Colombia is many different things to many different people. But for me Colombia is a country of water and jungle, of rivers and trees – most tourism adverts might show the soft pastels of Cartagena, or the urban cool of Bogota and Medellin, even the folded green mountains of the coffee region, but a full third of Colombia is made up of the vast forests of Orinoquia and Amazonas, and the mighty rivers and plains of the llanos orientales. This is a Colombia that many visitors, and even Colombians, don’t see; a Colombia that many foreigners barely know exists. This is the Colombia of Von Humboldt, Richard Evans Shultes, Wade Davis: great explorers and adventurers. It’s the Colombia of Jose Eustacio Rivera, of La vorágine. “The Vortex” (as it is called in English) is one of Colombia’s great novels; a searing, coruscating tale of violence and death in the rubber trade of the Colombian jungle. It is also a lyrical hymn to the beauty of the great plains and the impenetrable jungles of the east. And I recently found myself on my own journey to the heart of the vortex, sailing down two of the east’s mighty waterways to Orocué, to the house where Eustacio Rivera first dreamt up his epic Amazon novel. This is what continues to enchant me about Colombia: how many tourists have heard of the Cravo Sur river, or indeed Orocué itself? Very few. Yet, lying on the prow of a slow barge along this river, as the sun set over the jungles and macaws streaked overhead, has already become one of my most cherished Colombian travel memories, and yet more proof of what I have believed for some time: Colombia has a seemingly infinite numbers of wonders to offer the world. We’ve barely scratched the surface…
It was a happy accident that I even ended up having this amazing experience: the schedule of the press trip called for a fast-boat down the Cravo Sur River, joining the Meta River and arriving in Orocué after roughly an hour. These type of trips rarely run on time, and when we arrived at a small bridge crossing the Cravo Sur we were already behind schedule by a few hours. I wasn’t holding out that much hope for this section of the trip: fast-boats are fun for a while, but usually zip along so quickly that there’s precious little time to enjoy the scenery, much less watch out for birds and animals, as is my wont. Fate was on my side though (if not on the side of the poor organisers, frantically trying to stay on top of the ever-lengthening schedule) – the fast-boat hadn’t turned up, and we were ‘forced’ to contract a large, flat-bottomed barge-like boat for the journey. This vessel crawled along the slow-moving river: we were in for a long haul. Fine by me…
I positioned myself at the prow of the boat (see the cover photo) with my fellow bird enthusiast Guillermo (who owns an amazing eco-hotel in the Pacific, check it out!) and got ready for the gentle journey downriver. It was to be some of the most enjoyable 5-odd hours of my time travelling in Colombia. The Cravo Sur is fringed by llanos forest and palm-groves, and the gentle flow of the river is punctuated by wide sandy beaches. For the next few hours of daylight we enjoyed wonderful sightings of classic llanos species: cabybaras crowding the steep river-banks, caiman lazily basking in the sunshine on the beaches, Orinoco Geese (as always, in pairs….we could learn something from these beautiful geese!) and giant Jabiru storks. The diversity was remarkable, and there are pink river dolphins here too, although we weren’t lucky enough to see any. I recorded an interview for Casanare’s tourism department and I was constantly being distracted by some new natural wonder just out of shot!
In the breaks between bird sightings I chatted to William, our captain for the journey, a pensive older man who spent much of the trip sitting in silence on the prow, quietly directing the pilot along the deeper channels of the river – William has been piloting boats along these llanos rivers since he was a teenager, and working on boats since his childhood. He lamented the lack of young people taking up the profession, and how, these days, you barely need to be trained to do the job; in his day, a licence and exam were required. He told me tales of boat journeys along the Meta, past Orocué and onto Puerto Carreño in Vichada, and set me dreaming of future Colombian travels in these wild plains.
As we reached the mighty confluence of the Cravo Sur and Meta rivers (with still a fair way to go until we reached Orocué I might add) the sun was beginning to set. Macaws and ibises streaked overhead, returning to their roosts for the evening, and I lay back on the flat prow to watch the sunset and enjoy the stars as they slowly began to appear. Llanos sunsets are rightly famous in Colombia, and this one was no less special than I’ve come to expect. Crusing slowly down the river, our gentle wake danced and played with the deep orange glow of the sunset; the ripples and waves catching the light to create some stunning patterns on the waters of the river. I’ve scarcely been so relaxed during a trip: lying there on the smooth, worn wood of the prow I contemplated the deep silence of the coming night and slowly dozed off.
When I awoke I could make out the soft lights of a small town on the distant left bank of the wide river: it felt more like Orocué had reached us, rather than the other way around, such was the speed of our craft. We had arrived too late to enjoy much of the town itself: we were met at the docks by the local alcaldia and tourism representatives and spirited away in a flotilla of tuk-tuks to our accommodation for the evening.The following morning, prior to a visit to the giant Orinoco Crocodiles of Wisirare Park (stars of Magia Salvaje!), we took some time to explore the town. Orocué lies along the banks of the Meta River, so wide by this point that the far bank is nothing but a distant green strip hovering above the sluggish waters, and is justifiably proud of it’s literary heritage.
Jose Eustacio Rivera lived here for just over a year between 1918-1919, but his experiences in the vast eastern plains of Colombia forever marked the Huila-born future-author. The sunsets, flocks of parrots and herons, wild landscapes and wilder men that Rivera experienced in Orocué were the initial seed that eventually took root and grew into one of the greatest Colombian novels ever written. The riverside malecon of the town is decorated with a series of murals and statues dedicated to Rivera and La vorágine. The tourism route concludes in the house where Rivera lived and first dreamt up what would become his defining literary statement. Not much of his legacy remains, bar a small rickety desk and metal candle holder, but for any devotee of Colombian literature or La vorágine it is akin to a pilgrimage – tour companies are starting to offer Garcia Marquez tours, but for the truly adventurous traveller/bibliophile the riverboat to Orocué is surely a must.
The eastern plains of Colombia are vast and barely touched by tourism: Casanare, Arauca, Vichada and Meta are names that few foreigners ever hear and yet they make up a huge swathe of the country. Yet Casanare has laid witness to some of my most unique and magical travel moments in Colombia: wading through knee-deep swamps in search of birds and monkeys, coming face to face with the largest crocodiles in the Americas, riding a horse across vast pastures, the horizon nothing but a faint line in the endless distance. And now sailing down the Cravo Sur river to Orocué, home of ‘The Vortex,’ as the sun is swallowed up by the vastness and the birds shriek overhead.
How to visit Orocué: this exact trip was practically a first for Casanare tourism: as a group of journalists and tour operators we were making the journey for the first time as visitors (plus, the slow-boat part was unplanned). However, there are plans to turn this trip into an available tourism activity once this year’s dry season ends and the river is navigable again (which should be roughly between April and November). To arrange the trip (prices negotiable depending on numbers, activities etc.) you can contact the following 3 Casanare tour operators: Casanare Natural (311 2149690 or on their website), Fundacion Cunaguaro (3108602629), or new agency Quality (3115617330). Simply enquire about the possibility of taking the boat to Orocué.