Bizarre, unpredictable, weird, crazy…these are just some words to describe how my backpacking life has been since I first started long term solo traveling in 2010.
I should have expected it really, things had been running smoothly leading up to those last 24 hours backpacking San Gil Colombia; too smoothly in fact. I should have known the universe had something in store for me!
In this post we’re going to dive into what transpired over the 24 hours from the last day in San Gil to Arriving in Medellin via a 9 hour bus ride.
Let's backtrack just a little
Before I dive into this traveling memory of San Gil Colombia, let me just bring you up to speed…Back in 2016 during my solo backpacking trip through Central and south America, a friend of mine came out to join me for the Colombia leg of my trip. We have this thing, he will either call me or I’ll call him, find out where the other is and go and join up for a while, travel together then head our seperate ways again.
For this trip, we had moved inland from the Western coast of Colombia to a little town surrounded by jungle; San Gil. Things had been going well apart from a few minor incidents along the coast close to Cartegena. In san Gil though, it was very smooth.
why was i even surprised at what happened
Ok, lets dive into it and show you what went down during those last 24 hours in San Gil.
- Who’s bright idea was it to chase waterfalls in San Gil
- Bollox was it simple – The San Gil adventure begins
- Going in one direction can’t be hard…can it?
- Finally the waterfall
- What did she say?
- Getting dark in the jungle
- The lies…she said it would come soon
- Fear of getting kidnapped
- What just happened
- Google translate saved me getting arrested
- The nightmare has turned into a travel story
Who's bright idea was it to chase waterfalls!
With it being our last full day in San Gil, having just booked our overnight bus to Medellin, there was nothing to do for the day. The night before, a few backpackers told us about a waterfall in the San Gil jungle; Cascada de juan Curi. So we thought why not check it out. Afterall we both love chasing waterfalls, and to adventure in the wild. The waterfall in San Gil was apparently very well known, it was meant to be huge and there was a possibility of abseiling and rappelling down into the middle of the San Gil jungle. It was a no-brainer.
The owner of Sam’s VIP backpacker hostel clued us up about it. It wasn’t too far away, quite simple route to get there and back with public transport. It was simple.
(Book your hostel in San Gil through HostelWorld to get the best choice for you)
Bollox was it simple! - But the San Gil adventure began
We grabbed some food, prepped up, made sure our bus tickets were safe, figured out where the local bus depot in San Gil was and off we went.
However, arriving at the San Gil bus depot, the guy played dumb and told us to go to another spot. At the other spot we were pointed in the direction of a third spot, then once more; it was like a wild goose chase. There was a lot of head scratching, asking locals but no luck; thought this was meant to be simple? It’s no fun walking around in the mid-day Colombian heat, especially when you don’t know where you’re meant to be. Eventually we did find the right stop; something that should have taken minutes took over an hour to find.
As the Camino pulled up, along with a load of locals we pushed onto the the mini van, squeezing onto a seat while the rest packed onto it like sardines in a can and off we went. – Finally a win right?….Well no. We must have moved about a 100 yards before the confusion started, I mean we weren’t 100% sure it was the right one. The camino pulled over once again and just stopped, the driver pulled out the keys and walked off. We didn’t have a clue what was going on in the mele of locals pushing to get off, chickens and other livestock clunking and squealing in the background.
My friend and I were confused, although I was getting a decent grasp of Spanish, this was just shouting, I had no idea what was going on. Are we on the right one? Are we not? 15 minutes passed by the time we thought It’s not moving anywhere, there’s no driver, lets go and have a smoke.
Just our luck, as soon as we stepped off, lit our smokes the driver jumped in and off it went without us. It would have been easy to get pissed off, but all we could do was laugh and figure out the next move. Out came google maps, the waterfall was down a straight road rural dusty road on the other side of the round a bout. With no other choice, we bit the bullet and grabbed a taxi knowing he would probably rip us off.
Going in one direction can't be hard right?
There was some back and forth with price, some haggling, he didn’t want to play ball much and eventually settled on a price – Finally we were on our way…but then the taxi stopped, in-fact everybody did – there was a pile up.
The Universe was fucking with us for it’s own entertainment. This of all days was the one they decided to start road works on this dusty rural narrow road in San gil. It was hot, I was starting to get agitated, my friend could see this and tried to make light of the situation. A lot of sighing and blowing hot air followed as the taxi moved at a snail’s pace. The time? Well, it was getting swallowed up. Hours passed by, I couldn’t wind the window down because it was so dusty outside, and this old taxi’s Air-Con, there was none, just hot air blowing through the rusty holes.
