“Colombia might be the country that finally kills us.” – Lea Millet, April 14, 2019
Day Zero: In Which We Melt
We arrived in San José del Guaviare at an ungodly hour before sunrise on Flota La Macarena, by far the worst bus company we’ve used so far. After a blissful reprieve of cool weather in Bogotá, we were back in the steamy forests of northern South America. San José is a small town eight hours south by southeast from Bogotá, down from the Andes in the valley of the Rio Guaviare. Until three years ago, this region was infested with FARC guerrillas, but after a treaty with the government and the disarming of the rebels, nature tourism in the area has started to boom. San José isn’t strictly in the Amazon, but like Lençois in Brazil it’s as close as we’re going to come on this trip.
We were made aware of San José del Guaviare and the tour company Geotours by the blog Tom Plan My Trip, which is proving useful for finding other things to do in Colombia as well. After contacting Geotours, they sent us a selection of packages that included all housing and meals in addition to the daily excursions. Perhaps feeling a little over-ambitious, we opted for the four-day, three-night package. We made sure to arrive in town a day early, so as not to go directly from our night-bus to a grueling excursion. We had to arrange our own accommodations for that night, which wasn’t a problem; we’re old hands at that by now.
However. There wasn’t much available in San José that was both 1) in town and 2) in our budget, so we settled on a guest house that had a shared bathroom and (somehow I missed this) no air conditioning. “It’s only for one night,” we told ourselves.
Our room was on the second floor, right in the middle of the house. There was no window to the outside, but there was a window to the hallway. There was no ceiling, just an opening to the gables to let heat rise. There was a floor fan, which was the only thing that saved us from melting into human-shaped puddles of slag. We had to hang a mosquito net over the bed and refresh ourselves with bug spray every four hours while we were outside. We took turns napping so as not to set each other on fire. The shower was cold-water-only, which was a blessing. We spent almost all of our time sitting on the porch, petting the cat, and listening to a local work crew directly across the street feed trees into a wood-chipper.
That night, between dinner and bed, we went to buy water. We’ve done this everywhere in South America. From Ecuador to Bolivia, it wasn’t even safe to use tapwater to rinse toothbrushes. It’s been better since, but we’ve never trusted the local tap for drinking or other uses, such as in my CPAP. Usually we buy a five or six gallon jug, which is much more cost-effective than spending the big bucks on individual bottles. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that in San José they don’t sell water in jugs. They sell it in bags.
Now, I imagine this makes perfect environmental sense. After all, a flattened bag takes up a lot less room in a landfill than a big, round container. However, as we would discover the following day, the bagged water they sell in San José tastes exactly like insect repellent.
Day One: The Shape of Things to Come
We dragged ourselves out from under our mosquito net so we could hurriedly pack and be picked up by Geotours. After dropping our luggage at our new hotel (with its promised A/C) and a breakfast of soup and various sides, we were off on a bumpy road to our first day of travel around Guaviare!
A word about the region: modern civilization ends the instant you leave San José. Pavement, plumbing, and electrical service don’t extend into the countryside. Most of our hikes would begin and end at farms in the campo which double as tourist waypoints. As I said, the tourism industry is still taking off in San José. In many places it hasn’t cleared the launch pad.
Our first outing was a hike to a rock formation called the Portal of Orion. It’s an impressive stone arch set among many other geological outcroppings. Once Lea outed herself as a geologist, our fellow tourists were very much interested in hearing her explanations of what we were seeing as well as those offered by our guide.
The hike was strenuous. It was several kilometers in and out, level for some stretches. In other places there was much climbing over boulders and jumping over narrow gaps. Two dogs from the farm/tourist center followed the entire way. As with the best of nature walks, the beauty of the surroundings compensated for the exertion and stiff muscles.
Not so much for the second hike, which in my notes for this post I dubbed “The Pointless Death March to Nowhere.” This was actually a combination of two hiking trails – the first up and down many steep inclines to reach a rocky, mossy overhang that was not vale la pena of getting there. Once we crawled out of that narrow defile, we passed a “do not go beyond this point” sign onto a much easier nature trail. This one had signs highlighting the local flora, and all the signs were pointing in the opposite direction from which we were walking. This trail eventually brought us to a different farm where we enjoyed lunch, panela-flavored lemon water, and hammocks while a torrential downpour moved through the area.
Here we also changed into our swimsuits. Our final outing would be a swim in Laguna Negra (that’s Black Lagoon for those playing at home). It would take a boat ride to get there which would, for me, become the most harrowing part of the day.
The boats used in this region are extremely long, narrow, flat bottomed canoes with shockingly shallow drafts. So shallow that once we were in the boat, the surface of the creek was no more than an inch from the lip of the boat. One sway too far in either direction could easily have tipped us, or so it seemed.
