San Gil is usually considered the adventure capital of Colombia. Classic tours of the country don’t usually go there, but 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.
To be fair, I happened in San Gil because I was escaping from the heat of Cartagena, and on my way to cool down in Bogota I needed to break down the long bus journey. I didn’t know what I’d find there (other than a slightly cooler place – though that’s not hard, since Cartagena is boiling), but the 2 days I had planned to spend there turned into more than a week, because I quickly fell in love with it.
In this post, I highlight all the things to do in San Gil and share some practical information to organize a trip there.
Going to Cartagena? Make sure to read my posts “25 Incredible Things To Do In Cartagena”and “Where To Stay In Cartagena – The Best Neighborhoods And Places To Stay.”
20 Unmissable, Fun Things To Do In San Gil
Go rafting on Rio Suarez
San Gil is an excellent place for rafting. Many companies in San Gil 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, do what I did and opt for Rio Suarez. It’s around $45 USD for a full day tour that lasts about 6 hours in total. You’ll even get snacks included, consisting of fresh fruit, local cheese, crisps and drinks.
Colombia Rafting Expeditions is the most reliable company in town for rafting. They will pick you up from your hotel and drive you (for about one hour) to the starting point. They have excellent, very experienced English speaking guides who will brief you on safety measures and guide you through the rafts. You’ll get soaking wet between the water that hits you in the face and the fact that you get to jump in the river (so bring a towel and make sure you wear sandals and a swimsuit), and exhausted from all the exercise, but it’s a lot of fun. You’ll even get someone taking photos of you as you go.
There’s little doubt that rafting is one of the most fun things to do in San Gil.
Go mountain biking
Mountain biking is one of the most exhilarating things to do in San Gil. 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 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), with prices starting from $90 USD, and it includes snacks (usually fruits and freshly baked cookies), lunch (sandwiches, and you can pick your preference) and even a cold beer at the end of the ride, and even a celebratory t-shirt. To be fair, it is a bit expensive – usually several tens of dollars over the budget of a regular backpacker, but it’s honestly worth saving here and there to just do it.
The company is very reliable, the bikes are in excellent state, and the tour is organized to the point that when you book it online you get to answer questions such as on which side you want to have the front and back breaks.
During the ride you get an excellent guide at the front, which is always ready to help with any problems and gives plenty of instructions and advice on the technicalities of the path; as well as a guide at the back, driving a jeep and carrying any equipment that may be needed to fix bikes on the road, including flat tires. The guide is also the person taking photos of you during the ride – they are shared with the group free of charge.
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, and to be honest this is the challenging bit as the terrain is very technical, and you ride on a very narrow trail full or rocks and very uneven. After lunch, the path is much easier in technical terms, but it is a steady slightly uphill 16 km ride.
Go bungee jumping
I must admit I didn’t do this – I know myself and I’d chicken out before jumping, so I’d rather save my money. However, it is said that bungee jumping is one of the ultimate things to do in San Gil, which contributes to making it the adventure capital of Colombia.
The most reputable company in San Gil to go 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. It costs around $22 USD.
There hardly is any better way to experience a place from above other than paragliding. When you do it in San Gil, you get to see the gorgeous Chicamocha Canyon. 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 near San Gil 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. Whichever you choose, you’ll get an incredible experience.
Visit the Chicamocha Canyon and Chicamocha National Park
Speaking of the Chicamocha Canyon, this is one of the most beautiful places to visit near San Gil. 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.
Whenever I hear there are zip-lines in a place I am visiting, my heart skips a beat. It’s one of my favorite things to do when traveling. I’ve tried it in Argentina, Costa Rica and even Antigua. If you are a fan of zip-lining like me, you’ll be glad to know that you will have a chance to 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.
Doing more traveling in the Caribbean region? Check out my post “17 Incredible Things To Do In Antigua For The Perfect Holidays.” If, on the other hand, you are heading to Central America, make sure to read my post “27 Absolutely Fabulous Things To Do In Costa Rica.”
Have a try at rappelling or, even better, at canyoning
Cascada Juan Curi is a fun place to visit really close to San Gil. Rappelling there is a lot of fun, but for more adrenaline you can actually try canyoning. Several companies in town run canyoning trip. A canyoning tour to Juan Curi usually consists of climbing through caves and over boulders, rappelling down waterfalls and jumping off cliffs directly into natural pools.
The most reputable one is El Dorado Expeditions, which is based off El Dorado International Hostel. The tour includes transportation, training, a professional guide, all necessary equipment and even someone who’ll be taking photos of you.
The tour costs around $25 USD and includes gear rental and insurance. The highest waterfall you’ll be rappelling down is about 40 meters high.
Visit Cascada Juan Curi
If you don’t want to go rappelling or canyoning, you can just have a more chilled day at Cascada Juan Curi, which is at around 45 minutes bus ride from San Gil (make sure to get off at Charala). The main waterfall is 180 meters high, and there is an incredible natural pool at the bottom. In order to get there, you have to walk for about 20 minutes on a trail that leaves from Juan Curi Parque Ecologico.
