Getting to Know San Gil Through Two of Colombia’s Favorite Sports

by Ekua on September 2, 2013 in Colombia

Sometimes before I arrive in new place, I know it’ll reach straight for my heart and pull me in. Usually there is something particular about it that makes me feel this way, something about the culture or the landscape. So I’m not sure why I had this feeling about San Gil, a town that’s described as not much to look at and a hub for adventure sports, an area I’ve only dabbled in mildly and is not the kind of adventure I typically seek out.

Earlier in my trip, a few people told me not to bother with San Gil and instead go to Barichara, a pretty little colonial village nearby. Pretty is nice, but spunk is what I was looking for and I sensed that San Gil would have it. So I decided to not only stay in San Gil, but to post up there for longer than most places I was visiting while taking a crash course in Spanish. Everything came together there the way it does in the destinations you like the most; I found a perfect combination of a cozy place to stay that was full of great characters, and more importantly, a town that was lively and receptive to visitors, a place that felt like home for the short time I spent there.

Futbal in Parque la Libertad

When I exit the San Gil bus station, it’s a little too quiet. Even the smallest bus stations in Colombia have plenty of taxis waiting, but here there are only a few. But I’m not surprised at how deserted the station feels. I’ve arrived in San Gil right before another World Cup qualifying game. After seeing how the previous game cleared out the streets of Bogota, I figure that everyone is getting ready to watch the game against Peru amongst friends and family, cab drivers included.

I watch a father and son claim the last available cab before I can get to it, and it seems that I am out of luck for awhile. The driver calls me over and asks me where I’m going. I show him the address and he motions to get in too. I am cautious about sharing taxis when they’re not officially shared taxis, but I trust my instincts that it’s alright.

It’s a short drive from the station into town. The father and son are dropped off in the main square, Parque la Libertad, then the driver takes me to my hostel a few blocks away. When I arrive, almost everyone is leaving. They are all on their way to the square to watch the game on a large screen.

I settle in and then join another traveler who is meeting up with others to watch the game. It’s hot outside and I am happy to peel off some layers and feel the sun on my skin after having to bundle up in the highlands. I’ve finally found summer in Colombia.

In the square, we join a group of people who are also staying at the hostel. It’s a sea of yellow jerseys and excitement and the festiveness is of course amplified after Colombia wins.

I like the atmosphere of this town square. I sense that even after the energy of sports fans dissipates, the warmth and sense of community will linger. While it’s not the most dainty town square in Colombia, it has a vivacity that reflects San Gil as whole. I can already tell that I am going to like it here. Sure enough, evening after evening will be spent in the square, mingling with fellow travelers, meeting local characters, and listening to impromptu jam sessions while kids run around and climb all over the statues like a makeshift jungle gym.

Tejo Tuesday

In addition to arriving in time for the game day festivities, I am also lucky to arrive on the day of my hostel’s weekly event, “Tejo Tuesday”. Every Tuesday evening, the hostel owner takes a group out to play Tejo, Colombia’s national sport. Imagine the bean bag toss game, except instead of a bean bag, it’s a heavy metal puck, and instead of a wooden board with a hole, it’s a clay pit with explosives for a bullseye. Ever since finding out about Tejo on Anthony Bourdain’s show, Parts Unknown, I knew I had to try it when I got to Colombia.

A group of us take cabs to the Tejo arena and the hostel owner gives us instructions on how to play and an overview of the rules and scoring process. Most of us promptly forget everything he tells us, then it’s time to begin.

I am terrible at Tejo. After countless tosses and absurdly off-kilter misses, my puck finally lands in the pit. So with that, I consider the whole thing a success. A couple people in the group get competitive, but no one hits the explosives. There are, however, plenty of explosions coming from the group of guys next to us. I jump every time. They are entertained by both our lack of Tejo skills and our reactions to the explosions. After one Tejo match, the more competitive folks decide to play again. I decide to head back to the hostel with another traveler and we mingle with some local Tejo players while we wait for a cab.

This day sets the tone for San Gil as the kind of place you can nestle into, where you can connect with residents in a way that goes beyond typical tourist and local interactions, where you start to frequent favorite eateries and hangout spots, where you start to recognize faces and mundane town patterns, where you get to know your way around a little corner of town and put the map aside.

It’s in settling into these everyday normalcies that I feel most like I am traveling and that I am capturing the true essence of being abroad. And so I establish a temporary home in the ordinary, yet spirited little city of San Gil.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Quyen September 3, 2013 at 9:42 am

Watching sports is definitely one of the best ways to learn about a country by the excitement of the people and fans. Whether you understand the rules or agree with the customs or not, it is a true look into a culture. From bullfighting in Spain, soccer (or futbol) in Brazil, or Baseball in the United States, it is an important custom to witness for any traveler.

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Andi of My Beautiful Adventures September 3, 2013 at 1:54 pm

I’ve always wanted to play Tejo!

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