There’s no denying that Medellin is one of the greatest cities on the planet. Nearly every traveler falls hard for the former “Murder Capital of the World” – turned – “City of Eternal Spring.” But if you’re backpacking around Colombia, you can’t stay in Medellin forever. Sooner or later you’re going to have to tear yourself away. And there’s nowhere better to head next than San Gil, Colombia’s adventure capital. In this post, I’ll cover how to take the bus from Medellin to San Gil –and how to do it by plane if you want to save some time.
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Taking the bus from Medellin to San Gil (or San Gil to Medellin)
If you’re taking the bus, you’ll want to travel this route overnight. I know, night buses suck, but this is a really long trip so it’s pretty much unavoidable. Try to leave around 10 pm if traveling from Medellin to San Gil, or at around 8:30 pm from San Gil to Medellin. Don’t worry — the buses are very comfortable!
Bank on the trip taking at least 16 hours. Colombians will all tell you it’s shorter, but the locals are notorious for underestimating travel time. The entire trip is through the mountains in the Antioquia Department and Santander (pack motion sickness medication if you’re prone to it!) and traffic is bad.
I’m covering the route as though you’re starting in Medellin — but you could easily reverse these directions to travel the opposite way.
Step one: Buy your ticket in advance
Because you’re going to be traveling overnight to get from Medellin to San Gil, it’s a good idea to book your ticket in advance. Any hostel or guesthouse can do this for you. You can book tickets the morning you want to travel, but later than that and you risk them being sold out.
Unfortunately, there is no direct bus from San Gil to Medellin or vice versa. You have to transfer in Bucaramanga (more on this later). I recommend only buying your ticket as far as Bucaramanga, and picking up your onward ticket from there when you arrive — there are many minibuses and buses on to San Gil.
If you’re traveling in the opposite direction, you should buy your ticket all the way from San Gil to Medellin. Buses from Bucaramanga to Medellin are frequently sold out.
Copetran is the main bus company serving the Medellin-San Gil route. I used them and had a good experience. Their staff was extremely helpful and kind. Expreso Brasilia is another option.
Your ticket will cost 75,000 COP. 60,000 COP is for the Medellin to Bucaramanga leg, and the remaining 15,000 COP gets you from Bucaramanga to San Gil (so you may not pay this up front).
When you book bus tickets in Colombia, you receive a receipt from your hostel. But you still have to exchange this for a ticket when you get to the bus station. Don’t lose it!
Step two: Get to the bus station in Medellin
You have your ticket and you’re ready to go. Now, the first step in taking the bus from Medellin to San Gil is getting to the bus station in Medellin. Buses to San Gil Colombia depart from the northern bus station, or Terminal del Norte.
Luckily, due to the city’s amazing metro system, this is pretty easy. If you’re staying in El Poblado (the popular backpacker area), just walk down the hill to the Poblado metro station to get started.
The Medellin metro is one of the only systems in the world where you buy a ticket from a real human being. So line up in the queue and hand over your 2,255 COP for a ticket. Then put your ticket in the machine, walk through the gates, and hop on a north-bound train toward Niquia.
Ride the metro nine stops until you reach Caribe Station. It takes about 30 minutes. From here, clear signs point you toward the bus station — it’s that simple!
The Medellin metro can be very crowded at rush hour. Always keep your valuables in front of you. If you have a lot of luggage, take a taxi instead (around 15,000 COP and 20 minutes from El Poblado). Be sure to specify that you’re going to Terminal de Norte — there is another bus station in Medellin in the opposite direction (Terminal de Sur).
Step three: Get your ticket and locate your bus
I’m not going to lie — the Medellin bus station is a bit of a zoo. Aim to arrive 30-45 minutes before your bus leaves so you don’t feel panicked and rushed at the station.
Before you can go into the waiting area, you’ll need to exchange your receipt for a real ticket at the bus company offices. These are on the first floor — look for the office that matches your company. Sometimes the lines are pretty long.
Once you have your ticket, use the restroom and pick up any last-minute snacks you want. Then, head into the waiting room by your bus’s gate. You’ll have to show your ticket, and once you’re in the waiting area, you won’t be able to leave again. Note that your bus will be labeled “Bucaramanga” or possibly “Cucuta,” not “San Gil”.
