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San Gil, Colombia’s adrenaline capital and a great place to see Colombian life outside the big cities. We’ve now been twice to San Gil, one on a weekend break from Bogotá and the other incorporating San Gil into Santander exploration that included Bucaramanga, Barichara and Las Gachas in Guadalupe as well. And to say the least, San Gil is a bit of a banger.
How to pronounce San Gil: san heel
Or if it helps you remember, san hill, because damnnn this town is steep! It’s built into two sides of a valley, split by a ragged river Fonce in the middle. The further from the town square you go, the hillier things get, and if you struggle to walk or are in need to push a wheelchair or pram this perhaps isn’t the place for your party.
Here’s a quick video of our times spent in San Gil, Colombia, which includes a few of the things to do in San Gil that we’ll mention later on in this post:
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How long to stay in San Gil, Colombia?
While there are activities aplenty in San Gil, Colombia, you realistically only really need a few days in the area to do what you want to do (the chances of you wanting to do ALL OF THE THINGS is probably quite small, and if you’re travelling Colombia on a budget you’ll want some form of time constraint to hold back your splurging inner adrenaline junkie).
How to get to San Gil
Luckily for San Gil, Santander is fairly easy to get around due to its proximity to Bogotá. There are many direct buses from Bogotá Salitre Terminal, which leave 6 times a day and take 7 hours (but always add a few more on for good measure!). You can generally just turn up for the bus from Bogotá to San Gil, but on a Friday or Sunday it’s advisable to buy a ticket a little in advance as locals head home for the weekend. Should a seat on a direct bus not be available for any reason, you can get a bus from Bogotá most of the way to Socorro and then change to the last 40 minutes bus to San Gil.
There are also regular direct buses to and from Cartagena, Santa Marta and of course Bucaramanga, Santander’s regional capital. Buses to and from Medellín have to change at Bucaramanga.
Please note that there are two bus terminals in San Gil. The first is the main bus terminal, into and from which all of the coach-style buses and night buses to larger cities go. This is a proper bus terminal, with several bus company offices, little local cafés and tuck shops. It’s a little out of the main town across the river; a taxi should cost you a flat rate of 5000 pesos into San Gil and back.
On the other side of the river, near the centre of town (Carrera 10 #17), you’ll find the San Gil Terminalito. This is the bus terminal from which the minibuses to smaller local towns operate. This is more basic, isn’t open as late and only has one ticket desk. The terminalito does have a toilet but not much else. Always check which terminal you need to go to – it’s worth checking with your accommodation or taxi driver as they’ll know which San Gil bus terminal to go to judging on your destination. Buses at San Gil terminalito tend to be colectivos that leave when full rather than having a set timetable.
Things to do in San Gil, Colombia
Oh lawd, where do we start? They don’t call San Gil Colombia’s adrenaline heartland for nothing. You’ll find activities and tours in San Gil for all levels of adrenaline junkie (even base-jumping, but we’re not ones to throw ourselves off a cliff in our mum’s duvet so we can’t advise you much on that, unfortunately). Let’s try and arrange this list of things to do in San Gil in order of which I’m scared of them.
1. Bungee jumping
It’s a no from me. But if you truly want to scare the living daylights out of your poor self then San Gil has bungee jumping of the 50m, 70m and 140m varieties over the River Fonce which passes through the town.
2a. Paragliding over the Chicamocha canyon
Despite being shit-scared, I actually did this twice. We went for the big-dawg option of paragliding over the Chicamocha canyon, which is actually larger than the Gran Canyon in the US. Don’t worry, everyone goes up attached to a pilot so you never have to do anything by yourself! We were over 1km higher off the ground than I would have liked, but the views of the canyon below were a pretty good distraction. We were up in the air for around 15 minutes, and the pilots were fairly chatty, showing us different points and asking about our lives in Bogotá.
We used different tour operators both times, and have to say that the tour run by Paravolar was much more professional-feeling and smooth, though a few pounds more expensive (135k vs 160k COP each). It felt safer too, and while we don’t doubt the safety of the other, it’s all about feeling like you’re in the best hands when you’re 1000m in the air, right? Chicamocha Canyon is about an hour outside of San Gil, so you tend to leave at around 8am and arrive back at 1 or 2pm depending on your group size. Bring plenty of water – there’s the tiniest of tuck shops up there for snacks but nothing substantial.
2b. Paragliding in Curiti
If you want to break yourself in for your first time paragliding, San Gil has an easier option, which takes you around 600m above some rolling hills. This costs 80k COP and typically leaves San Gil at 2pm.
For major adventurers, you can find tours in San Gil that include canyoning, rappelling (abseiling), free jumping and rock climbing. Booking in the office of Paravolar, these tours start at 10am and cost 90k COP including transport and refreshments.
4. Rappelling down the Juan Curi waterfall
For 60k COP, you can abseil down the 70m of Cascada Juan Curi. Again, this tour does not include transport so your accommodation will need to point out which bus to get to, and it’s only available to do in the morning (must be reserved the day before). You can also just visit the waterfall for the day without rappelling. Learn more about how to have a fantastic trip from San Gil to Juan Curi here.
5a. White water rafting on Rio Suarez
This is the level 4 and 5 white water rafting in San Gil. That level means it’s one of the most intense in the world, and you can almost expect at least one person to fall out of the dinghy. Only take this option if you’re fully fit – there are age restrictions on those below 18 and above 50. The departure times for the Rio Suarez white water rafting tour are 10am to 11am, returning 2pm or 3pm, and it costs 130k COP.
