11 amazing things to do in San Gil: a guide to Colombia’s adventure capital
Nestled between verdant mountains and cut by the Fonce, Suarez, and Chicamocha Rivers, San Gil (sahn-híll) is a small, picturesque town in the Santander Department of Colombia, a day’s travel from the bustle of Bogotá or Medellín. Although its quiet streets, filled mostly with locals, would never suggest it— San Gil is Colombia’s undisputed adventure capital, considered the place to head for extreme sports and high-adrenaline pursuits.
From bungy jumping and paragliding to ziplining and white water rafting, there are a mind-boggling number of crazy (and very budget-friendly!) activities to try in San Gil, so many that you might find yourself staying far longer than planned. Between these wild adventures and the unassuming beauty of San Gil, there is truly never a dull moment. Here are 11 of the absolute best things to do in San Gil, plus detailed instruction on getting to San Gil, my picks for where to stay, and useful tips for travelling around Colombia.
1 | Zipline bike
Among the many adventure activities on offer in San Gil, ziplining (cable vuelo) is one of the quicker and cheaper options, easily fitting into a spare hour and costing no more than 30,000COP ($12AUD) for two 300m runs across the valley.
Of all the ziplining I’ve done, I can’t say that San Gil’s is the most extreme (although the view over town and the surrounding mountains is absolutely stunning)— but the bicycle handles (and working brakes) that you use for the zipline definitely qualify as the most unique!
The zipline bike at Peñon Guane is just 4km out of San Gil, off the side of the road that leads to nearby Barichara (#10 on this list) and right next to the giant swing (#7), the highest bungy jump in South America (#2), and a crazy human slingshot. Take a mototaxi from the centre of town up to this adventure complex for a few thousand COP, or you can even walk the 4km if you’re keen on a little exercise (it’s all uphill, but not unmanageably steep).
2 | Bungy jumping
I am absolutely terrified of falling (I don’t even like the diving board at a pool), so I always thought bungy jumping was off the table for me. After taking the plunge at the world’s first bungy in New Zealand a few years ago, though, I quickly realised what all the fuss is about. It is a terrifying and COMPLETELY unnatural feeling to stand at the top of a bridge (or, in this case, a crane) and leap off— but if you can push beyond the instinct to just curl up in a tight ball and cry, the experience of bungy jumping is absolutely unlike anything else, an almost manic euphoria where every cell in your body is vibrating from the wild hit of adrenaline. Better than any drug.
If you’re looking for an intense adrenaline rush (and life-time bragging rights), there is honestly nothing better than a bungy jump. And the best news is that it will cost you practically nothing to bungy jump in San Gil, a mere 1/7th of the price I paid in New Zealand!
There are actually 2 different bungy jumping companies in San Gil, each operating from a different site:
- Colombia Bungee Jumping offers a 70m jump from a crane over the Fonce River for just 70,000COP ($27AUD), which includes professional photos of the jump (for 20,000COP extra, you can also jump with a GoPro for more photos/video, although I think the included photos are more than enough). It’s super easy to walk here from the centre of San Gil, following the Río Fonce 2.5km out of town (20min).
- Bungee Extremo San Gil, which is in the same Peñon Guane complex as the zipline bike and giant swing mentioned in this post, actually holds the title of highest bungy jump in South America at 140m (120,000COP + 20,000COP for video). You can walk the 4km uphill to get here, but it’s also very cheap to just grab a taxi (8,000COP; $3AUD).
I did the 70m jump with Colombia Bungee Jumping and can personally attest to the professionalism and safety of the operation, but I’ve heard similarly positive things about Bungee Extremo, as well. If you want the satisfaction of doing the highest bungy jump, then obviously Extremo is for you, but if you just want to experience a bungy jump without breaking your budget, I highly recommend Colombia Bungee Jumping! Trust me, the thrill is no less intense at 70m.
3 | Pescaderito swimming holes
Relax from all the ziplining and bungy jumping by visiting some of San Gil’s nearby swimming holes! Pescaderito, which means “little fish” in Spanish, are a series of natural (and FREE) rock pools in the green hills surrounding Curití, a charming neighbouring town which is also worth checking out.
