I often feel like a broken record on this blog – I find myself constantly repeating the assertion that I have just visited one of my new favourite places in Colombia, that ‘X’ destination was unbelievably beautiful and undiscovered and it was my new top tip for Colombian travel etc. etc. The problem is that it’s all true, and that really keeps happening to me whenever I travel in Colombia: there are so many amazing places to visit here, and tourism has barely scratched the surface of Colombia’s unparalleled diversity. Case in point: Tuparro National Park in Vichada department, which I was lucky enough to visit earlier this month thanks to a kind invitation from SATENA airline.
Tuparro is Colombia’s ‘Lost World‘ (along with Chiribiquete National Park, but that is closed to visitors) – a vast, barely explored wilderness of savannah, jungles and rivers on the eastern border with Venezuela. Only a small fraction can be visited by tourists, but that fraction includes the Maipures rapids, the Orinoco River, indigenous villages, ancient rock formations, hidden waterfalls and rivers and much more. Yet, remarkably (I actually had to ask them to check these numbers before I took them seriously), Tuparro saw just 300 tourists in the whole of 2016, and I was number 61 for 2017 (in June!). Yes, it’s an expensive place to visit, putting many would-be tourists off, but many people here spend more on a holiday in Cartagena or a weekend in Miami. Tuparro is truly one of Colombia’s most off-the-beaten-track travel experiences, and it was (broken record time, sorry!) one of the most unique travel experiences I have enjoyed in Colombia.
The trip began in the small riverside city of Puerto Carreno, on the banks of the Orinoco and Meta rivers, and just across from the Venezuelan border. From there we continued south by 4×4 to the tiny riverside settlement of Garcitas, where we met with our guide for the next few days: Ariel runs the tourism company Viajeros del Orinoco, and is a biologist who worked in the park, where he met his wife Monica, who is now his partner in the business. The journey to Garcitas took a good four hours, involved a couple of river crossings on old metal barges, and during the entire journey we never passed another vehicle going in either direction. Suffice it to say, where we were headed was fairly isolated. We met with Ariel in Garcitas, drank a quick tinto to shake off the fatigue of the car journey, jumped into his boat and set off for Tuparro.
Bordered by the Tomo River to the north, the Tuparro River to the south, and the Orinoco to the east, El Tuparro National Natural Park was created almost 50 years ago and covers an area of 548,000 hectares. Roughly 75% of the park is made up of flooded and non-flooded savannas, and much of the rest is gallery forest. Giant rocky outcrops, remnants of the ancient Guiana Shield, punctuate the jungles and plains, overlooking the mighty rivers snaking through the park. A tiny percentage of this vast ecosystem has been properly explored and only a fraction is open to tourists. We were to spend two nights in Tuparro, visiting the principal attractions with Ariel.
After around a 45 minute journey along the Orinoco in the lancha, we arrived at our accommodation. In the dry season – when the mighty river recedes, revealing hundreds of wide sandy beaches along its banks – guests sleep out by the river in tents; we were arriving at the onset of the rainy season, and the river had already risen and covered up the beaches. We were to be staying in the most surreal place I have probably ever slept: an abandoned young offenders institute on the banks of the river. We slept in a huge tent laid out on a concrete floor (we had mattresses!) under cover of a raised platform by the river. The whole surreal place was watched over by a giant statue of Simon Bolivar’s head; he gazed impassively out at the river, and a small tree was growing from his head. It reminded me of a slightly more modern version of the dystopian Mission from the film ‘Embrace of the Serpent.’ So far, so strange.
After settling in, eating some breakfast (there are cooks and a kitchen there, and the set up was excellent, as was the food), and settling into our tent, we hopped back in the boat and set off for the park visitor centre at Maipures. After receiving the obligatory National Park entrance lecture, we hiked along the river behind the park offices to visit probably the most iconic and exciting attraction in Tuparro: the Maipures rapids. These magnificent rapids, containing over 70 islands among their thundering waters, were christened the 8th Wonder of the World by Alexander Von Humboldt when he travelled along this stretch of the Orinoco in the 19th century.
