Pacific, the interior and the Caribbean.

Barrancabermeja may just be the ideal place to kick back with some regular Colombians.

Avoid – the midday heat, routinely in the upper 30s.

Do – Eat Bagre on the Avenida del Rio.

Do – Hit the Zona Rosa on a Friday and Saturday night.

Do – Ride the train from Barrancabermeja to La Grecia if you can.

Stay – If you have budgetary concerns then head to the Hotel San Cristobal downtown. Cheap, cheerful and clean.

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