We were somewhere on the edge of Meta near the banks of the river when the visions began to take hold: suddenly the silence of the jungle was broken by the sound of exhaling and splashing as the surface of the brown river was broken by the most surreal creatures I could ever have dreamt up – strange shaped dolphins with long beaks and they were…yes, my eyes weren’t fooling me…pink, bright pink against the dull browns and greens and grays of a July llanos sky…Only these weren’t visions brought on by some psychedelics-fueled evening, but the botos of the Colombian plains – quite real river dolphins, famous for their bright pink coloration.
I should backtrack for a second: I said we were somewhere on the edge of Meta; to be more precise we were on a small boat at the meeting point of the rivers Meta, Manacacias and Yucao, having set off a couple of hours earlier at dawn from the docks of Puerto Gaitan, a small, riverside town of some 18,000 inhabitants deep into the plains department of Meta, near to the southern border of Casanare, and only another hour or so until the border of Vichada. The paved roads end in Puerto Gaitan; it’s the end of the (smooth driving) line, and the spot my friend and I had chosen for our long weekend in search of the pink dolphins of the Rio Meta.
I had read about Puerto Gaitan a few weeks earlier: a place less than 7 hours by bus from Bogota, via Villavicencio, with little to recommend it but for the fact that you could hire a boat and head out onto to the surrounding rivers and stand a fairly good chance of encountering perhaps South America’s most mysterious and strange mammal. There was also the added bonus of toucans, macaws and parrots, as well as the chance to experience a slice of life in perhaps Colombia’s most distinct region: the llanos orientales.
The rivers surrounding Puerto Gaitan burst their banks during the wet season and flood the surrounding plains, forests and villages to form vast inland lakes, with only the tops of trees and telephone lines forlornly sticking out from the waters to remind you that what you’re looking at was once land: this makes locating the dolphins much trickier than during the dry season, as their habitat and range increases with the waters. However, an experienced boatman knows that they fish in the deeper parts of the river, and can usually, with a little patience, locate them. Selso Torres seemed to be just that: he met us at the docks on our arrival the previous evening and proposed a dawn trip of 3 hours on his small boat in search of the botos. This is the option I’d recommend to anyone serious about enjoying the natural wonders of the rivers: the main tourist boats will leave throughout the day upon request, but are much larger and will, in the words of one pilot, “play music for you if you like.” No, I wouldn’t like: searching for elusive and shy animals is rarely easy, and booming music certainly doesn’t help…
So we set out into driving dawn rain at about 6am: leaving the town via the Manacacias, heading north, we soon diverted our course off the main channel through some magical tunnels formed by the canopy of trees and the flooding of the forest; these tunnels, expertly navigated by Selso, eventually sent us into the vast meeting point of the 3 aforementioned rivers; a deep, fish-filled section of river, favored by the dolphins. We didn’t have to wait long: within ten minutes a pair of botos had arrived near our boat, and proceeded to spend the next half hour hunting around us: splashing, breaching, flicking their tails, and generally making a mockery of their shy reputation. The first paragraph may have been slightly tongue-in-cheek, but watching these animals does truly feel somewhat hallucinogenic: their shape and color against the dull background of a rainy llanos dawn is truly strange and magical.
After enjoying a quick swim in the river, with the dolphins still surfacing not more than ten feet from me, Selso motored on upstream, switched of the motor, and proceeded to take a nap, punctuated at regular intervals by large snores, which sounded more dolphin than man! We weren’t quite sure what the plan was, but it soon became clear: aware of our interest in birds, he had planned this down to the letter – as the slow current took us back downstream we were treated to a truly remarkable spectacle of tropical birds: groups of ten toucans, parrots, small flocks of macaws, and huge kingfishers all appeared along the forested river banks. The guttural baying of Howler Monkeys sounded deep in the forest, primal and unnerving in the overcast dawn. It was almost impossible to believe that all this was just seven hours from the chilly Andean heights of Colombia’s capital.
A visit to Puerto Gaitan might not appear on many ‘best of Colombia’ lists, and I’m not sure the guidebooks even merit it a mention, but I would recommend a visit to anyone with an interest in exploring some of Colombia’s lesser-known areas, and to anyone with a passion for wildlife. Sure, you can see these dolphins in the Amazon, but this is just seven hours on bus from Bogota, and a hugely under-visited place. So the next time you find yourself with a free weekend, hop on an eastbound bus, and go in search of the pink dolphins of Puerto Gaitan.
Practical Guide: Buses from Bogota to Villavicencio leave regularly from the central terminal: they take roughly 4 hours to arrive in Meta’s capital. We traveled with Bolivariano, and paid 40.000COP. From Villavicencio, take a bus with either Bolivariano or Flota la Macarena to Puerto Gaitan: it costs roughly 30.000COP and takes between 3-4 hours max. In Puerto Gaitan we stayed in Hotel Paradiso: a simple hotel on the main square, with two-bed privates for 20.000COP per person. Our guide, Selso works from ‘Transporte Fluvial El Boral’: the floating, yellow structure down by the river docks. Renting a boat and guide cost 100.000COP: but ask to leave at dawn on the smaller boat for a longer trip.