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San Gil, Colombia - Local’s Guide

San Gil is the outdoor sports capital of Colombia, offering access to whitewater rafting, whitewater kayaking, paragliding, caving, mountain biking, hiking, and climbing. Nestled in the Andean Cordillera Oriental, the temperatures hover around 80-90 degrees Farenheight, year round, day and night. An altitude of 3600 feet keeps the mosquitos and humidity, which you might think unavoidable this close to the equator, to a minimum, and while it rains frequently it's rarely for more than an hour in late afternoon.

Food

The steep, shred-prone streets of San Gil. Photo by Inés Fernández

The town has some great food, especially given its size. Elementales is a fantastic vegetarian restaurant featuring healthy variations on local cuisine. Gringo Mike's offers, as you might have guessed, American fare with amazing hamburgers, burritos, and deserts. Huge portions are sure to help you recover from your last adventure and fuel your next one. A small Taoist restaurant materializes daily for an hour-and-a-half during lunch, two-and-a-half blocks from the east edge of town on the south side of Carrerra 9. Unfortunately if you miss that window all you'll see is a bakery next door. Don't leave town without trying the local delicacy “hormigas culonas.” Translating basically to “big-ass ants,” these fried insects don't taste like much but where else are you going to eat a large ant?

If you're looking for a challenge have a local direct you to a camino real. These trails were hand-paved with rocks around two hundred years ago and served as the main routes of transportation for goat herders of the time between different villages. Some have been restored as historical sites, but the vast majority offer extremely technical descents. 

Recreation

Macondo Hostel offers Tejo Tuesdays as a chance for travelers to learn and play the local game of Tejo. Basically you throw heavy discs at gunpowder, and it's free to play with the purchase of beer. Alcohol, airborn rocks, and live gunpowder – what's not to love?

The natural swimming holes at Curati are a great way to spend a day relaxing. Take a 20-minute bus ride to the town of Curati, and then flag a taxi for another 10 minute ride to the creek. Walk upstream as far as you want and you'll find natural pools with decreasing amounts of people. There are some good cliff jumping spots available, but always check the water first.

People congregate in the main square every weekend evening to start the party so get a cerveza or rum at a local corner store and hang out in the beautiful mountain air. Afterwards take a short taxi ride to La Isla – a large gas station with night clubs on the edge. You read that right – the main club area is at a gas station.

Mountain Biking

Colombian Bike Junkies' CNG-powered shuttle truck will get you up any rowdy Colombian dirt road your downhilling chops demand.

There's lots of riding opportunities for cyclists of all levels around San Gil. Colombian Bike Junkies offers comprehensive tour options, has a complete rental fleet of Kona full-suspension mountain bikes, and will shuttle you around for some lengthy downhill runs using their old CNG-powered Land Rover.

Dirt roads

Exploring the dirt roads around town offers endless opportunity for adventure. Serving mainly as residential roads leading to small farms (called “fincas”), these roads have minimal, slow-moving traffic. There are many small towns within a short ride all offering their own local culture. Locals are happy to help with navigation, though most would rather give incorrect information than admit they don't know where something is so always check with at least two people. Another great navigational aide are the radio towers above San Gil which can be seen from most ridge lines in the area. 

Mind the locals when you're cranking around corners in San Gil... 

You can expect to see grazing farm animals and coffee, cacao, and tobacco farms on the hillsides. Farmers will sometimes tie animals to fence posts with enough rope to cross the road, so beware of choke-lines when descending with speed.

Camino Reals

John Butler blasting down a camino real outside San Gil.

If you're looking for a challenge have a local direct you to a camino real. These trails were hand-paved with rocks around two hundred years ago and served as the main routes of transportation for goat herders of the time between different villages. Some have been restored as historical sites, but the vast majority offer extremely technical descents. 

Jamie Price learns there's no Spanish translation for "flow trail"  near San Gil.

They're much too steep to ride up, so take dirt roads to the top. In a few hours you can log several laps of tranquil dirt-road ascents and screaming, adrenaline-infused downhill runs. Some of the local riders have built jumps and berms into their favorite trails – if you befriend one of them they just might show you their latest project.

Steep shots, off-camber turns and loose dirt make the camino reals the real deal when it comes to raw downhilling. Rider: John Butler

You'll never find a car or motorcycle on these trails, but the locals certainly aren't expecting a bicycle either. They'll step to the side but give them a minute - everything moves slower here and “Strava run!” doesn't translate into Spanish well.

Contributor Matt Hayes rallies into the start of the legendary Pidigua trail, one of the rowdiest around. John Butler photo.

Street riding

Matt jibs the streets of San Gil. "Every South American town I've seen looks like it was designed by a skate park engineer." John Butler photo.

Every South American town I've seen looks like it was designed by a skate park engineer. San Gil is built on a mountain side so drops, wall rides, and an epic set of stairs are all gravity-fed with sloped landings in the street. People are generally very supportive and even excited to watch riders as long as you're respectful. With a simple and courteous request, people have allowed riders on their property, moved their car away from a landing, or even held traffic so a couple crazy gringos could have fun. The stairset is easy to locate, but the best way to find features is simply walk the streets.

From The Column: Local’s Guide

And the best part is?
...It’s easy to get out of, and only a few hours of bus riding away from places in Colombia that don’t have hostels that offer things like gunpowder-beer-drinking game, foreigner night clubs, zip-lines, etc…
sincerely,
someone currently in Colombia

    Hi Brody,
    While San Gil does have an easily accessible bus station, I’m not sure it’s one of the best things about the town. San Gil provides the infrastructure so travelers can get off the beaten path without bringing their own kayak, climbing rack, or mountain bike from home. If you have the means and patience to do that, awesome, but for people just carrying a backpack on the Gringo Trail, San Gil offers the chance to get out on a nice bike ride or paddle down a river for the day. I’m struggling to see how this is a bad thing.
    I don’t know where you found a “foreigner night club” in San Gil - I was there for several months and spoke Spanish every time I went out. As far as Tejo is concerned, it’s a local game - Macondo simply offers travelers the chance to check out the local court on a Tuesday when the serious players are at home.
    Glad you’re having fun in Colombia, it’s a great country and, as you keenly pointed out, if you don’t like the town you’re in you can catch a bus to the next one.
    Cheers,
    -Matt

And I mean that in the nicest of ways. I can’t recommend this country enough to American tourists.

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