San Gil was Cel’s pick of the towns as we made our way north to the Caribbean coast and Cartagena. She was itching for a bit of adventure and of course I was going to have to get into the adventure with her. San Gil is a town north of Villa de Leyva (about 4 hours by bus), hosting 42,000 Colombians who all seem to enjoy the good life in this small town. The place is centred around a small square, with the ring-road around the square being home to cafe’s, restaurants, a supermarket, banks and of course a few hostels. There is pretty much everything you need in a 200m radius – Cel was off to a good start! We’d booked in at Hostel El Dorado, after a rushed bit of internet research. The hostel was perfect, just off the square, free Colombian coffee, a chilled longue area out the back and plenty of advice on what to do and see.
San Gil in 3 Days
There is plenty to do and see in San Gil, no matter what you’re into. Adventure sports, colonial towns, hiking, waterfalls, rafting, paragliding and of course drinking and eating in the square. We decided it was an event a day and set off on a 3-day mission to get into what the place had to offer.
Day 1: Waterfalling
After all the successes of visiting waterfalls we thought it was fail-safe to check another one out. Boardies were on and all we needed to do was get wet in a cool pool and we’d be satisfied. We packed up our staple snack lunch of crackers, tomatoes and avocado, found the water resistant sunscreen and headed for the local bus terminal. We’d originally played with the idea of biking out there, after taking the bus along the hot and tight road, we were glad we’d passed up doing it on two wheels! Telling the driver to stop at ‘Las Cascadas’ and jumping off at the side of the road when we got there was straightfoward, as was the paying the $5,000 COP to get in. The waterfalls like to get you warmed up (in the 35 degree heat) before you jump in the pool, meaning we had to take a 20 min walk into the jungle to find them. The first waterfall we came across much have been around 40m high, with a deep pool below and more cascading falls below it. We were into them straight away and even managed to get out onto the ledge under the waterfall for a classic Asian Squat photo.
It was going to involve another 20min walk, but above the first set of waterfalls, were another – so we felt obliged to haul ourselves up the cliff to check out if it was just as impressive as the one down below. It was definitely worth the effort and the second waterfall must have been around 70m high and it involved some sketchy rock jumping to get up to. Again we took the photos, sat in the sun for a while and eventually made our way back down to the road to catch the bus back into town. Day 1 had probably turned out the most impressive waterfalls of the trip, a toughie to beat one would have thought.
Day 2: Rafting
Unfortunately there are no pics of this one, the lack of a waterproof camera was the issue….After getting back into town from the waterfalls, we went and signed up for the next days excitement – white water rafting. We were going to be hitting the Suarez River which has grade 3 to grade 4 rapids. The next morning arrived and we were thrown into a van with a bunch of other tourists bound for the shores of the Suarez. After a pretty thorough safety briefing, we formed our raft crew which was made up of us, a couple of Australian girls and an Irish lad (who we’d spoken to a while before). We managed to avoid the pale skinned Brits and unaccustomed French – yep we thought we’d found the top crew of the day.
We hit the river, with our guide Heston laughing a shouting away about something in Spanish. It was running smoothly through the first section, even the French had managed to stay in their raft. We were approaching a grade 4 rapid and got the expected call to paddle hard at an upcoming wave. We all dug in, but our raft seemed to go sideways. I turned around to see Heston waving only one paddle around as the others handle had just snapped clean off. A quick call of ‘inside’ and we were thrown sideways over the wave and just managed to keep ourselves upright. A shaky start and now we had a handle-less oar – although Heston still found it relatively amusing.
The rest of the trip went smoothly (for white water rafting that is), the ultimate crew stayed upright the whole time and even got to practice our safety skills when the boat in front of us flipped. Dragging sodden europeans into our boat – we weren’t too sure if they knew what had hit them. It was a good trip, probably not as extreme as we would have expected but definitely worth the day out and a chance to be at one with the river (although without a rod). Cel even found her new favourite fruit, which of course is a big added bonus.
Day 3: Downhill Mountain Biking
The final of the disciplines was a bit of down hilling. Now there was a point of contention around this as me, in my Spartan like way, protested at the ridiculous cost to do it and asked ‘Why can’t we just get bikes and do our own tour’. Nonetheless we were signed up at Colombian Bike Junkies for a full day tour where we’d descend 50km into the second longest canyon in the world. OK, so at least I could tell people that (as I am now) for the money I was about to invest!
As it turns out the day was pretty top notch. We started with some great breakfast burrito’s at ‘Gringo Mikes’ then took an hour journey in a beast of a V8 Land Rover Defender to the start of the downhill. We were fully kitted out in safety gear and assigned a top-of-the-line mountain bike, I was a little scared I’d break it. With helicopter insurance included, we started our decent into the canyon. The ride was fast, dusty and loose. There were definitely a few times where the mountain had control of me and not me of the bike, hurtling down a slope of loose gravel not quite knowing where the hell to steer. Cel seemed to take it all in her stride and had a good trail of mud up her back after 10 mins.
The days riding was made even better by a stop for lunch at some secluded swimming pools. It was just what I could have wished for, lying in a small waterfall cooling down and cleaning of mud before getting my laughing gear around a roast beef sandwich. While the biking itself was great fun, the backdrop against which we did it was awesome: huge canyon walls, a desert floor and a torrent of a river running through the whole thing.
So what would come in first, second and third of each of the days? I’d say 1) Downhilling, 2) Rafting and 3) Waterfalls. An outstanding trifecta of tourist events that definitely made our time in San Gil stand out as one of the better stops on our journey. After all that we were headed north to the heat and colour of Cartagena.