Caves, Canyons & Treks In San Gil, Colombia
San Gil is known amongst backpackers as the adventure activity capital of Colombia. It’s a town located in what’s called the Santander Department, which means it’s inland and about a thirteen hour bus journey from our last location of Santa Marta. San Gil, however, is worth the uncomfortable overnight journey.
As soon as we arrive, both Dave and I like the place a lot and feel at ease in our new surroundings. The advances in scenery, construction and commercialism are vast in comparison to the coast. San Gil is very clean and well-maintained, with brick houses that are neatly lined in blocks and just a little rough around the edges. The town itself is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains so there are spectacular views from down below and thankfully, the weather here is a little easier to handle; sitting at a comfortable and sunny twenty-three degrees.
Our hostel, ‘Sam’s VIP’ sits in the main square overlooking a park and while there are the usual street vendors around, there are also a few cafes, restaurants and supermarkets just a stone’s throw away from our doorstep.
Unfortunately, we have to wait four hours until we can check-in to our dorm and we’re shattered from the overnight bus, so we spend the first day watching a film in the lovely lounge area, before joining a few other backpackers at the rooftop pool for a couple of beers and a chat. In the evening we treat ourselves and go out for dinner with a girl we’ve met from Bogota. The restaurant we eat at is called Gringo Mike’s and it serves the most flavoursome, gigantic burgers and burritos I think I’ve ever had. It’s a lovely first night in what’s fast becoming our top city so far.
Barichara and the accidental trek
Feeling refreshed and revitalised, the following day we set out to visit a nearby town, called Barichara. We’ve been told by the receptionist that Barichara is often called ‘Colombia’s most beautiful city’, owed to its cobbled streets, perfectly painted white colonial buildings and red tiled rooftops. It’s an easy 40-minute journey by local bus (once we find the bus stop), up into the mountains. I do agree with the locals of San Gil, Barichara is very beautiful, but after thirty minutes wandering the streets and the main square, Dave and I are at a bit of a loss as to what to do now.
Luckily, as we sit on the steps of a cathedral and lap up the scenery, I spot a large number of people walking up one particular street, so we follow them up and are rewarded with the most amazing hilltop views. A little further along the road, we find a sign signalling a 5km trek to another town, called Guane, so we start the walk and descend downhill, along winding tracks that are mostly paved with uneven stones and grass. Under the impression that we can do a 5km walk easily in around an hour, we’re in great spirits as we stroll along, chatting and pausing to take pictures.
An hour and a half passes, and the half-paved route seems to wind on for eternity following every corner we turn, so we’re starting to wonder if we should turn back. It’s late afternoon already and with no idea how much further we actually have to go and little water, we debate which is the right decision; to continue onwards in the hope that we’ll arrive any minute and will find a bus or taxi that can return us to Barichara, or walk a soul-destroying, uphill hour and a half back to where we started, failing to have reached our destination. We opt for the first choice and are relieved when we spot a sign along the track that invites travellers to stop at a local Colombian house, to rest and purchase drinks.
This gives us the ten minute breather we need and we continue on our way, determined to reach Guane before nightfall.
Our efforts pay off when, around thirty minutes later, we hear loud music playing from houses in the distance and the track opens up into a main street. We’ve made it just as the sun sets and after making our way into the main square of what is more like a small village than a town, we find there to be a concert taking place. We also find a bus that will take us directly back to San Gil in an hour’s time, so we’re able to grab a couple of beers and watch the locals dance traditionally to a Colombian band, before returning to our hostel for a chilled evening in.
Canyoning & Caving La Antigua
Day two in San Gil is set to be just as active and, after a homemade breakfast, Dave and I sign up for a tour that includes caving, rock climbing, rappelling, jumping off rocks into water and general canyoning. To be honest, I am massively apprehensive when I agree to do the tour, as the thought of having to wriggle into small, dark spaces in caves terrifies me quite a bit and usually I’d avoid such activities, but I decide to be brave and give it a go regardless. After all, travelling is about broadening your horizons, right?
