San Gil, Colombia

As we’re not really ‘extreme sports’ people, we were expecting to stay in San Gil only a few days, but we were delighted to find an absolutely charming Colombian town with a crazy amount of easily accessible day trips to offer.

San Gil is a brilliant place for a few reasons. Firstly, the place itself oozes small-town charm, with boutiques, a huge and wonderful market, affordable non-touristy restaurants, goats and animals wandering the streets, butchers with carcasses hung up in their windows, a pretty town square, cathedral, old dapper-looking men sitting on the streets and a general feeling of sunny ambiance. Cobbled streets surrounded by mountains, it’s easy on the eye, but it was the local, normal feel that really beguiled us, and we went days without seeing any other gringos.

Secondly, there’s the accessibility of wonderful things to see and do. It’s as easy as walking to the bus terminal, jumping on a well-labelled minibus, paying 50p, and voila, 30 minutes later you’re at a beautiful colonial town/waterfall/swimming hole. We quickly fell into a rhythm of easy, pleasing day trips, and suddenly 6 days had slipped by without us realising it!

To quickly summarise our activities – on the first day we visited a local swimming spot ‘Pescaderito’ recommended by our hostel, which involved a beautiful walk through some countryside, and swimming in a river near a damn (my first taste of wild swimming!) where Sam was hilariously attacked by a duck (the locals swimming there got a right laugh out of it!)… We swam, we ate, and it was glorious.


On the second day we tried our hand at white water rafting on the famous Grade 3 Rio Fonzo. As it was only Sam and I interested in rafting from our hostel, we were set up with an inflatable KAYAK on which to raft (as opposed to a proper boat)! Our instructor was a hilarious young Colombian guy who did his best to alleviate my fears, and we had a fun old time, Sam in the front as our ‘capitan’ and me in the middle, paddling furiously with our oars through the rapids and around the rocks to the instructor’s cries of ‘Andalay!! Andalay!!’. 

It wasn’t long however before we totally capsized the kayak and were left flailing downstream, trying to do as instructed and ball up to avoid any rocks! The force of the rapids was so strong that it snapped the straps of my sandals and I swallowed huge gulps of river water which choked me up and left me screaming for help! With the ever-calm assistance of Sam and the instructor, we all made it back in the kayak and had an intermittently relaxing/nerve-wracking time as we took in the stunning scenery of the river and navigated through patches of fast and furious rapids that blinded us and threatened to overturn us again, eventually succeeding once more towards the end! We all agreed that the last rapid was a ‘puta’ (bitch) and laughed our way back onto solid ground.

Being Colombian, and amazingly friendly, our instructor then helped get my sandal semi-fixed by a boho mate of his that had lots of thread, then we met an awesome old guy who came running up to us with a newspaper, delighted to tell us that Colombians can now visit Europe without a visa and how excited he was to visit London! Bowled over by his enthusiasm, we all grinningly shook hands and said we couldn’t wait to see him in our city.

We were staying in an amazingly homely hostel (La Papillon), where the Swiss/Colombian couple would bake baguettes every day, and make impromptu delicious pizza that was handed out for free. It had the best, most well-equipped kitchen I’ve ever seen in my life, and so on Sunday we decided to make a traditional British roast! After 8 months on the road, it was something we’d discussed many times, yearning after roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding.

We bought a chicken crown from the butchers and everything else from the market, and after a full-on few hours (forgetting how stressful ‘real’ cooking is!) we emerged with a delicious roast that pretty much felt like home (bar the weird gravy we made with onions, strange powder flavourings, red wine and soy sauce!) Everything else turned out perfectly, and biting into the crispy roasts felt like absolute HEAVEN. Especially after a few glasses of the Chilean red we treated ourselves to.

Other activities included visiting a nearby impressive waterfall where we watched old Colombian ladies bravely bathing in its powerful stream, and sunbathed on a nearby rock, refreshed by the falls’ sprays. 

Our last day was spent visiting nearby colonial town Barichara which was so lovely, it gets its own entry…

We also met another inspiring travel couple – a German couple in their 50s who were cycling around South America! Lean, toned, and very clued up with their iPad and cycling gear, they were a fascinating couple and an aspiration for Sam and I.

And finally, it wouldn’t be a proper blog post without mentioning (even more!) about food… in San Gil we tried some real delicacies, including an array of insanely good empanadas (including ‘mexican’ flavour with spicy meat and japalenos), deep-fried stuffed potatoes, bakery sweets like a coconut and cream-covered cake filled with dulce de leche, and all kinds of weird and wonderful fruits (see ‘Food blog’ for full details of our discoveries!)

Next, onto two post-card perfect colonial towns, Barichara and Villa de Leyva…