Into the Amazon: San José del Guaviare

When I opened my eyes at 7am, we had already crossed the border with Meta Department. We were getting closer and closer to José del Guaviare. I was exhausted after a long, sleepless night on a mini van from Bogota. Yet, I was ready for my adventure into the Amazon, in San José del Guaviare.

The Department of Guaviare, named after the homonymous river, is one of Colombia’s thirty-two departments. It is located in the East of the country, being part of the Amazon region. It has a surface area of 53,460 km², meaning the 4.68% of the national territory, and a population of 112,621 inhabitants. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics DANE, it is the most populated department, only surpassed by Bogotá D.C.

San josé del Guaviare is located about at about 7 hours from Bogota, going south

Its capital is the city of San José del Guaviare – and that’s where we would have stayed with my travel Companions. I decided to join a Road Trip tour to visit the area, mainly because Guaviare is hardly accessible if you’re not accompanied by a local.

Here is why.

Over the last decades, the department of Guaviare has been known mainly as the hotbed of the country’s armed conflict and for the illicit use of crops, primarily coca.

According to the Integrated Illicit Crops Monitoring System (SIMCI), at the end of 2017 there were 6,838 hectares of coca leaf planted in the department of Guaviare. We were going to hear a first hand story about it – coca, exploitation and redemption – from one of our tour guides, a 60 years old man once involved in the coca’s cultivation and trafficking. Today he’s showing the tourists around Cerro Azul – aka my favorite part of the trip. But that only came on day two.

On day one, we got a glimpse of the luxuriant, wild nature of the area. We dove and swam in the natural ponds dug in stone, and crossed the famous Puerta de Orion.

Puerta de Orion

The Puerta de Orión is a rock formation located about 15 minutes from San José del Guaviare. According to local tales, every December, between 7:00 and 9:00 at night, the Belt of Orion can be observed through the upper hole, with the alignment of the three bright stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. 

On the other side of the Puerta

These rocks, which are the product of wind erosion, stand out for their curious (human, natural and imaginary) shapes. This natural space is surrounded by surprisingly stunning fauna and flora. We could admire it fully after crossing the Portal. Showing off a true fashion blogger look, I walked under the 3pm sun until we reach Tranquillandia stream.

Spotted in a truly trendy style

The pink colour that imbues this river with its special beauty is caused by an endemic plant of the region, called Macarenia clavigera. This marvellous plant, exclusive to Colombia’s tropical and subtropical environments, grows between June and December, making it the best time to come visit.

Macarenia clavigera

This stream bears a great resemblance to Caño Cristales, as it exhibits various reddish and greenish tones that are the product of the same aquatic plant that this Meta river has. Caño Cristales looks breathtaking on pictures. However, I couldn’t see it in person. In the the Meta department, where this beautiful river flows, the conflict between illegal groups is still a reality, making it impossible to travel there by land.

The history of Guaviare is not any different.

Tranquilandia stream in San José del Guaviare

Guaviare has been for decades one of the departments with the highest incidence of the armed conflict due to its isolation from the center of the country and the absence of the state. Today, after the signing of the Peace Agreement between the Government and the Farc in 2016, reaching its capital is much easier.

Hundreds of demobilized ex-guerrillas are concentrated in two territorial spaces of the municipality, but the problem of isolation is still latent in the rural municipalities, turning them into a breeding ground for abandonment and illegality.

The area remains highly militarised – I noticed from the jeep, the best transportation means to access the remote areas. That’s also how, on our second day, we got to Cerro Azul, in the Chiribiquete National Natural Park.

The Serranía de Chiribiquete National Natural Park has an area of 4.3 million hectares and is home to ancestral groups who have not had contact with other communities. This territory has an important ecological diversity, since three regions converge there, the Amazon, the Orinoquía and the Andean Region.

2,130 species of flora have been reported, of which sixteen are endemic. Hills-plateaus called “tepuis” break the jungle landscape, adorned with ancient pictograms. It is estimated that there are more than 75 thousand rock images that confirm that these geological formations are some of the oldest on the planet. And that’s the prominent attraction of the park – the Serranía de La Lindosa’s rock art.

We were lucky enough to spot this bird, locally knows as “pollito”

The walls of the Serranía de La Lindosa and the Colombian Amazon represent one of the richest regions in rock art in the Americas. Using local raw materials, the paintings were made with ocher mineral pigments, which gives them the characteristic reddish-terracotta color.

The most representative groups of animals in the Amazon rainforest were painted by local inhabitants in the VIII millennium BC. Animal paintings consist of naturalistic outlines and filled designs. The motifs in the paintings represent humans, animals, plants and geometric motifs. Many of the images appear to represent hunting scenes and ritual dances, showing humans interacting with the plants and animals of the jungle and savanna.

The artists recognized the importance of certain details of the physiognomy and behavior of animals that they wanted their audience to clearly identify. This in turn allows us to identify a diversity of fauna groups such as fish, rays, turtles, alligators, capybaras, deer, porcupines, felines, canids, monkeys and birds.

Animals are usually depicted in profile, although some of them, such as reptiles, are characteristically shown when viewed from above. Animals can be presented individually, with their herd or in a group. They are shown running (deer), jumping or climbing trees (monkeys) or standing up.

Some of the animals are depicted doing stunts and there are movement scenes created by showing the same animal in different positions and in acrobatic act, providing a cinematic sense of movement. In general, figurative elements and particular scenes predominate, indicating that these ancient artists shared graphic codes related to their cultural tradition.

These paintings, which have endured for millennia, probably represent the aftermath of Amazonian’s  world view. These paintings are not just art. They are proof of an ancient and rich cultural heritage of more than 13 thousand years of peaceful coexistence with the nature. A way of life that, unfortunately, is been progressively destroyed by mankind but on which depends the enormous biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest and the future of humanity.

On the last day we swam in the Guaviare river in the heart of the Amazon.

I got 7 mosquito bites in literally 1 minute before I immersed myself in the cold waters of the river. While diving, I would listen to the sounds on nature. And yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about the powerful pictograms of Cerro Azul.

They got engraved in my head, as deeply as they are in stone.

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