Colombia is a nation of rainforests and water. Nowhere is that more clear than in the Mitú, an Amazon town of 14,000 that sits on the vital Vaupés river. It is a simple, dusty place that is only accessible by boat or plane. The airport is little more than a single runway next to a rundown structure, and there may not be a building taller than two stories in the whole town.

Mitú fish
Mitú offers a relatively untouched window into traditional Amazon culture. (Jared Wade)

What Mitú lacks in conveniences, however, it makes up for in other ways. Though small, it is the capital of the Vaupés department and has a largest concentration of people with indigenous roots in the area. Like their ancestors, the river is their lifeblood and they use it for transport, fishing, cooling off in the heat, and washing their clothes.

And to make sure they never lose their heritage, they have built Latin America’s largest “maloca,” a ceremonial long house made of wood with a thatch roof.

From December 10 to 13, Mitú’s maloca hosted a gathering of local communities. Called the Ipanoré Festival, it welcomed indigenous groups from throughout the region, some of whom traveled days on the river by boat for a weekend of cultural exchange, ritual dancing, traditional food and camaraderie.

“All of the indigenous people still retain this knowledge and they are trying to conserve it and share it with those of us from outside,” said Gustavo Mosquera Sánchez, head of the festival.

Sánchez is a doctor from Popayan, a city on the other side of the country, but he has been living in Mitú since 1983 and represents the ongoing blend of indigenous and typical Colombian cultures in the town.

The first night featured the grandest celebration, as various groups took center stage in the maloca in traditional dress. The women of the San Miguel del Pirá community wore only skirts and beads around their neck. The men in turn wore handcrafted headresses adorned with feathers and necklaces made of animal teeth or shells.

Later the groups, including the Ceima Cachivera, Wacuraba, Pueblo Nuevo, Virabazú, San Geraldo, and Puerto Asis, took turns dancing. They shook maraca-like instruments for percussion and blew small flutes as they rounded circles inside the sacred building. Some wore ornate hats made of wood and cotton. Others had black paint covering their legs or hands. And many simply danced in clothes you could buy at any mall in Bogotá.

On top of all the dancing, fish stew and other exchanges at every Ipanoré Festival, each edition has a theme. This year’s theme was the birds of Vaupés, and the organization set up nature walks to go birdwatching and learn about one of the region’s greatest treasures.

All of Colombia is a paradise for birdlife. With over 1,800 species, the country has more variety than any place on Earth, and nearly 500 can be found in Vaupés. Parrots, cuckoos, finches and avoceta are among the most common, and the area even recently added one more species, says Jorge González, a bird expert who runs Etno-Aves Vaupés in Mitú. Late last year, one bird that had never been identified officially on this side of the Brazilian border was spotted flying in the country’s airspace.

Multiple forests merge near Mitú, making this a place where flight patterns bring an abnormally high number of species together over a small geographic area. But what sageguards all this diversity is the same thing that has kept so many people from seeing the region’s birdlife: remoteness. “It is so difficult to access,” said González. “Because it is not easy to get to, it is much more preserved than other parts.”

Many locals and federal tourism officials alike want this to change half of this equation. They want to get the word out that this is a world-class area for birdwatching and jungle treks to bring more tourists to Mitú. The town is still in need of more development and is in many ways cut off from the rest of Colombia’s economy. Getting goods in and out is expensive and slow, so having more people spend time and money in the town would be a boost.

Currently, however, there isn’t much in the way of tourist infrastructure and quality accommodations. There is not nearly the same level of service as Leticia, the larger and better-known city of the Colombian Amazon.

“The central government has set its eyes on Vaupés,” said Sánchez. “There are some communities who need attention in health, in food security, in many things that the jungle had given them before. Now they have learned to be a consumer society, too.”

An event like Ipanoré illustrates the inherent conflict of the past and present within Mitú. Modernization is needed and being sought, but the deeply ingrained indigenous heritage and simple way of life is what sets the town apart from anywhere else.

During the ceremony, you could not help but notice ways in which the present has overtaken the past. One boy who was preparing for a dance had a modified Mohawk-style haircut. It has indigenous roots, although it was not something you would see in a Hollywood film. It was short on the sides and longer in the center all the way down to the nape of the neck, hanging like the end of a tasseled rug. Maybe it is in honor of his grandfather or other elder in his community? But then you notice that he is wearing FC Barcelona shorts and realize that it’s actually quite similar to how half the boys under 20 in Medellín cut their hair.

Many others in the maloca were wearing football jerseys and attire. There is something odd about seeing a man with a painted face and a handmade headdress wearing adidas-brand Manchester United shorts. Of course, it makes perfect sense. Scientists engineered DriFit fabric in a lab, and it is perfect for the hot, humid conditions in the Amazon. It is durable and quick to dry after sweating through a ritual dance routine or when hanging on a line after being washed it in the river. Why wear anything else?

Other elements of the past are fading as well. Knowledge of traditional medicines is critical to pass down, but communities know that old ways won’t solve every health concern — not in a town that has a billboard near its plaza boasting that it recently became free of tuberculosis.

Mitú is changing. Three stripes on fluorescent green shorts may look out of place in the maloca, but clothing — whether traditional or modern — is not what defines the culture. The greater traditions are deeply ingrained in these communities, and the Ipanoré Festival is a reminder to everyone that change can be welcomed as long as the foundations remain strong.