For the next three days in San Gil, Jaz, Reagan, Adrian, and I continued our extreme sports pilgrimage.
The day after paragliding we went white water rafting down the Rio Saurez, a big river that runs through the Saurez Canyon near San Gil.
During rainy season certain parts of the river yield grade 5 rapids and can be extremely dangerous – deadly even. Thankfully we were taking on the river during the dry season and at its worst point the river has grade 4+ rapids – still dangerous but not nearly as bad as the rainy season.
To further mitigate the danger, the guys from Colombia Rafting Expediciones leading our rafting expedition were all on the Colombian national rafting team. I wasn’t aware countries had rafting teams but felt better knowing that my guides were on Colombia’s team.
We strapped up our life jackets and helmets, grabbed our paddles, and got ready to take the plunge.
I didn’t bring my camera with me for obvious reasons but the rafting trip was great. It was the longest trip (3.5 hours total on the water, about 1 hour of portage) and the most difficult rafting trip (Grade 4 and 4+ rapids) I had ever been on.
The trip included a stop for cliff jumping and lots of corny paddle “high fives” after clearing a difficult section of the river. Our raft with Jaz, Reagan, and Adrian dubbed ourselves “TEAM EXTREME” but I would have been OK with “O’Dolye Rules”.
When we returned from the rafting trip, Colombia Rafting Expediciones had directions to the most important item at the top of its sign, more important than hydrospeed, kayak, or the rafting itself.
We didn’t follow the sign to the tequila though. Instead we opted for a good night’s rest, knowing we had a full day of mountain biking the next day. A little backstory is in order. Thankfully, most of the backstory is laid out in the last two paragraphs of the first page of the menu at Gringo Mike’s, a restaurant we ate at no less than four times in San Gil.
Gringo Mike’s had the best burgers of any I ate in all of South America, let alone Colombia.
The reason is because one of the owners, Mike, a gringo from Seattle, made sure the menu would have top quality food when he started the joint in San Gil.
Mike met the other owner, Kat, when they were both traveling along the northern coast of Colombia, just as I had been a week before arriving in San Gil.
When he decided to start a restaurant in San Gil in 2010 he called Kat up in the U.K. and told her to come down join him in the venture. She obliged and the rest is history.
The real reason Mike started the restaurant was to support his real passion, mountain biking. Mike is an avid mountain biker and at the same time he and Kat started Gringo Mike’s they also started a mountain biking tour company called Bike Junkies.
Bike Junkies, like Gringo Mike’s, has enjoyed success in the “extreme sports” destination of San Gil. But little did Mike and Kat know, their restaurant would end up being the real bread winner. Gringo Mike’s has done so well that the couple is now considering franchising in nearby cities in Colombia. The menu has great food but is easy enough that anyone can make the dynamite burgers with a little instruction, making it a viable candidate for a successful franchise. Once they have the capital their first trial run will likely be in Bucaramanga, the city I bypassed to go straight to San Gil.
I asked Mike why he didn’t just some find some venture capitalists in Colombia to fund his franchising effort and get the ball rolling right away. His answer made quite a bit of sense – he is a pretty savvy young entrepreneur. Allowing others to invest would cut him out of major profits that would otherwise be his and Kats if the franchise has success. While he would still have the stress and responsibility of making sure the franchise is successfully managed, he would not see a fraction of the returns that he could get if he and Kat fund the franchise themselves.
But how to get the capital himself? Well, Mike and Kat are currently looking for someone to buy Bike Junkies, a company that has had demonstrated success in San Gil. I sincerely hope they make the sale sometime soon – the rest of Colombia, and all of South America for that matter, don’t even know what they are missing – Gringo Mike’s burgers are the best!
As you may have guessed, we did our mountain biking tour with Bike Junkies and the tour was led by Mike and Kat.
The tour started with a steep ride up into the mountains and on top of the Rio Saurez canyon, named so after the river that carved through it. Adrian and I were not bashful about hydrating ourselves with the ample bagged water that had been provided.
At the top we put on our protective gear and got ready to go.
The day’s ride was not going to be easy. About 25 km downhill to the base of the Suarez Canyon and then a hard 2 km up to the colonial town of Barichara. After a short visit to some of the town’s landmarks, we would begin another downhill section leading into about 25 km of cross country riding.
The first part of the ride was pretty nice and flat, through local farms where livestock would provide an occasional roadblock.
This section was largely peaceful, easy on both the lungs and the eyes.
About 15km down the ride started to get significantly more technical.
I used to do a bit of mountain biking when I was in high school but I never really knew what I was doing – I was mostly just trying to keep up with my buddy with real skill, Joel Donham. Although I never wiped out, some of these sections gave me some real trouble.
Towards the end of the downhill section it flattened out and gave way to a view of Barichara.
The downhill section ended at the base of the Suarez Canyon where we could see the Suarez River that we had rafted on the day prior.
The bad thing about reaching the base of anything is that from there, to get anywhere you want to go you have to go up….The short ride up to Barichara was steep and drinking rum on the Caribbean along the northern coast of Colombia for the last two weeks had not prepared me for it.
Barichara is the quintessential Colombian colonial town and has been dubbed by Colombia as “the most beautiful pueblo in Colombia.” It was easy to see why.
Nothing but stone streets and houses built of bahareque (compressed mud) with whitewashed walls in every direction.
The church of Immaculate Conception faces the plaza central in Barichara, as is typical of most cities and towns in South America.
