San Gil – Ancient Villages, Explosions and an Armchair in the Sky

Despite enjoying our visit to Bogota, after three days we were keen to get deeper into Colombia. Something about making that first move gives you the feeling of being back on the road, rejoining the game, entering the fray etc. ad infinitum. Given our hiatus it felt important to be back on track even if the track is somewhat – okay completely – undefined.

Normally at this point Alison is neck deep into research and leading the agenda but this time it fell to me. I’ll let her talk about her anxiety when I start to organiserate (new word) in future posts. My approach to research is a little different and arguably less enlightened than hers. I read a few blogs – friends’ and random ones on the web – checked out a few top ten suggestions and then I put a bunch of stars on google maps. Next I tried to see if they made any pattern that might suggest a route and obvious destination. A key goal these days is to avoid unnecessary backtracking.

In Guatemala we ended up at completely the wrong cardinal point. Just as we wanted to move into El Salvador, we couldn’t have been further from where we needed to be: right in the North-East corner as we wanted to exit from the South-West. Doh!

Google StarsHappily the stars began to align and the route slowly coalesced. Up to the Caribbean coast via San Gil, then across a bit (to the left) and down. I shall introduce a few refinements to this advanced star-based route-planning technique in later blogs. These will account for minor considerations such as “Large South American Mountain Ranges” and “Areas Full of Gun-toting Guerillas who Kidnap People”.

Early afternoon we arrived in San Gil, after a snaking bus ride through fabulous green mountain landscapes, dotted with picturesque and some not-so-picturesque pueblos (and the odd stop for drinks and bathrooms). Having researched a bit, we wisely exited the bus in town at the bridge and not at the bus terminal, thereby saving a 3,000 Col taxi fare ($1.50). The hostel was only a few hundred meters away after all. Twenty minutes later after dragging our luggage up the steepest hill ever, we stumbled, red-faced, sweaty and panting into reception. So much for economising!

San Gil in a Nutshell

San Gil is a bustling medium-sized town split across a river valley and rising steeply up both sides. It has antiquity (it was founded in 1689) and moments of prettiness, but a functional and utilitarian edge. The reason most people come here is that it is the extreme sports mecca of Colombia. Not sure what we were doing here then….

The town centre is fairly charming, a great old plaza with a cathedral on one side, that is always full of people relaxing, walking dogs and/or kids, aiming to be seen or socialising. This community space at the heart of towns is something sorely missing or mis-used in the UK. But perhaps the weather is in part to blame for that. Around the square are multiple restaurants, bars, pharmacies (a silly amount of pharmacies) and shops, and it was here that we made our first acquaintance with Arepas, Empanadas and Bunuelos. These are Colombian staple fast foods and contenders for “world’s cheapest but still quite good meal”…if you like fried stuff. Which we (unfortunately) do.

The town caters for tourists very well with a vibrant hostel scene, multiple activity companies and restaurants but, at the same time, it doesn’t seem overly touristy. We spent a few of our days here just hanging out enjoying the atmosphere and always on the search for that great cheap meal. In Colombia it’s the “menu ejecutivo” for between $3 and $6: soup followed by a dish of rice, beans, fried plantain and some meat with a small fruit juice (remove meat for Alison).

San Gil also has a Botanic Garden that is pleasant for a meander and fronts onto the river. It’s overpriced in many people’s view and a lot seemed under construction while we were there. But we enjoyed the opportunity for shade and bird-spotting. Anyway, the main action happens outside of town: paragliding, trekking, canyoning, white water rafting, climbing, horse riding and more.

Radiating out from San Gil in different directions there are three cool places to visit: Barichara, the Pescaderito river pools just outside of Curiti and the falls at Juan Cury. Each is serviced by a cheap bus from the Terminalito (or small bus terminal) in the town centre.

Restrained a little by budget, more stomach issues (Alison asks for your help in coming up with a term that is the opposite of a “cast-iron stomach”) and a slightly risk-averse nature: we didn’t go too wild but still had a thoroughly enjoyable time and six days passed very quickly.

Cerro De La Cruz

Cerro de La CruzDay 1 – We look out over the town at night. On other side of valley is a bloody big white cross on top of hill, which is illuminated in a cool green and blue light.

Day 2 – Cross still there. Blazing sunshine. Alison decides investigation is required.

Walk down inexplicably steep hill, across bridge and river into huge shopping centre. Walk up another very steep and even longer hill. Sunshine still blazing. Walk through residential area, note people checking out the Gringos… wonder what they up to? Arrive at cross, small girl runs away from Gringos, Grandma looks unimpressed. Walk around Cross, take pictures. Hear singing from local church and appreciate atmosphere. Sunshine still blazing. Embark on return journey, downhill good but for some reason another inexplicably steep hill on other side.

Day 3 – Minor sunburn. Hm.

Note: Cerro de La Cruz was built by the Jesuit Fathers in 1888 as symbol of Christianity, Peace and Love. We don’t subscribe to the first but highly approve of the second and third sentiments.

Barichara

Barichara is one of those picture-perfect little towns, made up of stone streets and colonial style houses around a main plaza with…wait for it…a cathedral on one side. It has a sleepy feel, the streets are largely empty: a few old ladies and gentlemen wandering around, some school kids dispersing after classes. The cathedral is of course massively oversize for the town but beautiful nonetheless.

