“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.”- 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 limit, 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 Medellín 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 hill- side 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 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.
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.”
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 was giving us advice. 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.
From Puerto Santander, the municipality directly in front of Araracuara, motoring powerfully downstream on the river Caquetá, we saw no further souls for the two days it took us to battle against the currents along the Yari River and then the Pesai River. This journey, that took us all the way up to the waterfall at Chiribiquete that measured some 430 meters across, was littered with conversation and comments about Tranquilandia, the airstrips that could still be found nearby for the illicit shipments and also that Ingrid Betancourt was held in a camp near here for three days before being moved further away to Guaviare.
But any worries of security issues were pushed aside when we struck camp. German, a member of our expedition, had brought along his small two man tent and was clearing a level space on the beach before being warned against this, as this is where the prolific Boas of the region preferred to hunt. On this news, he quickly moved further up onto the island and I unrolled my sleeping bag on the highest rock I could find.
The three full days of river travel behind us had taught us that the jungle and the river could provide generously. One wrong turn on our extreme jungle trek, and we learned she was a harsh mistress. Twice on the river trip we had happened across recently drowned wild boars still good for human consumption and each time we stopped, Adán would expertly cast a line, hook and bait and outnumber our catch by six to one.
Lost in the jungle, we remembered further wise words uttered by Toribio urging us to respect the jungle since “she is jealous, closely guarding her secrets as well as reacting badly to those who come crashing through shouting and disturbing the peace.” Making guttural almost simian noises, which seemed to carry further through the foliage, we attempted to locate the other guide, Hervacio, and the remaining two in our group. No sound was returned above the usual jungle clatter. Then, there were voices, unintelligible, but definitely voices to the west of us. Toribio became visibly perturbed; our lost companions should be to the east of us. Speaking in a hushed burst, I asked if there were still mafia in these parts. “Negative.”
Our concern was certainly legitimate though, after all we had just passed through a clearing that had once been a FARC checkpoint and camp along this jungle trail. But from where did these voices come if not uttered by our companions or errant guerrilla? It was then that Toribio opined, the Curupira of the jungle had spoken. The mention of the Curupira made us feel as if part of the mystery of jungle lore, for it is this mythical creature that is believed to utter sounds in the jungle to lead people astray and lose them within her dense canopies.
Perhaps it was the Curupira or perhaps it was our imaginations playing tricks, but respectfully we moved on to the refreshing waterfalls of Morelia and were reunited with our companions. Toribio could have been right on both points, but bathing my feet in the cool waters of Morelia, I did feel as if lifted away.