A few minutes before your bus is scheduled to leave, the staff will open the gate in the waiting area and let you board.
Wait in line outside the bus to put your luggage in the storage compartment. You should get a luggage ticket — don’t lose this. Tell the bus company staff that you’re going to Bucaramanga so they load your luggage in the correct compartment.
Then, you can board the bus from Medellin to San Gil! Be sure to sit in your assigned seat.
Step five: Try to get some sleep!
Your bus from Medellin to San Gil will probably have nicer seats than most first-class plane tickets. The seats recline all the way, you get a leg rest, and you have plenty of space without bumping into the person next to you. The buses have separate men’s and women’s restrooms, which are reasonably clean (bring your own toilet paper). All in all it’s a pretty comfortable place to spend the night.
The one downside is the bus driver will probably blast the air conditioning. Be sure to pack a sweater — I always wore a t-shirt, fleece and jacket on overnight buses in Colombia and was still chilly.
The first hour or so of the bus trip is pretty flat. But before long, you’ll be in some serious mountains. If it’s still light out when you leave, you’ll be treated to amazing views. Otherwise the winding road makes it hard to sleep.
Your bus driver may make a stop somewhere between Medellin and Bucaramanga, where you can use the restroom and buy some food. I’d suggest sticking with pre-packaged food rather than anything hot — I got food poisoning from a bus-stop empanada in Colombia. But the restrooms are nice.
The trip to Bucaramanga takes 9-11 hours, depending on traffic.
Step six: Change buses in Bucaramanga
Bucaramanga is one of the largest cities in Colombia. You’ll have to change buses here when traveling from Medellin to San Gil, as it’s the closest big city to San Gil. The bus station is busy and chaotic.
Your bus from Medellin will drop you off on the upper level. Hand the conductor your luggage ticket to receive your bag. Then, go up the stairs and across the overpass. Keep walking straight (don’t go down the stairs) and you’ll eventually see bus company ticket offices.
If you have only purchased your ticket as far as Bucaramanga, look for the bus company Copetran to buy your onward ticket to San Gil. It costs 15,000 COP and buses and minibuses leave constantly throughout the day. If you can’t get a seat on a Copetran bus, Omega also serves this route.
If you bought your ticket all the way through to San Gil, you can stop by the bus company office to verify where your next bus departs from. And if you were unlucky enough to miss your onward connection the staff can help you get on another bus. (When traveling from San Gil to Medellin, the companies tend to book the connection too tight to account for the traffic and missing your connecting bus is common experience. This happened to me and the staff at Copetran were amazing in helping sort it out.)
The waiting area in Bucaramanga is shared by all the different bus companies — so listen closely for your bus to San Gil to be called out. (This one will have San Gil as the final destination.) When it’s time, board your bus or minibus for the final leg of this journey!
Step seven: Bucaramanga to San Gil
The Bucaramanga-San Gil road is the most traffic-clogged, slowest leg of the entire trip. On paper it should only be a two-hour journey. But when I did it, it took almost five hours due to the traffic.
The road is very narrow and sees a lot of trucks. If you can get a minibus for this route it will be a lot faster — they can pass the trucks more easily.
Buses don’t stop for a food or restroom break along this route, and the minibuses don’t have bathrooms. Your bus may also be more cramped than the one you had for the long overnight journey.
Step eight: Arriving in San Gil and getting to the center of town
Finally, after 14-16 hours, you’ll arrive at the small San Gil bus station. It’s just a couple kilometers outside the town center. Pick up a taxi for 4,000 COP — the ones waiting outside are totally safe and use the meter.
Unless you ask for a different destination, your taxi will drop you off in the San Gil main square. It’s a pretty plaza with a large park at the center and Andalusian-style buildings all around.
I highly recommend booking a room at the amazing Sam’s VIP Hostel in San Gil. It’s on the second and third stories of a colonial house right on the plaza. The location couldn’t be better, the staff is awesome, the rooms are great, and they even have a pool! It’s the perfect place to settle in after a brutally long overnight bus trip.
