Story & photos by Richard McColl
A notorious region of Colombia that once served as both a jungle prison camp and center of coke production makes for a great adventure destination, well off the beaten path.
“Sometimes, you reach a place so beautiful and breathtaking that once you leave, such as returning to the city, you’ll find yourself as if sleep-walking, transported back to that unforgettable location,” says Toribio of the Huitoto tribe.
Father of 18 children and now one of our guides to navigate us through this impenetrable tangle of green, Toribio’s words may well ring true. Before he had spoken, I had remained solely focused on sticking to the path and my eyes had met mainly with the deep yet soft bed of fallen leaves that is so prevalent on the rainforest floor of the Amazon.
Just four days previously we had arrived in Araracuara to the airport with no name, following the one-time route of many prisoners as they came to be interned here in the country’s outer limits where the river Caquetá divides the department of the same name from the Amazon. Ours was to be an expedition of discovery, not a penal sojourn, and thus far it had delivered on every front. Almost from the word go, this area that used to be known as Tranquilandia, for the uninterrupted production of cocaine that was performed here in the jungles of Caquetá for the Medellin cartel, began to reveal its secrets.
We had been invited here by Marceliano Guerrero, an elder of the Huitoto tribe, and sitting here in his house perched neatly on stilts up on the hillside upon arrival we discussed what we could see and what we should do. Adventures to far off and barely visited places such as the National Park at Chiribiquete were mooted. Marceliano’s family pitched in too with their thoughts on the logistics of each excursion.
Key to everything here is finding the correct guide, procuring enough gasoline, which at 15,000 pesos per gallon was frighteningly expensive, negotiating hard and then probing various sources of information for clues about water levels, timescales, food and of course security.
Very Far, but Very Beautiful
Erroneously we believed that Marceliano and his wife Graciela and their sons and daughters might be able to furnish us with some ideas.
Each conversation was littered with “Esta lejos” in the chirpy accent employed when the Huitoto speak Castellano, thrusting an arm skywards as if indicating that far off point, and then as if allaying our fears would add: “pero muy lindo”. (But very beautiful.)
And with each affirmation of the untold natural beauty of the region we felt as if we were privy to unrivalled local knowledge straight from the bosom of a well-connected family. Finally the information for the journey to Chiribiquete ranged from 11 hours to several days depending on who you listened to. But this paucity of knowledge was not limited only to the Guerrero family as our boat driver Chayan and guide Adán were also way off. First we had to get to where they were.
From Puerto Santander, the municipality directly in front of Araracuara, motoring powerfully on the river Caquetá, we saw no further souls for the two days it took us to battle against the current along the Yari River and then the Pesai River and then for the full day return journey. This journey, that took us all the way up to the waterfall at Chiribiquete that measured some 430m across, was littered with conversation and comments about Tranquilandia, the airstrips that could still be found nearby for the illicit shipments and makeshift prisons that the rebels ran here. Ingrid Betancourt, a former senator and presidential candidate, was held in a camp near here for three days before being moved further away and up into Guaviare. She was held hostage for six and a half years before being rescued in a government operation.