To get to Pescaderito, head to the small bus terminal in San Gil (Terminalito; NOT the bus station out of town that you would have arrived at) and find the minibus marked for Curití (these leave constantly throughout the day). You will pay for your ticket on the bus, so make sure you have small change— the trip costs just 2,900COP ($1AUD) and takes around 30min.
Once in Curití, you’ll have to grab a mototaxi for a few thousand COP or catch another bus to get out to the swimming holes. I didn’t immediately see any taxis or buses in town and it was a nice day, though, so I opted to walk, which took around 40min along the side of the road. It felt very safe and wasn’t a difficult walk, so I’d definitely recommend this as a nice way to enjoy the scenery (just make sure you have Google Maps or offline maps on your phone so you don’t get lost).
Arriving at Pescaderito, there is a large and very inviting swimming hole directly in front of you, but this is where about 95% of visitors will be hanging out— by hiking a few minutes along the rocks, you can find gradually more secluded swimming holes to enjoy. Occasionally a vendor will come around selling chips, cookies, and cold drinks, but other than this, you can pretty much get the place all to yourself!
4 | Paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon
Parque Nacional del Chicamocha is one of the best places to explore while in San Gil, the 2,000-metre-deep Chicamocha Canyon among the largest in the world. There are hikes, cycle trail, and a variety of other ways to enjoy the National Park, but perhaps none better than from the air.
Paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon is an incredibly popular activity and definitely one of the highlights from my entire time in Colombia— it’s also possible to paraglide in Curití (as well as in Medellín), but the scenery just doesn’t compare!
There are a few different paragliding operators in San Gil that will transport you out to the canyon, take you on an incredible 30min flight, and then return you back to your hostel in town for 180,000COP ($70AUD). Usually your hostel will have a relationship with a specific company and they can help you book, but these are the main companies you can check out:
Although paragliding over the Chicamocha Canyon is far and away the most expensive activity on this list, it was SO worth it and I’d highly recommend the splurge (plus, I paid more than 2x as much for paragliding in the Alps a few years ago, so it’s actually a bargain!). If you absolutely can’t justify the cost of paragliding over the Chicamocha Canyon, then a shorter 10min flight in Curití at just 80,000COP ($30AUD) is still a great option.
5 | White water rafting
Thanks to the 3 rivers in and around San Gil, there are white water rafting tours here in spades, and this is one of my very favourite adventure activities! I sadly didn’t hit the river myself while in San Gil (since I just went rafting a few weeks ago in Baños, Ecuador— which is where these photos are from), but I got all the info from my hostel:
- Río Fonce (the river in town): Best for beginners, those short on time, or budget travellers; 11km run on Class 1-3 rapids; allow 2-2.5hrs for tour; 35,000COP ($14AUD)
- Río Suarez: Best for adventurous or confident rafters; 20km run on Class 4-5 rapids; allow 5hrs for tour; 130,000COP ($52AUD)
- Río Chicamocha (the river in the Chicamocha Canyon): Best in terms of scenery or for multi-day trips; Class 1-4 rapids; allow 5-7hrs for tour; 200,000COP ($80AUD)
The hostel owner I spoke to highly recommended going with Colombia Rafting Expediciones over any other operator in San Gil, as they have the best track record in terms of safety, high-quality gear, and English-speaking guides. They are a few dollars more than other competitors, but the mountain of positive TripAdvisor reviews should be enough to convince you that it’s worth it.
6 | Casa de Mercado
One of my absolute favourite ways to discover a new city is by escaping the tourist restaurants and instead exploring the local markets, mingling with residents as they shop for fresh produce and meat, or even sit down for an inexpensive meal at one of the little stalls.
At San Gil’s Casa de Mercado, located just a block off the main square and Parque la Libertad (#11 on this list), you can stock up on heaps of traditional favourites, like arepas, tamales, fresh juice, and probably the largest avocados you’ve ever seen in your life (just imagine the guacamole you could make). If you want to save money on breakfast and get acquainted with some of the San Gil locals, this is a fantastic spot to check out!
