San Gil By: Anik
To quote Lonely Planet, San Gil really does “pack a punch.” San Gil’s steep surrounding hills allow for a bird’s eye view that have made for colorful morning runs.
We’ve had a relaxing time and a bit of a regroup from the craziness of the previous days. We were able to find pancakes for the kids, which, to them were as valuable as gold. Simon skyped with his class. They talked to him one by one and sang him songs, the look on his face was priceless.
We read, wrote, and walked around the busy streets indulging in ice cream and cafes con leche. We couldn’t however pass up San Gil’s alluring bait of adventure sports. Darin spent yesterday morning mountain biking the local hills, which as always, resulted in a perma-grin for the rest of the day.
We spent an afternoon about 45 minutes out of town, at Cascada De Juan Cuir.
We hiked up to the 180 meter falls, and with the help of two guides, Simon, Darin and I rappelled down a 70 meter part of it. I marveled at Simon’s courage. He was very nervous, saying to me “well mommy, it was nice knowing you” as he leaned back over the sheer cliff of water.
The rocks were slippery, the water was freezing, and the walls of the falls were nothing but vertical.
We loved it. Marco is too young but he also didn’t want to do it. He was thrilled to be below using our camera for the first time.
On the way back, we stopped in a very small town called Valle De San Jose for lunch. A guy I met at a local hostel told us that this town was made special because of its’ chorizo. Well, it didn’t disappoint. Darin says this was the best thing he’s eaten in Colombia thus far.
This morning, Darin and the boys have gone white river rafting down the Rio De Fonce. I decided to stay back and get us prepared for our week at El Cocuy. We’ll be spending some time on our way, acclimating for the 12,000 foot elevation area that we’ll be hiking and camping through. We’re putting some serious faith in our van.
Internet access now feels like the ultimate treat, just like air conditioning, shade, salads, and places free of mosquitos, gnats, and sand fleas. We reached San Gil last night and we chose a nice hostel to stay in for the next few days. The idea of a real shower and a real bed with access to a full sized refrigerator thrills us.
We left Taganga and headed toward Parque Nacional Tayrona. We stopped by a beautiful river on the way to filter water, it was a refreshing swim and the kids played with a beautiful 5 year old girl who lived nearby. The kids stripped down and with our strainer, caught fish and other critters and carried them around in a coke bottle they found by the river. The filtered water was a great idea, but after sitting in our nalgene bottles for a while, it began smelling a bit un-wordly. If I had to pick one thing I’m definitely OCD about, it’s my water. Let’s just say that I’m learning to adapt.
We drove a few miles past the park entrance and found “Casa Grande”, our oasis and place of respite for the next few days. We got a campsite right on the beach with nothing around, except for the the very friendly local dog who took a liking to us and spend his time in the shade of our awning. We napped, did yoga, and read while the kids spent most of their waking hours climbing and twirling around on this Cirque Du Soleil-like sort of stretchy cloth hanging from a branch. Despite the tranquil setting, sleep was difficult due to the 50-70 sand flea bites we each had on our legs.
We walked the beach and found what seemed like a great surf spot. The locals assured us that unlike the deadly violent currents and rip tides found everywhere else in the area, this was a very safe place to surf. We attempted to surf this spot the following day and we were very much humbled. In fact, I, in particular, walked away from there with my tail between my legs. It felt like a full body beating, while being pressure hosed up the nose.
The following morning, we headed for the Tayrona Park entrance. We parked the van 7 KM in at Canaveral. We stuffed our backpacks and started hiking through the jungle to Cabo de San Juan, where we would spend the night.
A few hours later, drenched in sweat, we reached our spot and marveled at the beauty of the setting before us. We camped a few feet from the water, in the picturesque cove, spending yet another night scratching our legs to no avail.
The next morning, we started off early on a challenging hike up to the ruins of Pueblito. The hike was straight up, bouldering most of the way through Tarzan like vines. Being Indiana Jones fans, the kids felt completely in their element and they climbed like monkeys and descended like cats. Back at the van, our solar shower was an absolute necessity after the 9km, 100 degree hike of the day.
We started our drive to San Gil, which, due to the roads and the large trucks, would take us close to 15 hours. The driving is like a constant game of chicken, there are many white knuckle moments.
