San Gil, Colombia – Cornhole with fireworks (Tejo), South America’s dangerous love of sugar, bold youth at the Pozo Azul waterfall, and lost bets at Sam’s VIP Hostel

It was good fortune that I had missed the day bus to Bucaramanga from Santa Marta.  Instead I was forced to take the night bus where I met a great Australian couple – Jasmine Bugg (aka “Jaz”) and Reagan Higgins.

They told me they were bypassing Bucaramanga (just another big city, been there done those) and going straight to San Gil, a smaller city and growing “eXtreme-sports” destination in Colombia.  I told them I had no set plans so I would be joining them en route to San Gil.

The night bus to Bucaramanga was pretty comfortable and I actually managed to get 3-4 hours of sleep.  After a quick breakfast in the Bucaramanga bus terminal we boarded the next bus that departed for San Gil.

The ride to San Gil was full of great views.

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We were either riding along side of a river.

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Or riding on top of an Andes mountain ridge.

The views were enough to pull me away from researching my next couple stops in Colombia.

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It was one of those rides that you just listen to your ipod and watch the world pass by.

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It was one of the best bus ride I had to date in South America, rivaled only by bus rides through mountainous Bolivia.

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But all good things must come to an end.  On a two-lane windy mountain ride the possibility of accident is always prevalent.

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The most ironic part about this accident is that on the corner that the accident occurred, several signs were specifically placed to warn oncoming cars to slow down because of the high probability of accident on this certain corner.  The driver that crashed must have disregarded these warnings.

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This backup was a doosey – cars were backed up for over a mile.   I was having flashbacks of my bus in mountainous northern Laos having to stop because of an accident on a two-lane road – I knew this could take a while.

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And unlike my bus at the accident in Laos, this time my bus was at the back of the line.

Big blue Reina waits for things to get moving

Big blue Reina (“Queen”) waits for things to get moving

Thankfully the stop only took 45 minutes.  The person most stressed about the situation was our bus driver who, despite the fact that the accident was no fault of his own, had a schedule to keep.

This stress was manifested in what Jaz and Reagan described as incredibly reckless driving the rest of the way to San Gil.  They were sitting at the front of the bus, witness to his countless near-death passes that probably saved us only 3-5 seconds.  Thankfully I was in the middle of the bus and didn’t have to observe his maniacal bussing maneuvers.

In the end we made it safely to San Gil.

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San Gil, Colombia is a quaint town of about 40,000 Colombians.

A  view from the Sam’s VIP Hostel balcony over the main plaza

A view from the Sam’s VIP Hostel balcony over the main plaza

I checked into Sam’s VIP Hostel, where despite the fact that everyone is VIP, I was told I would be on the top bunk of a three bed bunkbed.

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It got pretty hot up there at night….

My first afternoon in San Gil I decided to walk up to Pozo Azul, a nearby waterfall and swimming hole that the locals like to frequent.  On my way I came across a ziplining operation that was sending folks screaming across a valley to the top of Pozo Azul.

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As is usually the case with these types of operations they were sending people zipping across just as fast as they could strap them up.

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As soon as one person finished they would be pulling the line back as fast as possible and hurridly throwing the straps on the next person.  Not really a “safety first” operation, more of a “lets-see-if-we-can-break-the-record-for-how-many-people-we-send-across-today” operation.  A higher number of zipliners means more money, if not more safety.  For my part, it did not inspire confidence but hey, this is South America, right?

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But it did look fun – and the guy in the below video looks like he got his money’s worth.

I continued on for another 800 meters and finally made it to the entrance of Pozo Azul, where I paid some turkey farmer a few thousand Colombian Pesos for the right to enter his land.

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Pozo Azul is a multi-tiered waterfall with a serene pool at its top level.

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The next level is about 10 meters down, the rocky shelf providing a good spot to dive from, as well as a waterfall.

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The local boys I watched playing at the waterfall were taking it one step further though.

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They were hanging out, literally, in the waterfall.

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There must have been some small ledge for them to stand on because they were hovering eight meters up in the waterfall, the water hitting them with all its force.  One wrong move and there could have been a broken bone but the power of teenage peer-pressure outweighed any of these sort of risk evaluations.

On my way back to the hostel I had a chance to enjoy slow-moving San Gil.

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Despite the warning of “Danger” (Peligro) I found San Gil to be a very safe place.  I mean, at intersections in San Gil if you are not sure when to stop (Pare), just look left, down, or right….

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The central plaza was a center of activity – local folks enjoying some guitar, some street food, or a bottle of wine.  A nice place for a picnic.

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In addition to a great balcony over the central plaza, Sam’s VIP had a great view of the back side of San Gil, over the river.

The pool was a nice touch as well

The pool was a nice touch as well

The next morning I wandered through San Gil’s small local market.

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I ordered a glass of lemonade from “Eddy’s Juices” (Jugos Eddy) and was horrified to see how much sugar they used to make it.  In one pitcher of lemonade I witnessed them pour half a bag of sugar  into the mix.  The woman making the mix did not bother to use any sort of measuring cup – just poured the stuff in…

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The glass was almost too sweet to stomach – I prefer my lemonade with a tart kick, not sugar-blasted.