Unlike markets in other parts of Colombia that can be slightly sketchy or located in somewhat shifty parts of town, Casa de Mercado is completely safe (as is all of San Gil, really), so you should have zero issues exploring with your camera as long as you are courteous.
7 | Giant swing
Situated in the same adventure complex as the awesome zipline bike (#1 on this list), Peñon Guane also houses a giant swing that will have you soaring high over the hills of San Gil.
After clipping your harness and tightly securing you to the swing, the staff crank you all the way up to a 9-o’clock position before releasing you into a free-fall and wide pendulum swing. It’s incredibly fun and surprisingly thrilling!
The operators only charged us 30,00COP ($12AUD) for the zipline and then strapped us into the swing at no additional cost, so I can’t 100% confirm what the individual price for just a ride on the swing would be— given the reasonable price of all other activities in the complex, however, it’s a safe bet that it will fit nicely within your budget.
8 | Torrentismo
Another of San Gil’s most popular activities is torrentismo, or abseiling down enormous waterfalls using little more than a rope. The best place to try your hand at torrentismo is the beautiful Juan Curí Waterfalls located about 40min outside of town near Charalá, which is also a great day trip from San Gil in its own right.
Even if you don’t want to do the torrentismo, there’s still plenty to enjoy in Parque Ecológico Cascadas de Juan Curi, including scenic walking trails, a series of other smaller falls, and beautifully secluded swimming spots (if you don’t mind a chill).
To get to las cascadas, head to the same small bus terminal in town described previously (Terminalito) and catch a Cotrasangil bus towards Charalá for 6,000COP. Ask the driver to drop you off at Juan Curi, pay the entrance fee of 9,000COP, and then walk along the river towards the falls. There are usually some operators around that will gear you up and let you rappel down the face of the waterfall for around 70,000COP ($28AUD), just be prepared to get your heart rate up.
9 | Gringo Mike’s
Even though I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend a Western restaurant in Latin America (let alone as its own entry on a ‘best of’ list), Gringo Mike’s is honestly just that good.
If you find yourself craving some flavourful American or Tex-Mex favourites while in San Gil, this awesome spot in town owned by a Seattle expat (which is why I checked it out in the first place, as a fellow Seattle expat!) has truly delicious burgers, burritos, frozen margaritas, milkshakes, and even a giant hot cookie served with ice cream. I’m salivating as I type this.
I ended up eating here 3 times while in San Gil, due in part to the fact that I’d been developing real cravings for a burger over the last few months in South America and also because I was just coming off the back of a very graphic empanada food poisoning incident in Bogotá that left me slightly distrustful of street food.
Gringo Mike’s is a bit pricier than eating at a local restaurant (and you should definitely check these out, because I really enjoyed the food in San Gil after I recovered), but it’s still inexpensive by home standards and SO worth it to treat yourself. To give you an idea, burgers and the giant cookie (!!!) are around 15,000COP each ($5.50AUD) and beer is 4,500COP ($1.80AUD).
10 | Barichara
Considered by many to be the most beautiful pueblo in all of Colombia, Barichara is one of the best and easiest day trips from San Gil. This picturesque town features charming cobbled streets lined by colourful flowers, all against the backdrop of lush green mountains— it would be a day well spent even if all you did was wander through town and admire the scenery.
If you want to explore beyond the cobbled lanes, El Camino Real is a popular 10km walking trail from Barichara to the neighbouring town of Guane, offering spectacular views of the Chicamocha Canyon and the chance to experience Colombia very much off the “Gringo Trail”.
To get to Barichara, walk about 2km to the main bus station just outside of town (NOT Terminalito) and purchase a ticket for around 4,800COP with Cotrasangil. These buses depart every 20min from 6am to 8.30pm, so you can just rock up and catch whatever bus is leaving next!
11 | Parque La Libertad
San Gil itself is actually completely charming, so between all the day trips to nearby towns and excursions into national parks, make sure to set aside some time to wander around its streets.
One of the best spots to check out (and you really can’t miss it), is Parque La Libertad, the leafy central plaza right near the Casa de Mercado (#6 on this list). You’ll often see locals congregating under the trees or sitting on the benches, excitedly chattering with their neighbours as street food vendors and local shops bustle around the perimeter.