My only problem with the pretty cobblestone streets of Barichara was having to ride up them.
But getting to the top of these streets was usually worth it.
Barichara overlooks the Rio Saurez and the Rio Canyon.
From Barichara we rode down steep highway road. I took a pause off at this eerie-looking crucifix with some birds that acted in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film.
At the bottom of the descent, the highway gave way to a dirt road and a giant puddle to ride through, providing a perfect opportunity for a sweet action shot!
We proceeded to cross a massive bridge over the Rio Suarez where we were able to take a break before riding up to our lunch stop.
After our break at the base of the bridge we loaded the bikes up in the jeeps and drove to the top of another mountain ridge for lunch, sandwiches artfully and deliciously prepared by Gringo Mike’s of course.
After a bit of a walk we arrived at our lunch spot which overlooked a massive valley.
As is everywhere else in South America, they had seen fit to place another crucifix.
Kat had us line up for a couple group shots over the valley. First the standard shot.
Then the classic “jump shot” where everyone jumps and kicks their legs back in the air – this maneuver is supposed to make you look even higher than you actually are.
Personally I disagree with the jump shot. Does a silly looking half-meter jump into the air actually add significant height when you are already thousands of feet above sea level? The jump shot is also demonstrably dangerous. As you can see in the above picture, I got a bit too close to Adrian and our less-than-perfect synchronization caused my legs to catch in his as we came back down. The result was me getting tripped up and landing hard on my hand on a sharp rock.
But it was nothing that a serious dousing of rubbing alcohol couldn’t handle – as I write this (13 weeks later) the hand is just about completely healed and no worse for the wear.
After lunch we began a 25km cross country ride that involved up and down sections along a dirt road. The road had several and waterfalls leaking over the road and of course, lots more crucifixes.
Within 30 minutes of the cross country section I discovered I was not even close to being in the shape I needed to be in to handle the challenge. Reagan and three of the other male riders were definitely up to the challenge. Reagan had actually competed in mountain biking competitions back in Australia and the other three men, one a man of 60 years old, were hardcore mountain bikers. Within 15 minutes of starting the cross country ride they were at least a kilometer ahead of me.
Jaz and I lingered at the back and Jaz was the first to drop out. Kat was following with the jeep and picked Jaz up when she had had enough. Kat eventually caught up to me and was essentially driving behind me but I was determined not to be a “quitter.” But after 3 more brutal uphills I realized I too, had had enough. I stopped and hailed Kat. A cold beverage and some cookies were waiting for me when I hopped in the jeep. Adrian was the next to drop out. For the rest of the ride we followed Mike and Reagan, who you can see in the distance beyond the road blocks.
Reagan and the other three guys, along with Mike, actually finished the ride. Studs.
We ended the day at another point along the Rio Saurez.
Mike bought us all a beer to sip on as the sun set in the distance.
We all had earned it.
The next day Jaz, Reagan and I ventured off to do what would certainly be the scariest of our five extreme-sportz! days in San Gil. Bungie jumping.
At the low-low price of 35,000 Colombian Pesos (a little over $15) we figured we were getting a great deal. But when we saw the “office” of the bungie jumping company we saw why we were getting such a “great deal”.
And our jumping platform – an old scaffolding standing approximately 35 meters in the air.
To say these indicators did not inspire confidence would be an understatement. These types of extreme thrills are only cheaply available in unregulated countries for a reason…
Getting out to the platform was itself a harrowing experience, requiring navigation across the thin wire you see below.
I was the first to go. As I mentioned in my previous post I usually want to be the first to go in these types of situations. But I started having second thoughts about my choice to volunteer to go first with the bungie jump. I think I would have rather had Jaz or Reagan be the guinea pig to make sure that we could get across safely, that the rope didn’t break, and that on rebounding from the jump we wouldn’t smash into the side of the scaffolding… These were just some of the pleasant thoughts I had as they were strapping me up to get to the scaffolding.
But I didn’t have much time to think, which was probably a good thing, and before I knew it I was strapped to the line.
The tow operation was actually pretty slick.
Didn’t require any work on my part, just relaxed and enjoyed the ride.
But I will say I was relieved to get to the platform and have my feet on solid ground again.
That in itself was a minor victory for me.
Reagan joined me on the platform and the guide quickly started preparing the bungie rope.
I talked to the guide on the platform for about a minute, only to make absolutely sure that it was impossible for me to swing back and hit the scaffolding during or on the rebound from the jump. He assured me it was impossible but I still had my doubts. And then within 30 seconds I was at the edge ready to jump. Again, I didn’t have much time to think about what I was about to do and again, this probably was a good thing, because all of a sudden he just said “tres…dos….uno.”
On uno I disregarded all rational thought and instinct and forced myself to slowly fall head first off the platform. Jaz was a little late on the trigger finger but the following video shows my jump, though I think “fall and bounce” would be a better way to describe what happened.
I remember hurtling towards the rocks below, which approached quickly because we were only 35 meters up, and thinking “I hope this rope catches me soon.” It did, and I have to say it was a great thrill and definitely the scariest of our experiences in San Gil.
Reagan went next.
Followed by Jaz.
Excellent jumps mates!
Team Extreme (sans Adrian) took a victory shot to celebrate being alive once we were all safely back up on the hill.
It was a great way to conclude what was definitely the most thrilling five days I’ve ever had while traveling. I definitely miss San Gil and would recommend it to anyone traveling in Colombia who wants a little thrill.