Swim in natural pools
Those at Juan Curi aren’t the only natural pools near San Gil. One of the nicest places to relax is Pescaderito. You can take the bus to Curiti and ask the driver to get off at Pescaderito. It’s a 40 minutes walk from there. 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.
Alternatively, one of the nicest things to do in San Gil is going to Pozo Azul, which is at just 2 km from San Gil on the way to Bucaramanga. You can walk there, or get the bus (ask to be dropped off at Pozo Azul), or opt for a taxi ride which won’t turn out expensive. 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.
Go caving in Curiti
You should only go caving if you aren’t afraid of very constrained places. If this is not an issue, 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 so – unless you speak Spanish – you may want to wait for one that does.
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 – provided you don’t hike when the sun is strong. 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 starting point, you can walk through the lesser touristy parts of town or just take a taxi. Make sure to carry enough water for the hike, and to apply sunblock!
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. The reserve is about 4 hectares, and it is nice to explore. But the park is also a perfect place to just sit down and relax reading a book, observing the incredible trees that give the park an eerie atmosphere. There even is a pool where you can swim (for an additional fee). It costs $2 USD to get in the park.
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. It’s a 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). Barichara is a good place to try one of Colombia’s specialties – hormigas culonas (literally “big ass ants” which are roasted).
From Barichara, you can take the Camino Real, a long stone trail that the Guane indigenous people used to walk through the Chicamocha Canyon and to Guane.
Walk the Camino Real
As I have already explained, the Camino Real is a stone walkway that was used by the Guane to get to the village of Guane from Barichara. The Spaniards used it to carry goods from one place to the other. I wholeheartedly recommend walking the Camino Real during your trip to San Gil, since it affords you gorgeous views of the Chicamocha canyon.
It takes around 3 hours to walk from Barichara to Guane, and unless it is an overcast day and cooler than usual, I recommend to avoid the peak hours. You can take the bus back to San Gil from Guane.
There is no need to take a guide for this hike as it is very well sign-posted and you really can’t get lost (if we didn’t get lost, nobody would).
Guane is a beautiful little town that is packed with history and culture and that is within easy reach from San Gil (you can catch a bus there) or Barichara (just walk along the Camino Real). This pre-Colombian village, which boasts a beautiful church (Iglesia de Santa Lucia) and a lovely plaza, was founded by the Guane people. 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 city proper that you should not miss. It was built in the 18th century and it 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
One of the nicest and most local things to do in San Gil is hanging 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 literally saved me from months of rice, beans and plantains which is all I had been having while traveling across Central America. I ate there a few times when I visited San Gil, where it is located really close to the main square, and tried the fantastic burgers, the salads and even the delicious breakfast. It was super comforting and just what I needed before going back to my street food and local diet.
Go to Casa del Mercado San Gil
Once you’re done eating burgers at Gringo Mike, head to the market of San Gil. There, you will find a plethora of small stalls selling local produce which you can use to cook at your hostel, and even 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. The game 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 On San Gil, Colombia
When to visit San Gil
I visited San Gil in February and it was pleasant – hot, but not nearly as warm as in other parts of Colombia. The driest months are January and February, whereas the warmest months are June, July, August and September.
Guided tours of Colombia that also go to San Gil
If you are not a fan or organizing trips or if you are short on time to research about the various options in San Gil or need something more structured to make the most of your time off work, you may leave the organization bits to the expert who will take care to book the transportation, accommodation and tours for you – so that all you have to do is pack your bags and enjoy your time.
The following are some excellent guided tours of Colombia that also go to San Gil:
- Colombia multi-sport and Lost City Trek: a fantastic 17 days tour for active travelers that starts in Bogotà and goes all the way to Santa Marta, and includes the incredible Lost City trek and plenty of adventures in San Gil.
- Colombia multi-sport: an 11 days tour to make the most of your time in the country, with hiking, biking and rafting.
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 (the trip lasts 17 hours and goes through Barranquilla); 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.
Traveling to Bogota? Make sure to check out my post “17 Unmissable Things To Do In Bogota.”
Where to stay in San Gil
San Gil is relatively less touristy compared to other places in Colombia, but there still are a few good accommodation options in town. These are the best ones:
- Open House Hostel in San Gil is an excellent option for backpackers. It is very close to the main plaza: it is clean, quiet, and it has nice, comfortable beds, an airy common area and very well equipped kitchen and a nice backyard. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- 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 time while in San Gil. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- 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. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- 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. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- Hotel Terrazas de la Candelaria is a bit outside the center of San Gil, which remains within easy reach. Rooms are basic, but clean and comfortable. There’s also a nice pool. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
Other useful information
San Gil is a safe little town. However, since you’ll be engaged in some very adventurous activities, I recommend making sure to get a good travel insurance before visiting. SafetyWing has some excellent insurance options. Check out the prices here.
Have you ever been to San Gil? What things to do in San Gil did you like the most?