The bus stopped in front of what I believed to be a restaurant. As the time approached 11:00 at night, not much was open including the supposed restaurant or nearby buildings. Not exactly the bus station we expected, but Lane quickly identified we were in walking distance from our hostel.
Until this point, we’d had a fairly mixed experience with hostels. Sure, our stays had been fine, but more accurately described as barely cheaper than many Airbnbs and usually had a few awkward moments. Whether it was the owners or the guests, we hadn’t yet felt welcome.
Determined to finally have a good, fun, old-fashioned hostel experience, we booked a week at a well-reviewed hostel in San Gil, Colombia. These next several days bore the potential for lots of excitement, as we greatly anticipated our time in the “adventure capital” of Colombia. I breathed a sigh of relief when the front desk didn’t ask for the rest of our payment up front, as I didn’t think we possessed enough pesos to cover the remainder of the bill. I filed away a mental note to resolve this before it became an issue tomorrow. After a long day on yet another bus, our patience and interest in our new destination wore thin, it became apparent the best course of action was simply to settle into our private room and sleep for the night.
I am certainly not at my best mentally or physically after twelve plus hours of travel. Usually sitting in a bus seat for so long with a slight underpinning of uncertainty if you are actually going where you hope you are going wears on you. I become insular and each decision is calculated against the immediate benefit or resulting comfort versus its repercussions later. Do I really want to drink that cool, refreshing Coca-Cola when I will just need to pee again while we are driving through the winding, wildest section of road? There’s no “fasten seat belts” sign on a bus, well no seat belts usually, so you really have to employ your own judgement when traversing your way to the bathroom.
After a decent night’s sleep, we wandered out for some breakfast and fresh coffee. The plaza filled with dancers, clowns on stilts, and the morning began with a lively energy. San Gil often started the mornings with this kind of energy. After wandering around town for a while, we returned to the hostel ready to begin planning our week in San Gil. When we arrived, Lane wasn’t feeling well and I would bookend our trip by getting sick before we left San Gil. Luckily, we had healthy days in-between our sicknesses and enjoyed plenty of the adventures offered by the adventure capital.
Browsing through the binder of available tours, we started up a conversation with a few other backpackers in the common area. We discussed what actives might be best this time of year, and if we had done anything similar before. Turns out, we planned to do many of the same tours and discussed planning them together. As simple as it sounded, I felt a tinge of comfort thinking about having “road friends” for a few days. Because Lane and I are traveling together, it can be easy to retreat to the comfort of our relationship, and not invest as heavily in road friendships as much as solo travelers. Sure, we’ve tried but it is difficult. It felt like our time in San Gil may be just the opportunity we needed. Most of the time, you may only spend a day or two, perhaps only an afternoon with travelers you meet so a week with some of the same people was pretty novel for us.
So, we got to know Patrick. From Michigan, as he clarified on his hand where he was from, had worked in manufacturing and began traveling solo in Colombia. He planned to headed south, and would be meeting his parents in Chile for Christmas. They were excited for the trip to visit their son. Hailey, from the UK, was about our age and left her marketing job and had been traveling for over 10 months. She shared stories of her travels in Asia and her plans for South America.
The following day, we climbed in a van destined for a paragliding adventure with our new friends, and a group of other interesting travelers we would come to know throughout the week. There was Ilona from the Netherlands, early into her two-year solo trip around the world. We learned we may be crossing paths again in the future. There were the Belgians on a long holiday exploring Colombia. They met Ilona at the airport upon arrival and had been traveling together ever since. The rest of the seats were filled with other travelers we would see again throughout the week.
Neither of us had strapped into a harness before and run off a mountain before, so I was at least somewhat nervous. Once the van arrived at the platform, the guide relayed our take off and landing instructions, as well as what to do if you threw up while in the air. Based on size, the guide paired us with a pilot, and we stepped into our harnesses. One of the first ready to go, Hailey ran along the astroturf runway and quickly ascended over the expansive canyon. When my turn arrived, I ran as fast as I could though running has never been my strong suit. My feet quickly floating above the ground, and I stopped my suddenly futile effort. I didn’t say much to my pilot over the next half hour as we floated around, both because I was mesmerized by the view and because I didn’t want to distract my pilot with my mediocre Spanish. I delighted in see Lane float by me, though I carefully watched the maneuvers of his pilot. We later realized our pilots were more conservative than the others, so perhaps not as much to worry about. I heard paragliding was actually a very calm and peaceful experience, and I now agree. Once you get in the air, you simply float around and enjoy the view.
Canyoneering was next on our list. Hailey, Lane and I began the morning by climbing into an old, yellow, Land Rover with the owner of the adventure company, the guide, and the owner’s super adorable four year-old daughter. The hood of the vehicle boasted badass zebra stripes, so I knew this would be a good trip. The daughter, let’s call her Anna because I don’t think I caught it once any of the dozens of times she told us, quickly joined us in the backseat and proceeded to sing and tell us stories for the next hour and a half. Anna is one of the coolest kids I’ve ever had the pleasure of hanging with, so it was actually a lovely ride through the forest. Well, lovely and insanely rough and bumpy. I don’t think, in miles, we were ever that far from San Gil, but in terms of accessibility, we were hours remote.
