Thought to be the adventure capital of Colombia, San Gil, in Santander Department, is a town of no more than 50000 people. It’s out of the classic tourist trail because organized tours don’t go there. However, if you like extreme sports and extreme fun, make it a point to visit, as it’s one of the most laid back, genuine and interesting places in the country.
While the town itself is pleasant but nothing to write home about, it’s the surroundings that make it worth visiting: rivers to raft; canyons to hike, bike and paraglide; waterfalls; mountains and more make San Gil one of the highlights of a trip to Colombia.
I happened in San Gil because I was escaping the heat of Cartagena, and wanted a place where I could break the long bus journey to Bogota. Soon enough the 2 days I had planned to spend there turned into more than a week – that’s how much I enjoyed it.
Curious to find out more about this incredible place? Keep reading!
19 Fun Things To Do In San Gil
Rafting on Rio Suarez
San Gil is an excellent place for rafting. Many companies organize whitewater rafting excursions. If you don’t have much experience, you may want to opt for the easier Rio Fonce – with rafts of grades 1 to 3. If you are in for something more challenging, opt for Rio Suarez.
Make sure to bring a towel and wear sandals and a swimsuit as you will end up soaking wet. You’ll also be exhausted from all the exercise, but it’s a lot of fun.
Colombia Rafting Expeditions is the most reliable company in town for rafting. They have excellent, very experienced English speaking guides who will brief you on safety measures and guide you through the rafts. Expeditions last about 6 hours in total and include transportation, full equipment, an English speaking guide a picnic of fresh fruit, local cheese, snacks and drinks. You can book your rafting adventure here.
Mountain bike tours near San Gil go through the Chicamocha Canyon and also to the lovely Barichara, an immaculately renovated city of white-washed buildings and stone streets, with a beautiful cathedral and a gorgeous and airy plaza.
The ride is around 50 km and it is classified between moderate and difficult. You’ll be going downhill for the first part of the day, on a difficult narrow trail full or rocks and very uneven. After lunch, the path is technically easier, but a steady slightly uphill 16 km ride.
The best company running the tour is Colombian Bike Junkies. The trip lasts all day (you leave at 8:00 am and should not expect to be back before 8:00 pm), and included int he price you’ll have snacks (usually fruits and freshly baked cookies), lunch, a cold beer at the end of the ride, and even a celebratory t-shirt. It may seem expensive but considering the tour lasts all day, and the level of service you receive, it is actually fairly priced.
The company is very reliable, the bikes are in excellent state, and the tour is professionally organized. During the ride you get an excellent guide at the front, giving instructions and advice on the technicalities of the path; and one at the back, driving a jeep and ready to help in case of flat tires etc. The guide will take photos of you during the ride – at no additional cost.
The most reputable company for bungee jumping is Colombia Bungee Jumping. They will take you to the place where you’ll be jumping from (a platform that was built for this over the Fonce River, for a 70 meters jump); train you and hook you up with all the necessary safety gear. You can book it here.
For views over the gorgeous Chicamocha Canyon, go paragliding. You get to fly safely strapped to a professional pilot, so all you really have to do is take your GoPro to video and take photos of the experience.
The main spots for paragliding are Curiti, for a shorter but cheaper flight in a location that is just a 45 minutes drive from town; and the Chicamocha Canyon, for a longer flight that is more costly, at about 2 hours from San Gil. You can book your paragliding experience in Chicamocha here.
Visit the Chicamocha Canyon and Chicamocha National Park
Speaking of the Chicamocha Canyon, this is one of the most beautiful places to visit close to town. The main access point to the national park is at a roughly two hours drive north of San Gil. The canyon is almost 230 km long, and 2 km deep in points. Visiting the park is the easiest way to explore the canyon, and you can even take a 20 minute cable-car ride, or zip-line for more adrenaline.