It was the best day! After an anxious start where I very nearly chickened out of entering the cave via a narrow tunnel, I actually completely relaxed and enjoyed the whole thing. I found that after getting over the initial fear of getting into the cave, I was so engrossed in the history told by our leader and the novelty of what I was doing that I not only dealt with caving, but thoroughly enjoyed it. At one point, our leader, Fabio, made us all turn off our head torches and make our way along a passage in pitch blackness, like the indigenous people who lived in them used to. I have never known darkness like it.
Once the caving part is finished the day is all about running and climbing along huge boulders. The adrenaline rush is huge, especially when we rappel down two waterfalls. We do have a little scare with the first rappelling experience, mind you. Dave volunteers to go first and somehow ends up over the edge too soon, held only by a security line and clutching on to it for dear life! The guide assures us however that it was a simple mistake that happens now and again, so on second attempt Dave makes it down well. With no major accidents and with me actually managing to keep up with a group of five young men (the pressure was on to represent the ladies well), the tour is by far my favourite thing we’ve done so far. I’d highly recommend it to anyone that’s heading to San Gil!
Horse-riding in the rain
Intent on making up for our days spent lazing on beaches of the Colombian coast, we’ve signed up for a horse-riding tour for our third and final day in San Gil. It’s Dave’s first real time riding a horse so it’s his turn to be a little nervous when we’re collected by a driver and taken an hour out of the town, to a farm in the hills. On arrival at a one-storey house, basic but neat and with a fabulous garden overlooking the valley, we’re welcomed with homemade lemonade. We quickly discover that a) we are the only people on the tour, which is brilliant, and b) our cowboy guide does not speak one single iota of English. With Dave and I speaking only minimal Spanish learnt at night school back in England, we accept it’s going to be a pretty quiet ride.
Our horses are fairly large – mine’s called Shakira. Dave hops up on his horse (I forget the name of his) and is surprisingly confident given his apprehension on the way here. I, on the other hand, set off at a trot and suddenly feel very on edge. I’m not sure if it’s because the guide we have doesn’t understand us, which makes me nervous, or just that it’s been a few years since I’ve ridden a horse and it’s something I’ve not done much at all in my life.
Regardless, we head off down a stony road that passes through open fields, herds of cows and trees. The view is stunning yet again, so we juggle maintaining control of our horses and taking pictures for around forty-five minutes, while our cowboy occasionally points out plants and communicates what they are.
I spend most of this time trailing at the back by myself because Shakira doesn’t seem to want to go at any pace other than a slow trot, even when I prompt her to speed up. I don’t mind too much though, I’d rather that than a horse that bolts!
After a while, we come to a small but powerful waterfall and natural pool and we stop for a bite to eat. I didn’t realise swimming was an option and I’m not wearing a bikini, so I can’t get in but Dave does. We relax and massage out the aches in our thighs and butts from riding, before climbing back on our horses and making the journey back. Until now we’ve had gorgeous sunshine, but as soon as we start to ride back the heavens open up and it’s teeming with rain. We are soaked. On the plus side, this means Shakira moves a little faster so we make quicker time than the journey out.
The last part of our day at the home of this local cowboy is spent fairly damp, eating lunch under a gazebo-style structure in the garden. We’re served some really tasty treats, including grilled chicken, steak, salad, fried plantain and soft drinks. As backpackers surviving mostly off tinned tuna, pasta and tomato sauce, it’s so nice to tuck in to a big plate of good food!
When we’re ready to go we let our driver know and he takes us back to our hostel in San Gil. We’re pretty tired and aching after such an active few days so again we spend the night relaxing and chatting with others in our hostel. I’ve loved our time in San Gil; amazing hostel, lovely people, nice and safe surroundings, plenty to do and decent weather. It wins as my favourite destination so far and I’m actually gutted to have to leave. I could have spent a couple more days here easily, but we’re on a bit of a time schedule so we need to get on the road again. Our next stop is the gigantic city of Medellin, a place we’ve heard great things about, so fingers crossed we enjoy it as much as San Gil! Subscribe to this blog to receive the next post, all about our days in Medellin, Colombia.