But first, we watched the boatman bring our canoe’s motor out of the shack where he kept it and hook it up to our worthy vessel. Then we had to climb down a freshly slippery bank to reach it. I was the first after our guide and I wiped out, jamming my shoulder on a root. It wasn’t a bad injury but it did put my left arm out of commission for a day or so. After we wobbled on board, we sped down a twisty channel through mist and rain, surrounded by a multitude of wonderful South American birds that we couldn’t really photograph thanks to the weather and the lousy light.
The channel opened into a wide lake, and we swam. However, there’s no reason we couldn’t have done the same at our hotel’s swimming pool – the Laguna Negra was no more impressive than any swamp hole along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Once the swim was over, we took a slightly less nerve-wracking ride back to the truck, followed by a bumpy road to our hotel and its marvelous cold shower.
Oh yeah, the shower. The shower at our first hostel was nothing but a bit of PVC pipe sticking out of the wall with a single knob to turn it on or off. (Hot water? Who are you kidding?) When we saw the exact same setup in our touristy hotel room we realized that, like bagged water, this was probably a standard set-up for the area.
Day Two: A Few Good Moments and a Lot of Wasted Time
The second day did not get off to an auspicious start. We rose very early for a 6:00 a.m. ride back into the wild to eat breakfast and spend several hours at a tiny coca farm. In this case the farm wasn’t a departure for a hike to some point of interest, it was the point of interest. And it wasn’t very interesting, not when we couldn’t follow a word of the farmer’s heavily accented Spanish, nor did we really care all that much about agronomy. Even after the farm tour was done, it felt like we sat around for at least an hour doing nothing but taking pictures of animals and wasting precious daylight as it got hotter and hotter.
Next, once it was truly scorching, came the hike. We drove to another farm and walked a long, long cow path to Cerro Azul. We’d asked our guide in advance about the difficulty of this hike, and he told us that its first stop was the most important. It would become more difficult after that, but there would be no problem if we decided to turn around.
That first stop was halfway up the mountain to view an huge wall of rock covered in ancient pictograms. There was little we could understand from the local guide who lectured on what is known of the culture who painted them, but they were stunning to behold. Just as in the Cueva de las Manos in Argentina, these pictograms have been exposed to the elements for untold thousands of years and still hold their vibrancy and color. Unlike those in Argentina, these presented a wide variety of images, shapes, animals, and figures.
This day we were with a much larger tour group, most of whom had purchased a single day trip instead of a multi-day package. There were several who elected to return to the farm with Lea and I instead of climbing the rest of the way up the mountain. Those who went on reported seeing several more areas of pictograms, a cave with bats, and the view from the top of the mountain. It also turned out that those of us who returned early made the right decision, since we weren’t the ones caught in another torrential downpour on our way back.
The day ended on another high note. After lunch in a nearby small town we made for a local bar where those of us who were so inclined had the chance to try our hands at the Colombian game of tejo. Lea and I have been wanting to try this, and while this was hardly a regulation tejo field it gave us the chance to get the feel of it.
Tejo is like a Colombian version of “cornhole,” except that instead of throwing beanbags at a hole in an angled plank of wood, you’re throwing rocks at a circular ring set on an inclined bed of clay. In a true tejo club, the target ring is lined with gunpowder charges, so that if you hit the mark it explodes. The tejo targets we were using did not explode, but there’s still no better way to spend forty minutes throwing rocks at things short of participating in a riot.
Day Three: River Dolphins and a World of “Nope”
This day started with another 6:00 a.m. pick-up. This time our guide led us four blocks from our hotel to a dock where we boarded a boat for a trip down the Rio Guaviare.
I had high hopes. This was the day that had sold me on the idea of coming into San José in the first place. This day we would get the chance to see and swim with the “pink” river dolphins of the Guaviare. In the end, this day would be a massive disappointment.
At least the boat was a real boat this time, and not a canoe. We sped east along the Rio Guaviare for at least an hour and a half until we slowed into a side channel. There we pulled up to the bank next to the farm where we would eat breakfast. There was no dock from which to disembark and this boat wasn’t designed to let people climb out the front, so we got from the vessel to dry land by stepping off the side into another of those unstable, flat-bottomed canoes and walking along its length to shore.
After breakfast, we walked what must have been another two miles to the camp/chicken farm that was the setting-off point for the dolphin encounter. We learned that at other times that walk wouldn’t have been necessary, but that the river was too low for our motorboat to reach this far along the creek. From this point we sat around for a while, drank more lemon water, were given lifejackets, and walked the next two miles through shade and scorching sun to meet the dolphins.