And what a sensory overload the rapids are: more like a connected series of hundreds of rapids, the noise is overwhelming and almost impossible to properly describe here. Images can’t capture the sheer scale of Maipures; you can’t even squeeze all of them into one panoramic photograph. The maelstrom of water comes as something of a shock after cruising along the relatively calm waters between Garcitas and Tuparro, but far from an unpleasant one. The rapids are among the most stirring sights I have seen in Colombia – I knew Maipures would be beautiful, but it truly took my breath away. I have always admired Humboldt (yep, I was that teenager whose heroes were dead 18th century German scientists) and, once again, he was proven to be dead right: the Maipures Rapids may not be the 8th wonder of the world, but they are up there with the most incredible natural spectacles in Colombia, if not the continent.
We returned to camp via the meeting point of the Orinoco and Tomo rivers, where we watched the sun going down with a group of Venezuelan fishermen. Pink river dolphins fished in the waters around our boat, and the sunset cast perfect reflections on the calm waters of the Tomo. There was not a sound to be heard, and a full moon gradually rose over the jungles as night fell.
The next day we rose early – there was some confusion here because apparently, Tuparro follows Venezuelan time, and my phone hadn’t gotten the memo – and set off back to Maipures. We docked up at the office again, pausing to purchase a couple of huge cachama fish for upcoming lunches and dinners, and set off on a hike along the nearby Attalea trail. This hike passes through the forest to the top of a nearby hill offering panoramic views over the jungle, savannah and the rapids. It’s hot, sweaty work in the jungle humidity, but it was worth it for the view: the scale of Maipures was doubly evident from this privileged vantage point and the savannahs, wet with the night’s rain and almost fluorescent green, stretched to the distant horizon. The view past the rapids into Venezuela was equally remarkable – the multitude of tepui-like hills jutting out of the jungle was quite overwhelming, and I found myself not quite knowing which way to look. We soon headed down, as the clouds above were starting to spit, and the smooth rocks of the Guiana Shield become treacherously slippery when wet. We walked back to the boats via another section of the rapids. It almost feels like overkill to describe once again how powerful and beautiful they were. Rest assured, we took a very long time to be dragged by Ariel back to the boat.
Our next stop was upriver along the adjacent Tuparro River, to visit a Sikuani indigenous community and somewhere called Cano Lapa – Ariel had kept his cards close to the chest with this place, but he was promising something special. We motored upstream, passing vast savannahs and huge hills on the way, before reaching a small dock. We moored the boat and walked along a path in the forest which, before long, opened up into savannah and revealed the small cluster of about 10 thatched huts making up the only resident community in the park.
The Sikuani people have inhabited these plains for hundreds of years and are quite unaccustomed to receiving visitors. We were greeted warmly though and shown around the village by the community leader. His mother-in-law showed us how they make casabe, a thick bread-like food made from cassava flour, which must be expertly prepared in order to leach out the cyanide which is naturally contained in the plant and can lead to death if improperly prepared. They also showed me the hot peppers they grow, and eat whole, raw! I nibbled the tiniest piece from the tip of one pepper and my tongue felt as if I had lit it on fire. I was sweating for a good hour afterwards. The smallest children seemed quite intimidated by me. I asked one young lad how old he was, and he shrugged and said he didn’t know. The mother of one little boy, Moises, explained that he had never seen anyone with a beard like mine – ragged and deep red – and he wanted to touch it. He duly did, with a somewhat perturbed look on his face, and the older folk joked that I looked like a giant Howler Monkey, which proved a popular joke.
The community leader then guided us away from the village and into the jungle. We hiked for about half an hour before reaching the banks of a small river, where we turned from the path and climbed up the edge of a rocky outcrop. This took us to the mysterious Caño Lapa. Let me tell you, Ariel had been right to keep this place a secret! The river here has worn a long, smooth channel through the rock, which rises on either side like a miniature canyon carved into the ancient stone. At one point the river splits into two channels, one raging over a small waterfall, and the other flowing directly over the rocky hill, creating something akin to a natural waterslide. A giant, egg-like boulder perched precariously above the narrow channel. If Maipures is the iconic, Humboldt-endorsed razzle-dazzle of Tuparro, then the barely known Caño Lapa is its younger, cooler brother. That is the beauty of Tuparro: so little has been written about it, and there are so few photos online, that it is a constant surprise how beautiful and diverse it really is. I had never even heard of Caño Lapa until that day.
