Cramped bus rides with over-zealous air conditioning and pounding salsa music: traveling backpacker style is often more of an endurance test than enjoyment. But zipping through jungle-clad railway tracks on a magical mode of transport known only as the little witch, the teeny tropical village of San Cipriano near Colombia’s Pacific coast turns all that ‘destination-over-journey’ thinking on its head. Here is one place at least where half the fun lies in the getting there.
After a few days in the sultry city heat of Cali, enjoying salsa spiked with aguardiente, I was ready to escape the rumba and explore some of that enticingly dense jungle of the Pacific. I heard tales of a jungle river village just two hours outside of Cali where locals had devised their own ingenious means of travel called the “little witch” or brujita. Half moped, half wooden sidecar, these homemade moto-carriages fit snugly onto the nearby railway tracks. Built to ferry goods and people between the main road and the village, they have become a hit with curious travellers, too.
Determined to see (and travel) on a brujita myself, I hopped on a bus from Cali heading to Buenaventura. After two hours driving through some of the gorgeous greenery of the Valle de Cauca, I was in Cordoba, the jumping off point for San Cipriano.
It was a half-hour walk downhill from the main road along a dusty village path to the railway tracks where a few guys were already fitting the famed brujitas onto the tracks. I joined the group of extranjeros and locals and was soon ushered onto one of the waiting carts. We sat down gingerly on the wooden plank that made for a seat, and after negotiating an $8,000 peso return journey we were on our way.
With six people per carriage it’s a cosy ride but, as the brujita gathered speed along the winding tracks, there was a cooling breeze in our hair and tropical jungle scenery to enjoy. It’s only a six kilometre journey but there’s time enough to mull over the creativity of the villagers here – and feel a rebellious flush of pleasure that the brujitas haven’t been banned in the name of health and safety.
Although the illegal witches share the rails with freight trains coming to and from Buenaventura, we were told there are just two scheduled trains a day and the brujitas are safely lifted off the tracks long before the train thunders by.
The brujitas have been the sole means of transport to San Cipriano for more than four decades but the motorbike is a recent addition. The originals were basic wooden platforms with small wheels that slid along the tracks. The driver would gather speed by pushing a long stick into the ground as though punting down the river, using his flip- flops for brakes.
Flying along the tracks their punting sticks resembling brooms, it’s no surprise the carts earned their witchy nickname. The motorized vehicles aren’t the only nod to modernity: the village now boasts an official ticket booth to manage the growing number of visitors and ensure everyone pays the same $8,000 for a return journey.
An official nature reserve, there’s a $1,500 peso entrance fee to enter the village of San Cipriano – a small price to pay for a dip the village’s refreshing crystal clear river. Free of cars, the main village street is lined with lush plantain palms, basic wooden shacks for shops and a choice of rustic restaurants. We soon found ourselves a simple cabaña to stay in for the night and after dumping our bags, we rented giant rubber inner tubes from one of the restaurants and headed straight for the river.
We ambled upstream for half an hour or so before deciding to take the plunge, and the shallow waters flowed at just the right speed for a pleasant float combined with the odd adrenaline rush rapid. Perhaps it’s the way the dappled sun filters through the forest trees or maybe it’s that delicious feeling of lying back and letting the river current take control but life never feels more fun-filled, serendipitous and carefree as when you’re floating downstream dwarfed by a giant inner tube.
Finishing our float back in the village, we immediately start walking back upstream to do it all again. This time, mid-journey, our inflatables were accosted by a bunch of exuberant village children playing on the riverbank. Squealing in delight, they jumped into the river and hung on to our rings like cheeky pirates, steering us through some of the faster currents before giving us a helping hand out of the river. As the afternoon turned to dusk, we decided on one final round in the twilight and this time we had the river to ourselves.
No visit is complete without sampling the local spirit – a rough and ready campesino cane liquor called “viche” – and enjoying a Pacific-style dinner of plantain fritters, rice and fresh-water river prawns in coconut sauce. The next day was spent exploring the river’s waterfalls before heading back to the tracks for another chance to ride a brujita.