We are driving down the Andes from Bogotá with one of my favourite tunes belting out of the car stereo: ‘Should I stay or should I go…’ In the back seat the kids are singing along, having reached the childhood development milestone of memorising their first Clash song and one with a particularly pertinent theme given we are heading to Guaviare a place where just about everyone we know in Bogotá has told us not to go.
The night before I had been lying awake having serious doubts whether this was an ideal tourist destination, torn between conflicting reports of a fascinating wilderness that is beginning to welcome tourists, and dark tales of cocaine labs and guerrilla camps. And now The Clash are ringing in my ears, with the kids warbling along, “If I stay it will be trouble, if I go it will be DOUBLE…”
The attraction of Guaviare is the start of the Amazon jungle. A new improved road has brought it within a short day’s drive from Bogotá. So the possibilities are endless. The problem is its turbulent history. But Colombia is changing and areas where a few years ago only the most intrepid travellers would visit are becoming mainstream.
Before setting off, I do background checks on the Internet. Most tourists fly to San José del Guaviare, but there are regular flotas from the capital on a newly-surfaced road and no recent reports of conflict in the newspapers. But if Guaviare is welcoming the world with open arms, no one we talk to in Bogotá seems to be listening. The only person I can find who has actually been there, arrived by Blackhawk.
I sell the idea to the family: “Just imagine, in a few hours we can drive to a place where a monkey can jump from tree to tree for 4,000 kilometers.” I explain to the kids, looking for ways to explain the significance of the vast natural wonder ahead. “Won’t the monkey get tired and miss its family?” asks my daughter. I try another tactic: “There will be rivers we can swim in”. “Will be there crocodiles?” asks my son.
Fellow diners in the café where we breakfast in Villavicencio confirm the road is good but not to be attempted at night. After Granada, there is nothing and no-one,’ says another diner.
This turns out to be the case. Granada, a farming settlement south of Villavicencio, is the last large town on the map. The next 200 clicks to San José are markedly free of traffic, apart from the farm pickups and a bus that flies past us. Villages are few and further between, as are roadside restaurants some of which were closed and boarded up. Geographically we are still in the Llanos, the eastern plains of rolling grassland, small outcrops of low forest that line the gullies and rivers, and open skies with grey rainstorms marching angrily across the horizon.
The monotony is broken by the spectacular Nowen Bridge, spanning 930 metres, and known poetically as the “Door to the Jungle”. This is Guaviare, and the last 20kms to San José de Guaviare on the south side of the river.
At a checkpoint outside town, cars and buses are searched by the police. He enters our details in a computer and asks us to wait for the Tourist Police who come from the town on a motorbike and give us a free guide book, a map of tourist sites listing local tourism companies. We are told to “strongly use these, as it is easy to get lost in the area.” I am impressed, never before having experienced such diligence from the Tourist Police in Colombia, though slightly worried that when I try to phone them, all the guides are away or booked.
We find a hotel in the downtown San José and explore the surrounding muddy streets, which have a Wild West feel with bars, brothels and pool halls. There is a heavy army presence, and large cars driving around with the flags of the UN or International Red Cross. A man stops his motorbike and greets us, he says he is a school teacher in a distant village and wants to know all about us. He is very friendly but I get the distinct impression he his checking us out.
Next morning we set off to explore the Serrania de La Lindosa, a range of rocky hills that contain most of the Guaviare’s currently accessible tourist sites. After an army checkpoint on the outskirts of town, a dirt road winds slowly up into the serrania, and soon we are alone in a worn wilderness of ancient rocks draped with unusual vegetation.
Around 15kms along we see a sign for La Ciudad de Piedra, the Stone City, and turn off onto a track that leads to weathered rock formations. Maybe it sounds fanciful but here, you can feel the age seeping out of the ground, something that just radiates around you and draws you back to the dawn of the Earth itself. These hills are formed of late Pre-Cambrian rock that is over a billion-years-old and part of the huge outcrop of crystalline basement rock that extends across Venezuela, Brazil and the Guayanas, known as the Guayana Shield.
While I sit and contemplate these ancient quartz sands the kids are building a sandcastle by a small stream in the shade of trees. Looking down the hills I can see glimpses of the Río Guaviare, and the black waters of oxbow lakes formed in the flat jungle as the river shifted its path.
We head to another well-marked site, Los Pozos Naturales, (The Natural Pools) carved in the rock by a another clear river. As with the previous site, there is no-one but us. We park the car and follow a sign through dense jungle, down a steep slope to a rocky valley. The solitude is unnerving, and I also realise that without a guide it would be easy to get lost here.
The kids are elated by the clear rivers and want more, but I would feel happier with a few more other people around, so we backtrack to San Jose. Tranquilandia is a small farm with a beautiful river with small waterfalls, a swimming hole, and a kiosk with cold drinks where you can hire inflated inner tubes to float around in paradise.
The river also has some beds of Macarenia clavigera algae that form the red colours of the famous rivers in the Serrania La Macarena. Though it lacks the impact of Caño Cristales’ river of five colours.
Time and timelessness is the lingering theme of an amazing weekend. In two days we skimmed the surface of Guaviare. But what little we saw leaves a deep impression, especially treading on the planet’s oldest mantle.
If you enjoy Steve Hide’s writing, visit his blog: www.travelswithmitzi.blogspot.com