Barichara Cathedral

We spent a few hours walking around and during our ambling we found a lookout at the top of the town with incredible vistas over another valley. The Colombian countryside can be stunning. Green mountains with pinprick farms, towering stacks of cloud in clear blue skies and a gradient of colours between the extremes. It reminded me a bit of Tuscany but the scale of scenery is larger.

After a relaxed lunch we just hopped on the bus and returned to San Gil. There is a walk to a neighbouring town Guane that could be fun too, but three hours in the sun seemed a little much given the previous day’s sunshine overdose.

If you wanted to write, be inspired, chill or find yourself in a film pastiche kind of way you should probably stay here rather than San Gil.

The Pools at Pescaderito

Curiti is another beautiful town with the same “theme” as Barichara. A few kilometres out of town lie some river pools set amongst large boulders. This was a great place to spend an afternoon, especially as we nearly had the place to ourselves. Alternating between swimming in the cool pools and leaning back on the hot rocks to sunbathe was akin to a spa experience, but outside with nobody there and better.

In the pools, small fish and little catfish flit and sucker their way about and the only sound is running water and the breeze. Apparently on Sundays it becomes a local beer fest with an entirely different ambiance.

The river pools are a place of great natural beauty. But the locals also remind people of that by writing admonitions to not litter in massive painted letters on some of the larger monoliths. So the effect is a little diluted.

Pescaderito

Paragliding at Chichamocha Canyon

The hostels in San Gil have menus of activities that raise your chances of death in a non-negligible way. Australians seem to be drawn like flies to these doom-laden pamphlets, but sometimes just sometimes, they can exert a pull on sensible British ex-enginerds.

          Toby:

Might be kind of wondering about possibly thinking about paragliding, Could you explain it a bit to me?

Hostel: Two options, fifteen minute short flight with chance of a few acrobatics or forty five minute thermal flight over a big canyon. Option 2, approx 3x price.

Toby: Option 1 please.

Hostel: Watch this video, you have to do option 2 it is the best thing ever and you’ll be back to town earlier.

Toby: Option 2 please.

I already posted this video I made on Facebook: it was fabulous, the best thing ever and a great day out with some new German friends. The type of friendship born in the crucible of fear and exhilaration.

Can’t describe the experience therefore won’t try too hard. Take-off happens before you realise it has. You feel like you’re still but are actually racing along. Canyon views to die for, all around, far too much to take in. Realise that you are a small thing in very big place. Like being in a comfortable armchair in the sky….yes a freaking armchair in the sky. Acrobatic spinning descent, scary, g-forcey, real concern for safety but but breath-taking. The point where your feet seem higher than the canopy doesn’t compute, probably best to ignore. Landing smooth and over all too soon. Want to do it again immediately.

Tejo

Playing TejoTwo nights in San Gil we played Tejo. This is a Colombian national game that involves hurling a shaped rock at a mound of clay quite some distance away. The goal is to hit the mound in the centre and detonate the small packet of explosives placed there. It is taken very seriously and it is very difficult. The scoring was never 100% clear to me but you could get 1, 3, 6 or 9 points from various landing and explosion configurations.

On the first evening a group from our hostel led by Thorsten took ourselves down to the local Committee de Tejo on the outskirts of San Gil. This is something akin to a dusty warehouse with a bar. After a few beers we asked to play but were told we’d distract the “professionals” on the main court. So we were sent to play on baby courts upstairs, given a brief intro and left to our own devices. To play you just have to buy more beer, quite a lot. The group generated a few explosions and had a lot of fun.

The next night we went on a hostel-organised tour to the real courts. We were briefed again and told to throw from 2/3 of the normal distance, being newbies and all. A few stones hit, some missed, 2 explosions generated out of about 600 throws and two crates of beer consumed. A good night out but very clear this game is a little like golf, simple in principle but a bugger to play well.

So six days in San Gil, more than most spend there and less extreme sports than most pony up for. But a cool, wee place and an excellent introduction to the Colombian countryside. What next…only the googly stars know but we’ve heard it’s hot as hell.

 

Traveller’s Advice

Bogota to San Gil

  • Head to Portal del Norte on the Transmillenio
  • Cross over to bus terminal/rank, find bus for San Gil/Bucaramanga
  • Autoboy (bus company) was 55kCol (27.5$) journey time was 5-6 hours
  • The bus can drop you at the terminal in San Gil which is on the edge of town (taxi required into town 3600Col or $1.80) or at the bridge in the town centre (walking distance to hostels but, take note, there are some steep hills).

San Gil to Barichara (45 mins)

  • Head to El Terminalito in town (Intersection of Carrera 11 and Calle 15)
  • Buy ticket at office in El Terminalito (or on bus) 4200Col ($2.20) one way
  • For return we took bus from main square and bought ticket in the office before boarding

San Gil to Curiti (20 mins)

  • Head to El Terminalito in town
  • Buy ticket on the bus 2400Col ($1.20) one way
  • For return we took bus from main square and paid on the bus

Curiti to Pescaderito

  • It’s a couple of kilometres from the Curiti town plaza to the pools, but you can take a motorcycle or tuk-tuk for 6000Col ($3.00) to ease the pain of walking up and down hill in the midday heat. We walked there and a store owner called a tuk-tuk for us for the way back, while we ate ice creams in front of her tienda.

Recommended Hostels

  • Hostal le Papillon – slightly outside the centre but extremely nice laid back place
  • Sam’s VIP Hostel – on the main square, pricier but great facilities (bar, kitchen, small pool)

 

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