I went to see El Abrazo de la Serpiente in Bogota’s excellent alternative cinema, Cine Tonala (check out their website: they show a veriety of independent films from all over the world, serve cracking tacos, and host a weekly soul club!), just after it was first released in 2015 – yep, I know, I’m a shameless hipster – and it wormed it’s way into my brain instantly. Regardless of the story (which is gripping) or the cinematography (which is stunning), my abiding memory of the film is the breathtaking moment when the protagonists bongo canoe first rounds a bend in the Rio Inirida to reveal the Cerros de Mavecure, their peaks draped in ominous cloud, rainwater streaking down their worn and weathered faces, running in rivulets along the seams created by nothing but time. Of course the film names none of these places I’ve just mentioned, and I’d seen images of the Cerros before (it’s sort of my job to know where places in Colombia are – it’s why I bought a children’s foam jigsaw of Colombia’s departments when I first moved here!), but I’d never seen their mystery and impassivity brought so vividly to life before. The film went gone on to garner Colombia’s first ever Oscar nomination, rightly so, and I went on to spend my birthday (coincidentally the same week as the nominations were announced) atop the same cerro where the film’s climatic sequences were filmed…
You can read a more practical travel guide to the Cerros de Mavecure on another recent Colombia Travel Blog post: in this post I simply want to write about the true experience of visiting these ancient hills in the jungle; the emotions they invoke and the way that they confound all your expectations…and they truly do.
I visited the Cerros de Mavecure in January, the height of Guainía’s dry season, and the most popular time to pay a visit to Mavecure and the department’s other sights. Therefore, my experience of these mighty rocks was very different to what you see on the screen in Embrace of the Serpent, but no less revelatory. The hills collectively known as Mavecure are made up of 3 granite monoliths (part of the Guyana Shelf which stretches all the way to Venezuela and Guyana’s tepuis): Mavicure, Pajarito and Mono. The surrounding jungles are scattered with other large hills, and Cerro Diablo for example sits just behind Pajarito making it basically part of the hills themselves. What’s most remarkable perhaps about these sleeping giants is that they are, in fact, just one giant – made up of the same rock, carved and hewn and eroded over time to give the impression of 3 giant hills bisected by a river.
According to the local Puinave people who live in the small community of El Remanso at the foot of Cerro Pajarito, no-one has ever set foot on the top of Cerro Mono and only a few experienced climbers and locals have made it to the summit of the 712m high Pajarito (however, according to the local legend of the Princess of Inirida, a local princess, many years ago, climbed all three in a mad daze, after she was drugged with an overly strong love potion by a local prince, finally entering the heart of Pajarito, where she remains to this day, watching over the people, flora and fauna of the area). Cerro Mavicure, on the other hand, stands at less than 200m and is fairly easily reached on foot with a bit of straightforward ‘climbing’ involved in less than 2 hours. It was this ‘peak’ that I set out to scale on January 12th, at dawn, the day of my 28th birthday.
After a fitful night’s sleep in my ‘poorly-equipped-to-withstand-strong-winds’ tent on a white-sand beach alongside the hill and the Inirida River, I awoke at 4:30am and jumped on the boat that was transporting me for the duration of my 3 day stay at the cerros. We stopped off in El Remanso to collect my guide Timoteo (who was doing this hike barefoot!) and re-crossed the river – we were at the base of Mavicure by 5am, and started our slow methodical ascent side-by-side in the early morning light. Dawn was breaking over the jungle in the east and the birds were beginning to wake up in the forests which were slowly receding behind us as we gradually ascended the rock. Hiking up Mavicure at this time is a truly magical experience: there’s no other soul in sight, the air is still cool, and you can take your time to appreciate the details of the rock and the breathtaking all-encompassing views over the seemingly endless jungles of Guainia.
