There are 32 departments in Colombia. They range from isolated jungle regions in the south and east of the country to Caribbean island redoubts off the coast of Nicaragua; from Andean mountain regions, to the vast plains of the east; coastal deserts to the one of the wettest places on the planet. Most foreign tourists in Colombia will see very few of these departments. Virtually none of them will visit Tolima department. Tolima, lying between glamorous Bogota and the ever-popular coffee region, is a region of Colombia that many people fly over or pass through on buses. However, it has a great deal to offer visitors to Colombia…
I recently paid a visit to the town of Chaparral in Tolima at the invitation of Link To Trip, a collaborative group of Colombia bloggers with the shared goal of exploring Colombia and showing off it’s lesser-known regions to the world. We went to explore what this town, just 4 hours by bus from Bogota and set on a large plain between the Eastern and Central ranges of the Colombian Andes, has to offer travellers in Colombia. We discovered many exciting activities (listed at the end of this post), but what stood out for me were the Tuluni caves: an attraction that has the potential to become a hugely popular destination for those travellers seeking adventure in under-visited and unexplored places.
Arriving at these magnificent caves is no easy feat, but that is certainly part of the huge off-the-beaten-track appeal they hold: you’re not going to meet many other travellers, Colombian or foreign, who have visited the Tuluni caves, that’s for sure! The morning began early with a delicious and filling 6am breakfast at Chaparral’s hectic and authentic farmer’s market, before we hopped onto the local colectivo jeep that makes the trip into the mountains south of the town. My fellow blogger Lina (of Patoneando) and I jumped straight onto the two ‘seats’ on the front of the jeep roof for the 45 minute journey to the vereda of Tuluni, a decision we came to regret as the combination of unpaved roads and wooden slatted seating took it’s toll on our…well, you know! We arrived, a bit bruised and battered but ready for a hike, and set off into the Tolima countryside.
The walk was lovely (but bring repellent, it’s a bit mosquito-y): a long, but relatively easy hike through farmland and woods, before arriving at the first of several river crossings – this is where the real fun began! The first main crossing could easily be done on foot across the shallow river, but the precarious action movie rope bridge was calling my name (see the cover photo for Lina crossing this bridge)! We then crossed one more shallow river before plunging downhill along a thin, precipitous jungle path into the narrow canyon that shelters the majestic caves we had come to visit. Parrots wheeled overhead, screeching in anger at the invasion of their otherwise tranquil abode, as we came to an abrupt halt at the entrance to the headline attraction in Chaparral: La Catedral, the gigantic cave pictured below. And what a cave it is! What at first seems like a narrow entrance gives way to a majestic cavernous space, intersected by a clear, cold river. At first I though we were simply going to enjoy the views of the cave from above, but we followed a trail along the cave mouth and soon found ourselves down by the river, enjoying the breathtaking spectacle of the cave walls surrounding us and the distant ceiling towering overhead. The ‘Cathedral’ cave is a simply magnificent sight, made all the more incredible by it’s completely hidden location, and lack of accessibility.
We then hoisted our bags overhead (easier for me, harder for my much smaller travel companions!) and waded along the river, wincing somewhat at the ice-cold waters in the shadow of the giant cave. As we passed from the shadows into the intense midday Tolima sun, the waters began to take on a bottle-green hue, the lush jungles appeared on either side of us, and the sheer wonder of the canyon in which we found ourselves became apparent. Sheer walls, at least a hundred feet high, shot up from the sides of the narrow, fast-flowing river, trees clinging precariously to cracks in the rock, which, with it’s uniform cracks and horizontal slabs, took on the appearance of some ancient lost jungle civilization. We continued to wade along the river, passing lovely little waterfalls tumbling from the canyon sides, before reaching the second major cave of our trip: la cueva de los guacharos, or the Oilbird Cave. This cave is almost the opposite of the ‘Cathedral’ cave: where the latter is vast and wide, earning it’s name, the former is narrow and pitch-black, hence it’s name – this cave is the abode of a colony of oilbirds; ghostly, strange nocturnal birds that feel their way in the darkness with pale whiskers, and screech and moan like ghouls in the blackness.
We all had torches for the visit to this cave (bring a head-torch if you can, it’s easier), and began to wade along the chest-high water into the darkness. The cave winds and twists into the canyon walls, and within a hundred metres or so the natural light had disappeared entirely, and the oilbird’s screeching overhead had intensified. We continued into the cave along the river (the source of which has yet to be found), admiring the birds and bats, the stalactites and stalagmites glittering like diamonds in the torchlight, and the echos from the narrow walls. At one point we all turned off our torches and let the darkness swallow us whole: the sensation after a few minutes is extremely disorientating, and I was quite glad to be back outside the cave when we eventually headed back to the river.
After all this activity everyone was in need of a rest, so we all took a relaxing dip in the sun-warmed river pools in front of the cave mouth, while our guide Milton’s family prepared a fresh sancocho soup in a big pot on a nearby beach. We enjoyed this rustic feast sitting in the water by the beach, and washed it down with a flask of hot tinto coffee before packing up our bags and hiking back along the river to the trail back to civilization (this is truly what a visit to the Tuluni Caves feels like, as if you are stepping off the map for a day, before finding your way gradually back to the real world).
When LinkToTrip invited me to discover the Tuluni Caves and Chaparral, I was slightly hesitant, I’ll admit: it’s not that I didn’t want to explore a new part of Colombia (that’s basically my favourite thing to do!), but I wasn’t sure if there was going to anything special or exciting there to experience; something that would inspire me to write about the area and it’s attractions. Let’s just say that I wasn’t hesitant once I had explored the Tuluni Caves for the day: they are absolutely magnificent, satisfyingly difficult to visit, completely off-the-beaten-track, and well-worth your time for a visit!
Here’s a video of our visit (including some nice shots of yours truly – check out my epic jump at 0:50!) made by Juan Diego from Que Llevar Travel, featuring all of the other activities featured below, plus some spectacular shots of the caves we explored…
Other Activities in Chaparral
- La Tigrera Waterfalls – a reasonably short hike from the edge of the town are the popular local waterfalls and swimming holes of Tigrera. There are two pools and two waterfalls, but the top waterfall is the most spectacular, tumbling from the high cliffs into a deep, warm swimming pool below. The bottom pool is less beautiful, but features some great high rocks for jumping.
- Tejo! – The town of Chaparral has a cracking cancha de tejo, where locals gather to enjoy the peculiar Colombian sport. The atmosphere is relaxed and a bit drunken, but there’s not much more enjoyable than a few beers and a game tejo in a little Colombian town.
- Guarapo – this fermented alcoholic drink is a popular rural Colombian drink with indigenous origins, and can be sampled in a few guaraperias around the town – we stopped off for a delicious guarapo de pina (pineapple) on the walk back from La Tigrera: refreshing and with a hint of alcohol…perfect after a hike!
- The main square and the church – the main square of Chaparral is large and spacious, and especially good for food and drink. In the day there are men serving raspado, a sort of flavored shaved ice, and food stalls open at night. The church is large and tranquil, with Sistine Chapel-inspired murals on the ceiling. We also climbed up the tower for commanding views over the plain of Tolima, with the mountains in the distance.
Note: I visited Chaparral and the Tuluni Caves thanks to LinkToTrip. The hike to the caves would be basically impossible to do without a knowledgeable guide, and Milton was just that: patient, friendly and safety-conscious. If you are interested in experiencing the Tuluni Caves and Chaparral for yourself, then click on the image below…