Río La Miel
The Río La Miel is a paradise with a dicey past. (Photo by Alden Pyle)

At dusk along the emerald green river, black silhouettes of monkeys uncoil their tails and jump from tree to tree. Under low-hanging branches that reach out like fingers across the channel, buffalo roam grass reeds against a curtain of pink clouds.

Overhead, bats flap through the warm, sweet air. A symphony of buzzing cicadas, croaking toads, and chirping birds accompany the gentle rush of water.

Winding through the coffee-growing departments of Caldas and Antioquia, often parallel to the neighboring Magdalena waterway, the Río La Miel or “Honey River” is one of Colombia’s best kept secrets.

The relative isolation of this jungle wilderness once marred by armed conflict led famed author Héctor Abad Faciolince to label the area “a black hole abandoned by God and men.”

Yet just a quick boat ride from the sleepy town of San Miguel, a retired Avianca pilot has opened an eco-lodge on 7,000 hectares along the riverbanks.

In five raised cabins, beds are draped in mosquito nets next to small tables fashioned out of tree stumps. Beams of guadua bamboo hold swinging hammocks and candle lanterns from moss-covered ropes. Meters below, crocodiles crawl in the mud.

The property itself is a kaleidoscope of fruits and vegetation. Coconuts, mangos, oranges, plantains, papayas, limes and malt-flavored níspero berries hang fresh for the picking. Green lizards dart under achiote bushes, whose blood-red seeds were once used by indigenous populations for body paints. A stone’s throw away, bright guaraná plants produce pits with twice the caffeine concentration of coffee beans.

Beyond this tropical Garden of Eden, the landscape shifts abruptly to green mountains roved by white bulls. Holding a fresh glass of lemonade sweetened by panela, an unrefined cane sugar, I walk with a wooden stick that a local worker handed me to beat off any poisonous snakes slithering through the low grass.

The only other animals I encounter are tortoises taking in the sun and striped blue butterflies. Since daybreak a fleet of thin motorized skiffs with wooden seats and handpainted names like “The Bengal” and “Jaguar” take a growing number of tourists up the river.

Resident drivers navigate through sand bars and rocks, standing like George Washington crossing the Delaware, had he been relegated to the back seat. Jumping off the sides in life vests, we let the rapids guide us under makeshift bridges and waterfalls.

In calmer stretches of the river, wide nets and glinting hooks search out the dozens of fish species endemic to the region. The daily haul has been less rewarding since Isagen, Colombia’s third largest power generation company, built a hydroelectric plant along La Miel.

Water levels drop and rise suddenly at the whims of turbines and a towering dam, leaving fish stuck between rocks and flopping in the air. The territory’s history is a mix of tranquility and violence.

In the 1960s, longhaired hippies would travel from the United States to the “Honey River” for its renowned psychedelic mushrooms, and stage concerts among befuddled villagers.

In the 1970s and 1980s, an illegal mining boom and the expansion of guerrilla groups replaced peace and harmony with prostitution, gambling and bloodshed. When the leftist rebels resorted to cattle rustling, extortion and kidnapping across the Magdalena Valley, farmers and ranchers organized self-defense crews.

One such group would become the nation’s largest paramilitary organization, the Autodefensas Campesinas del Magdalena Medio (ACCM). Notorious bloc commander Ramon Isaza and his followers pleaded guilty in a 2006 demobilization process to torture, massacres, and forced displacement.

Inhabitants from La Miel have mixed feelings about their past. On one hand, they no longer eat a fish called dentón, because it fed off the corpses thrown into the river by right-wing death squads.

On the other, the cocaine laboratories that popped up brought jobs and wealth. Locals seem to remember famed drug lord Pablo Escobar, who once frequented the area to water ski, for his large cash tips.

Alongside the carnage, paramilitaries meted out a ruthless brand of justice. In earlier days, the owner of the eco-lodge purchased a skillfully engraved harpoon from an unknown passerby. The following morning, two armed men showed up at his door and told him the harpoon had been stolen and would be returned to the rightful owner.

Soon after, the vendor and supposed thief floated down La Miel.

Driving back to Bogotá, with Cuban duo Celina and Reutilio playing from the speakers, we pass endless fields of African palm. Paved lanes gradually replace dirt roads. The Palanquero military base stretches into view, replete with camouflage helicopters and French Mirage aircraft.

As I reach into a bag to turn on my cellphone, out jumps a small brown frog, a reminder of life outside the urban sprawl.