This day was starting to piss me off, and I know the Universe was just laughing. Hours passed by sitting in this hot rusty tin can of a taxi by the time we finally reached the drop off point on the side of a dirt road in the San Gil jungle. Cascada de Juan Curi was in touching distance and it better be worth it.
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One more obstacle stood between us and the waterfall; a small farm leading to two tracks, if we’d arrived earlier the long one would have been the option but since It took practically all day to get here the gatekeeper gave us directions to the shorter trek. With my broken Spanish, we communicated well enough, and off we went. As we passed her pet lama, and peacocks she shouted something in Spanish.
Off to Cascada de Juan Curi we go!
I only caught one word but it couldn’t have been what I thought she said. I kept trying to think what she said as we made our way along the track and headed into the San Gil jungle. Instantly the trees and shrubbery swallowed us up, my clothes clung to my skin in the dense heat.
After about 10 minutes, what I thought she said, is exactly what she said and it was standing right there in front of us. A freaking Bull, massive thing – Horns n all! (I didn’t have the nouse to take a picture of it).
We saw it, it saw us and there was a little stand-off – mostly because it was a ‘what the fuck!’ moment of shock. There was a big ass bull in the middle of the San Gil jungle; this was not what we expected to come across. Sure if it was a monkey, or a snake or any type of reptile it would have been ok but was this was a big bull with some massive horns. After the initial shock, there was the realisation this thing could come charging at us. We were freaking out but tried our best to remain calm. It helped that the bull paid more attention to ripping long grass rather than us.
ooh something shiny
This wasn’t a day I wanted to dance will a bull, not here in the San gil jungle, climbing over a small barb wire fence we managed to sneak around without provoking it. A light jog followed, and turned into a full on sprint. (Definitely not a panic run.)
Waterfalls have this power over me, as soon as I see one, no matter how big or small I turn into a little kid. And the same can be said for my friend. The shock, the fear, and some nervous laughter of the sight of the bull disappeared as a series of mini waterfalls began appearing around us. And like two big kids, our minds were consumed and started to play in them like the bull never existed.
Both of us get distracted easily so the short trail kind of turned into a longer one. Think of both of us seeing something shiny and following it. Anyways, slowly we made it to the opening, but most the people were leaving. We asked a few why and they pointed to the sky, telling us the sun would set soon and needed to be out before it got dark and that we should turn back.
No abseiling or rappelling
Fuck that, there was no way, after the day we had just to get here, that we were going to just turn around. I mean, sensible and logical people might have done, not us two though. The way we saw it, we had the whole waterfall to ourselves to explore and play around in.
It was too late for any rappelling or abseiling down Cascada de Juan Curi, but we were in the San Gil jungle by ourselves; it was our playground. Like I said two big kids. We ran riot, climbing trees, jumping in the streams, getting up close and personal with this mammoth waterfall in-front of us. It’s fair to say we got lost in the fun.
After what seemed all afternoon playing in and around the waterfall,the light above us and the tone of the trees started to change; it was time to go. We needed to get out before it turned complete darkness, otherwise there would have been a big chance of two English backpackers going missing in the San Gil Jungle. We tried our hardest not to get distracted and followed the same path back. Our old friend the bull was roaming around somewhere, it was making itself be heard but not seen. With caution we hurried the fuck up.
Just as the lady was locking up, we made it onto the farm. She pointed out to the entrance, told us to wait by the dirt road and a camino back to San Gil would pass by soon.
The adventure was over, it had been a weird day but the was waterfall was worth it, all that was left to do was head back, grab our bags, some food and take the night bus to Medellin. Well, we thought the adventure was over.
The lies...She said it would come soon!
Darkness spread as the sun disappeared behind the San Gil jungle. The green trees turned to black silhouettes, the heat turned to a chill, and the bugs started to bite in stealth mode. Here we were, two English lads standing on the side of a dirt road in the middle of the san Gil jungle.
All of a sudden the nocturnal animals started to come out to play, heard but not seen until their eyes started shimmering through the dark trees from the moonlight. Our old friend the bull was making himself heard too, it would be fair to say we started to feel on edge. Every passing minute got a little bit more eerie and this camino seemed like it didn’t want to come.
