Colombia: San Gil

San Gil! Why was I here exactly? Oh yeah - the outdoor adventure capital of the country! River rafting, rappeling down waterfalls... great things all, if I did any of that stuff! With that in mind I went looking for my hostel first, making my way through construction near the river. I headed through the boisterous narrow streets of the downtown center, then up UP two of the steepest blocks I'd ever seen in a town.

The better-known hostel - oddly named Macondo (the town of "One Hundred Years Of Solitude" fame) in a town nowhere near the real thing (Aracataca, by the Caribbean) - was full. Oops, foiled - no problem, I quickly found lodging nearby - one steep half-block below. Seriously steep: people in vehicles gunned their engines to only come creeping upward. Alternatively, brakes whistled for those careening down, only marginally in control. This would explain the nauseating fumes both omnipresent and (at times) overwhelming in this heavily-inclined redoubt of 50,000 or so.

Lacking in quality rooms, Santander Aleman sported a hearty breakfast long on fruit - a selling point in my book. I was all about compromise, especially when there's little choice in the matter. Beyond that, SA's place more than anything had a family charm to it. Indeed, getting to know the family over the next five nights would soon become my fondest memory. A café next door was literally inviting, too, what with its smiling staff of cute girls and energetic proprietor. In fact, if it wasn't for the loud streets and the removal from immediate nature I'd probably have made San Gil a longer stop. But those were the facts, Jack: screech!

One of the locale's attractions was Parque Gallinero, something of a theme park devoted to the area's flora. It lay situated on the river, smack dab in the downtown area - a good starting place, I figured. For a dollar or two U.S., there certainly wasn't much risk. Being a theme park, though, would naturally present a disappointment itself: I'd never been a big fan of "unnatural" nature. Here it was... soon as I got past the Christmas lights...

For example, there were a number of tiny trails to explore - each rewarding, if miniscule. Bearded trees with moss and trickling streams were charming, each doing their part to help ignore the craft stalls otherwise reminding me a great deal more of the artisanal selling point exiting at Ecuador's Mitad Del Mundo exhibit. THAT was a bit much, I remembered. Here it was significantly more low-key, fortunately: the vendors in flowing Colombian dress didn't hawk their handicrafts beyond a soft sell near the entrance.

Indeed, the costumed staff were more than friendly enough to chat up for a while. After exploring the extents of the grounds, I parked myself amidst the booths near the park's entrance. Unsurprisingly I chose the one promoting coffee to hang out nearest, soon engaging in conversation and trumpet-playing with the women stuck there over a couple hours. I downed espresso after espresso in the undertaking - I DO suffer for a cause. What was the cause again?

A couple, visiting with their boy from Bogotá, soon sat down for the free entertainment as well. This proved to me that Parque G was by no means a lost experience - conversation and good company, what not to like? Indeed, it wasn't long before ALL my new friends were strongly recommending a colombiana for me, just like previous suggestions I had received over the years of an ecuatoriana in ecuador, a chilena in Chile, and so on. Given my pretty following at this park, I wasn't averse to the thought by any means. But one can only entertain the assembled masses in a mini theme park for so long...

Soon it turned out that I'd find a packaged adventure in the area to try after all. Parapente (paragliding) was something I had always been interested in; here it could be done for 20-30 minutes for about $30. With just two of us interested in trying it at Santander Aleman, we'd also be avoiding the large Macondo crowd. Sounded good - with Macondo, apparently about a dozen or so people waited on top each other going one at a time.

Soon we were half an hour outside of town, standing on a cliff's edge and looking out beyond it - or strapped in for life with our guide (separately, one after the other.) I volunteered to let rip first as Pieter hesitatedly question his decision. No worries, mate! I stepped off the cliff and let the wind jerk me into the sky.

Well... hello! THIS was a bit different than the everyday walk in the park. Still, it quickly reminded me of a parasail done years before off of Mau'i. It was similarly peaceful, yes, but this was also a little more exciting, too. Probably something about being even higher, over land, and viewing alternating terrain below. Splashing in the water ranks higher than smashing into land, too.

