August 25 - September 1, 2004
Two or three days in San Gil (pronounced San Hill) turned into six days, it was so interesting and comfortable. As usual, the primary reason for going to this unknown place was that it was on the road to where we wanted to be — Bogota and then Ecuador. But in Bucaramanga we managed to find the tourist office and the lady there was friendly, helpful, and persuasive — you must see San Gil and Barichara, and do some adventure tourism. We knew that she wanted to make a sale, that is, make a commission. But since Lonely Planet mentioned these places as being interesting, and stopping here broke up the long bus ride into a manageable portion, we were easily convinced.
San Gil, at 1,330 meters, has a nearly perfect climate. Evenings and mornings are very cool. The middle of the day is often quite hot and we have been getting afternoon thundershowers. It sits on slopes along the Rio Fonce (apparently an old indian word); there is hardly a flat spot, so the old town simply climbs the hills, each street a few meters higher. The site is not at all completely urbanized; the hills that rise above the town are mostly green. But here and there extensions of the town, call them small modern villages, or tract developments, break the continuity of the green.
To get to San Gil, we took a minibus that thankfully had room in the back for all of our bags. The ride out of Bucaramanga wasn't special, but soon after we entered the Chicamocha Canyon, at first climbing gently, following the course of the river towards its source, until suddenly the road started to switch back and forth, leaving the river far below and climbing precipitously up the canyon wall. The higher we climbed, the better the views became as more and more ranges of mountains came into view. Later we learned from El Tiempo, the Colombian daily paper, that the old road used to continue along the canyon side to a pass at the head of the Chicamocha canyon. The road passed through a small town far up into the canyon that has now become a ghost town, kept alive just so that the municipal powers-that-be can claim subsidies from the central government. When the government announced an audit of the town council's books, the town hall mysteriously burned down!
When we arrived we had the usual problem — find a hotel. In Bucaramanga the tourist lady had suggested the Bella Isla, a rather nice resort hotel to look at their brochure. She'd even volunteered to call and make a reservation for us. The price turned out to be just borderline above what we wanted to pay, so we declined. After leaving her office we decided to try in person for a better rate. So upon arrival Gerry watched the bags (he was a bit sick and didn't volunteer for duty) while Jan went off to find the Bella Isla.
It turned out to be a bit of a walk, about a kilometer, and somewhat uphill to boot. Upon arrival Jan turned her sensitive nose up. The peeling paint and unkempt appearance had not been evident in glossy photos. The room itself was spacious and there was a nice pool. But since the desk clerk would not budge on price she turned her attention elsewhere
Across the quiet road from the Bella Isla was a sign "Hotel" that led to what looked like a private house. Jan followed sign, rang the bell, and was admitted by a uniformed maid. She could hardly believe how nice, quiet, clean, etc., it was. And was even more suprised when she heard the price: 50,000 pesos, breakfast included. That is US$20. Back she went to Gerry and via a short taxi ride we moved in to the Mansion Santa Maria. Everything lived up to expectations and we decided to stay six days rather than four.
Our tourist map lists the main sights to be seen as Parque El Gallineral, Templo de San Francisco, Canotaje en el Rio Fonce, Casa de la Cultura, Balneario Pozo Azul, Cuevas la Antigua y del Alumbre, Cerro de la Cruz. We managed the first three. We might have walked up to the Cerro de la Cruz (Cross Hill) if we'd thought about it. We definitely weren't interested in more caves and the swimming hole (Balneario Pozo Azul) didn't seem to grab us either. Maybe it was because Gerry wasn't completely well.
The cathedral was a gem. A very large church, it was unusual in that there was no ceiling, instead the beams and branches that made up the support for the tiled roof was open to view. It was delightful.
San Gil wasn't a picture-perfect colonial town like Giron, but it did have a very elegant central square with lovely gardens shaded by tall, tall trees, and lined with some very nice colonial-style buildings like the one in the photo.
On arrival, the bus had let us out just across the street from the river front walk, along which Jan had to stroll to find the Bella Isla and eventually the Mansion Santa Barbara. Along here also were the ticket offices for canoe trips and other adventure tours. Although Gerry did take a canoe trip, he didn't purchase his ticket here, instead he bought it through our landlady.
We did manage to spend a pleasant couple of hours one afternoon exploring the very pleasant Gallineral Park. Not a huge park, it was laid out very cleverly with lots of meandering paths that made it seem bigger than it actually was. When Gerry took his rafting tour, it ended in the park and he and his guide carried the boat through the park and back to the ticket office.