Sometimes when you travel, the weather comes along and mucks everything up. All we wanted to do was go rafting… What is so hard about that?
San Gil, Santander region, Colombia. What to do? Well.. rafting, river bodyboarding, paragliding, bungee jumping, caving, zip-lining, canyoning, rappelling and so much more. After checking out prices at the highly raved about Maconda Hostel it all came up twice as expensive as Baños, Ecuador so we had to make a choice. White water rafting on the Rio Suarez had white knuckle reviews, so we decided this would be the most adrenaline packed way to spend our money and see the natural beauty of the area.
We arrived in San Gil at 6am after a long, eventful night bus from Bogota. Each of us had barely managed a few hours sleep in amongst the smells of weed and crap seeping from the toilet a couple of rows back. Once in San Gil we booked our rafting then jumped on a bus to check out the Juan Curi Waterfall. The bus only set us back 4000 pesos ($2.50 aus). While it was supposed to take 40 minutes, thanks to a staggering volume of trucks, buses, horses and roadworks, it took a painfully slow, dusty, sweaty 2 hours. As we pulled up to the entrance the sky transformed from a dazzling blue to a concerning dark grey. We’d come this far, there was no turning back. By the time we got to the thundering falls the rain was upon us. Of course we didn’t let this stop us from frolicking in the muddy pool below, feeling the almighty power of the 200m drop. The walk from the entrance to the falls was about 45 minutes so by the time we got back to the gate it was 5pm and the sky was getting even darker. I was under the impression buses came by every 10 minutes or so, but we stood shivering in the rain for about 45 minutes before the next steamy bus full of Colombians puttered by to collect us. The journey back took even longer squished in between two stinky wet workmen, with traffic practically stopped. We arrived back into San Gil to find the town had been transformed into an aqua city. We had to wade through the deluge from the bus over to the bus stop and squeeze in with the 50 or so other people desperately trying to find shelter. Somehow we managed to get into a cab and although we were not confident he could see through the thick sheet of rain barely being touched by the wipers, he got us home safe. We all splashed up the stairs eager to get into some warm clothes and get food into our bellies when the power went off.
We awoke the next day still powerless, which meant no internet, which meant no way of getting in touch with the rafting company to see if the tour was still going ahead after the storm. By 10am there was no one there to collect us so we assumed it was called off. At 10.20am the power came back on and we had a message to say it would indeed be happening, we would leave at 12pm. When we arrived at the tour company at 12pm, it was not going ahead so we were left with a morning wasted but a sunny afternoon to call our own. Hmmmm what to do instead? Grab a few beers and head for the river to swim in the watering holes near Curiti. So we jumped in a taxi and agreed on 20,000 pesos ($10 aud) between the 4 of us to take us to the little village nearby. The taxi was pimped with dark tints and a sound system to rattle your earlobes! Emerging half deaf, we then walked 40minutes further to the river. The riverbed is stone so there are lots of natural pools formed along its length. The water here was also coloured a deep shade of brown, but we were getting used to that and were just happy to feel the sun on our skin. We spent the afternoon sunning ourselves, swimming and listening to music.
That night we found a neon lit local restaurant on the main road for a cheap menu, it was just the usual chicken, rice and salad but it was satisfying and the waiter was a legend. He told us where the locals would be, then helped us grab a taxi to join the fun at the sports arena where we could carry on drinking beers while blowing up some stuff playing Teho. Teho is a traditional Colombian sport where you throw lead weights at little triangles of gun powder-filled paper and enjoy the explosion when you hit them (IF you hit them). It’s a lot harder than the locals make it look and after 20 minutes of continuous failure we moved the line from 5 meters to 1 meter and ended up having much more fun! We walked away partially deafened again and covered in clay splatter. They also have a variation of bowling here too called “Bolo Criollo” where you throw a lead ball at 3 huge wooden pins and try to knock them down. This was more popular with the locals and more fun for us too!
Rafting round 2 had been confirmed for 10am so we were off! Formalities taken care of and life waiver signed we piled in the van and headed for the river. When we finally arrived at 11.30am they gathered the 40 of us around to tell us that the river was too high so we would have to wait an hour to see if it would go down. So, to kill time we piled back in the van and headed to a little village nearby. We could do anything except drink beer or eat a big meal so we sat near the square hiding from the sun eating ice blocks. Back at the river it was now 1.30pm and the news was delivered that it was too high and not safe to go in so we would just have lunch courtesy of Colombia Rafting then head back to town where we would get a full refund. Let down, we decided to take the refund and spend the next day enjoying a different activity provided free, courtesy of mother nature.
About 2km out of town is a place called Pozo Azul, it’s free to visit and is another stone bottom river with swimming holes and small waterfalls. It’s more commercial than the river near Curiti and has a bar on its bank where you can buy cold cans of beer for 2500 pesos ($1.25 aud). It’s a nice place to chill out and even though you can hear the trucks driving past on the main road the music from the bar generally drowns it out. Not a place to feel like you’re away from it all, but pretty nevertheless.
So, all those options for adventure and we did none of it, but on the bright side we walked away well under budget and still enjoyed the natural beauty of the area! The only thing I would do differently if I went back would be to flag the rafting and opt to mountain bike the canyon. Apparently that is stunning! I would also shop around to find a specialist, local tour operator.
The bus options to San Gil are pretty open with buses running every hour or so from the main terminal in Bogota. We’d heard that the day bus takes around 8 hours but the night bus only takes 6 so we booked tickets for 60,000 pesos each ($30usd) we left at 10.30pm and arrived in San Gil at 5.15am. Luckily our Airbnb hosts on both ends were flexible so we left one sweet Bogota apartment at 11pm and arrived at a new sweet apartment in San Gil at 6am.