Not far from the river, and the beginning of our canyoneering trip, the Land Rover overheated and decided it did not want to do car-like things like drive. We waited, somewhat anxiously, in the backseat listening to our two guides discuss the issue and possible solutions in Spanish. I wasn’t sure of all the details, but there didn’t seem to be an easy, obvious solution to all of this. Luckily (and strangely coincidental) enough, an old blue Jeep was idling at the bottom of the same hill. The local driver seemed nice enough and the guides chatted with him, and before I knew it, we were loading ourselves and the gear into the back of their old Jeep. I really wish I would have heard why he was waiting there, but it worked out well for us. Believe me, I know that sounds pretty sketchy but it was all fine and safe. As I looked back at the dirt road stretching both directions, I saw Anna was in her father’s arms looked rather devastated she was now separated from her new friends. Leaving them there seemed awful, but I sensed the situation was under control. Once the jeep drove us a bit closer to our destination, our guide thank him and we all jumped out and continued towards the river.
We climbed into our harnesses, fastened our helmets, and walked towards the river conveniently located basically in the backyard of this nice older gentlemen. Our guide warned us the water would be bit cold before jumping a few meters into the river. We followed along, and clambered our way towards the first waterfall. Believe me, I was having an absolute blast. Yes, the water was cold, but I love being in water and swimming/walking/scrambling through rivers. Everyone else not on the tour, AKA the nice older gentleman and his family, simply walked along a gentle sloping trail to meet us at the waterfall. I contain my laughter wondering how silly we must have looked fighting our way through the chilly river while the family watched us from the trail. No matter—totally fun and totally worth it. Anna seemed disappointed she would be able to join us for the rapel, but she excitedly and safely watched everyone get ready while she wore a helmet and harness herself.
I volunteered to go first, meaning I would descend the 40m waterfall while remaining calm, cool, and collected. We reviewed the basics of rappelling. At this moment, I mentally thanked my dad for fashioning a harness out of rope and introducing me to repelling when I was 9. We also completed some more legit rapels together when I was a bit older. I reminded myself I knew how to do all of this, and it was fundamentally quite easy, even if the mud and rushing water were new features. Beginning my descent and pushed through the first awkward few steps when you can to sit far back in your harness and let you butt just keep sinking until you legs are in line in the edge of the cliff. After than slightly awkward maneuver, I couldn’t stop smiling. The jungle surrounding the powerful waterfall gave my pause, and I briefly enjoyed this unique vantage point posed somewhere between these two stages of the river.
I must have looked like a cool, yet smiley, mess afterwards as the guide kindly gave me a waterproof jacket. Perched on a slippery, moss rock, I grinned watching Lane and Hailey descend the waterfall. We exchanged some high-fives and headed to the next waterfall. Our guide insisted we keep up the pace because the slight drizzle permeated through the jungle could quickly turn into a rushing river. ‘Nuff said, let’s hurry this up.
By the time we arrived at the next waterfall, the intensity of the rain increased. This rapel took us much closer to the path of the waterfall and proved to be even more fun that the last! The path was slipperier and contained a few ledges riddled with deep puddles, but this made it all the more interesting. After everyone safely arrived at the bottom of the falls, we began our climb back through the jungle to the house.
We were welcomed with a meal of chicken and potatoes and sat laughing with our guide while we dried off. A mist moved over the mountains, and the only noises around were the river, us laughing, and Anna trying to squeeze in a few stories. As the afternoon turned to evening, we said our thanks and goodbyes to the family and walked towards our next destination—a giant sinkhole where these crazy birds live and they all flight out at sunset. Fun fact: They are called “oil birds” and according to wikipedia, their feet as so small they are almost useful. Fun opinion: They sound extremely creepy swirling around in the dark, ominous cavern. Fun fact II: The adventure company owner has rapelled into the 300 ft sinkhole, and it took him about 2.5 hours to pull himself back out using prusik knots. (Thanks Dad for teaching me about prusik knots so I could feel cool in front of our guide).
Two hours in the now functioning Land Rover, and a very sleepy Anna leaned against me, exhausted from the adventures of the day and her dramatic telling of ghost stories, we were back in San Gil. We fell asleep happy and ready for the next adventure.
The next day, we crammed into the smallest tour van yet, ready to hit the river and enjoy some rafting! Over the last few years, Lane and I have rafted in Colorado and Alaska so we’ve seen the operations of a few different companies. I think our experience in Colombia has actually been one of the best rafting trips. I don’t mean to put river versus river, but the operation of the rafting team and their focus on safety was exceptional. The safety demonstration proved to be very comprehensive and we practiced several safety skills in the water. I had participated in many water safety exercises before, but I still found this overview to be extremely helpful and I think it made our whole team feel more comfortable in the water. Oh, there were multiple rescue kayaks floating along the rafts just in case.
Our guide, along with several of his colleagues were members of the Colombia national rafting team. If all goes well, they will be competing in the world championships this November. Unfortunately, the Colombian government doesn’t provide any funding to these sports teams, so I hope they met their fundraising goal. Lane and I each bought a hand carved wooden raft necklace to help with the cause! Needless to say, we had a wonderful day out on the river under the supervision of these professionals. As the only ones with any prior rafting experience, Lane and I snagged the front seats in the raft, our favorite vantage point. Maybe we will take some time on the trip to learn more about whitewater kayaking as well. It’s something we’ve always wanted to learn more about it, but cost along with other factors over the last few years kept the idea at bay. Perhaps “the trip” is the perfect time for it!
Thus, our days usually began with a van and a collection of travelers from around the world. Our days ended over a beer swapping stories of the day’s adventures with new found friends. Sometimes, they even involved a hostel outing to play tejo, Colombia’s favorite sport. It involved metal puck and gunpowder. We are certainly lacking in tejo skills, but it’s always fun.
y the end of the week, it was impossible to walk through the halls of the hostel and not see a friend. With the different paces of travel, this familiar environment can almost be elusive, but it’s oh-so-great when it happens.