A few hours out of Santa Marta, it was getting dark, and we’ve promised ourselves to heed the general rule of not driving at night. We pulled into the town of Fundacion, stopped at a guard station for a recommendation on where to pull off for the night. As we rounded the corner toward the recommended “El Centro”, we hit a curb and our back left tire blew up. It’s up to Darin to share the details of what happened next.
Once at the Centro, I felt a bit defeated, we were in the town’s center, parked at the curb, under the bright lights, with unbearable heat. Simon said “I’m not sleeping here!” I was feeling the same way, but not much could be done. As we reluctantly popped the top of the van, surrounded by dozens of locals with dozens of questions and stares, our savior for the night approached us. A short, sweet man, dressed impeccably, insisted that we couldn’t spend the night there, and that he had a much better space for us. As Darin followed him down an alley to see the spot, I sat in a chair and watched the local teenagers play barefoot soccer in the square.
The man led us to a gated parking spot behind the town’s cultural center. The finagling it took to get the van into this space was hero like on Darin’s part.
The man locked us in and left us for the night. Tierra and I slept in the tent while Darin and the kids slept in the van. The heat was overwhelming. We woke up the following morning seeing that we were pretty much under a bridge with broken glass all around us, safe, but very much feeling like dirt bags. We washed up and happily finessed our way out of Fundacion.
We spent the following night, not itching quite as much, at a campground by a beautifully cold river. We had a nice fire cooked meal, and found a cool breeze.
The drive to San Gil took our breaths away, the elevation gain was enormous and gave us a panoramic view of the Sierra Nevadas that played tricks on our depth perception.
Our dear Tierra left us this morning to finish her last week in Columbia on her own. I can’t think of too many people I could have as a 5th person to travel with in a small van for a week. For now, she definitely wins the prize.
We’ll be spending the next few days in San Gil, taking advantage of it’s adventuresome offerings.
We were hiking somewhere outside of Cartagena. It was challenging with a twenty pound backpack.
We saw leaf cutter ants that formed highways across the path.
But the coolest thing was the battle of one spider and one bee. Guess what? The bee won!
We drove and my dad hit a curb and blew a tire!!
P.S. We saw monkeys!
With all my preparations in the weeks prior to our trip, I tried to imagine all possible scenarios involving van troubles. I made a small tool bag with some of the essentials…Crescent wrenches, box wrenches, a diagnostic computer, volt meter and on and on.
The driving reminds me of driving back in New York, only on steroids. Narrow roads, high speeds and illegal passing.
After a long day of sweat dripping hiking in Tayrona Park, the darkness forced us into the town of Fundacion, hurried to find a place to call home for the night. We crossed a hap hazard 4 lane road into a security guard station to get a recommendation.
As “van” prepared as I was, the exceptionally high curb in Fundacion shredded my rear driver’s side tire. The van shifted one foot to the right immediately after hitting the curb as it wobbled across the opposite shoulder.
Before I was able to get out of the van, many Colombians on motorcycles, rickshaws and on foot were surrounding the van, eager to help. It took 3 minutes to shuffle the gear of 5 people living in the van in order to get to the tools stored in the back. Within 5 minutes, my new comrades and I were installing the spare tire. In all the preparations, I’d never inspected the spare tire to be sure it was inflated. Although low in air pressure, the full size spare tire was good to go. I was particular about installing the lug nuts myself to prevent stripping of the threads. As I was installing the tire, my Colombian friends were stripping the threads holding the spare tire under the van.
The following morning, after spending 50 mil col pesos ($25.00 USD) on a used tire and 14 mil col pesos ($7.00 USD) on installation, we left town with the winds at our backs.
As we approached San Gil, the noise coming from the right rear wheel that started two months ago heading back from a Mt. Baker ski trip, started to intensify. Five kilometers out of San Gil, the noise was now unrelenting after hitting a large speed bump at a high speed. At this point, I had Anik drive and I sat in the back by the wheel to diagnose the noise. My first thought was that it was a rattling gear. As we entered San Gil, we found a great place to park and stay where I could take a better look. What I saw made me cringe. The top bolt that holds the shock in place had worked its’ way out. The noise was that of the bolt shifting up and down with every vibration of the road.
