February 7th, 2018
I wake up to deafening noise. I throw myself around in bed, trying to get back to sleep, but the realization sets in that it won’t be possible, given how incredibly loud the noise is. I leap out of bed, and to my horror see men working with jack hammers in the street.
Yes, the views over the rooftops of town are stunning, a field of terracotta, focusing on the towers of the cathedral. Clouds of exhaust fumes waft into the room, consistent with any urban area in the country. Despite the fact that the room is spacious, with tiled floors, vaulted timbered ceiling, there is no way I can stay in this room – or this hotel, however, as appealing as it may be. And worse, the sweets that I brought yesterday are covered in ants. So much for my idyllic San Gil retreat.
For the moment, I decide to ignore the noise and write. I go through the motions of getting ready for the day, then leave the hotel, located in a historic structure a block above the Parque de la Libertad. The town flows along a small valley, the top a few blocks above the hotel, the bottom a few blocks below the central plaza.
Upon leaving the hotel, a man accosts me, wanting to sell a music CD. Well, I could in theory be the person to buy a CD of traditional Colombian music, but not today. We talk about music and the realities of surviving as a musician being anything but easy, with no government funding. That of course corresponds to what musicians back home experience. Surely there are jurisdictions that are more generous with their cultural resources, but the copious amounts of money swirling around local pockets are deemed to be spent better elsewhere – or nowhere.
The plaza is a hub of life, people of varying ages and demographics milling about or focused on their day’s missions, the ostentatious architecture ringing the plaza complimented by the long hedgerows in the broad plaza over which the Canary Island date palms tower, consistent with Colombian urban design.
Figuring there must be a good place to eat breakfast, or rather lunch at this time, I descend eastward from the plaza down Carrera 10, but nothing is apparent. While the plaza features cafes that attract the aging movers and shakers that favour this kind of setting, Carrera 10 is beholden mostly to busy retail spaces, private educational services that have a huge pull in Colombia, and home decor businesses.
The Bambu serves admirably well, and excellent lunch of mojarra for a rather elevated price, but perhaps the fish is more expensive than other items. As befits the kind of meals found in the cocina tipico bracket, the quality is excellent.
One block further, the Rio Fonce meanders along, the somewhat innocuous focal point of San Gil. Surprisingly, there are recreational services promoting river rafting on the river, which seems somewhat improbable, given the low level of the river.
A set of terraces leads to the riverfront, where a group of people is attempting clumsily to navigate their zodiac back to shore. I am told that as this is the summer, the water levels are low, but in the rainy season the water levels are much higher.
Checking the Lonely Planet guide, it turns out that San Gil is the capital of Colombia for recreational sports, such as zip lining, trekking, paragliding, white water rafting, and mountain biking, which is why there are so many foreign backpackers here, far more than I have seen elsewhere. Unfortunately, I neither care that much, nor have much time to engage in these sports.
Rather: if I had more time here, I would go for the rafting, and the trekking I will hopefully doing next week – if my shoes hold up.
The search for a coffee proves to be anything but productive, evidencing a different lifestyle in Santander as opposed to Boyacá. In Boyacá, cafes litter every town – in San Gil, which is one of the major towns in Santander, there are virtually none to be seen. Furthermore, it turns out that most businesses close at noon for two hours, which is another confusing turn, and reminds me of the long-resented mid-day closures in southern Europe, which make visiting the region at times very frustrating.
A long conversation with the manager of the Hostel Casa Colonial ensues, focusing on the art of maintaining a quality establishment. How do you ensure that the wrong kind of tourist doesn’t appear?
As elsewhere in the world, Israelis are on the avant garde of everything that is unwelcome in tourists, having bought up land and created compounds that are dedicated to a host of illegal activities. The Colombian police are attempting to get a grip on the situation, but it is not easy. There is no way the people here want to see the country sliding back into the iniquity of the days of yore.
The first thing the manager of the hotel looks at is the nationality of tourists. Northern Europeans, in particular Germans, are most welcome, and Israelis obviously not. The higher price also ensures that the rabble goes elsewhere – people who are older are prepared to spend more money, and are usually far less trouble. As an aside, I can also imagine no one spending as much time hanging out in their hotel as I do, haranguing staff!
Besides the increased comfort and security, a place of the quality of the Hostel Casa Colonial offers a sanctuary to be creative in, work, and maintain focus. If I hadn’t made the commitment I have made to writing and photography – however memorable it may or may not be – I would be happy to stay in far more mediocre places. Or would I?
