I arrived in San Gil late into the night. The entire village was asleep-silence rang through the hills. My bus, a 9-hour ride from Bogotá, dropped me off at a station just outside the town.
It was my first day in Colombia and I was beyond excited.
Coming to Colombia was a last minute decision, one that took me a few days to finalize. Since I’ve yet to set foot in South America, I had some reservations traveling solo.
Yet in one day, San Gil was able to show me beauty of Colombia’s cuisine, people, and lifestyle. I was in lovee!
A taxi took me to my host’s place, a cute space that rested at the waist of a hill. The journey was short and fascinating. The roads narrow and slanted. We were moving upwards along a 70-degree incline at any given point. After stepping out the taxi, I quickly grabbed onto the brick walls nearby to prevent my clumsy self from rolling down the slope.
San Gil: Find a Rooftop and Enjoy the View
I woke to the sounds of cars and chattering. Rays of sunshine bypassed the wooden window frame into the room, just enough to draw me to loose the latch that held the panels together.
The sky was clear and bright. The sunlight pierced into the dimed room, fully waking me to the sight that lay before my eyes.
In the morning light, San Gil is seen spread across rugged hills and surrounded by nature. In front of me, cars turned corners and disappeared downwards into the streets below. Afar, mountain ranges hugged the town with warmth and tenderness.
Ivan, my host at Hostel Nomads, a happy-go-lucky type of guy, cheerfully pointed out a field in the distance and informed me of his grand vision of building an eco-friendly lodge.
In the lobby, I noticed that his hostel’s rooftop was easily accessible. Quickly, I hustled my friend Gutiérrez, a fellow staff at the hostel to climb the ladder upwards with me and observe our surrounding.
Tiny red rooftops dotted the hills and valleys of San Gil. These colonial buildings exuded an air of tranquility that quickly made me feel at ease.
I really did feel at home.
San Gil: Meditate in El Gallineral Natural Park
Sustainability is a topic of conversation I found common between many Couchsurfing hosts in Colombia. This isn’t a surprise as Colombia’s greenery is genuinely stunning.
El Gallineral is a beautiful natural park that sits in San Gil’s mountains. I spent a lazy morning strolling along small pavements and natural forestry. Several paths snake through the forest and over the streams. A couple of beautiful pavilions and bridges sat inside the park and provided shading for the few people taking a rest from the summer heat.
The park has a COP 6000 entrance fee and provides ample space for hours of silence. I wandered around admiring the curtains of foliage hanging from branches and spent some time meditating on a stone bench adjacent to a grand oak.
San Gil: Explore the Main Square
San Gil is a town in the Department of Santander. With roughly 42,000 inhabitants in its 60 sq mi space. Its history runs deep. The Guanes people, an indigenous population lived on its grounds during pre-Columbian times.
In the 1500s, the Spanish Empire began colonization in South America that resulted in the formation of The Viceroyalty of New Granada. Despite Colombia’s independence in 1819, 300 years of colonial history has integrated Spain’s architectural influence in numerous regions.
The Catedral de la Santa Cruz sat proudly towering over the square, casting a constant reminder of Spanish colonization. The main square is filled with chatter, laughter, and flocks of pigeons. Restaurants and stores surrounded the plaza, hinting the town’s accustomization to tourism despite its seeming distance from other urban layouts.
San Gil: Hike to the Cerro de La Gruta
San Gil has several splendid viewpoints. Cerro de la Gruta is one such site. The ground is for the pilgrimage of the locals, where Our Lady of Lourdes’ statue looks over the entire municipality. As with a number of Latin American countries, Catholicism is the main religion in Colombia. Many sights of worship, especially of the Virgin Mary, are displayed at the turn of street corners and across cities and towns.
Since Cerro de La Gruta is far up into the high parts of San Gil, it can be challenging to hike up the hill in the summer heat. However, both public transport and a motorbike can minimize the otherwise difficult journey.
