In our overcrowded world, unspoilt places are scarce. Our little planet has to fit more of us everyday and we keep pushing the frontiers of humanity to satisfy our growing needs. Luckily, we still have a few spots left to experience the vastness of raw, untouched nature. Such places exist in Colombia, whose complex topography has helped preserving some of its most precious areas. I was lucky enough to visit one of them recently.
Guainía sounded far, empty and beautiful. Together with Vaupés, Vichada or Guaviare, of which I would always mix up locations and capitals, it only existed to me on that map on my wall, coming alive in my imagination through the intricate blue lines of water that run through it like veins. No roads, no cities, and very few people: a huge flat land of rainforest and water.
If you draw a straight line between Putumayo and Arauca, all ten departments east of it, including those two, cover over half of Colombia’s territory. However, they are home to less than 10 per cent of its population. Guainía, “land of many waters” in the Yeral language, is the least populated of them all. With about 0,5 inhabitants per square kilometre, it is also one of the least densely populated areas in the world. In short: Paradise.
You can only reach Puerto Inírida, Guainía’s capital, flying Satena from Bogotá, or through a six-day boat ride from San José del Guaviare. The isolated town is surprisingly lively. Its 20,000 inhabitants depend on the river for most of their activities, including the growing stream of eco-tourism. So I went with the flow and embarked on the speedboat of Mauricio Bernal, owner of Toninas hotel and Inírida’s main tourism operator since 1992. He knows the area like no one.
Our first stop, forty minutes downstream, was the Estrella Fluvial de Oriente, where the Guaviare and Atabapo rivers empty into one of South America’s giants: thirty meters deep, a kilometre wide, two thousand kilometres long, the Orinoco river is colossal. Gazing at the clouds while letting my body float down its dark warm waters is an experience I will never forget. As night fell, we tied our hammocks in Maviso, a now abandoned police station built on top of a large rock in the middle of the Atabapo. With a million stars above my head, I dreamt of our next destination: Mavecure.
The Guyana shield is one of the earth’s oldest rock formations. It covers Suriname, the Guyanas, half of Venezuela and parts of Colombia. It surfaces in some places, giving birth to astonishing outcrops such as the table-like mountains called tepuis and the spectacular Salto del Ángel waterfall in Venezuela, or the Serranía de la Macarena and Caño Cristales in Colombia.
An hour and a half after leaving town again on the following day, as we boated up the Inírida, the shield surfaced once more in the midst of the utter flatness of the Guainía in the form of three black mountains on the banks of the river. Like in the books of Colombian traveller Andrés Hurtado, the Mavecure hills stood massively before me. El Pajarito, the highest of the three, rising almost vertically to seven hundred meters, inspired me nothing but a respectful awe. No one has ever reached its peak, or the one of its neighbour, the 500 meter cerro El Mono.
On the other side of the river, the lone-standing cerro Mavicure is the only one you can climb. The hike is tough, but the reward is unique. Sitting at the top of the two billion year-old rock, I beheld the humbling immensity of lush rainforest and the dense network of rivers and streams, as far as my eye could see.
Down again as the sun was setting, we sped past the hills through the whirlpools of the Inírida and reached the nearby indigenous village of Venado, a peaceful and harmonious community perfectly integrated in its environment. There, listening to our host Luis Carlos tell the legend of Mavecure, I realised that we all are mere passers-by on our little blue planet, preserving and transmitting stories, knowledge and places to the next generation. I hope Colombia bears this in mind as it opens up to the world. Last month, it was named best eco-tourism destination at the Chinese World Travel Fair In Shanghai. Combining conservation and tourism will certainly be a chal- lenging task.