San Gil - The Heart of Colombia

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August 31st 2011
Published: August 31st 2011
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We were jostling with the crowds, standing on the tips of our toes, our necks craned, Lewi holding a flimsy cardboard sign above his head reading ‘Joshy Balboa’. It was 10pm on a grey Bogota evening and the atmosphere outside the arrivals gate was louder feistier and crazier than a gaggle of teenagers waiting for a TakeThat concert. An hour passed, and as the hyper arrivals hoards around us began to thin there was still no sign of Josh. But then all of a sudden there was another surge of passengers to the doors….including one very familiar face beaming back at us! We joined in the melee of shouting, hugging, laughing and crying, blending in perfectly with the joyous families surrounding us.

Bogota itself didn’t have much to enchant the traveller with, it was simply a huge, and rather unattractive city. So the next morning directly after breakfast, we got Lewi’s brother Josh straight back onto the travelling track with an eight hour bus journey. He returned to it very naturally and was soon snoring alongside his brother, while the bus ploughed steadily north through the rolling countryside.

It may have been past 8pm upon our arrival into San Gil, but the darkness couldn’t hide the beauty that radiated from this small town. The taxis headlights illuminated the tilting rows of colonial houses, and the cobbled streets that we rumbled along shimmered in the misting rain. Abril’s guesthouse was a great example of Colombian hostels (and how all hostels should be). Clean as a whistle, freshly laundered linen every day, a fridge for your personal use, and staff so friendly you feel you’ve known them for years. On a short stroll that evening towards the central plaza, an ever present feature of all South American towns, we discovered a pool and billiards hall overflowing with custom, and it was confirmed, we really liked it here.

San Gil is not only a pretty and quaint town; its palm-shaded plaza encircled by arty cafes and wood-carved balconies that dangle over the ever branching streets below; it has that unmistakable realness which comes from the right balance of tourism. A sense of community still holds sway over the increasing tourist population, and the expensive tourist are still reined in by the rusty bbq stalls in the square and markets that popup come evening time. All these things, and the chirpy locals made for a very happy environment.

The mystical Parque Gallelial was a fairytale national park, just five minute walk from our guesthouse, where almost all the trees were draped with masses of white fronds and the paths were laced with orchids. It was a magical place to walk, and to top it off the Rio Fonce curled through the park and its cool waters enticed us in for a much needed dip. Later on we left the confines of the town for a hike (and it was a hike) one kilometre up a very steep hill to where we had been informed we would find a waterfall. Pozo Azul was infact a series of gradually stepped waterfalls and chilling beside its rocky shores was a great way to spend the late afternoon. But by far the best part of the day was not the discovery of either of these naturally beautiful places, it was the introduction to our lives of one of the best games ever invented.

Bolo Creolo was I suppose, a variation upon the theme of ten pin bowling…except there were only three pins, no smooth bowling alley spread before us only a sandy patch of earth, and the aim of the game was not to roll the ball along the ground but to launch it into the air with sufficient force and finesse to land it upon the pins. Needless to say the first few attempts knocked down more hedgerow than wooden stumps, and the tin panel that stopped the heavily weighted metal balls from smashing into the house behind took quite a battering. As our technique, and beer drinking, advanced the more successful our throws became; the young lad who was throwing the balls back to us smiled more easily; and the welly-booted locals nodded and murmured their approval and encouragement. Our fellow competitors and the owner of this establishment, had been from the very beginning nothing but friendly, they just seemed delighted that three English folk would come and spend an evening playing their traditional sport. Little did they expect that we’d be back every evening for the next three days!

On our previous trips yesterday the Rio Fonce may had seemed to be quite a surging watercause but in comparison to the Rio Suarez now in-front of us, it was a mere trickle. Making this observation whilst stood beside the flimsy
Master and Pupil...Master and Pupil...Master and Pupil...

you decide who is which?
raft, about to be launched into the seething mass of chocolate coloured water was a little off-putting to say the least. But adrenaline took over when the time came and the grade three to five rapids thrilled us from wave to wake. Lewi and Josh were perched at the front and from my position at the stern there were times when I felt as though we were plummeting vertically into a churning water hole. I would lose sight of them in a huge cascade of water as it engulfed the boat and then they would emerge whooping and dripping along with the rest of us. And all the while Nestor our guide would laugh in a slightly crazed but totally infectious manner, especially when catching sight of certain concerned faces at the mention of an upcoming (and utterly fabricated) waterfall!

The next day the wobbliness in the pits of our stomachs had recovered and the only swaying was from the bus which swept up and down the valleys of the rolling Santander countryside. All around us was verdantly green and smattered with of some of the most beautiful villages I’ve ever seen. We were heading to one in particular, Barichara. On our arrival we saw that a market was gathered in the square, bunches of chickens and bananas were being sold to the highest bidder and then we watched as the patrons clambered into their ancient ford trucks and rumbled off up the impossibly steep and uneven paved streets. We followed in their wake and branched off when we reached the Inca path to Guane. This nettle covered and bovine inhabited route took us 3km into the valley and over dry river-beds to the tiny whitewashed hamlet of Guane, passing only one farmhouse along the way. Here a grouchy old man ushered us to his porch shooing away the free ranging chickens and calling his spouse to offer us beer. We sat on their terrace amongst the chilli plants, chirping lorikeets above our heads and the ice cold beer the Senora gave us was the perfect refreshment on what was a scorching hot day. Colombian hospitality is so genuine.

Guane itself was a true gaucho Colombian town. Life ran at a tangibly slower pace, the leathery faced old men in their worn chino’s and straw sombreros leant nonchalantly against the stone walls of the plaza, amused by our presence. It seems right that it was in this beautiful remote little village that we ate the best steak since our gourmet experiences in Buenos Aires, the two locations could not have been more different and yet both were such innately South American places. In reference to the quality of cooking the Porteno’s of BA had nothing on the cowboy chefs of Guane. As the clock on the Torre chimed three we were still so involved in the consuming of our delicious almuerzo that we almost missed our bus (which was of course the only bus) back to San Gil today. The waitress promptly ran out and spoke to the driver, who with a shrug of the shoulders returned the handbrake and patiently waited for our arrival.

Of all the towns we have visited across South America, San Gil was a clear favourite. We had loved the experience of life there, at first ruled by the jostle and buzz of the competitive games and adrenaline activities we had upon deeper inspection found a gentle sway of kind people and hearty food. And if you know us at all you know this is a perfect mixture for us!

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