Once again, we learned the error of expectations. I’d imagined that this swim would be like before, both at Laguna Negra and on the other tours we’ve taken where swimming was an option – namely that we’d walk into the water from the shore.
Nope. Here, they expected us to climb into another of those damned canoes, ride it into the middle of the lake/river/whatever, and jump in over the side of the boat. After the swim, we were then expected to somehow climb back into the canoe without tipping it. While I’m sure that wasn’t impossible for all the twenty-somethings we were touring with, neither Lea nor I felt comfortable attempting such a feat. So instead, we sat in the boat and watched.
In truth, there wasn’t much to see. The dolphins showed up, moved on, and showed up again, but they barely did more than break the surface. They were nearly impossible to photograph, because you never knew when or where they would appear. When they did, all you would see was a curve of back and a blowhole for the briefest of moments. They aren’t really pink – just grey with pink splotches – but we knew that going in. What we didn’t know was how miserable the whole experience of baking in the sun while a whole lot of nothing went on around us would be.
All this was made worse by the fact that just before we walked down to the canoe, one of the guides stopped us from applying sunscreen. Apparently we weren’t supposed to, but no one had made that clear. In fact, our other guide had told us to apply sun lotion and bug spray when we specifically asked him about it the day before. Anyway, I got sufficient lotion on Lea’s back but was stopped before she could get the front of her shoulders or chest. I didn’t get any except on my arms, legs, and neck where I’d applied earlier in the day.
After an hour of sitting in the boat, the guides had mercy and allowed us to return to shore. From there, Lea and I hiked on our own back to the camp/chicken farm instead of waiting around for the others, who would catch up with us half an hour later. We had lunch, then lazed around for two pointless hours before moving on.
This is important. Had we not wasted so much time at lunch, we would have returned to the riverboat before the deluge started. As it was, it poured on us during the hike back to farm #1. Lea and I had ponchos, so no worries there. The rain stopped for a while as we loaded ourselves on board and returned to the mighty river.
Then the heavens opened up again. We dropped the canvas flaps that hung from the boat’s roof to keep mostly dry inside, but our pilot had close to zero visibility. His windshield wiper was useless. He kept wiping condensation out of the inside of the windshield and sticking his head out the side to check our position against the bank. This didn’t stop him from barreling ahead at full speed, winding around sand banks and fallen trees.
It was here that Lea uttered the quote I used at the head of the article. Intellectually we realized (or rather, hoped) that the pilot was familiar enough with the river that we weren’t in as much danger as it seemed. But it seemed like a lot.
The fact that I’m writing this means that we did escape with our lives. However, after a day of baking, burning, hiking more than necessary, and getting soaked, we decided we’d had enough. There was one more day of excursions ahead of us, but we decided to cancel. After three days of sore bodies, bug bites, and wasted time, we let the tour operators know that we couldn’t handle any more. There was even a “native cultural ceremony” we were supposed to attend that night, but we just couldn’t bear to leave the hotel.
Day Four: In Which We Cut Our Losses
I know it sounds like I’m giving Geotours a bad rap, and I really don’t want to. If you’re young, in good shape, and speak Spanish fluently enough that you can follow country dialects, they provide a great opportunity to experience the sights and native culture available in this remote part of Colombia that is only now being discovered by the wider world. If you sign up for one of their multi-day packages, they really do take good care of you, providing a hotel and three square meals a day. They’ll even get you to and from the airport or bus station.
If you’re like us, I’d recommend doing what some of our fellow travelers did – arrange your own lodgings, then pick and choose which excursions to go on, giving yourself time to recover in between.
On our last day in San José, we stayed in our air-conditioned room until our 1:00 p.m. check-out, then had lunch at a nice restaurant and wandered the town, spending time in the city park and one of the many, many pool halls that populate the city. When it was clear another deluge was on its way, we went back to our hotel lobby, petted the hotel cat, and waited for our last dinner and late-night ride back to Bogotá.
We may have made this resolution before, but from here on it’s firm: no more guided tours unless absolutely necessary. We’d rather find places to go that we can get to on our own and take at our own pace. We’d like the option to quit while we’re ahead and to go somewhere else once we’ve experienced as much of a location as we care to. Guided tours let you reach places that you probably wouldn’t have otherwise, but they also trap you into their own program. That’s a degree of autonomy that, at this point, Lea and I don’t want to give up anymore.
Looking ahead, we’ll have self-guided hikes, days on the beach, hopefully more snorkeling, and time set aside for prepping our return to the States. As of this writing, we’ve got one month left in South America. I’ll let you know how that feels once I figure it out for myself.