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INCREDIBLE KAYAKING IN COLOMBIA


by Mark Hentze

Kayaking in Colombia

When we first came to Colombia, we quickly realized the countries unlimited potential for whitewater! From little streams to huge rivers, in the desert or in the jungle, the variety is unequaled! Add to the fact that the temperature is always pleasant and abundant in rain. All this means boating daily; you have the ideal winter paddling destination!

The main challenge is the transport and local beta! At the beginning we used public transportation and just finding the river could take days! Also very little runs where known, it took repeated venue to figure out water levels. Over the years we have acquired an unequalled knowledge of Colombian whitewater, and acquired appropriate vehicles to access these areas!

In a few words, Colombia is a whitewater paradise, but logistics is complicated! In order to make you’re trip simple and stress free, we have developed various ways of helping you paddle efficiently the best whitewater there is!

 

Sample Itinerary:

 


Day 1: Gear review, visit of the village, kayaking on the Magdalena, class 2 (1 hour)
 

Day 2- 5: Depending on water levels/group level:-Rio Magdalena / Lower Section: This class 2/3 section is ideal to get back in you’re boat and feel the flow again.

- Rio Magdalena / Middle section: This section has many fun rapids, each backed up with a pool, perfect for building up confidence (class 3)!

-Rio Madgedalena / Estrecho section: This beautiful big water section is mostly class 3 with a few nice class 4. Here the Magdalena flows deep in a luxurious canyon, and there are many waterfalls cascading down the canyon walls. This section takes about 3 hours to complete!

-Rio Somberio: an extremely fun low volume class 3 run. Get you’re boof on !

-Rio Naranjos: the Naranjo has numerous fun drops and technical moves! This low volume creek is a step up from the other run around!

-Rio Mazamorras / Lower section: 17 Km of class 3/4. This run is packed with fun moves that will get your heart going!

Day 6-7: Multi day trip on the Magdalena.  In the morning we will drive high up the mountains, to the village of Quinchana. From there it’s 40 kilometres of pristine whitewater! We stop half way to enjoy the views and relax in the evening by the river!

Next day an other 4 hours of fun class ¾ awaits. This is the ultimate jungle trip!!!

 

In the south of Colombia, just north of the Ecuador border, on the Amazon side of the Andes Mountains is the department of Putumayo. Putumayo is still considered “El Corazón” or the heart of the guerrilla territory, but in recent years security has improved around Mocoa, the capital city of the department of Putumayo. To the south and east of Mocoa, in “Los Llanos” or the plains which are part of the Amazon Basin, many areas are still controlled by the guerrillas and are not considered safe for traveling. Mocoa receives rainfall from storms that make there way over the Andes mountains from the Pacific Ocean and from storms from the Atlantic Ocean which cross the Amazon Basin making it one of the wettest places in Colombia. Where there is a lot of rain there are many rivers. The Andes Mountains abruptly rise to over 4000 meters just behind Mocoa, and they are covered by thick cloud forest and jungle vegetation. Mocoa is surrounded by rivers which are perfect for kayaking. Near Mocoa there are small technical creeks, such as the Rio Pepino and big volume rivers, such as the Rio Caquetá. In recent years a few kayakers have explored the rivers near Mocoa and have found some of the nicest rivers in Colombia, many of them within an hour or less of Mocoa which makes Mocoa one of the best places in Colombia to spend some time kayaking.

Rio Caqueta

The Canyon of the Rio Caquetá. One of the most beautiful rivers in the world.

During January of 2011, Mark Hentze, Maud Verboven and David Kashinski spent about a week exploring some of the rivers near Mocoa. The Rio Caquetá is perhaps one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. Mark Hentze, Maud Verboven and David Kashinski did the first kayak descent in January of 2011. The only beta we had was a quick look at Google Earth and stories, or the legends, from the locals. The Rio Caquetá goes under a bridge on the main highway from Bogotá to Mocoa just 30 minutes from Mocoa and then flattens out in “Los Llanos” near the small pueblo of Puerto Límon. There is a police check point in Mocoa where they search for contraband such as the essential liquids necessary for the cocaine laboratories which are further south and east of Puerto Límon. To bypass the police check point the guerrillas fill 5 gallon cans with kerosene, hydrochloric acid, and other essential liquids, and float the cans through the canyon of the Rio Caquetá. The guerrillas accompany the cans by swimming and portaging the cans around the biggest rapids. The canyon of the Rio Caquetá is steep, dropping 300 meters in 50 kilometers, and a big volume river with many big class IV-V+ rapids. legend has it that some of the guerrillas drowned while accompanying the cans full of the essential liquids through the canyon of the Rio Caquetá. The canyon is sheer walled in many places and numerous waterfalls plummet from the walls directly into the river. Where the sheer walls give way to steep hillsides there is thick jungle vegetation, many colorful flowers and there are many white sandy beaches which are perfect for camping. Everything is massive in the canyon, the rapids are huge, the rocks are huge which makes portaging and scouting difficult. The Rio Caquetá will hopefully one day be a world class kayak trip. For now it may be a trip to avoid because of security. Some of the locals say it is safe and the guerrillas no longer use the Rio Caquetá as a liquid highway, and others say the guerrillas still use the river to bypass the police check point in Mocoa. During our January 2012 trip to Mocoa we did not paddle the Rio Caquetá because of high water and concerns about the safety with a big group of foreign kayakers.

