Monday, October 25, 2010


September 27th to 1st October

San Gil is the adventure sports capital of Colombia set in a lovely valley on the banks of the River Fonce. It's pretty touristy and correspondingly expensive, with upmarket boutique hotels and just a couple of backpacker hostels. The hostels are really cashing in on the 'Lonely Planet' regulars knowing that they will pay however much just for some English speaking company. They charge even more than the nicer hotels so we can justify checking into a fantastic little family run place and convince ourselves that we are still saving money....

Esperanza, the owner notices it's Sue's birthday from her passport when we check in and makes a huge fuss, promising to cook us a traditional Colombian breakfast the next day to celebrate. She just couldn't be more welcoming and friendly offering us the use of her kitchen and full access to the contents of her fridge. This is a huge mistake; schoolboy error! She knows we are cyclists; but the glare I get from Sue has me promising not to abuse her trust and scoff the lot.

On the riverside is 'National Park Gallineral' which is probably best described as 'absolutely charming'. Trees seem to have been draped in decorative Spanish moss just for the occasion of Sue's birthday and it almost looks like a film set for 'Rivendell' in 'Lord of the Rings'....

They've really tidied up a bit of nature along the river Fonce and a couple of it's tributaries with rambling brick paths taking you off into what seems like a wilderness set right in the town centre. There's an outdoor pool but we don't feel like swimming as the skies turn grey and sprinkle us with cool rain. It adds a secret garden feel as the locals seek cover and the air develops hints of ozone and loam....

We shelter under a bridge while the river fills up....

Before heading back to town for a pizza dinner followed by huge chocolate ice cream deserts.

All that rain is good for 'Canotaque' or white water rafting, and now we've got all that romantic birthday duty stuff out of the way, we can crack on with what we really came here for! Rio Fonce is grade 3+ which means fun enough, but you (probably) won't die. Since Sue has never done this it's a good place to start and we head down to 'Exploracion Colombia Guides' to book a raft.

The guides are really cool guys who really slow down their instructions so we can follow along. Luckily we saw Ben Hur in Spanish a few days ago so words like 'oar' and 'rowing' are no problem - we got all that from when he was a galley slave. There are four of us in the boat with three guides, so they are really taking their safety seriously and it's all top notch equipment. It's about a half hour drive to the start and maybe an hour and a half in the boat for only US$18, a real bargain....

The river is a blast! All the recent rain sees the river in spate with good size rapids and we slam into them as the boat bucks and rolls. You have to work hard to drag the boat through to calmer water and it's a real laugh. At one point the guides capsize the boat and tip us into the drink so we can practice a rescue by tipping the raft right-side and hauling each other aboard. Away from roads and buildings on the flatter sections you have time to lazily watch the world go by and we see eagles perched in high trees watching us with glassy-eyed stares.

It's such a good day out, and the guides were so reassuring that Sue goes from novice to instant expert and wants to take on Rio Suarez - a grade 5+ monster! Grade 5 means "oh god... oh god we really could die here" - "I know - shut up and paddle you fool!!" etc etc. Well, it's big scary stuff anyway.

But.... You need a group and it's a bit expensive and Rio Suarez is a couple of hours away and my hair might get wet and..... well we change our minds - all that talk of death consequences for failure and stuff.... so we decide to abseil down an 80 metre waterfall instead.

Next day, same team, but no van. So the guides flag down a taxi and load ropes and harnesses into the boot. No worries.

It's a bit of a hike to the river through beautiful countryside and you can really see the valley that San Gil nestles within....

We edge along a dirt track and suddenly you can hear a quiet roaring sound that gets louder with every step. Suddenly we're on a ledge and the river is passing serenely by our side, blissfully unaware that it is about to make a brief, failed attempt at flight before swashing down onto jacked rocks below....

That "What the Hell was I thinking...." moment....

Hearts beating, hearts in mouths; hearts beating in mouths.... and over the edge....

Bravely I send Sue first.... just so I can keep an eye on her you understand....

There are two drops and the first one is handled OK. The second one is right through the heart of all that heavily plunging water. We rope up again and step off backwards into a void trusting to nothing but the ropes and the guide's expertise.

Down a bit.... down a bit....
The water hits you full in the face and smashes against your chest ripping the breath away. It's freezing cold and massively heavy and the rope gives a bit under the new strain. Hit the brakes and bounce on this gently stretching piece of string that suddenly looks a lot thinner than the thick rope I started with.

It's 50 more metres down through rushing, thundering water and you try to catch short, panicky breaths of air between gob-fulls of cold spluttery liquid determined to choke you. All the while your ears adjust to the din and you rock and spin on the rope buffeted by violent noise. It's like being assaulted from several different directions at once....

And finally you descend into a calm, chilly pool and swim out past the raging torrent, before looking back at the route you just took....

It's a rapid, crazy, surprisingly draining experience and we trudge down a narrow track back to the road not quite sure what just hit us!

That punch drunk feeling refuses to go away as our guides take us to a cafe for coffee and cakes while we await our return taxi. Am I still groggy or am I really sharing this place with a herd of goats??!?

Baaaaaaahhh cake!!

San Gil is fantastic, Esperanza couldn't have been more friendly. She fed us and invited us to meet family and friends and also to join in with her bible reading and choir circles (maybe a step too far). We over stay once more and "lose" more time to this wonderful country.

Next leg - more climbing, and on towards the central highlands and the capital - Bogota....


Anonymous said...

Hey, I can't view your site properly within Opera, I actually hope you look into fixing this.

Sween in SAmerica said...

Have to talk to google I'm afraid - they put together the templates and I just write the content.
What is the problem in Opera?

Anonymous said...

Hello! Martin and Susy

I wait a Greeting That Esten well of My Part

Sincerely Cristhian

KayakSale said...

Russ makes a great guinea pig! Looks like fun and I might just try that next time down. Thanks for the video.

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