Sunday, April 4, 2010

San Gil Colombia - Semana Santa

Currency Peso - $1.00US = $1930.000 Pesos

Taxi (hostel) Calle 10 Carrer 1C to Bus Depot - $4,000.00

Bus Santa Marta to Bucaramanga (over nighter) - $45.000 (advertised on the web site for $75. You can re-negotiate long distance bus ticket prices) - 8ish hours

Shuttle bus Bucaramanga to San Gil - $15,00.00 - 1 1/2 hours

Hostel San Gil - $14.000 a night

Check out time at my hostel in Santa Marta was 2pm but my bus didn't leave until 8:30pm. I used the time to hang out in the hostel kitchen and use their WIFI to finish my last blog posting.

I walked down to the beach road a block away and grabbed a cab to the bus depot at 6pm to make sure I got there in time to get a ticket. With Semana Santa (Easter) coming up I was not sure how busy the buses would be.

A fellow traveler had let me know that in Colombia long distance bus tickets are negotiable and that the people at the bus stations are bad at it. I don't normally like to dicker but I decided what the heck try something new so I checked the price online and it was $75.000 ($38.00 US). I figured I would try for $50.000 and see what happened. Turns out I didn't have to negotiate, when I got to the main door for the bus terminal there were representatives for the bus company's waiting. They ask where you are going and the bidding war begins between them, One guy offered it to me for $50.000 then the other company said $45.000 and it was the one that everyone recommended so score for me. Turns out the bus ended up being full so good thing I got there early before they knew and the price went up.
It is a 7/8 hour ride to Bucaramanga where I needed to make a transfer to a bus to San Gil. Night buses in Colombia are excellent, they show movies, there is a bathroom, the seats fully recline with the leg rest thing. The only draw back is they crank the air conditioner so it is very cold, as in the widows were sweating. I knew about this so I had my jeans and sweater on along with a bed sheet. What I really need is a pillow which if I happen to stumble across I will pick up, there has to be some way it will fit in/on the pack. The neck crick keeps waking me up and I have a few more long night rides ahead of me on this trip.

We made it into Bucaramanga at about 6:00am. I headed for the coffee shop and then to find a bus to San Gil. There is a regular bus but I found a shuttle bus (Van) and it was the same price as the bus so I grabbed it. It left at 8:00am. The road to San Gil is through the mountains so it is very twisty and only 1 lane each way. This did not stop our driver and the other drivers from passing on blind curves with cliffs on either side and doing mach 40. A wonderful roller coaster ride, 3 people behind me got car sick and spent the trip throwing up into bags. Have you every had to listen to 3 people heaving at once? Combined with the smell? Not a good thing
Got into San Gil at about 10ish, San Gil is an old colonial town, lots of really old buildings which I like, cobbled streets and really big hills. It is know as the adventure capital of Colombia. White water rafting, bungy jumping, caving, pick a stupid human trick and odds are good you can do it here. It also would seem that they have a pretty large Semana Santa festival with people coming in from all over the place, largely other parts of Colombia. All good things.

I booked the hostel online, due to Semana Santa accommodations were going fast so when I booked they only had 1 bed left. I had directions to the hostel so off I went. San Gil has a lot of hills and they are very steep. The directions said up the hill from the bus stop 3 blocks. The hill went straight up, so I haul my sleep deprived ass along with my 40+ pounds of packs up the hill. Can't find the hostel, asked a few people and no one knew it and the last thing I want to do is go down the hill in case I had to go back up. Did I mention it is also smoking hot out and there is no shade on that street. Found a cafe and sat and had a water and some food and gave it another go. Found the hostel.

Hostel Casa Monkora is located a couple of blocks from the town square so it is very central. It is family owned and operated and they live on-site. Free WIFI, full kitchen dorms, private rooms and camping. I was very pleased with my choice, very nice family and they make sure you feel comfortable and the hostel is very clean. The people that were suppose to check out had gone out so the hostel stored my bags for me in an unoccupied private room and I went for a walk around my new hood. Found the super market (1 big one 3 smaller ones), the street market (produce) and the ATM of which there are 6 or 7 of in a 5 block radius. Since I was going to be here for 5 nights I could actually pick up food, most times it is not worth it since I can't take much with me when I go, I usually only have coffee and sugar with me, I am a caffeine junky. As previously mentioned I am the worlds worst cook but I do like eggs and those I can kind of cook and I'm okay with pasta. So food and beer in hand I head back to the hostel where my bed is ready just in time for a siesta. Grand total of grocery bill $28.000 and $8,000.000 of that was beer so about $10.00US for 5 days worth of food. Sadly cannot say that was the total for beer for the 5 days.

