Breaking away from the beaches and big cities of Colombia, we decided to spend a few days in the mountain town of San Gil. San Gil is located in northeastern Colombia about 300km from Bogota and is known for its access to great outdoor activities including whitewater rafting on the Rio Suarez (class 4/5 rapids), extreme downhill mountain biking and paragliding. Its motto is “La Tierra de Adventura” which translates to “The Land of Adventure.” Since we already checked off paragliding and figured we’d kill ourselves on mountain bikes, our focus was whitewater rafting.
Our first day we did a trekking tour going with a small outfit specializing in a trek package that allows you to do several things in 5-6 hours. During the trek you zipline across a jungle river, repel down rock faces, walk tight rope wires over the river and explore a massive cave. While this was an awesome way to be outside in the jungle, was fun at times, and the staff was extremely good, the overall activity was kind of a bust due to the size of the group. We ended up with a huge family (20 people) so most activities only took a few minutes and then you ended up waiting another 30 minutes for everyone else to finish. It would have been much more fun if the group was 6-8 people. In addition, none of the guides spoke English so we just sort of winged everything and hope we mimicked the person in front of us correctly. This got really interesting when one of the activities was walking deep through part of the cave with no lights. Without headlamps it was complete darkness i.e. you couldn’t see your hand if it was one centimeter in front of your face. The guide was yelling out warnings to the group in Spanish (like to watch you head for low ceiling, there is a drop off to the right, there is a huge rock sticking out from the left, etc). We literally would have been lost in the cave if it wasn’t for a really nice guy who spoke English and came over to translate so we wouldn’t get hurt. Gotta love the Colombian kindness!
Back to the real meat of this post, the rafting. We had heard from various tourists and reviews it was pretty epic and even the guides told us (after we rafted) that boats commonly flip due to the intense rapids. People talked of class 4 and 5 rapids so we figured even if they were embellishing that it would be a wild ride. The company we chose – Colombia Rafting Expeditions – is ranked as the #1 thing to do in San Gil and all their guides and instructions were in English so we knew we were in decent hands.
After a 40-minute drive from the city to the entry point in the river, we realized just how serious the company took it. They sat us through a 40-minute safety briefing and training of how to handle the river in and out of the raft. Then we practiced falling out into the river and pulling each other back in. Finally finished with letting us know there would be a “rescue kayak” next to us with a guide who would help save us if we fell in. While excited at that point, we had a much more serious feeling knowing what was possible in the rapids. (Sidenote: this wouldn’t be out of the ordinary back home but in our South America experience thus far, tour operators are pretty breezy when it comes to safety and instructions, so this was a nice change of pace!)
Our first rapid was a level 4 which threw us around pretty good and gave us a sense for what we would be in for. Once that was under our belt, we felt ready for more so we continued to attack each rapid set as hard as we could. After the first 5-6 sets of rapids we all got pretty cocky/confident in ourselves which might have been the downfall, because when we hit the seventh or so rapid set we hit a massive rock/water swell which flung the guide from his perch in the very back of the raft to straight in the middle. Everyone in the raft looked over and started laughing but I realized the guide was right where Katie was supposed to be. I grabbed him and moved him aside to see if he happened to be on top of her when I saw Katie bobbing in the water in the rapids about eight feet from the boat. At some point she must have been launched when we hit the swell of water. Cue me realizing the most important thing in my life is in the Suarez river…not cool. I quickly turned into a mix between a drill sergeant and an Olympic rower. I barked to the group that she was in the water and everyone snapped into action after I had already started trying to paddle the raft by myself to her. We rowed over and a few of the guys in front pulled her in just as we hit the bottom of the rapids and not surprisingly she had a huge smile on her face. I could have sworn she actually enjoyed getting thrown in.
From there we had only one other big incident when we hit a swell and the two guys in front of me flew out. I was able to grab one as he was half hanging out of the raft and chucked him back in, but the guy in front of him was launched pretty good. After getting him back in we had an issue-free rest of the trip. There were also a few calm parts of the river when we all jumped in and swam around for a bit before the next rapid set.
Afterwards we were treated to a nice lunch of chicken, fruit, beers and local candy. In the end, it was an awesome experience we won’t soon forget and a highly recommended activity if you are in Colombia.
Sidenote for Seattleites: There is a restaurant in San Gil called Gringo Mike’s which is owned by a Seattle guy and it has amazing food and prices. The menu skews more American than South American but the portions are gigantic and the food is made with really good ingredients. We found ourselves eating here multiple times as it was a nice change of pace to get foods we hadn’t had in months! Definitely worth checking out if you find yourself in San Gil.