So then it’s back to the village, and Moises’ faintly accusing gaze, and then on to the Tuparro River and the boat ride back to camp. There was still time to drift along the Venezuelan bank of the Orinoco, watching hawks and macaws flying past while the sun went down. We were treated to a full show by the river dolphins this time: they surrounded our boat, and one even leapt fully from the water with the sun setting at its back. Nature had been spoiling us so far, and we still had a final morning to enjoy.
Our final activity was heavily weather-dependent – the plan was to climb up Cerro Guahibo, one of the rocky hills overlooking Maipures. As I mentioned earlier, these rounded rocky cerros get devilishly slippery when wet, taking on the surface integrity of a bar of soap. They are also exceptionally beautiful during, and after, rain, as small ‘rivers’ that have eroded along the rock (like a mini version of Cano Lapa) flow down their smooth faces, looking like tears streaking across their faces (as with the more famous Mavecure Hills in Guainia). If it was raining hard when we woke up, there was no chance of scaling Guahibo, so I curled up under my blanket that night, praying for clear skies.
I was in luck, because I awoke to, if not clear skies, at least a lack of rain, and Ariel announced that, following a quick tinto, we would head off and give it a try. It had rained overnight, so when we arrived at the foot of the rocky hill, – which is technically located in Venezuela – it soon became apparent that this wouldn’t exactly be an easy ascent. The still-wet base of the hill, yet to dry out as the sun slowly rose over the jungle, was like walking on an icy road, and my feet felt constantly as if they were about to give out from under me. We inched slowly up the initial steep ascent, often holding hands to create a three-person human chain until we reached a section that had already started to dry under the intensity of the sun. The climb was stunning: the higher we edged, the more the view opened up over the park to our backs. When we reached the ridge which we would follow to the viewpoint over the rapids, we were treated to a remarkable view of Venezuela and its endless vista of similar rocky hills in the jungle. We hiked along the top of Guahibo, stopping regularly to enjoy the ever-changing vistas of Tuparro stretching out in front of us, until we reached a small forest, and followed a worn path through the trees to reach our final stop.
Since we began the hike, Ariel had been keeping his eyes and ears open for these ancient hills’ most surprising resident: tiny black and green poison dart frogs from the genus dendrobates. We had heard their calls already – long, drawn-out thrilling whistles low down in the undergrowth – but had yet to see one of the notoriously shy little things. Upon entering this small patch of jungle we heard another one calling and I soon spotted movement in the dense leaf-litter to my left. Upon moving closer I was rewarded with an excellent view of one of the colourful little frogs hopping along the forest floor, before quietly heading off into the dense undergrowth. Tuparro seems to be filled with these unexpected, thoroughly surreal experiences!
Before long we reached the end of our hike: a stunning viewpoint over the entirety of Maipures, with the Orinoco flowing into the vast green distance. We keep returning to Maipures – both literally and figuratively in this blog post – so I can’t keep emphasising how remarkably beautiful and surreal it is. We sat there for ages, taking it all in, before turning around and heading back to the boat. Descending was much more pleasant as the sun had already heated up the rock and dried away the night’s rain. We hopped back in the canoe and headed back to camp, from where we returned to Garcitas – following a delicious breakfast of fried cachama – and the long 4×4 ride back to Puerto Carreno.
All told, I spent just two nights and two-and-a-half days exploring Tuparro – regular tours are 3night/4 days usually – but what a couple of days they were! Thunderous rapids; ancient rocky hills as old as the continent; thick, unexplored jungles home to indigenous villages; mighty rivers and hidden streams; birds, poisonous frogs, giant fish; majestic sunsets and pink dolphins. Tuparro is barely touched by tourism, but perhaps offers Colombia’s greatest off-the-beaten-track travel experience. Tuparro doesn’t come cheap or easy, but it’ll be a place you’ll be talking about for years to come.
Travel note: I travelled to Tuparro National Park with SATENA – who have daily flights to Puerto Carreno – and thanks to the expert guiding of Viajeros del Orinoco. I can’t recommend Ariel more highly as a guide: professional, knowleagable, well-prepared, and great fun, he was everything you want in a guide in such an isolated and biodiverse place. Any trip to this wilderness with him would be a pleasure. You can contact Viajeros del Orinoco through their website, or check out photos from their tours on their Facebook page (guess who that is on the cover photo!).