Last year when I was in Guatemala I took 2 weeks of Spanish, 1 on 1 instruction 4 hours a day 5 days a week. I also picked some up while on the road but not much and not using it for a year has made me more than a little rusty. I can function in situations like buying a bus ticket, ordering in restaurants asking for directions but conversational Spanish is way out of my league unless it is the where are you from? what is your name? And even then if I am tired it all goes missing from my little brain. Everyone at the hostel speaks Spanish (including a couple of foreign tourists) which makes me more than a little ashamed of how little I know. Most of them also know some English but as I am the only 1 who doesn't speak Spanish asking people to talk to me in English just seems self centered and rude so I avoided using English. In a way it kind of sucks because they are an amazing bunch of people and I know I was missing out on some really good jokes. But on the other hand I found that just listening to them I was able to pick up more and more of what they were saying, I usually couldn't get the entire thing but I could figure out the topic. They were also great at trying to teach me, using simpler words so I could understand or finding a different way to explain things. The owners and the group of people staying at the hostel went out of their way to include me in whatever they did including asking me to join them for outings. Latinos are the nicest people. It also made me study harder, I brought along my school books from Guatemala and my goal was to learn 10 new verbs a day which I did. Now if only I could form a sentence with them..Even now if i know the word I need something like blind panic hits if I have to say it out loud, in my head it sounds fine. Something to work on during the upcoming 17 hour bus trip.

San Gil defiantly knows how to throw a party. There were a ton of free concerts down at the town square featuring the music of Colombia. Lots of vendors selling everything from ice cream, meat on a stick to jewelry and sun glasses. The atmosphere was great and everyone seemed to be having a great time. I am so going to miss being able to buy beer off a street vendor and carry it around with you when I go home. There were a ton of people, I think the population of the town quadrupled for 5 days, the streets were packed with people and cars from 11am until well after midnight. If you get a chance to spend Semana Santa there you won't regret it.

Here at the hostel there was also much partying, lots of people as it was fully booked including 8 campers in tents. We had a bonfire one night and everyone at the hostel attended. They went out to the disco afterwords (midnightish), I however declined, Okay I didn't really decline I snuck off to bed when no one was looking, anyone who has camped with me knows this trick :-). I had reached my 4 beer limit so no mas cervezas para mi. They were all moving pretty slowly the next morning and there was much laying about in the hammocks. We were all going to go bungy jumping the next day so probably a good thing that it rained and we could not go. I think there may have been a lot of barfing bungy jumpers.

There is a little town called Barichara, it just outside of San Gil about an hour 1/2 bus ride away that the guide books say is worth checking out. Very old world and quaint. I tried to go one day but I could not find the bus, waited at where it was suppose to come, nada, asked someone and they said due to the new bridge it had moved so tried that spot, still nada, then tried one more. After 2 hours I gave up, I've seen nice towns and this was too much like work. I think due to Semana Santa they may have moved the stop but I'm not sure. The reviews on it are great so if you get a chance and spot a bus hop on and check it out.

After my failed attempt I decided instead to go check out the local swimming hole Poza Azul. The nice lady at the hostel told me which bus to get and sure enough it arrived. The sign in the hostel said the bus should be $800.00 Pesos, I got charge $900.00 no big deal, tourist tax. The driver let me know when we where there so that was good. The swimming hole was a nice way to relax and keep cool on a hot day. Lots of people down there, there are a couple of restaurants and some street vendors. You can take beer with you or buy it there. Lots of families having a great time and a very pretty place. The bus back cost me $1,000.000, apparently double tourist tax.

I was going to try stupid human trick #5 on the list, rappelling down a water fall, however due to the rain the only day I could do it was the day before I left and it was a long bus ride out to the waterfall and I had a 22 hour bus ride in store for me the next day so I just couldn't do it. I have done rafting and bungy jumping before, the only reason I would have done bungy again is because there would have been other kids to laugh at who hadn't done it, if you have never tried them I definitely recommend that you do give it a try if you find yourself in San Gil.

Semana Santa was over that day so I decided to wander the streets, they were pretty much empty. A lot of stores closed including the grocery store, all partied out it would seem. The hostel emptied out as everyone had to be back at work on Monday, it was sad to see everyone go but kind of nice to have less people in town.

I did have 1 disturbing incident at a restaurant, as previously mentioned I am pretty used to getting crappy service, but this was outright bitchy racism I wrote an email to the head office requesting an apology and that the waitress be disciplined, they did respond to my email and apologized and said that they were shocked that someone working for them would behave this way. They have promised to look into the matter and take appropriate action. Thank you to the folks at the head office of Zirus Pizza in Bucaramanga for your fast response and concern. I would like to add that this is not typical of the people of Colombia or the people of San Gil, it was 1 person. I do encourage anyone who encounters this to contact the appropriate people to deal with the issue rather than not saying anything. Companies do not want their employees behaving this way and they need to know if there is an issue so they can correct it.

I ended up going to the Chinese restaurant instead and for $6,000.00 got way more rice and chicken than I could eat. The next morning it is off to the bus station for another marathon ride.

Again a big thank you to the folks at the hostel and every one who stayed there. Although it may not sound like it when I talk the Spanish immersion was great for me, I can understand a lot more. Your kindness and patience is appreciated.

Una vez más un gran agradecimiento a la gente en el albergue y cada uno que se quedaron allí. Aunque no puede sonar como que cuando hablo de la inmersión en español fue para mí, puedo entender mucho más. Su amabilidad y la paciencia es apreciada.
(Sí, engañados y utilizados traductor de google)

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