The first 20 minutes of the hike is a bit of a slog over the exposed bare granite surface of Mavicure before you reach an almost implausible section of jungle forest, clinging on to the side of the rock like a miniature version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Lost World’ – the forgotten isolated forest, home to God-knows-what, lost in time on a rock deep in the jungle. The day had already begun, but on entering this dense forest time seemed to go backwards, and it became dark again under the interlocking dense vegetation. The hiking here was much cooler in the shade and we made faster progress up the rock towards the summit. At one point there was a rustle of commotion and a long thin wedge-headed snake skittered off the path into the thick leaf-litter covering the granite surface of the rock – I’m not frightened of snakes but I instinctively looked to Timoteo for assurance: “Poisonous,” he somberly intoned. “Deadly.”
Suddenly we reached the point where it seemed as if we could not continue in our ascent – a solid impenetrable rock-face reared up from the forest, blocking our progress. As I was wondering how we’d continue Timoteo walked over to a crack in the rock which was concealing an old homemade ladder, twisting upwards towards the top of the rock. We continued our ascent up a series of these old ladders, just bamboo held together with twisted wire that had seen better days. Occasionally we had to use the trunks and branches of trees for leverage to make it over a particularly precariously angled slab of granite, but after another 20 minutes of this we passed out from under the last remnants of vegetation and up a final bare granite slope to reveal the summit of Cerro Mavicure and a complete 360 degree panorama over thousands of miles of jungle, intermittently broken up by the distant rounded figures of small tepuis jutting defiantly out from the green vastness, and the flat waters of various rivers winding through the forest, glinting in the dawn light. You truly feel the deep isolation and solitude in this place. There are some small communities dotted around the surrounding jungles, but head out in any direction and it will be a long time before you run into any major development.
Arriving at the summit at this time makes the experience even more engrossing and magical: unlike my afternoon ascent, at dawn you can enjoy the light of the sunrise playing with the shadows of the peaks – Cerro Mono began bathed in a red glow with the shadow of the peak upon which we stood cast prominently against it’s solid flank. We sat side-by-side in the gradually warming dawn sun and just watched, as the shadow gradually receded, the mists rose, and the deep green of the jungle was gradually revealed in the vast distance. Timoteo recounted the legends of Puinave lore, including the Princess of Inirida tale, which took on a deeper resonance atop these mighty rocks. He told me that he had never actually seen Embrace of the Serpent, in spite of the fact that it had employed local guides from his community and was filmed in these deeply sacred spaces. And make no mistake, these hills are sacred to local indigenous groups, and it’s not hard to understand that deep spiritual connection sitting here in the sunshine, gazing at this view. In searching for visions of eternity you could do a lot worse than these rocks, as old as almost any in the country. After several peaceful hours it was time to begin our descent: the sun was getting stronger and we were highly exposed to its rays sitting up on this bare peak. And I had to return to Inirida, a prospect that didn’t fill me with joy: the town is very nice, sitting on a bend in the river which is like a factory for spectacular sunsets, but this place was like something from a dream, or maybe a hallucination. And I wasn’t quite ready to leave it behind just yet. But it was time and we began to slowly wind our way down the path.
The Mavecure Hills don’t appear on any ‘best of Colombia’ lists; you won’t read about them in the articles that major newspapers are starting to commission about Colombia. After years in the positive news wilderness Colombia is popping up in all sorts of places nowadays, and it’s wonderful to see so much love for the country around the world. But these articles tend to focus overwhelmingly on the same few places, which leaves many incredible destinations struggling. These mightly hills in the depths of the jungle might just be the best place in Colombia that you’ve never heard of: I firmly believe that if they were located in a more developed travel country they would be one of the ‘must-see’ sights on every itinerary. My experience there was a once-in-a-lifetime one: it’s rare that you get to celebrate a birthday in a place that almost seems to predate the modern civilisation that I was born into. And that truly is what Mavecure feels like: a sort of lost world. Perhaps I haven’t done it justice, but it’s a place that words don’t really do justice to (or photos for that matter) – you need to go there. So…just go there.