If you fancy zip-lining, you’ll be glad to know you can do it in San Gil. If you take the road that connects San Gil to the lovely Barichara, you get to a viewpoint known as El Peñon Guane. There, you can get your adrenaline fix for the day: there are three zip-line cables that run across the valley and the canyon, and you even get to admire a waterfall in the distance.
Rappelling and Canyoning
Cascada Juan Curi is a fun place to visit really close to San Gil. You can go rappelling or canyoning. Several companies in town run canyoning trips, during which you will be climbing through caves and over boulders, rappelling down waterfalls and jumping off cliffs directly into natural pools.
El Dorado Expeditions, based off El Dorado International Hostel, runs tours that include transportation, training, a professional guide, all necessary equipment and insurance. The highest waterfall you’ll be rappelling down is about 40 meters high. You can book your canyoning experience here.
Visit Cascada Juan Curi
For a more chilled day go to Cascada Juan Curi. The main waterfall is 180 meters high, and there is an incredible natural pool at the bottom.
To get to Juan Curi take a 45 minutes bus ride from San Gil (make sure to get off at Charala). You then have to walk for about 20 minutes on a trail that leaves from Juan Curi Parque Ecologico.
Swim in natural pools
You’ll find more natural pools at Pescaderito. The area is fantastic for hiking, and it’s a favorite of locals who go there to relax for a day out of the city. There are various pools you can pick from – or simply try them all.
To get there, take the bus to Curiti and ask the driver to get off at Pescaderito. It’s a 40 minutes walk from there.
Finally, check out Pozo Azul, 2 km out of San Gil on the way to Bucaramanga. The pool at Pozo Azul is part of the Quebrada Curiti. Since it is set in the jungle, you’ll also have a chance to spot lots of beautiful birds and other wildlife.
To get to Pozo Azul, you can walk or get the bus – get off at Pozo Azul. A taxi ride shouldn’t be expensive.
Caving in Curiti
Caving at the Cueva de la Vaca, is one of the most fun things to do in San Gil. After heavy rains, you may even get submerged in some parts of the cave.
Cueva de la Vaca is located in Curiti, a small town at a 30 minutes bus ride from San Gil. Caving expeditions are run by Gua-iti Aventura, but keep in mind that not all guides speak English.
Hike up Cerro de la Cruz
The best view of San Gil is from a hill that can be seen from the city. The hike to Cerro de la Cruz is fairly easy. Once at the top, you’ll see a cross that was erected by the Jesuits in 1888 and it gets illuminated at night.
In order to get to the beginning of the trail, walk through the lesser touristy parts of town or just take a taxi. Make sure to carry enough water for the hike, to apply sunblock and avoid hiking in the hottest hours of the day.
Explore Parque Gallineral
At about 10 minutes walk from the center of San Gil, there is a lovely park which is a fantastic place for a stroll along one of the many trails. The reserve is about 4 hectares, and stretches all the way to an island in the Quebrada Curití in the middle of Río Fonce. It is a great place to just sit down and relax reading a book, observing the incredible trees that give the park an eerie atmosphere.
There’s a small fee to get in the park. For a small additional fee you can even swim in the pool.
Barichara is considered Colombia’s pretties village. It’s within easy reach from San Gil – just one hour by bus; and an absolute must see.
The village is series of lovely cobbled streets, white washed walls, tiled roofs and a nice, airy plaza called Parque Para Las Artes with a well kept Cathedral (Iglesia de Santa Barbara).
While in Barichara you can try hormigas culonas (literally “big ass ants” which are roasted), a Colombian specialty.
You should also read my post A Useful Guide To Barichara, Colombia.
Walk the Camino Real to Guane
From Barichara, you can walk the Camino Real, a stone walkway that was used by the Guane people to get to the village of Guane from Barichara. The Spaniards used it to carry goods from one place to the other.
It takes around 3 hours to walk from Barichara to Guane – make sure to avoid walking in the peak hours. You don’t need a guide as the trail is very well marked. You can take the bus back to San Gil from Guane.
