Although several weeks delayed, time spent in San Gil is well worth writing about, if only to help me remember it years from now.
San Gil is a smaller town about two hours south of Bucaramanga, known for its extreme sports. There are all sorts of options for the thrill-seeking outdoor enthusiasts, such as parapenting/paragliding, rafting, caving, rock climbing, rappelling waterfalls, mountain biking, and more.
With it being so close to Buca, we luckily were able to make a trip on a regular weekend, leaving Friday after school. Unfortunately it was an absolute monsoon when we were heading to the bus stop called Papi Quiero Piña (Yes, this means “Papa, I want pineapple”…no one knows why, but it’s one of the major bus “stops”). You have to travel up and along the edges of mountains in order to get to San Gil, so I knew the rain would make the trip a bit longer. I was prepared, though, and had already taken my motion sickness meds and my iPhone was charged for music. However, I was not prepared for the fact that the bus roof was leaking water onto me for the first 45 minutes….or when we stopped randomly on the side of the road for awhile with no explanation why. And then again. And then again when we stopped at some random locale for nearly an HOUR. By this point, we had figured out that something was mechanically wrong with the bus. In typical Colombian fashion, the bus driver and helper decided to try and fix it by flashlight on the side of the road. Eventually the trip continued…in the rain…in the dark by this point…on the curving edges of mountains…with a broken bus. Clearly we were feeling really secure. hah! Eventually we made it to San Gil, with a 2 hour trip that had turned into 4 hours. Oh, the interesting experiences that we have in this country. 🙂
On Saturday morning, a few of us wandered around town to find some breakfast and fruit. Even though it was early morning, we discovered the very busy main street filled with itty bitty shops of everything from shoe cobblers to butchers to fabric to used appliances to toys and more. Now, coming from the more well off area of Floridablanca, we’ve missed out on some of the typical things you’d find in Colombia…like a lady taking apart dead chickens with bare hands on the street in front of you…or all the raw red meat sitting out with hoards of flies all over…or the scruffy stray dogs everywhere…or massive vehicle/pedestrian/moto messes. While exploring this area was interesting, it definitely made me appreciate the area that I live in much more.
With so many options of activities to do in San Gil, it was hard to narrow down what we wanted to spend our Saturday doing. Some of the other teachers had recommended the torrentismo/rappelling at the biggest waterfall there, Juan de Curri, and at only 45,000 pesos (about $25) it’s a bargain, so we decided to head out that way. (I definitely plan on going back in the next few months to try rafting and caving next!) Finding the bus station was interesting because, as usual, it was unmarked and didn’t look like much. At least this one wasn’t in an alleyway and had several other buses there. 45 minutes later, we arrived to the base of where you hike up to the waterfall. Only five of us were doing the torrentismo and the rest were just going to hang out at the bottom of the waterfall where there are some natural pools, so about 20 minutes into the hike, we split into different directions. I was not prepared for how strenuous the hike up was! Literally there was a rope attached to the trees to hold on to, as well as the ground, rocks, and anything I could grab in order to ascend the nearly vertical muddy path with only about a two foot width before the drop off over the side. At one point, we even had to cross over a small waterfall (with no rope), where if I had taken one wrong step, I would probably have fallen all the way down this mountain. By the time the five of us reached the top, we were dripping sweat. We had THE most incredible scenery awaiting us though. We were at a flat point where the waterfall continued above us, surround by edges of mountain covered in green plants, moss, and trees. It was like a paradise that can only be explained by imagining Avatar. Unfortunately, none of us had our phones or cameras because we would be doing the rappelling from that point down the waterfall. (Although we later learned they put all our stuff in a waterproof bag and lowered it, so we could have.) Just close your eyes and imagine standing on top of rocks with water streaming over them, hearing and seeing a waterfall in front of, making a circle and being surrounded by more mini-waterfalls and vibrant green in three directions….in the other quarter view is off where the waterfall continues, you see more mountains, and part of the valley below. Paradise.
We found the guide at the top of where the waterfall continued, ready to set us up with our equipment and give us some directions. Looking over the drop off is when I really began having second thoughts. I don’t actually like heights. At all. I get utterly terrified anytime I do something like this. But I love the feeling I have after I complete it so much that I end up doing it anyway. But seeing our other teacher friends at the bottom of the 60 m. drop off really made me question whether I wanted to follow through. (La Cascada de Juan Curri is actually 180 m., but you only rappel down the last 60 m.) The first two boys went down, then another girl, and then it was my turn…I was feeling panicky, sick, shaky, and my heart was racing. The guide got me all hooked in and tried to show me how to control the rope as I go down. I was having issues getting it right and so I REALLY started freaking out. I leaned back like he said, putting all my weight (and trust) into this one rope keeping me from plunging to my death, with legs spread and braced against the wet, slippery rock wall. However, the guide could tell I was scared out of my mind. After going back a few steps and literally suspended perpendicular to the wall over the drop off, he made me put out my arms (imagine Titanic) and kept saying “Tranquila, tranquila”. Without looking down, he helped me step/slip over the metal bar of the drop off and begin my descent.
Within a few feet, I realized it was much harder than it looks. The waterfall is pounding down on top of you getting water in your eyes (nearly knocking out my contacts multiple times), your feet are having a hard time gripping the wet, slippery wall, everything is uneven, and you’re trying to focus on releasing the rope in the right way. About 15 feet down, I actually lost my footing and the waterfall knocked me over to the right and into the wall, so I was just hanging by the rope and harness around my waist. Again, I knew I could not look down and I just focused on releasing the rope, sliding it through my other hand, putting my right foot in a secure place, and then the left. After awhile, I got the hang of it and it was fun! That is, until my rope got caught with the rope of the girl who had gone down a ways before me. I couldn’t release my rope out anymore, so I couldn’t move and as I tried to shout up or down to the guides in Spanish, they couldn’t hear me. So eventually I may or may not have just let out a string of curses instead. 🙂 Finally the guide at the bottom fixed it and I was on my way again!
Getting closer to the bottom, I kept wanting to see how much further I had to go, but when I finally decided to look, it was a bit too soon. By that point though, the fun had fully kicked in and my fear was gone. I kept having moments during the torrentismo where I nearly needed to pinch myself to know if this was real life. My weekends were never this exciting in the states! Upon reaching the bottom, I was so happy and proud and thrilled. This is the reason I will try [most] things once…the regret of not having taken an opportunity is far worse than doing it and hating it. You never know if you don’t try!
We spent another hour at the base of the waterfall before hiking back to where we caught the bus on the side of the road. While some people went back to the hostel to sleep, three of us decided to visit this beautiful park with some English friends we met right before doing the rappel (they went immediately after us). Imagine a botanical garden, but not overly groomed. It was wildly natural and gorgeous. Some of the trees were HUGE.
After showers, dinner, and time at a few of the bars, it was time to call it a night. Unfortunately we had to head back by mid-morning on Sunday, so we were unable to fit in any more activities, but I can’t wait until next time!
Oh, and our bus was mechanically fine on the way back, but I did have my first experience of being told by a random taxi driver to buy our bus tickets from another random man in a random shop on the street. Then we sat down on the curb to wait. Sure enough, that’s how it works here in Colombia and we were all set, with an even cheaper bus ticket to boot! My only issue with driving back this time was that the bus was going SO fast that I was sure we would either collide with a moto on one of the sharp curves or we would go flying off the edge of the mountain….since, you know, actual space next to the road or sufficient guardrails is too much to ask for. 🙂 Oh, I love it here.