Flying from Medellin to San Gil
If sixteen hours on a bus sounds like a bit much for you, don’t worry — you can do most of this trip from Medellin to San Gil by plane instead!
San Gil still doesn’t have its own airport (although one is supposedly being built). So you’ll have to fly into Bucaramanga and then take the bus to Medellin.
If you’re doing this in the opposite direction — San Gil to Medellin — leave plenty of time to get to the airport in Bucaramanga. Like, if you can, stay overnight in Bucaramanga the previous day. This bus route can have unpredictable traffic and you don’t want to miss your flight.
Many Medellin-Bucaramanga flights involve a layover in Bogota. Latam and Avianca offer these for around $40 USD several times a day. Avianca is the only airline offering nonstop flights — they have one a day at 5:45 am, and it costs $60 USD.
Step one: Get to the airport in Medellin
Most flights to Bucaramanga leave from Jose Maria Cordova Airport, well outside the city center. Allow at least an hour to get here.
You can take a bus from Centro Commercial San Diego for 9,500 COP — it takes a full hour when there’s no traffic. Alternatively, take a taxi for 70,000 COP (flat fare and you’ll need to call the specific taxi company that serves the airport).
Check your plane ticket before heading to the airport, as a small number of flights leave from Olaya Herrera Airport in the city center. It’s right next to the southern bus terminal — a 15,000 COP taxi ride from El Poblado.
Step two: Fly to Bucaramanga and transfer to the bus terminal
The flight to Bucaramanga is very quick — even if you have a layover in Bogota, it only takes about an hour. Try to get a window seat for spectacular mountain views.
Be forewarned that Colombian domestic flights are routinely delayed or cancelled, often for inexplicable reasons. In my experience, Latam was far better than Avianca for reliability. I wouldn’t consider flying with one of the ultra-low-budget airlines, as they’re so unreliable that it’s not worth the money you save.
Once you arrive in Bucaramanga, you’ll have to get to the bus terminal to pick up onward transportation to San Gil. Taxi is the easiest option — it costs 32,000 COP and takes about an hour. Ask your driver to drop you off at the Papi Quiero Piña bus stop, which all buses to San Gil stop at after leaving the Bucaramanga terminal. (It saves you about half an hour.)
From here, pick up a bus or minibus to San Gil for 15,000 COP. The rest of the directions are the same as if you took a bus — a two-to-five-hour bus trip in heavy traffic, followed by a quick taxi ride from the San Gil terminal into town. It’s that simple!
Between getting to the airport in Medellin and all the travel involved, bank on spending eight hours in transit if you fly. Yes it’s about half the time you’d need for the bus, but you’ll have to travel during the day and it’s much more expensive. So unless you really hate overnight buses, I’d still recommend the bus over flying for this journey.
What to do in San Gil once you arrive
Congratulations — you’ve survived the long trip from Medellin to San Gil! Now, it’s time to plan your activities.
San Gil is a major adventure sports destination. You can go paragliding, canyoning, caving, white water rafting, waterfall rappelling and more. Book adrenaline activities through Sam’s VIP. If you arrive early enough in the day, you may even be able to book an afternoon activity the same day you arrive.
Don’t miss the chance to take a day trip to beautiful Barichara. This colonial town feels like it came straight from a Hollywood movie set. It’s only an hour away from San Gil by local bus, but it hardly sees any tourists. While you’re there, hike along the Camino Real — an ancient Indigenous walkway — to the even tinier and more adorable town of Guane, from where you can pick up a bus back to San Gil.
Finally, make sure you fit in a meal at the amazing Gringo Mike’s while you’re in San Gil. I know, going for gringo food is kind of a cop-out, but this place is so amazing that it’s worth it. Indulge in an enormous burger (all available in veggie varieties too) or burrito. Literally everything on the menu is amazing and huge, and you’ll pay a very affordable 15-20,000 COP for your meal.
If you’re continuing onward to Bogota, be sure to check out my post about how to do that bus trip!
San Gil may be a long bus ride from Medellin (and just about everywhere else), but it’s worth every minute of the journey.
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