Friday 9 August 2013

San Gil: Taming Suárez

Our first visit, over two years ago, to what's seen as Colombia's adventure capital, San Gil, was very much a relaxed affair. On that occasion we had a thoroughly enjoyable time wandering about the rolling Santander countryside, which included taking in the quaint, period village of Barichara.
San Gil from the hilltops
San Gil from the hilltops.
This time around, with the help of a good Dutch mate, we cranked up the adrenaline levels a few notches and sampled some of the reasons why the place is renowned for its extreme side. 

This started with an afternoon of getting a brief taste of varied activities including canopying and rappel, amongst others. For the price we paid (45,000 COP, roughly €20), it wasn't a bad deal.

The main event, however, was a rafting 'sojourn' down the famed Río Suárez; rated by many as second only in South America to Chile’s Río Futaleufú for its wild rapids. 

We had been forewarned not to over-estimate our talents mastering this waterway and that perhaps the gentler Río Fonce would be safer, less taxing and thus more enjoyable for all concerned. 

We’d also been told that those selling the excursion mightn’t be too bothered about our abilities, or lack thereof, in such an activity – Suárez costs more to do, so why scare people off and miss out on more plata (cash that is)?

Added to this, the day we tackled Suárez coincided with it being, according to our guides, in one of its roughest moods so to speak.

Now, as oft mentioned here, our ability in water is about as good as a handicapped cat. Yet, this doesn’t translate into any big fear of doing various aqua sports, especially when we have the safety of a life-jacket tied tightly around us. 

So we approached this undertaking with relative calm. Throw in the fact that our four on-raft guides and accompanying canoeist where putting their minds/senses at ease with a particular substance before we even started – something they also did mid-way through and at the end – made us feel that this wasn’t anything to get too worked up about. Perhaps that was all part of their plan.
Getting ready to tackle Suárez; it looks easy from here
'This will be easy.'

We did though do some head-scratching when a luminous wristband containing an emergency services phone number was put around us before the off. We wager this was to be of help to some passerby in case they found our unconscious, battered body – ‘a one-step guide on what to do if you find human remains’, in a sense. 

It was, however, valid for just one day. Sure you can’t be bothering emergency services with cases more than a day old, can you?

That aside, after a brief dry-run through the various call instructions by our skipper, the real action got off to a steady start. Although, the lads’ persistent criticism of our rowing ability was a little annoying at times – they were lucky they didn’t get an oar in the head at a few stages.

In any case, a little further on we all had greater things to concern ourselves with than getting hit in the head by somebody, accidentally or on purpose. That’s because Suárez began to show its teeth. And that meant us taking a dip – well, it was more like being in a washing machine on its final spin we imagine – on more than one occasion. 

It certainly got the heart racing – the key being just to go with the flow and hope you don’t smash your body on a rock.

Having gone over a number of times, it was with a little trepidation that we approached the infamous La Fantasma*, The Ghost, section of the river. 

This is a decent sized stretch with powerful rapids where if you were to fall out early on, you’d be waiting some time and would have encountered a few hefty rocks before you floated to calmer waters.
Working our way through 'La Fantasma'
Steady as she goes...

That our guides stopped to assess it before we went through and had the canoeist do a solo run also got us thinking: Should we pass on this one? 

We’d already had a good thrill, so why, quite literally, push the boat out further for something that looked like it could dangerously get the better of us? Heck, though, we’d gone this far, we might as well make the final push – get our money’s worth (you know how important that is to us).

If there was any doubt in our minds about how rough this part was, the sight of one of the guides blessing himself before we got going put it firmly into focus. His plea to the gods worked anyway. Well, maybe it was more a case of lots of luck mixed in with us working a bit better as a team that saw us through in one, whole piece.

So a few minor bumps and bruises apart and conveniently overlooking our earlier mishaps, we like to think we ‘tamed’ Suárez.

We certainly survived it anyway. Alas, there’s a lack of a T-shirt proudly proclaiming so.

*For a look of us in action on 'La Fantasma', see And for one of our 'overboard' moments, see

**More information on rafting and other activities in San Gil can be found from ‘Adrenalina’ at or by emailing

***One pleasant budget accommodation option in San Gil is Hostal Le Papillon, They also organise tours and various adventure sports.

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