After arriving at Barrio la Gruta, there is a pedestrian path that leads to the hill. A pavilion is perched on the opposite side of Virgin Mary’s statue. A tiny rock and a hidden lookout spot are a few steps away. It is here that we looked out onto the oneness of sky, town space, and greenery.
Take a Bus to Barichara
Barichara is a small, quiet colonial village situated north of Bogota. The town sits on top of a hill, with a backdrop of winding country roads and lush farmlands.
From San Gil, Barichara is a short hour away. Buses often depart from the San Gil terminal at Carrera 10 and Calle 17 between 6 am and 8:30 pm. The ride costs COP 5,000.
The upward path that the minivan took overlooked miles and miles of fincas, a privileged scene that brought about an incredible sense of serenity. Silence is a blessing.
In these moments of quietude, we can truly hear our own voice. It is within the silence of our surroundings, the inactivity of our hands, the calm of our tongue, that we immerse in life’s present. So we can truly appreciate the subtle beauty that is usually taken for granted.
It is in these moments of travel perhaps, the growth occurs. When the gratitude for nature’s simplicity allows us to expand our hearts, open our minds.
My thoughts were scattered when we finally arrived in Barichara. The bus dropped us off on the streets in-between rows of colonial houses. A man sat on the ledge, peering out onto the cobblestone pavements that extended far and beyond.
The streets are paved with clay-colored stones. Colonial houses sit evenly along the pavement, riding along the ups and downs of the hilly village. Afar, fields of green extend towards the sky, completing a picturesque backdrop that contrasts the red and whites of Barichara’s township.
Barichara: Marvel at the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception overlooks Barichara’s principal plaza. This church is in yellowish-orange tone and radiates beautifully during sunset. The layout inside is minimalistic yet remarkable. The high altar, wooden ceiling, and sturdy columns all ooze a serenity amplified by the sunlight that filtered through the side of the structure.
Barichara: Trekking to Guane
Surrounded by vast greenery, the canyon of the Suarez River, and other sceneries, Barichara has many viewpoints. My favorite is this hike from Barichara to Guane, a smaller village a distance away. Although we chose not to walk the whole length of the trail, the immediate start offered gorgeous views of the vast valley below. It is definitely worth spending some time here!
Paragliding in Chicamocha Canyon
In addition to its natural escapes, San Gil is often referred to as Colombia’s ‘Adventure Capital.’ From white water rafting to hiking, caving to swimming, there are tons of activities for the active soul.
One of the most sought-after tours is paragliding at the Chicamocha Canyon.
Many tours depart from San Gil town center, with prices being COP 90,000 or COP 180,000, depending on the time spent in the sky. The latter usually includes a 30-minute paragliding session, with the departure time early in the morning.
This tour includes:
- Professional and certified pilots
- Two ensures
- Bilingual tour guide
- Some pictures from the takeoff área
- Private flight área
Adventure seekers are advised to be prepared with:
- Sport shoes
- Sun cream and insect repellent
- Long pants or jeans
- Cap or hat (if you have it)
Since I’ve paraglided before, I was more keen on exploring the Canyon. I opt to for a COP 20,000 bus ride so that I can experience the view of both the paragliders and the scenery this place offered.
As one of the deepest canyon in the world, Chicamocha was truly breathtaking.
I landed in Colombia at an interesting time. It was days before an Anti-corruption Referendum and given my host’s active presence in his municipality’s political domain, I ended up canvassing with him at a nearby university. Unsurprisingly, Colombia’s politics is especially fascinating.
In addition, I tried one of the region’s delicacy-‘Giant Fat-Bottomed Ants’ that many a Colombian eat straight out of bags, or in dishes, or otherwise. Salty, crunchy, and a lasting sandy texture on your tongue. Yum, ants. 🙂
Aside from Cocora Valley in Salento and Tayrona Park in Santa Marta, San Gil and Barichara are some of my favorite destinations in Colombia. They really do exhibit the tranquility and peace that Colombia offers. These two townships gave me ample confidence and excitement to continue my solo backpacking trip across the country.