The tiny town of San Gil, Colombia, is known as the “adventure capital of Colombia,” and my time there definitely lived up to the name.
There are activities to suit every level of adventurer, including: bungee jumping, paragliding, adventure caving, white water rafting, kayaking, cycling, rappelling, and canyoning. The central plaza in this friendly little town is a great place to unwind with a beer or a frozen mojito after a long day of adventuring.
For my three days in San Gil, I decided on the activities of paragliding, white water rafting, and adventure caving, none of which I had done before. My hostel, Bacaregua Hostal, arranged all the tours for me. Two out of the three even included door-to-door transportation.
Day 1: Paragliding
I had always wanted to go paragliding, and I’m not afraid of heights, so this seemed like a natural fit for me. I paid the $70,000 COP (about $20 USD at the time of this writing) and the owner of my hostel made all the arrangements for me. At the appointed time in the afternoon, a taxi arrived at the front door to collect me. Along with two other travelers from another hostel, we rode about 30 minutes outside of town to the launch site.
Our taxi driver was very friendly, and explained to us a lot about the local towns. The area around San Gil is farming country, and they grow everything from tobacco to coffee to corn. He also pointed out the flowering trees, which bloom in vibrant purple, white, orange and yellow.
When we arrived at the launch site, we had only to wait a few minutes while the previous gliders landed, and then it was our turn! My tandem pilot’s name was Reynaldo, a fit-looking guy in his early 40s with a long black ponytail. Two assistants helped me get strapped in, and Reynaldo gave me instructions for takeoff. Just moments later, we were in the air!
I didn’t find it scary, because the seat felt very secure and the view was pretty similar to being in an airplane. Reynaldo pointed out the various towns on the horizon, as well as the different canyons and buttes we could see from our vantage point. I marveled at floating higher than the birds below us. We stayed in the air for about fifteen minutes before he expertly steered us to the ground. It was a great experience, and even the other people who I talked to that were afraid of heights seemed ok with paragliding. I’d definitely recommend giving it a shot.
Later that evening, I went with some other backpackers to a restaurant called La Mana, where we had huge, full-course meals (fruit, salad, meat & sides, and drinks) for $13,000 COP ($3.85 USD). I had to negotiate a bit for a vegetarian meal, because the server didn’t seem to understand the concept (So you want fish, seniorita?), but they did give me enough to eat. It’s definitely a good spot for a budget meal, but not ideal for picky eaters.
Day 2: White Water Rafting
This was another all-inclusive activity. The $125,000 COP ($37 USD) rate included transportation both ways and lunch. It was my first time white water rafting, but many people told me that the water is low in the Suarez River right now, so the water is calmer than usual and there are a lot of rocks to beware of!
However, none of that detracted from the fun. The Colombia Rafting Company crew is awesome – very friendly and enthusiastic, and they go out of their way to make sure everyone has an awesome time.
The Suarez River offers a beautiful, pretty tranquil view of the surrounding canyon, as well as a lot of stray cows and goats along the banks. Since the water was calm in spots, we spent a good portion of our time swimming alongside the raft, and at one point our guides tied up our rafts so we could enjoy a session of cliff-jumping into the water (optional, of course). At the end of the trip, about 4 hours total, a cook from the company had set up tables loaded down with delicious fresh fruit (pineapple, watermelon, and mango), as well as potatoes, yuca, cheese and chicken — and cold beers, of course! It was a great end to a very fun day.
Day 3 – Caving in La Cueva de la Vaca
My final day in San Gil, I decided to brave the ‘Cave of the Cow,’ which is in the nearby pueblo of Curití. My hostel once again made the arrangements for me. The tour cost $25,000 COP (about $7 US) but did not include transportation. Buses leave San Gil for Curití every 15 minutes, and the short ride costs less than $1 US.
I wasn’t very impressed with the tour company, however. Guay-iti is the same company that does the rappelling tours, and several others, so if you are going to do any activities I would definitely recommend checking to see if Colombia Rafting Company offers them first, as I had a much better experience with them.
