April 12, 2014 – April 16, 2014
San Gil is the adventure sports capital of Colombia. A 325 year old town, founded in 1689 is now a place where adventure sports addicts converge, whether you feel like mountain biking through the canyons, white water rafting up to class 5 rapids, kayaking, paragliding, bungee jumping, caving, or repelling down waterfalls, all can be found in San Gil. A city with a small town feel, set deep in the canyons of central Colombia, and our next destination.
Leaving the coast we boarded a bus in Santa Marta for an 11 hour ride to the city of Bucaramanga, our first of many long bus rides to come. Arriving in Bucaramanga we inquired where to buy a ticket for the final three hour trip to the much smaller town of San Gil, we were told that one was leaving at that moment and we hustled quickly to the leaving bus and took the last two remaining seats and were on our way.
San Gil is in the mountainous region of central Colombia, crisscrossed with mountain ridges reaching to the clouds and canyons cutting deep into the ground. The landscape, while beautiful, makes the roads very interesting to say the least. With steep canyons on one side, a road twisting and turning its way up the side of a canyon and a bus driver who insisted on passing every other vehicle on the road, blind corners be damned. It made for a very fitting introduction to a city which touts itself as the adventure sports capital of Colombia… and perhaps it was best that it was at night.
The city itself straddles a river deep in a narrow valley with steep ridges on either side. The old city on one side of the river with its traditional colonial style buildings and 300 year old sandstone church, and the new modern city complete with a mall and movie theater on the other. A new pedestrian bridge connects both sides, making exploration a simple task and dodging cars on the other bridges strictly optional.
Exploring the city we found out the area around San Gil is known for eating ants “hormigas culonas”. Giant ants are roasted and salted and sold all over the city. I tried some, they actually aren’t that bad. They taste like eating a super salted sunflower seed whole but you don’t have to spit out the shell. I couldn’t eat more than a handful as they are extremely salty.
After our first unimpressive night at the Macondo Guest House we explored other options until we found a place we liked much better. Sam’s VIP Hostel, which had great rooms, working wifi, and being only 3 years old had a much cleaner and modern feel. After finding a hostel which we liked, and there were many pleasant options in San Gil, we went out into the city to explore and eventually hopped on a bus to Cascadas de Juan Curi. A small private park in the forest with great views and a waterfall where one has the option of rappelling down. However, we elected to go for a more traditional method to reach the bottom of the waterfall – walking.
Despite the absence of a rappelling harness and our clothes remaining perfectly dry, we were still treated to the same great views.
The cascades were worth the trip if you have time or are just not that interested in any activity containing the word ‘extreme’, otherwise there are admittedly many more exciting things to budget your time for.
The following day we boarded a small bus for the one hour ride to the nearby town of Barichara. A very traditional colonial town, it has not been spoiled by an overabundance of tourism or commercialism, and looks much the same as it has over the last few hundred years. Because of its traditional feel it is often used as a shooting location for films and TV shows.
If one traditional Colombian colonial town is simply not sufficient (and I know the feeling), or you feel that Barichara is just not traditional enough with its occasional modern conveniences like an ice-cream/coffee shop (something that didn’t bother me at all) you can visit the even more traditional, smaller and remote village of Guane. A quick two hour walk on the “El Camino Real” or “The Royal Trail”, a rough stone trail that heads further down into the valley, takes you to Guane. The trail has been continuously maintained over hundreds of years.
Marine fossils are everywhere along the trail, and the town of Guane has a museum with a large collection. Viewing the collection is apparently a challenge though, as when we arrived there was a sign saying “be back in 20 minutes.” Someone else waiting to see the collection had already been waiting for half an hour, and no one showed up for the hour or so that we were in town. Besides the impressive museum door, the village did have lots of traditional buildings, streets, shops and a church to explore before hopping on the bus that will take you back to Barichara. Unless you want to repeat the royal walk, uphill this time.
Back in San Gil we decided to explore the Parque El Gallineral, a park along the river in the middle of the city.
Deciding that we couldn’t visit the adventure sport capital without trying at least one proper adventure sport we elected to try paragliding. Cost COP $60,000 per person, or around US $30.00. We met up with two other backpackers from the UK who were staying at our hostel and made the 45 minute van ride up a hill to the launching area. At least a dozen paragliders were already sailing around, some floating tranquilly through the sky, others spinning, turning and flinging about in an attempt to elicit shouts of joy from their passengers, or perhaps to make them sick.
There was a stiff breeze that day that seemed to shift constantly making takeoffs and landings a challenge at times. We saw several rough take offs with people being dragged and ropes tangling, as well as several landings which also presumably did not go as planned. One of our UK friends got dragged fifty feet through a field and ended up in a pile of cow manure. Another paraglider trying to land was thrown back suddenly by a strong gust and came down on the group of people waiting to go up, forcing them to scatter, a couple did not make it and were caught in the ropes. Despite all this, the majority of landing and takeoff attempts were perfectly successful and no one was injured.
Strapped securely onto the front of the professional paraglider pilot it was finally our turn to launch. Our own takeoffs and landings were blissfully uneventful. This being our first time paragliding, we were surprised at just how gentle it feels when they lift off, it hardly feels like you are moving at all. We glided around for about 15 minutes, took some pictures and had uneventful landings.
All in all we liked San Gil, despite not trying very many adventure sports. The city felt much calmer than the coastal cities, with a noticeable lack of people constantly trying to sell you things you don’t want. The temperatures were also much more comfortable with highs in the upper 70’s and low 80’s, and nights that actually felt cool. It turned out to be a great place to explore whether you were interested in sports or not, the city and surrounding area has much to offer for every type of traveler.