Soon, upon giving the okay to my guide to go for it, we were doing death spirals. Yee-haw! Supposedly we pulled 2.5g's in these swoops - like I'd know. It sounded reasonable from the force felt, no question. But, outside of those maneuvres, or swooping down near the launch site, this was a calm affair.

After generously expanding the expected 20 minutes to possibly 40 or 45, I eventually had my sufficient fill of the experience. Pretty cool stuff, swirling above circling chulos (vultures), but the thrill settled down by the time our feet grazingly touched ground again. I'd never learn exactly how many hundreds of meters up we had gone in this parapente adventure, but it seemed like a LOT. Neither would I take any particularly engaging photos, having decided to leave my camera back with Pieter while I just let myself enjoy the moment. That seemed the right choice, even afterward.

Done with our adventure, we weren't in any hurry to get back to town. We took to getting to know our 3-man crew, all in their early 20s. They were happily willing to talk music, politics, and parapente while downing beers I shouted (don't get it? - work on your Aussie vocabulary.) I had just trusted my life with these goofballs, still with a weirded-out stomach to show for it, so I was in no hurry... until I finally burped a healthy blast to effectively remove the destabilizing feeling. Whew.

In leaving it took us a bit of work to get past a certifiably crazy (and maniacally laughing) lady. She threatened us with rocks in fists held high, giving us all an odd scare, but eventually our driver moved his beater of a machine with us onboard back to town. I now had a chance to pepper my car-happy hosts with further questions, as long as they were victims trapped in a beast of their own design, anyway.

For instance, I asked, why did motorcyclists wear jackets with large reflective license plate letters stitched on? On account of the law, they answered: it made it easier to catch them - drug-runners and guerrillas alike - more quickly. Next question. Why was everybody so pass-happy, even in the most dangerous sections, blind to oncoming traffic? Only smiles... no direct answers. Sigh - next question.

What about pollution, with all the diesel spewing everywhere? To this, they happily replied that natural gas cars would go sharply on the rise - as soon as the natural gas ductlines from the north reached San Gil. That wouldn't be soon enough, by my reckoning, but still. Similarly, San Gil was waiting on proper sewage treatment also, both promised and slowly on the way. Finally we got talking about cars, and the conversation derailed from there: teenage boys and young men everywhere were always dialed into car stuff... just as older farts lost interest.

At Santander Aleman I spent a good chunk of the days and nights to follow joking around with the family of owner Alemán, his girlfriend Alexandra, her sister Sandra, their niece Yelitza (although in her 20s like them), their friend Carmen from Spain, and baby Samuel - a good-looking bunch all. The trumpet went over well with this group; I soon took to playing while hiding from the sun between drying sheets in one of the hammocks.

I also found myself giving any number of impromptu English lessons, reveling in the good vibe of the place. This was a fortuitous second fiddle overflow to Macondo that I stumbled into - by my tallying, it was actually better. I certainly felt happily right at home among these beauties, fun company to drink with both at the hostel and Café Con Verso next door. Wine, women, and song - yes!

We did more of this same stuff over a long holiday weekend in the main square, standing amidst the crowds before bands. There was no shortage of partying that went with any such occasion. A capper evening, though, was spent on a night out with the girls, Ivan, and some relatives - karoake time! Karaoke Colombia-style, though, it need be noted: everyone sang along all the time, dancing as often as they saw fit. They saw fit pretty much the entire time, fueled on aguardiente and beer.

Another highlight for the San Gil area was to visit Barichara, one of the premier colonial-architectured towns in Colombia (and all of Latin America.) Granted, I'd already seen enough colonial buildings over the years to not be drawn by that alone, but a pretty place is a pretty place I always say. Moreover, there was a 10km hike out of town following the ancient rock path of a former people. This led to the town of Guane - why not?

Yes, a hike after several city days in San Gil sounded just the thing for me, even if it would take some walking up and down near the river in San Gil to find the bus station first. Eventually I was on my way to Barichara, all of half an hour away.

