When scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt reached Colombia at the turn of the nineteenth century, he chronicled his awe for the lush tropical terrain and powerful waterways in the present-day departments of Vichada and Guainía.
During his travels he proclaimed the Raudal de Maypures torrents in Tuparro National Park to be the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” and named the intersection of the mighty Guaviare, Orinoco and Atabapo rivers the “Fluvial Star of the South.”
Two hundred years later, one of Colombia’s most remote jungle provinces is receiving newfound attention. Guainía, which borders Venezuela and Brazil, is home to just 45,000 residents. Puerto Inírida, capital city of “the land of many waters,” is in practice only accessible to outsiders by flight.
Satena, operated by the Colombian Air Force, provides daily trips from Bogotá. More intrepid vacationers can hitch a ride out of Villavicencio in hulking silver DC-3 propeller planes from the 1930s, seated on fish buckets alongside roosters and military personnel.
“We are seeing a significant increase in tourism compared to just a few years ago,” says Mauricio Bernal, a portly and charismatic native who opened Hotel Toninas of Inírida in 1998. “It’s been a win-win situation,” he adds.
“Colombians and foreigners want to go beyond the coffee region and colonial cities. At first the local population was hesitant to welcome travelers, but then the fishermen sold more fish, the artisans made more crafts, and the boat drivers received more customers.”
The area has benefitted from major security gains and peace negotiations with the nation’s left-wing guerrillas. In 1999 and 2005, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) made bloody attempts to overtake Inírida. Alias “Negro Acacio,” former chief of the rebels’ Eastern Bloc and drug-trafficking rackets, forced neighboring populations to grow coca crops. These days, three-wheeled auto rickshaws fill the streets of the port city, which hosts a naval base for 1,000 troops.
Guainía has moreover taken advantage of the positive press coverage it received as the shooting location for Colombia’s first Oscar-nominated 2015 film, “The Embrace of the Serpent.” Featured prominently in the visually stunning epic are the “Crying Rocks of Mavecure.”
Fifty kilometers south of Inírida, three granite monoliths carved with quartz veins rise from the jungle. In the rain, silver streams snake down the black and brown faces of Latin America’s oldest mountain chain.
Machete-wielding guides lead steep hikes up the Mavicure and Mono, or “Monkey,” peaks for 360-degree panoramas of endless green trees, coffee-brown tributaries, and sand beaches. Below, golden beetles and yellow butterflies fly low to the water, its glossy surface reflecting blue skies and white clouds, interrupted only by the occasional pink and grey Amazon dolphin. Pajarito, or “Little Bird,” a 712-meter tall mound, has only been successfully summited twice.
Guainía boasts two dozen ethnic groups, the majority of which are indigenous. Upon descending the Mavecure formations, which are located in a Puinave reserve, both the El Remanso and El Venado communities offer traditional “sancocho” soup, replete with chicken, plantain, and corn, under thatched roofs.
The populations largely identify as Christian, following a half-century spent in the region by Sophie Müller, a former reporter for the New York Times turned evangelical missionary.
Motorized skiffs on the 1.5-hour ride back to Inírida carefully weave through rocks. Gently bumping up and down in one’s seat, the setting sun slips above and below the thick foliage on the river banks to paint the shallows pink and red.
White egrets and squeaking bats fly through the warm air, passing by paddle canoes loaded with fresh bananas. Across the water, which begins to appear as viscous as tar, the Cerros de Mavecure become rounded silhouettes.
A brief jeep ride from the department capital, one finds a series of reddish-brown swimming holes. Alongside the refreshing depths of “The Witch’s Lagoon” are fields of the Inírida flower, a spiky burst of red and white that resembles captured fireworks.
In bloom for up to a year, the shades of these unique plants change over the months. As vacations to Guainía increased, uncontrolled picking of the 100-centimeter stems led the government to limit sales to a handful of local companies.
In “The Embrace of the Serpent,” director Ciro Guerra captured a region marred by the violent legacy of colonialism and rubber exploitation. Today’s Guainía is in contrast a prime example of what Colombia’s burgeoning tourism industry can achieve in a post-conflict scenario.
In its small airport, where police officials still register all travelers, a sightseer from Bogotá made a final phone call to his friend: “I’m going to tell you about a part of the country you didn’t even know existed…”