San Gil - Rafting and Guacho's of Guane

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June 20th 2011
Published: July 25th 2011
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Laughing, they were all purely, bodily, facially and heartily laughing, not at me, but with me, genuinely.
We were playing Bolo – a local form of Patanque where relatively heavy steel balls are launched underarm skywards to drop on or around three battered wooden stumps. The aim is to knock them over directly, or with the aid of a bounce on the ground or a bash against the back-board. I had just stepped up with my first shot and pulled it so far left it sailed up, up, up and over the pitch side fence to land in a heavy bush the other side.

All the local lads laughed and slapped my back, but it wasn’t mocking laughter – the men of San Gil were delighted my brother, his girlfriend and I had stopped to take part in their local game and this was the laughter of acceptance. It was a great evening.

We had arrived in San Gil the evening before. The atmosphere of this town in the hills of Colombia immediately struck us – it was busy, but not aggressively so – the Sun was setting and people were calmly going about their daily life as we checked in at a local hotel and headed out into the square. People were so welcoming that we felt really excited to be having a few days here in the supposed Colombian capital of Adventure Sports.

The next morning I was up as the sun was rising behind the jungle clad hills encircling the town. I sat in the square, purchased a cup of the ubiquitous tinto (sweet black coffee hawked from flasks) and watched the sun rise above the hills. The town square is a stereotypical colonial picture. A large square with planted sections, benches, and a couple of monuments bordered by roads on all four sides with cafes and banks squashed all along the pavements and the whole set sternly presided over by the large and imposing church at the highest point. I sat on a bench in the middle of the square and watched the people of San Gil setting off for, and setting up their day ahead, all of them with a cup of my new favourite drink, tinto.

It was at the end of this day we discovered the game of Bolo. We had spent the day checking out a beautiful national garden park two minutes out of the city and then walking up an unfeasibly steep road to relax and dose by some beautiful waterfalls. As the sun began to set we started the stroll back down the hill – which seemed slightly easier after the cold Club Colombia beers we had refreshed ourselves with by the water! Five minutes down the hill we were greeted by loud Colombian music and a bunch of guys launching into energetic but relaxed games of Bolo. We had walked past this place earlier in the day and taken no notice of what we thought was just a dusty horse pen. Now, although in the middle of nowhere, it was a hub of social activity and we stood by the fence watching men, young and old, drain ice cold beers, sing along to music, and launch steel balls into the darkening sky, skilfully smashing the wooden stumps with every shot.

After ten minutes spectating we were ushered in by the owner and the participants, explained the simple rules, opened a few cold beers and encouraged to give it a go. With gusto we weighed in. I was up first and it was my first attempt which generated the aforementioned laughter. Three hours later, we were well lubricated, musically educated, and thoroughly ensconced in the addiction of Colombians to throwing steel balls in the air. We would come back twice more to chat with these guys and play Bolo before we left San Gil. It was a great way to meet people who call San Gil home and is a game of real skill and great fun, all three of us improved greatly and by the end of the third session the laughter had subsided and we even generated the odd nod in acceptance of a good shot!

The theme of skill and good fun continued the next day as we were signed up to raft the much revered Rio Suarez. We were driven for an hour up into the hills and then briefed on the strength of the rapids we were about to undertake. We would be going through rapids up to grade 5 – the most severe in the world are classed as 5+ so we were in for a serious ride. Walking down the slope to the river we were welcomed by the fastest moving river I have ever seen. Thick brown water with huge holes and walls of water caused by the underlying rocks, it looked big and challenging from the off – there would be no small ones to break us in! Nestor, our guide locked his paddles in. As Lewis and I had some experience he positioned us in the bow to paddle hard. We were informed of the instructions he would shout from the stern, explained what to do in the likely event of the boat flipping, and run through a quick practice of manoeuvres. Then we were off and straight away the clear instruction came – “forward hard”, Lewis and I dug in deep, pulling in anticipation of the wall of water we were heading for. In a heartbeat we dropped into the deep hole and then smashed almost vertically upwards into the moving wall, pulling through and out the other side as the adrenalin released. Levelling out, the grins of exhilaration and relief were shared through the boat and with the anticipation of the unknown dealt with we paddled hard down the river for two more hours of exhilarating rafting and exhausting effort on the part of all paddlers.