Arriving in Barichara I thought it a good thing to start hiking right away: buses only went on (and returned from) Guane every three hours. With my late start to the day, this would be a slightly painful mistake of a thing to perform at noon, but I'd persevere. A leisurely 10km I had envisioned soon instead found me paranoid instead. Can't miss... bus... BACK!

I hiked now under the beating sun, mostly on huge cobblestones. With nothing marking how far I had gone, or had to go, my speed only crept up. I knew the last bus back to Barichara left at 3pm from Guane - would I make it? At the rate I was going it seemed like I should make it by 1p.m.! Still, in my ignorance it was a hurried 10km of down, down, down, amid a lot of sweat. I was truly happy to see the blessed town when I did make it, actually with an hour to spare in the end.

As it turned out, I now met up accidently with Pieter - and a particularly annoying Dutch girl I had also known from Villa. Sigh - perhaps most unpleasant about her was her false generosity and joy in seeing me, too - c'mon, we both knew we couldn't stand each other! Let's throw rocks instead, shan't we?

As for the hike itself, its views from top to bottom had been sweeping if hazy. I couldn't recommend it, actually, although it could be significantly different when not rushing it through and sweating like a pig. Task done in Guane, however, there was nothing more to the day then to return to colonial Barichara to admire the Villa-like architecture.

Unlike Villa, this time the colonial town played out over hilly streets. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the plaza was decidedly no great shakes as Villa's was. What Barichara DID uniquely have was its dietary supplement of ant butts, however. Yes, BUTTs of ANTs. This was a traditional Santander meal going way back that I felt compelled to try. Why? Dunno.

Like the hike, I wouldn't overly suffer for the cause... but I couldn't recommend it either. The big-butted ants were indeed as huge as advertised, blended into a sauce and served over meat with a plentitude of whole crunchy ants playing the part of a garnish topping. Taken altogether, it was too rich in its unusual taste for me, though, even if I got the job done. Pieter, meanwhile, opted out of his meal for the most part: let the dogs deal with it, he figured.

Over the course of several days in San Gil one thing kept physical discomfort on the rise: the rising heat. It was getting only stuffier with each passing day, and the natives grumbled about the peculiarity of such coming to pass in typically temperate San Gil. I, too, found myself hiding out from the sun rather consistently. I sought hammocks, fruit juices, and cold beers at all turns. Middle of the day siestas quickly became requisite, but what I really needed was... a waterfall. Fortunately, a park not too far outside of town would provide - even if my book Snow (set in Turkey, recommended) didn't: Parque Juan Cucy.

Parque JC's claim to fame was its big waterfall, and its whored-out use by a few businesses to profit from it. They made a goodly business of getting people to rappel down its face, mingling with the waters at various points. As a hiker only, though, I viewed this as free entertainment - for a half hour, anyway.

A friend from the hostel and I traveled the 30 minutes out of town to the park, paid a few dollars for admission, then hiked the short way up to the falls. This wasn't bad, traversing lush paddocks, then forest, for only twenty minutes or so. The pools proved a great break from the heat, with a steady mist blowing through cooled by the water's temperature. Soon I alternated between reading my book and watching rappelers edge their way slowly down. Done under yelled instructions and shrill whistles to stay on track, however, "calming" this wasn't entirely. I more gratified by the lack of the small biting insects that I had endured in Villa.

Enough was enough with the yelling at some point, though, so we moved away from the falls to follow the water's track downstream. This led to the discovery of a system of notched ropes and metal ladders hidden away along a far side. This tucked-away infrastructure helped us get down the larger waterfall ledges. Below we found pools refreshing to swim in without another soul around - what we had been looking for in the first place. Finally - a cool, QUIET, and naturally beautiful retreat from the heat.

Now happily away from the rappeling ruckus, we decided to forge our way further on down when it seemed time to go. This took no time to require bushwhacking over boulders, grabbing helpful, hanging vines when they made themselves available - and sometimes resorting to downright scrambling. Eventually we returned to the park's entrance. Time to enjoy some cold beers - another way to beat the heat.

