San Gil in Santander province is one of Colombia’s great outdoors destinations. It’s a mecca for people wanting to go white-water rafting and paragliding. Fortunately, even if you’re not into extreme sports, there are plenty of easier activities to indulge in, such as trekking and swimming. Situated in the low Andes, the surrounding countryside is magnificent. It’s also an extremely religious place, as I discovered when the church bells began pealing at 5.40am.
The area north of Bogotá including the states of Boyaca and Santander was a major battlefield for independence from Spain two centuries ago when Bolívar and his armies crossed backwards and forwards into Venezuela. Ever since then Colombia has suffered extraordinary violence, in particular the wars over the last 50 years between the government, the guerillas and the paramilitaries. Luckily, peace has arrived in the past few years and San Gil is now extremely safe to visit.
On my first day I explored the small city park, El Gallineral, on the banks of the Rio Fonce which has recently been created. For a more rustic local experience I then caught a bus out to the town of Curiti which is close to the Pescaderito, a collection of natural swimming pools and waterfalls. I was told that you can catch a moto taxi from the main square, but I was surprised to see that these were in fact tuk-tuks, or auto rickshaws. For a moment it was like being back in India or Thailand. The first pool is quite tacky with music blaring out, so I wandered further up the track away from the crowds.
An alternative to San Gil is to stay in Barichara, a beautifully preserved colonial town just 45 minutes away by bus. However, it’s more expensive, so I was happy to visit as a day trip. From Barichara there is a fabulous restored trekking route, the Camino Real, which descends the valley to the even more timeless hamlet of Guane. It’s a path which follows old trading routes originally linking the local people to the coast and subsequently used by the Spanish. It’s also extremely hot.
So far Colombia has surprised me. In some ways it’s not like South America at all, but closer to Europe. It feels safe, it’s easy to get around and the people are extraordinarily friendly and helpful. It’s very different from when I was here in 1999, when travelling by bus was a definite no-no. It’s sad that other countries around the world that I visited are now becoming off limits, like Syria for example. But it’s great to see a place like Colombia emerging from conflict and opening to tourism.