The scenery we were rafting through was stunning. The Suarez river runs down through steep jungle clad hills which in some places came right down to the river, and in some places was halted by a steep vertical gorge with us on the river far down below. Periodically we would stop in a calm spot for a refreshing swim and on more than one occasion we floated past rainbow causing waterfalls thundering down the rocks to further swell the raging torrent.

After two hours Nestor skilfully directed us to a calm eddy in the shelter of a large rock. Tying himself to the boat he scrambled to the top of the rock and looked ahead. We, the crew were sure we had finished as our arms and shoulders felt like lead and although soaked by the river we could still feel salty sweat running into our eyes. Stepping down from the rock Nestor informed us that we were ten minutes from finishing, but between us and some well earned food and refreshment was the hardest rapid of the trip ,a 5-5+ with two huge holes followed by massive walls of water – it was likely we would flip and if we got the call for “inside inside” we were to immediately sit down low in the raft as we were probably going over. Suitably scared and anticipating the worst we set off. The first two up-and-downs were fine. Lewis and I led from the front pulling hard, then came the shout, “forward hard”, looking up we saw we were heading straight for a huge drop off and the wall the other side was white and sounded angry. We dropped into the hole with stomachs in our mouths and as we climbed upwards we got the dreaded call “inside inside” – we jumped inside the raft which felt like it was heading for the sky and it immediately filled with water. Suddenly we were level and the shout “forward hard” came from the stern ; Lewis and I jumped up in the about-to-sink raft and pulled with all the life left in our arms and shoulders. Thirty seconds later we were clear and floating on level water. We had made it and a whole boat load of screams of joy and relief rang out across river into the dense jungle surrounding us.
After a recovery nap back at the hotel we spent our second night at the Bolo park, learning from the locals and recounting our exhilarating days adventure. San Gil really was proving to have everything.
Our final day in San Gil was sedate in comparison to its predecessor. We were booked on an overnight bus at 8pm to Santa Marta in the North of Colombia so we used our final day as an opportunity to see some of the surrounding villages. Barichara, a forty-five minute bus ride up into the hills is widely regarded as the prettiest village in Colombia. It sits at the top of a steep hill and has stunning panoramic views of the mountainous jungle surrounding it. We arrived late morning and were greeted by an energetic market going off in the typical town square. As with San Gil the square is the centre of village life and is presided over by a huge church. It is the streets off this square which are the subject of so much praise however. Barichara is relatively small but each of the streets leading away from the square appears to lead the eye to a focal point of the community. Rough paved streets, orange stained by the local earth, meet bright white painted one-storey houses with uniformly dark wooden door and window frames, guiding your view up the street to a view of another church, or a school, or a hospital. It was a truly beautiful village.

Leading out of the village is part of the famous Camino Royale path – an ancient walkway linking ancient villages in the hills with stunning views all the way. We were heading for Guane, five kilometres away through the hills. After four of the five kilometres we were starting to flag when out of nowhere a rough little sign indicated a farm wife was selling drinks to weary hikers. Walking up a rough path, jumping a few fences and dodging an angry dog we were greeted by a weathered guacho and his wife and offered ice-cold beer. Standing on their terrace, surrounded by chickens, dogs and vegetable patches we looked out over the surrounding hills feeling rather fortunate and grateful for the lovely local hospitality.

Ten minutes later we were in Guane – a tiny village consisting of two streets and the ubiquitous square populated by old brown men in wide hats sheltering from the hot sun under the trees. We ate a quick lunch, jumped on the bus to San Gil and made ready for the next stage of our Colombian adventure.
San Gil really does have everything, Natural Beauty, amazing activities and tasty local food. Most importantly San Gil has a population who are unreservedly welcoming to a person. Everyone we encountered in this hilly part of South America welcomed us, not with an effort to change their lives for us, but just to make us feel a part of the happy place we were in for a period of time. Three days here fills one with the simple joys of life, the subsequent sixteen hour bus journey was a suitable bump back down to earth but that is another story. Of all the people we encountered though, it will be the local lads at the Bolo park who leave me with the fondest memories, their laughter and giving of their game sold us on San Gil immediately and prompted an amazing three days.


31st July 2011

San Gil
Wow! Truly amazing account and so exciting to read! Looking forward to the next installment already!

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