Welcome to the adrenaline capital of Colombia. Or the average mid-size town where the tourists stay who can’t afford a hotel in colonial jewel Barichara.
The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. San Gil has a lot going for itself: a beautiful valley location, a nice colonial center, but especially a local population that is loud and boisterous. Typically Colombian, some might say. And yes, even if you’re not into paragliding or ziplining it’s a great base to visit Barichara and Curiti, and to chill out afterwards.
The Santander province, several hours north of Bogota, might not be the most famous. But the area has a lot going for it: the distance to the capital is still manageable, as is the road to the coast (Santa Marta, Cartagena). Nature is sometimes jaw-dropping, and there are several beautifully preserved colonial towns.
San Gil is pretty much in the middle of it, and will be on your route when you travel from Bogota to the Caribbean coast. You might initially include a visit to colonial gem Villa de Leyva (in my opinion better than Barichara), or take the direct 6-8 hour bus. San Gil has around 40k inhabitants. The road onwards would probably bring you to Bucaramanga, the metropolis of Santander and pretty much the halfway point to the coast.
Food and drinks
This being an adrenaline destination, there is plenty of international cuisine in San Gil. But walk around the center and you will find plenty of Santander dishes as well.
- Gringo Mike: local institution founded by an American in a beautiful colonial building with open air courtyard. Mostly famous for its burgers, but it has more to offer. Close to the central square
- Penelope Pizza: neighbor of Gringo Mike, in an equally enchanting building. Has pizzas and vegan dishes. Service can be a bit patchy, as staff also has to take care of the hostel
- Terramonti restaurant: a bit more upclass, but still affordable, is this mainly Italian restaurant with exquisite pasta dishes
- Cafe Betty: as a proper Latino town, everything revolves around the central square. Cafe Betty is cutely perched in the northwestern corner. Exactly, thirty metres from… Gringo Mike
- Colonial Market Work: profiles itself as a co-working space, but it’s actually a good spot for breakfasts and lunch. Coffee comes from a pre-programmed machine though. Three doors further you can find proper coffee
Activities / things to do
- action: on the western side of the central park is a tourism agency that organizes tours and activities. If you walk in the area as a gringo, they will find you. Everything from ziplining to a giant swing (overlooking the city) and a proper BMX downhill are on the menu
- Barichara and Guane: the second main reason tourists come to San Gil. You can take an organized tour, or take a local bus to Barichara from the Terminalito (see below). The Camino Real (around 90 minutes) is a great way to walk to Guane, which is smaller than Barichara. Perfect daytrip
- Curiti: another (shorter) daytrip can take you to Curiti. It’s also a lively colonial village, but the main attraction lies a 45 minute walk (or a short tuk-tuk ride) behind the town. The Pescaderitos are swimming holes, basically a huge rock formation where at several points you can swim a bit. Hugely popular with the locals as well, free entrance
- local walks: both Cerro de la Gruta and Cerro de la Cruz are look-outs (miradors) over the valley. Both are an easy twenty minute walk from the central park
- parks: El Gallineral is on a triangular island on the eastern edge of the city center. It is a kind of a botanical garden cum swimming pool, and a breath of fresh air from the bustling city (and the provincial road that runs right through San Gil). Lovely place
- the colonial city center can be quite chaotic at times. Want to escape? Walk the one block down the river, cross the footbridge, to the Centro Comercial El Puente. It has a cinema, a food court, the excellent Loma Verde coffee shop, and some good restaurants. Cerro de la Cruz is up the hill behind it
- you want Latin flavor instead? One block from the central square is the local market, a bustling two-story thing that will remind you why you love Latin America so much. Be aware of pickpockets as it is crowded and chaotic here
- Canon Chicamocha: the drive towards (or from) Bucaramanga is amazing because of the Canon Chicamocha. There is a stupid theme park on the top, but it also has amazing cable cars crossing the entire canyon, so you might want to make a stop for a couple of hours here
Getting to San Gil and getting around
- there is even an airport north of the city, as is pretty common in Colombia
- most people will arrive by bus though. Long-distance buses travel from Bogota (or half-way from Tunja or Villa de Leyva) to Bucaramanga and will stop in San Gil (check beforehand). The long-distance bus terminal is a half-hour walk on the western edge of town
- four blocks from the central park is also the Terminalito, the little bus terminal. This is where local buses to Curiti and Barichara will depart, usually every 15-30 minutes during the day. For Curiti you can pay the ticket in the bus
- within the city: although San Gil is smashed against a hill, everything is easily within walking distance
- Weather: gloriously moderate. Don’t forget you are around 1,300 metres height here, so you might still get sunburnt. Throughout the year temperatures are between 25 and 30 degrees, with lots of rain
- Safety: not really an issue. Felt safe everywhere, just be careful when you go to Cerro de las Cruces on the ‘other side’ behind the shopping mall. And if something doesn’t feel right, turn around