San Gil had been a fun stay, but I soon felt like I had run its gamut of offerings after only several days. The street noise and air pollution had become a bit much, even taking into account the pleasantries of having a café to play my trumpet in and a nice family to hang out with. It came time for a last afternoon and evening in Café Con Verso, mostly spent yapping about jazz with a local composer (Alvaro) while not playing some tunes to the few tables of people.

The festival atmostphere in the main square two blocks below, which had been going during my entire stay, also now reached its climax on this final day. San Gil took to celebrating La Noche de las Velas (night of candles), something or other related to Christianity. Effectively, that meant that everyone put loads of (lit) candles on the sidewalks and window ledges in front of their houses. Then it was time to sit outside to drink on the (now-decorated) stoop, mostly accompanied by the loudest boom-boxed music possible. Just another night in Colombia, in other words.

My course come morning would still to the north, meanwhile - my thoughts turned to moving on even as the candles flickered with life. The Caribbean, a curiously humid and hot destination - what with my wilting in San Gil's surprising mountain heat - lay still some dozen hours in that direction. Yuck, I thought - regarding the distance, not so much the heat... yet.

Since the city of Bucaramanga lay only a few hours away, directly on the way of all main routes northward, I decided that'd be where I'd pause to break up the journey. The idea of any bus ride above eight hours had turned into a slightly incomprehensible thing over the years; I had vowed to avoid it all cost. Beyond that I despised night buses, if only for the lack of sleeping comfort they consistently provided. I knew these evils could forcibly transpire at unbidden times, of course, but I preferred to put them off as much as possible.

So Bucaramanga it was the next day, after a shockingly uneventful - and short-ish - bus ride. What, a driver not crazy? Driving at typical western speeds, not putting our lives in constant danger? You heard it here first, folks... probably for the last time.

We made our way among huge, absolutely HUGE precipices, then dry, completely DRY country. At reasonable speeds I could actually contemplate such terrain, something done without a nervous feeling in the stomach, bowels, or elsewhere. Amazing. The coolness we had for a spell in the mountains now came to pick up some heat, however. We steadily dropped to the valley floor between the fingers of the Andean ranges, rolling into big bad Buca after about 2-1/2 hours in all.

Buca, unfortunately, was one boring and dead town, however much it was on holiday. The Brit I was hanging out with (also heading north from San Gil) joined me in making an idle search for the local Café Con Verso (there were only the two of them, in San Gil and Buca) right away... but it was closed.

Okay... so we'd try the curious Moe's bar instead. Marginally better results awaited as THAT was found only after significant searching, including returning to the scene of the crime a few times. Not a particularly outstanding bar, but Moe's deserved kudos for the owner's dedication to the Simpsons (thus the name.) This was manifested generously in the oodles of original artwork related to the show, found in evidence for every nook and cranny of the place.

A downtown stroll proved far less successful, though. We next angled our way from the nicer neighborhood of our hostel KGB (not Russian in the least, but with catchy lettering for a very well-appointed place) into the heart of Buca. By the time we reached the core downtown area, however, we felt suspiciously eyeballed to be uncomfortable - not a single other foreigner was about.

By then, too, all of the streets were littered with the detritus of drunken holiday-making. Even with such distraction, though, we only felt a bit less conspicuous when we stumbled onto the main market area. No, even that wasn't really so - a security guard approached us within minutes, rather emphatically no-noing any plans to continue on our path. He figured our odds of getting robbed at something like 100 percent. Point taken - back to the hostel we went, with a somewhat more determined and focused pace for the experience. As a consequence I decided to leave early in the morning for Santa Marta.

This I did, and three violent movies (per the usual) later and richer for it, to be sure. If memory serves me correctly, these blights on our society were a Cusack end-of-the-world flick called 2012, a Liam Neeson excuse to kick ass titled Taken (and very reminiscent of the George C. Scott child prostitute horror Hardcore), then Al Pacino in a Seattle serial killer nightmare unworthy of title recall. Awful each, and each impossible to ignore in that style of presentation found aboard so many buses in Latin America. In... your... face. No... escape. Still and all, though, I found myself in Santa Marta finally - the Caribbean!

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