Guane is a beautiful pre-Colombian village which boasts a beautiful church (Iglesia de Santa Lucia) and a lovely plaza. There even is a small museum, and a small market where you can buy souvenirs and try local specialties.
Visit Catedral Santa Cruz
The Catedral Santa Cruz is one of the landmarks of San Gil. It was built in the 18th century and is located at one end of Parque la Libertad. The interiors are even better than the outside, and it is free to visit.
Hang out in Parque La Libertad
The main square of San Gil is busy at any time of day, but it’s the perfect place to spend some time people’s watching right after sunset. It’s when the street food vendors come out, and the children will all be busy playing ball games.
Eat at Gringo Mike
Gringo Mike is located really close to the main square. It serves fantastic burgers, salads and even a delicious breakfast in a fun atmosphere.
Go to Casa del Mercado San Gil
San Gil Market is packed with small stalls selling local produce and a lot of small local food places which are very authentic. Comida corriente is what you should go for if you want a full meal: it usually consists of a soup and then a dish including some meat (most likely chicken) with a couple of sides.
At Casa del Mercado San Gil you’ll also find delicious arepas, tamales, lots of smoothies and fresh fruit juices.
Téjo is one of the most popular games in Colombia. It consists of throwing a large lead disc at a ring which has a bit of gunpowder in it. If you hit the ring with your disc, the ring will explode with a loud bang. It’s a points based game, where you get more points the closer you get to the ring, and the highest points if you blow it up. San Gil has its own téjo hall and you can either go on téjo nights organized by hostels such as Sam’s VIP or Macondo, or on your own for higher chances of mingling with the locals. It’s also a good occasion to have a beer!
Practical Information To Plan Your Trip
When to visit
The best time to visit San Gil is between December and March, in the dry season, and in July, August and September. Other months come with showers and higher humidity, but prices may be significantly lower.
How to get to San Gil
San Gil can be reached by bus from pretty much anywhere in Colombia. There are night buses from Cartagena via Barranquilla (17 hours); there are regular buses to and from Bogotà (8 hours); Medellin (11 hours) and Bucaramanga (2 hours), which is the closest airport. There also are daily direct buses to Villa de Leyva.
Where to stay
These are the best places to stay in town:
- Sam’s VIP Hostel boasts two kitchens, a beautiful swimming pool and even a sauna. There are nice private rooms and excellent, comfortable dorms. There is an on-site tour company to help you organize your activities.
- Macondo Hostel has a sun terrace with a fantastic hot tub perfect to relax at the end of an adventurous day. There are good dorms as well as a couple of private rooms.
- Hotel La Montaña San Gil has excellent rooms with high ceilings. Some of them have a balcony, with lovely views of the garden and the surrounding mountains. It’s a bit off the center of town.
- Hotel Terrazas de la Candelaria is a bit outside the center of San Gil. Rooms are basic, but clean and comfortable. There’s also a nice pool.
Other useful information
San Gil is a safe little town. However, since you’ll be engaged in some very adventurous activities, you will need a good travel insurance. Heymondo has some excellent insurance options. Check out the prices here.
Make sure to read my other posts about Colombian destinations:
- 29 Beautiful Places To Visit In Colombia
- The Best Itinerary For 2 Weeks In Colombia
- 22 Incredible Things To Do In Cartagena
- The Best Day Trips From Cartagena
- 15 Useful Things To Know Before Visiting Cartagena
- Where To Stay In Cartagena – The Best Neighborhoods And Places To Stay
- The Best Airbnb In Cartagena
- 17 Unmissable Things To Do In Bogota
- 7 Great Day Trips From Bogota
- A Complete Guide To Where To Stay In Bogota
- A Concise Guide To Salento, Colombia
- A Complete Guide To Hiking Valle De Cocora, Colombia
- A Concise Guide To Villa De Leyva, Colombia