The hotel manager had recommended that I go to Pinchote this afternoon, given that not very much time is left in the day. The local bus terminal is a few short blocks from the main plaza, the only stress in getting there squeezing along the narrow sidewalks, and then being blocked by the rather slow local pedestrians. And as everywhere else in town, I see young backpackers.
Consistent with the degree of organization I have come to expect with Colombian public transport services – the Tunja bus station exempted – busetas are parked underneath a sign bearing their destination. All localities near San Gil are represented, and the busetas leave throughout the day with a high frequency. What more can you ask for!
Notably in Colombia – you just don’t get cheated, overcharged, etc., a small thing nonetheless very gratifying.
Pinchote is not five minutes away, as the manager of the hotel indicated, but a meandering ten to fifteen minute ride along the river Fonce, views opening up of the hillsides through the tree canopy and flowering bushes. The roadside is dotted with posh houses and country hotels. The road to Pinchote branches off from the main road, and soon we are at the small main plaza, rich in vegetation, flowers, and the usual character architecture.
Pinchote is rich in photographic subject matter, what with the artfully-placed religious and historic statues, wrought iron benches and implements in the park, against the backdrop of whitewashed adobe, terracotta roofs and the verdant mountainside surging above us. Flowering bushes add the requisite colour to the plaza and the houses that ring the few blocks around the centre.
On the other side of town, a spacious and relatively posh restaurant offers spectacular views through its high glass walls of the valley below. It is also always heartwarming to see cyclists around, cycling being a big Colombian sport, the young athletic sort a nice counterpoint to the typically ancient denizens that crawl around the streets of these small towns.
The town otherwise has positive signs of life, small groups of young people congregating around the plaza, men busy trimming the foliage on the trees, and in the centre, an outdoor cafe in what looks like a tree house.
Returning to San Gil, I rush to the front of the buseta, as the bridge across the Rio Fonce to town is approaching, and the mall is not far away. I may not be a fan of malls in general, but the Centro Comercial El Puente is amazing. The mall is monumental and flows organically out of the surrounding landscape. A large pedestrian bridge joins the center of town with the raised central terrace of the mall.
The shops that comprise the plaza are hardly that memorable, but the rest of the mall is, including the linear pools of water that line the main plaza, with the underutilized retail space lining both sides. A plaza with seating lines the far side of the mall facing town, and an extensive balcony jutting over the ravine of the Rio Fonce with plentiful seating, probably one of the most romantic areas to sit in town.
The manager of the Casa Colonial told me there is a coffee shop that serves coffee typical of the local region. The Kafe Loma Verde is the place he had in mind, and the espresso I am served is otherworldly. Fruity, aromatic, incredibly smooth, and with an incredibly long finish, one of the best coffees I have had in eons. Who would have thought! And beyond the quality of the coffee, the young women working at the cafe regale me with knowledge about the coffee, how and where it is grown, and so on.
Wandering around town in the evening, the usual quandary as to where to eat arises. Places are too expensive, too generic, too greasy, or some combination thereof. There is some hint of trendiness in some of the places I see, but San Gil is beautiful enough without being too recherché. In the pizza places I walk into, I try to ascertain whether I can smell anything appealing, or determine the visual appeal by looking at the pizzas on peoples’ plates, then inevitably leave, again disappointed. Around the central square area, I dodge the late night jackhammering crew – really, guys, you think that’s a great idea? – and am still at loss.
Police on the main square, a reassuring sight, except that I also see a mob forming on the square of what look like young beer-drinking louts. Whoops, this may become a problem. Except that it later turns out that there is a soccer game going on, the cheering crowds of young men gathering in another establishment a few blocks away. So I should give these young men looking for their cry of male solidarity a break. And then half of these young men look malnourished.
I settle on a pizza place out of sheer frustration, but the Pizza de la Puerta 13 does more than just assuage my minimum expectations. The wonderful woman at the cash is very sweet in response to my acidic commentary about how terrible Colombian food is, how lacklustre the pizzas are and so on. A compromise is struck: her colleague in the kitchen will add copious amounts of garlic to my pizza. She laughs at the things I tell her, even though I am trying not to be my usual outrageous.
I am served personal-sized pizzas that are actually very well made, the crust thin and crunchy, the toppings quite wet, but in the first case, made largely with caramelized onion and in the case of the second Hawaiian pizza, caramelized pineapple. I can hardly complain about these pizzas, even if they didn’t add as much garlic as I had wanted.
I spend late into the evening listening to good music, working on my blog, editing photos, writing, and drinking Bacardi and grapefruit juice. The wifi signal is atrocious, befitting a country in many senses 10, 15 years behind …