SAN GIL, Colombia- San Gil takes time to love. On arrival, this little city looks like just another traffic gridlocked, exhaust choked tick off the traveler’s trail through South America. But after a week or two, the onerous outer crust of this place begins to flake off, and a subtle, very amiable essence is revealed beneath. It took me five days to break through to the inner layers of San Gil — if I just passed through I would have thought little of this city, and probably would not even have bothered adding a review of it to this travelogue.
My initial notes from San Gil:
“Exhaust, exhaust, everything smells of exhaust. Even the inside of the hotel smells like belching traffic. A plaza, cheap cafes, one good restaurant, a bunch of crappy restaurants, a river along a busy road, motorcycles almost running you over at each intersection. Not much to mention, typical Latin America mid size city.”
Few travelers seem to stay in San Gil long enough to break through this first impression and leave unimpressed. Most just come to San Gil as a stepping stone to jump off a cliff, absail, paraglide, rappel, and raft — the city is known as the “adventure sports” capital of Colombia. They stomp through this city on their way to better things — tramping, perhaps, right over the object of their search.
I came to San Gil but simply did not find the urge to hang like a puppet from a waterfall or to jump off something high. Though it was my intention to do a few comped activities with the sporting companies, write about it, maybe pawn it off to an adventure tourism website. But I just did not get around to setting it up: there was simply too many free, cheap, and easy adventures to be had around this city. I did not feel the need to stuff myself in a van with a gaggle of tourists and be carted off somewhere to have the shit scared out of me. Rather, I found myself too busying enjoying the cheap or free waterfalls, swimming holes, hiking trails, and small villages that surround San Gil to be burdened with time lines, appointments, interviews, pre-arranged activities.
The traquil, easy life in San Gil made me lazy — each day was either a slow and simple adventure or just plain slow and simple. Next time, I tell myself, when I get to the next city that boasts of river rafting and paragliding, I will write all about it. But this time, I ate meat kebabs and talked to old men in the plaza.
The key to my enjoyment of San Gil was because I stayed here long enough to learn its beat, to feel its rhythm, and find its simple pleasures. When I was here long enough to observe the changes in light which basks upon the green mountains that surround this city is when I began to enjoy it my stay here. When I was able to appreciate the fact that an unassuming, normal looking liquor store on the northeast corner of the plaza becomes the epicenter of San Gil’s weekend — attracting hundreds of people, bands, beer chicks in skimpy clothes handing out free cups of booze to whoever past by in the street — was when I realized that this city has something special.
The same can be said for most places in the world. I’ve had many end of the road, nowhere towns open themselves up to me in my travels just because I stayed. I will stay anywhere in the world for two weeks. A stay of under a week anywhere is not enough to even look around, let alone come up with an impression. Unless in transit or for another particular reason — like not being able to find good food or good accommodation — I’ve found that I like to stay places for at least a one week, minimum.
San Gil showed me the wisdom of this strategy. When I arrived, the city was hot and dry and full of exhaust. But three days later the rain came, cooling the city, and washing the excessive exhaust away. San Gil became a little better and better each day I stayed. I booked a room for one week upon arrival and then stayed for another. If I stayed here for a third week, I think I would appreciate this little city even more.
All too often, all it takes is time to have a place become somewhere special. When I hop off a bus into some traveler’s fantasy land I become suspicions — this place seems too good, what is lurking under the surface, where’s all the real life? But when I pull into a town that at first seems awful, intense, confusing, I know that it stands a chance to prove itself otherwise — that there may be some hidden reward laying beneath its outer crust. Sometimes I’m right in these assumptions, sometimes I’m wrong, but either way there is often little to lose by sticking around for a week or two in order to find out.
San Gil proved to be well worth a half click — two weeks — of travel.
If you ask me how to really enjoy travel, I say unpack your bags and stay awhile. The modern backpacker seems as much porter as traveler — on an obsessive mission to cart luggage from place to place around the world ASAP. Like a chaste woman, the fruits of a place rarely reveal themselves on contact — rather, they must be earned. This takes time.