My lemonade incident is indicative of a growing problem in not only Colombia, but all over South America – diabetes.  When you see people begging with missing limbs, the missing appendages are much less likely the result of the violence in South America that has occurred in the last 20 years (e.g., Colombia) and much more likely the result of diabetes.

Hardly anyone drinks Diet Coke in South America.  In fact, I hardly ever saw it for sale, though I occasionally saw Coke-Zero.  Indeed, South Americans prefer the real deal – regular sugar heavy Coca-Cola.  The locals have coke with just about every meal.

On at least two occasions I witnessed mothers with infants sipping a coke from a straw, then siphoning some coke into the straw to drip into their babies’ mouths.  I was flabbergasted.

But I should not be so surprised.  Coca-cola is all over in South America (much preferred over Pepsi) but they don’t have nearly the same number of health awareness programs that are all over the United States.  I mean just look at the sign advertising Eddy’s Juices – it prominently features an overweight teenager holding a 1000+ calorie ice cream dish… And so it goes – diabetes is a problem in South America.

After the sugarade with a hint of lemon I stopped to watch some local men going at it in an intense dominos game.

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At the base of the market was a big meat market  – 40 + meat stalls and every local shopper there seemed to know which stall to go to for what meat.

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My six nights in San Gil all ended up being amusing.  On my first night there one of the older men staying at the hostel had just met two girls at the hostel and got into a conversation with them about his “Sexy Bints” (first two letters of Bints are correct and the “T” is shifted one to the right of where it would usually be – you know what it means) tattoo.

The girls joked that they would like to be Sexy Bints on his chest and before you could blink an eye, the guy had visited a tattoo parlor and gotten both of their names (Clara and Sarah) tattooed on his chest above the “Sexy Pints” drawing….I’m not sure if this was an attempt to impress them up but in either event, I don’t think it worked.

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For kicks, he also got a “Made in Colombia” tattoo below his “El Perro Loco” (the crazy dog) tattoo

San Gil also seemed to be the place to make wagers at the hostel’s foosball table.  Two folks from a group of U.K. travelers who I ended up traveling with through Villa de Leyva and Bogota turned out of the first two victims of this phenomenon.  Both Sarah (the Sarah who got tattooed on homeboy’s chest…) of Sheffield, England, and Duncan of Leeds lost foosball bets (the Brits called them “forfeits”) and were accordingly forced to dress up in ridiculous outfits that they had to wear out in the central square.

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Several nights later, one of the best guys I’ve met on this trip, Adrian Visintin, lost a bet and had to eat ten of San Gil’s local delicacy – ants.

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At first glance this might not seem that bad – I put down a few crickets in SE Asia, after all.

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But judging by their reactions and descriptions of the six-legged fare I was glad I had not gambled with them.

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But the wager-madness didn’t stop there.  An Argentinean lost a bet to Adrian and had to go out to the central square and convince a random guy to dance with her.  To our surprise, he ended up being a pretty good dancer.

My two favorite nights in San Gil were the nights I spent playing Tejo, Colombia’s unofficial national sport.

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Tejo is an interesting combination of Bags, Bocce, and the fourth of July. The object is pretty simple.  Standing all the way across the room you give an underhanded heave to beanbag sized metal disc, attempting to land it in on a slanted target (like Bags), the center of which is demarcated by two triangular packets that border a small circular metal ring.

The discs stay in place when they land due to the clay packed into the target, kind of like a dresser drawer filled with clay.  You can’t see the center metal ring because of the clay packed on it – that is why the packets are used to show the edges of the ring.

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Each team takes turns making four tosses (like Bags and Bocce) and like in Bocce the team with the disc closest to the center ring gets one point.  But there are potential bonus points and this is where it gets fun.

The triangular packets are each filled with gunpowder and if the toss strikes one or both of the packets it causes the packets to strike against the center metal ring, which creates a fantastically loud and fiery explosion (like the fourth of July) that nets your team a total of four points.

If you land your toss directly in the center of the metal ring without hitting either of the gunpowder packets you get your team eight points, as I did in this round here.

I attribute my Tejo skillz to all the bags I played in college…

I attribute my Tejo skillz to all the bags I played in college…

If you land the disc in the center ring and set off the fireworks, you get your team a whopping 12 points.

In the end Tejo is really just an excuse for the old men in each town in Colombia to get together and drink lots of beer together while setting off fireworks.  When talking with some of the younger local men I met in Colombia they told me Tejo is a “dying” sport – only the old fogies (and backpackers such as myself) are now keeping the sport alive.

But the real story in San Gil is not the relaxed town, the lively tejo, or the hilarious antics I witnessed each night at the hostel when people lost at foosball. San Gil is all about the extreme sports, the subject of my next couple blog posts.  And at Sam’s VIP, they laid them all for me.

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