To make matters worse, anytime we saw blinding headlights come towards us thinking it was the bus, it just turned out to be locals in their pick up trucks but no camino. It got to the point of having to try and hitchhike back but nobody stopped. Time was running out, we were going to miss our night bus.
Some of the locals passing by on pickup trucks, slowed down, like they were eying us up and not in a good way. They were probably just wondering what we were doing in the San Gil jungle but our imaginations started to run wild thinking we could get kidnapped by bandits.
As time kept slipping away, we knew we’d missed out night bus to Medellin, it felt like there was no camino back to San Gil either, maybe we should have just left when the others did and our cigarettes were running out.
There was only one thing left to do, start walking back in the direction of San Gil. Our senses were hyper cautious, any slight noise our eyes pinged towards it, and light behind us we hoped for the camino but it was always a pickup truck that didn’t want to pick us up.
Finally though, relief flowed through my body as a chicken bus drove past, we flagged it down by jumping in the middle of the road. It was a 50 50 chance of getting run over or stopping. Thankfully it stopped. I’d never been so happy to see an old raggedy chicken bus falling to pieces in my life. In the slight comfort and safety of the bus, leaving the nocturnal noises and San Gil jungle behind it was back to town.
The original night bus to Medellin was gone, but with the help of the hostel owner we managed to swap our tickets for a later one and still reach medellin by morning; it wasn’t a complete disaster.
What the fuck just happened?
There wasn’t even time to process what the fuck happened through that bizarre day as the bus was already waiting.
A few hours into the journey the bus driver decided to go off route, heading to some side of the road night local cafes, not for us passengers but for himself. Just as people were nodding off on the bus in the middle of nowhere he stopped again, this time rolling up to some street side prostitutes. He literally stopped the bus, hopped off, locked the bus up with us on board and disappeared for a while.
Once he returned like nothing happened we were off again. For the next 6 hours there was no more drama. Not until we were about an hour outside of Medellin.
The jumped up police officer
It’s common through Central and South America to have police checkpoints. Heavily armed Police board the bus check your ID and leave. We arrived at a checkpoint, the cop boarded, checked ID’s, I handed my passport over, my friend did the same, but unusually he didn’t give it back.
The other cop on the bus checked and handed ID’s back instantly, the one that took ours, he took it upon himself to think our ID’s were fake. There was some commotion, there was some panic for sure, I lie, we shit ourselves because this cop ended up pulling off the bus. Remember it was around 6AM, a lot of tired people, our brains not really in gear. The cop didn’t believe we were British, for some benign reason he kept calling us Venezuelan, even though we have English accents and couldn’t speak Spanish; yup go figure.
The other cops looked at our passports, laughed at him telling him to hand our ID’s back clearly seeing we were English but he was having none of it. It got to a point where he hauled everybody off the bus; most of them were locals and were pissed at us even though it had nothing to do with us.
Google translate was needed
The cop didn’t speak English, but he was determined to prove we weren’t who we said we were. He resorted to pulling cops driving past to prove he was right, nobody believed him. The passengers were getting agitated, the bus driver was impatient but the cop was stubborn. It got to a point were he called up immigration, and even Bogota Airport, to find out when we arrived in the country, and what visas we had, even though it stated it on our fucking passports.
I was trying to communicate with him through google translate and it was all a bit messy. Me and my friend didn’t have a clue what would happen, this guy wasn’t even looking for a bribe; just trying to prove himself or something.
This shit going back and forth, people getting more pissed off by the minute, I was one of them getting pissed off but knew I couldn’t do anything. Finally he got the message from immigration that we were tourists. And the most fucked up part was, all he could say through google translate was “Sorry for the misunderstanding”
I wanted to blow up at him, as did everybody with us and the other cops with him. None of it made any sense but we were back on the bus, back on the road and we just wanted to get to Medellin and put the last 24 hours behind us.
It's half the fun when things don't go to plan
Like I said at the beginning of this post, things just don’t work out the way they should for me, and those last 24 hours in San Gil Colombia is just how it is, some ridiculous and random shit just happens to me. Once we arrived and settled and had a few beers we were able to look back and laugh at the past 24 hours. But there were points we fucking shit ourselves and were genuinely scared.
However years later, at least those last 24 hours in San Gil Colombia has made for a good travel memory.
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