This park is the lifeblood of little San Gil, and although it doesn’t have the chaos of a typical Plaza de Armas, Parque La Libertad is still one of the best places to hang out if you want to see Colombia through the eyes of its people.
Getting from Bogotá to San Gil
The easiest way to get to San Gil is via direct bus from Bogotá, Colombia’s bustling capital, which costs 40,000COP ($15AUD) and takes 8-9hrs.
It’s also possible to fly from Bogotá to Bucaramanga (300,000COP; 1hr), taxi to the bus station (30,000COP; 30min), and then take a bus from Bucaramanga to San Gil (12,000COP; 3hrs) — but as you can see, it’s not a whole lot quicker and it’s certainly A LOT more expensive than just opting for the bus the whole way.
For super detailed step-by-step instructions on taking the bus or flying from Bogotá to San Gil, check out this post: HOW TO GET FROM BOGOTÁ TO SAN GIL: COLOMBIA TRANSPORT GUIDE
Getting from Medellín to San Gil
You can also reach San Gil from Medellín, although it’s not quite as straightforward as the journey from Bogotá. Either take a bus (60,000COP; 8-10hrs) or fly (250,000COP; 1hr) from Medellín to Bucaramanga and then catch a bus to San Gil (12,000COP; 3hrs). Flying can save you several hours, but it’s not entirely painless, since you still have to taxi to the bus terminal in Bucaramanga (30,000COP; 25min) and catch a 3hr bus to San Gil.
Want all the details on taking the bus or flying between Medellín and San Gil? THE BEST WAY TO GET FROM SAN GIL TO MEDELLÍN (BUS VS FLIGHT): COLOMBIA TRANSPORT GUIDE
Getting around San Gil
Once in San Gil, it’s incredibly easy to get around this compact city. There are taxis and mototaxis that can zip you around very inexpensively, but most everything is within walking distance, including many of the activities on this list and the small bus terminal, Terminalito (which services nearby towns, like Curití).
Where to stay in San Gil
The most popular hostel in San Gil seems to be Sam’s VIP Hostel, which came highly recommended from a number of travellers I met in Colombia for its social vibe, central location, rooftop pool, and help planning/booking activities around San Gil. Dorm beds are 27,000COP and private rooms start at 140,000COP.
Just to be different, I opted to stay at Macondo Hostel, which ended up being absolutely wonderful and owned by an Aussie-Colombian couple. There were group dinners organised on some of the nights, heaps of activities that the staff would either book for you or help you DIY, a lovely outdoor patio with a pool, and nice rooms (dorm beds 20,000COP and 120,000COP private rooms).
- Before heading to San Gil, pick up a local Colombian SIM card in Bogotá so you can use your phone for Google Maps and WhatsApp. There’s an absolutely enormous Claro shop within 15-20min walking distance of La Candelaria (search this in Google Maps: Claro Carrera 8 – Centro de Atención y Ventas, Cra. 8 ## 19-41, Bogotá, Cundinamarca, Colombia). Bring your passport and your phone, and the staff can get you completely set up (just know that they likely won’t speak a single word of English). Including the SIM itself, you can get 2GB of data to use within 15 days for 20,000COP ($7.50AUD), and then subsequent top-ups can be done at basically any convenience or telecommunications shop around the country, including in San Gil.
- Even though it’s sketchy to flag taxis directly off the street in larger Colombian cities like Bogotá, it’s perfectly safe to do so in San Gil. If you’re feeling nervous, though, you can always ask your hostel to call a taxi for you (there’s no Uber here).
- As with most everywhere in South America, there is a very real language barrier in San Gil and I really wouldn’t recommend travelling here without learning some basic Spanish phrases. Most tour guides will speak a bit of English, but waiters, cashiers, taxi drivers, bus station employees, and just general people on the street typically won’t speak a word.
- The Davivienda ATM just off Parque La Libertad (Search: Crr.10#11-14., San Gil, Santander, Colombia) will let you pull out quite a few pesos (I think the limit per transaction was 700,000COP, which is $265AUD) and also doesn’t charge a fee (although your bank will probably charge something), so this was my preferred place to go for cash in San Gil.
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