San Gil turned out to be one of our favorite places in Colombia, which was a bit of surprise. When you look it up in the various guidebooks, all they talk about are all the Adventure Activities available in the area- rafting, caving, paragliding, etc… Thats great, but we didn’t come all the way to Colombia to go rafting and such- we’ve got plenty of that back in Oregon. So when guidebooks excitedly mention Adventure Activities and not much else, I roll my eyes and don’t expect too much. thankfully that turned out to be wrong.
San Gil is lower in elevation than many of the other places we’d been, so it was nice and warm but not too hot- nearly a perfect climate. It’s a smallish city that felt very safe, with a lot of younger people from the local university giving it a fun sense of energy. There’s a square with a nice church, some nice buildings around, whatever… I can see why the guidebooks don’t say much about San Gil itself, there just isn’t much in the way of traditional tourist sites. What it does have is tons of friendly people living their lives in a nice town, without a lot of tourists around. The market had fruit stalls that made monstrous and delicious fruit salads, and the fruit ladies were super nice and showed us some new fruits and joked around with us. Also in the market we bought a lunch with some of the best tasting beef we’ve ever had, smoked over an open fire before grilling, it had the flavor of beef jerky but the texture and juiciness of flank steak.
The plaza was always buzzing with people, but weekend nights it was packed with folks just out drinking beers and hanging out, vendors strolling around selling stuff, music, people watching… travel experiences don’t get much better than being right in the middle of all that, eating delicious meat on a stick barbecued right in front of us by our meat lady- oh yeah, we were regulars there long enough to have a meat lady. There was a bar on the corner where we bought a small bottle of rum for just a bit more than it cost in a liquor store, and drank rum and cokes for a few hours while we played cards and people watched, listening to the good Colombian music.
During the days we were in town we’d walk around, looking for nice cheap restaurants and things to see. There’s a park at the edge of town filled with giant tropical trees and a giant swimming pool, but unfortunately the pool was dry while we were there. And remember earlier, when I snobbishly dismissed those so-called Adventure Activities? Well, we were only kidding ourselves, we love that stuff! So we signed up for rafting the Rio Suarez, a class IV plus run that people rave about, but unfortunately the river was too high while we were in town, and no trips were able to go due to safety concerns.
High rivers have absolutely no effect on the sky, though, so we decided to try parapente: Spanish for paragliding! For about $40 each we were picked up at our hostel, driven to a local hilltop, and strapped in front of a paragliding pilot. It happened just about that fast, there was no preamble or safety talk, the language barrier was probably too big anyway. Run, said someone in a heavy accent, and a few steps later we were airborne and rising fast. My pilot was a bit of daredevil, which I was mostly OK with at least once I was back on the ground. After catching some updrafts to get us way up in sky, he put us in a powerful spin plummeting back to
earth. The canopy was actually below us as we spun, the G forces pushing me back into my harness like nothing I’ve ever felt. It seemed to go on a long time, and when we finally pulled out of it my pilot was literally screaming with excitement. I pushed my eyeballs back in and agreed with him, si, muy fuerte. In all we were up for about 20 minutes, a fun ride that made me much more nervous than I’d expected. Denae went after me and had a more conservative pilot and a tamer ride, she was disappointed. It was windy and landing was tricky; she ended up coming down in the hillside tobacco field but everybody was OK.
Another day we took a local bus 30 minutes to Barichara, another beautifully preserved colonial town along the lines of Villa de Leyva, but smaller and less touristy. It was a beautiful and quiet place, and we had lunch and wandered the streets for a while. Up one of the roads in town we found the trail we’d heard about, a section of an old camino real that’s been used for hundreds of years. We followed the stone path down along the rim of a large canyon, through some beautiful country, walking for about 1.5 hours before we came to the very small town of Guane. We were very hot by this time, so when we bought a beer and sat in the shade until a bus showed up to take us back to San Gil.
Another day we caught a local bus to Las Cascadas, about 20 minutes out of San Gil, and walked the short trail up to the Juan Curi waterfall. It was a big falls that we could step under at the outskirts for a very forceful shower, and the best part was the pool right at the base. It was a great swimming pool, if a little chilly, and we had tons of fun swimming and lounging around at this beautiful spot.