5b. White water rafting on Rio Fonce
This is the one we ended up doing, not out of choice, but because we were travelling in Colombia with a teen so we weren’t eligible for the bigger river. Rio Fonce is the level 3 white water rafting in San Gil, known for being less intense than the Rio Suarez rafting. Still, it was really fun, and there were one or two times that we worried we might fall out the dinghy. The river is a lot smoother in places, and we had some times where we felt like we were kayaking rather than white water rafting, but when we got to the rapids parts we remembered why we were there. The times for the Rio Fonce white water rafting tour are typically 9:30am to 1pm, though for some reason we were able to choose our time within those parameters as I guess they weren’t so busy that day. The tour costs 45k COP per person.
Does the season affect white water rafting in San Gil?
It’s definitely worth noting that during dry season if you try to do these tours during a time without rain for a while, the white water rafting in San Gil becomes a lot tamer. The Rio Suarez starts to be more like the level of Rio Fonce in rainy season, and the Rio Fonce tour becomes more like a relaxing paddle down a stream. For this reason, we ended up not doing rafting on our first visit to San Gil in February, instead going with family after some rainy days in August.
6. Delve into caves
With this San Gil tour, you can spend two hours inside the cave of your choice – Cueva del Indio or Cueva de la Vaca. These tours cost 30k COP but do not include transport. Your accommodation should be able to tell you which bus to take.
7. Bicycle tour to the natural pools
Just outside San Gil, near Curiti, you can cycle to the Pescadrito natural pools. These tours start at 10am and cost 140k COP, including lunch and bike hire.
8. Walk up to the Cross viewpoint
On the opposite side of the river from the main plaza, you’ll see a large cross standing tall in the middle of all the buildings. If you’re feeling up to it, you can walk up to this cross to see a view of San Gil. Try to go at sunset if you can!
9. Visit the fruit market
Prepare to have your senses overwhelmed at el Mercado on Carrera 10 #14. We recommend you buy a few unknown fruits (it’ll only cost you pennies) and take them home for some taste-testing. Our favourite is pitahaya or dragon fruit, but as we learnt on the Cali Street Food Tour, don’t eat too much or you’ll be running to the loo!
10. Add a lock of love on the bridge
Do as the locals do and buy a padlock to carve you and your lover’s initials into (or do as the locals really do and just Tippex them on), then clip it to the Monchuelo Bridge and throw the key into the river to lock in your romance for all time.
11. Blend in with small town life
Ok, so if you’re not Latino blending in is rather unlikely, but you can enjoy pretending you do. In the main square of an evening, everyone who’s anyone sits on one of the many benches with a tinto, ice cream and/or aguardiente. Parents & grandmas watch their kids play, old men reminisce about the old days, while food and drinks stalls come round to serve everyone. Friday and Saturday nights get more lively when the bars start to fill up.
Where to stay in San Gil
We loved both of our stays at Bacaregua Hostel, just a few blocks away from the main square. Though called a hostel, it feels more like a B&B, with a really lovely family running it, and plenty of homely spaces in which to relax on a hammock or sofa. the kitchen is well-stocked and there are plenty of double rooms and family suites to choose from if you’re not into dorm life. They’re only one street away from the terminalito, from which you can catch buses to Barichara, Guane and the first leg to Guadalupe & Quebrada Las Gachas.
Most popular with backpackers though is definitely Sam’s VIP Hostel, which boasts a pool to beat the hot weather and a cracking location right on the square. They run social events such as tejo nights which are great to get travellers sparking conversations.
How safe is San Gil, Colombia?
Well, to us it seems pretty damn safe. If you were to wander more than 7 or 8 blocks from the main plaza, it would definitely get more ropey, but generally walking around in the centre feels really calm, and you’re rarely disturbed by others other than to wish you a good afternoon. There aren’t too many tourists in San Gil, so the local people don’t resent our presence as foreigners in their town. There are a few beggars, but absolutely nothing on the scale of bigger cities like Bogotá or Cali. When you go to the market, as with any cramped, crowded space in South America, you need to have an eye on your belonging at all times, but the likelihood of something happening in small town Colombia is usually pretty small.
The best places to eat in San Gil
Although not exactly traditionally Colombian, Café Europa in PENG. So, so good. Freshly-prepared stone-baked pizzas and big portions of pasta, all with a lovely smile from happy staff. The restaurant is tiny, so get there a little early to get a seat at one of the 4 tables.
Also on the non-Colombian hype, Gringo Mike’s is highly-rated for a reason. We usually steer clear of anything with the world ‘gringo’ in the name as it’s usually tacky, cheap food with a certain disregard for Colombian culture, but Gringo Mike’s has actually nailed it, we reckon. The portion sizes are absolutely ginormous (we couldn’t even finish the burgers after taking off the top layer of bread) and the ambience is really nice, with helpful staff who are all proficient in English. You can also find Colombian food on the menu, plus some Mexican and vegan for good measure.
If you’re wanting typical San Gil /Colombian in general food, Balcón Sangileño is the place to go, you’ll see it up on the second floor of the corner directly across the park from the church on the main square.
Where to grab a coffee in San Gil
The first time we came to visit San Gil, we were a little disappointed by the lack of options for coffee shops.
Returning in August 2019, we were happy to see really nice options such as Café las Cruces popping up. A good way to escape the heat!
But of course, the very best way to enjoy a coffee in San Gil is to buy a tinto coffee from the stall at the corner of the main plaza (of calle 13 #10) and sit in the park to enjoy that sweet small town Colombian life.
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