I showed up on my own and a teenager and another guy were hanging around the place. They gave me the form to fill out and a locker to put my change of clothes into, but didn’t really tell me anything about the tour or what was going on. They seemed kind of bored. An older couple appeared at the door, having just finished the tour. They were soaking wet but very enthusiastic about how cool the cave had been.
My tour guide showed up after a short time, and he was an incredibly soft-spoken, shy guy in his early 20s. He only spoke Spanish, but luckily he had a very clear, slow accent so I was able to understand him easily. He said that I was the only one who had signed up for the tour that moment, so it was just us. I wasn’t given any safety instructions or an idea of what to expect, so I was glad I had researched the cave online. I knew it was going to be a challenge.
Cueva de la Vaca is the more adventurous of the two caves you can tour. There is cold, muddy water to swim through, tight corridors to navigate, and the big obstacle is a room full of water that you must swim through using a rope to guide you. I knew about this beforehand but I got very apprehensive when I saw it in person. Luckily, my guide was incredibly patient, and he held my hand and swam with me since I was nervous. The only way to exit the cave is to go out the same way you go in, so we had to repeat all of our feats a second time. By then I was more comfortable and I was enjoying myself. My guide told me about the different formations inside the cave, and pointed out tiny sleeping bats, plants growing in patches of guano, and big black spiders.
I emerged muddy and soaking wet from the cave, but I was really glad I had taken the tour. The company doesn’t provide towels, though, and I don’t carry one with me, so although I took a fully-clothed shower, I was soaking wet after the tour. I didn’t want to take the bus in that condition, so I decided to walk around the quaint little town of Curití and try to dry off in the sun.
Curití: An Artesanal Paradise
While I was hiking up the steep hill to the cathedral and the town plaza, I passed a group of people stretching out straw into some kind of rope. They greeted me with big smiles and “Bienvenida a Curití!” I asked them if I could take a picture, to which they agreed happily. I started chatting with them, asking what they were making.
They were making a straw that is used to make bags, they said. The man said they dye it in different colors, and then he beckoned for me to follow him around the corner where they had hung up many different skeins to dry. I was thoroughly delighted by this, so he decided to show me the entire operation. It’s in a sort of house, but each room is stacked to the ceiling with materials in various stages of the process. In the back, a man smoking a cigarette was flinging tufts of the original plant onto a contraption to stretch it out or something.
He took me across the street to show me a massive, beautiful straw rug in a house there (presumably his house). I asked where they sold the bags and we went next door to the shop. The walls were lined with skeins of straw in every color imaginable, some even flecked with sparkling gold. A stack of bags sat on a chair and I asked if I could look at them. I found one I liked and asked him if I could buy it. I had wanted to buy a bag before I left Colombia anyway. I could tell this man wasn’t trying to ‘make a sale’ – he was genuinely proud to show off his operation and thrilled that a visitor was interested to see everything. Of course he sold me the bag, which only cost me a couple of dollars, and it is certainly something I will treasure more than if I had bought it in a random shop.
I stopped to buy a big cup of fresh strawberry juice and wandered through the rest of the town, which is lined on every street with artesanal shops selling anything you could possibly make out of that straw. I bought a bracelet from a young girl in another shop, and then decided my clothes had dried enough for me to hop the bus back to San Gil.
Once back in San Gil, I stopped at “Gringo Mike’s,” which is one of the more popular restaurants in San Gil. With a big menu of mostly American and ‘Tex-Mex’ type food, it can be a refreshing change if you, like many people I’ve talked to, aren’t a huge fan of typical Colombian cuisine. They also have a number of vegetarian options. I was most excited about a frozen lime mojito, though!
I think there are a number of great hostels in the area, but I had an excellent experience at the Bacaregua Hostel, and they are very reasonably priced and in a great location, so I would definitely recommend it!
Note: None of the links in this article are affiliate links, I just had great experiences with these companies and I think you will, too! 🙂
Overall, I had an amazing time in San Gil and crossed several things off my adventure ‘bucket list.’ I would definitely recommend checking out the area if you are making your way through Colombia!