After jacking the back wheel up, I made a friend named Andres, from Bogota. Through limited communication, with the help of Andres’ jack, we were able to align the shock to reinstall the bolt. After numerous failed attempts, I realized the threads were stripped. My amigo drove me all around town to find a replacement bolt, which failed. He took me to a machinist who was able to true the threads on the bolt. One tool I failed to pack was a ratchet and sockets, which sent us to hunt them down. After an hour of traveling around town, the trued bolt was installed in seconds.
I never imagined that Colombians would be so kind and helpful. They seem to feel it’s their duty to help foreigners as they travel through their country. Over the past three weeks, I’ve seen nothing of the current stereotype that North Americans hold of Colombia. VIVA COLOMBIA!
Sometimes I miss people, but other times I enjoy myself. Either way, I always embrace life! These last few days with Tierra here have been funny and relaxing. I’m really looking forward at the rest of our trip. But right now is still really great!
Once we finally got our Van, we parked at the Cartagena Convention center and spread ourselves out quite chaotically and got our situation organized. Well, as organized as can be. We rushed over to the airport to conveniently pick up our dear friend, Tierra, who is vacationing in Columbia for 2 weeks. Upon seeing each other, all we could do was laugh.
On our way out of town toward Santa Marta, we picked up two sweaty french hitch hikers holding a “Santa Marta” sign. With Darin and I in the front seats, the kids in the back seat, and Tierra and the 2 french hitch hikers sitting on their backpacks, we made our way.
For the sake of the boys, we took a left turn prompted by a “Volcan de Lodo de Totumo” sign. We all laughed at the sight of the small volcano, which seemed like a large bump of dirt with a couple of rickety wooden ladders to the top.
Instead of spewing ashes and lava, this volcano gurgles up mud. We immediately decided that that because of the fee, only the kids would swim in the unseen mud pit. Despite the reassurance that it wasn’t dangerous, and that I should just let the kids go to the top and jump in the mud, I insisted on accompanying them. When I got to the top, I was surprised at the display of mud that lay 15 feet below us. The kids climbed down the rickety ladder and began swimming around in the volcan. After watching them for a few minutes, it became obvious that we couldn’t pass this up.
I yelled down to Darin, Tierra and the french guys that we just had to pay the money and do it.
We bobbed around in the mud and couldn’t sink even if we tried, but we also could tell that the mud went on for at least 20 feet.
We eventually got out and made our way down the path to the beautiful lake nearby to wash off. We all felt particularly refreshed.
We spent the night of Darin’s 40th birthday by the beach in Puerto Columbia near the Pier. We celebrated with wine (hard to come by here), a delicious homemade dinner, and we ate an entire cake, which the boys and I had purchased in Cartagena, and smuggled in the van so that Darin wouldn’t see it. We were told that the place we’d sparked at was “peligroso”, we moved to a different spot less than a km down the beach set us camp there. Darin and the kids slept in the van and Tierra and I slept in the tent on the beach. Darin got a visit from the local police, curious about our set up and we lay awake most of the night because of the heat and the few Colombians blaring music out of their car parked in front of us until 4am. Unbeknownst to us, this would mark the first of many nights spent awake, wondering how South Americans can party until 5am every weekend.
We woke up early to some sweet looking waves, ate breakfast and headed a few miles down to Pradomar, where the surfing is said to be on very consistently. We got what we came for.
In the dark of the evening, we arrived in Taganga hot, tired, and very hungry. Taganga is a tourist respite where many are said to never leave. It has the charm of everything Columbia with a few amenities we haven’t encountered in nearly two weeks….like salad!
When we woke up and walked down to the water this morning, it had a South Pacific feel, with calm water and small fishing boats anchored in the cove.
We’re trying to figure out the groove of doing this with our Van. The driving is insane, vehicles of all sizes pass when they shouldn’t on fast roads and if you don’t follow suit, you get honked at indefinitely. The camping has been a bit uncomfortable due to the heat, the nightly police visits, and the fact that we normally don’t camp on the side of the road in cities. We seem to be focused on the basics of clean clothes, food, and places to sleep…with a some serious enjoyment in between.