Kees Pepino

Kees Van Kuipers on the Rio Pepino.

During January of 2012, Mark Hentze, Kees Van Kuipers, Charlie Watts and Julian Schafer, and a few others spent a couple of weeks in Mocoa and explored some other rivers. We found some great rivers and made a couple first descents, at least kayak first descents. About 20 minutes from Mocoa is the Rio Pepino, a steep and continuous class IV creek. The Rio Pepino is low volume, but almost always has enough water to paddle, and at low water it is crystal clear. The Rio Pepino is continuous class IV, but with a few pools in between the rapids. There are no portages, many nice class IV drops which are not too intimidating and easy logistics which makes the Rio Pepino a great afternoon run or warm-up run.

Maud with Kids

Maud Verboven enjoying the Rio Pepino with some Colombian children.

The city of Mocoa is located in the open valley of the Rio Mocoa and near Mocoa the river is mostly class II-III, but just above Mocoa and just below Mocoa the river passes through some steeper canyons which have many nice Class IV rapids. The Rio Mocoa also has easy logistics and the put-ins and take-outs are all less than an hour from Mocoa. Below the city of Mocoa, the Rio Mocoa passes through one more steep walled canyon and with medium to high water levels there are some big class IV rapids and many waterfalls which drop from the canyon walls into the river. At the bottom of the run the canyon walls abruptly open and give way to the “Los Llanos” and the river flattens out just above the take-out.

Kees Villalobos II

Kees Van Kuipers on the upper Rio Villalobos.

The most memorable river of our January 2012 trip to Mocoa was the first descent of the upper Rio Villalobos. The upper Rio Villalobos drops 600 meters in 30 kilometers so we packed our boats for an overnight trip and departed early one morning. On the way to the put-in our taxi driver told us that the guerrillas had burned a bus a week earlier on the highway to the Rio Villalobos, which is also the main highway from Mocoa to Bogotá. At least the guerrillas were kind enough to take the passengers and luggage out of the bus before they set it on fire. There is no bridge over the Rio Villalobos, but near the top of the run the highway is not far from the river, so we asked the taxi driver to take us to the closest and easiest access to the river. We found a field where we could easily drag our boats down to the river. As we pulled over the taxi driver told us that just around the next corner is where the guerrillas burned the bus which made us a little nervous, but we decided to go anyway.

Kees Villalobos

Kees Van Kuipers in a typical boulder garden of the Rio Villalobos.

The upper Rio Villalobos is a medium sized creek and at the top the canyon was open and the river was not to steep, but we found a few nice class IV rapids on the first day of the two day descent. Because of a typical late Colombian taxi driver and a two hour drive to the put-in we only had a few hours to paddle on the first day and a couple hours before dark we found a nice beach to camp on. The next morning we did not get an early start either, most everybody slept in Colombian style, and it was about 11:00 am before the boats where loaded and we started paddling down the river again. We started the morning off with another stretch of flat water interspersed with a few bony class III rapids, but then then the canyon walls tightened up and the river bed steepened. The last few hours of the second day was full of great class IV+ whitewater, no portages, and most everything was boat scoutable. The upper Rio Villalobos drops through a beautiful canyon with steep walls covered by cloud forest and we saw parrots and two “Cocks of the Rock”, a rare jungle bird with a bright red head, and a black lower body and tail. The upper Rio Villalobos is another Colombian classic river.

Fin Del Mundo

El Fin Del Mundo.

Putumayo is still considered dangerous by some, but many foreigners travel through Mocoa and venture into the surrounding mountains and the guerrillas seem to leave the foreigners alone, or maybe we are all just lucky....Our experiences have been that the people of Putumayo are warm, welcoming and friendly like all the Colombian people. There are still many guerrillas in Putumayo, probably some not far from Mocoa and random attacks still occur, but sometimes the risk is worth the beauty that can be found in places such as Putumayo.

Kees Pepino

 

MORE ABOUT THE COLOMBIA AMAZON

 

Ecological Tourism in the Amazon jungle

The department of Amazonas is Colombia’s southernmost region, located on the left margin of the river by the same name -the longest and most copious in the world.

The Amazon jungle is also the largest and most bio-diverse rainforest on earth. It is known as the lung of the world and constitutes an immeasurable ecological reserve belonging to several South American countries. It is estimated that the continental area of this vasti region covers six million square kilometers.

For its coasts on two oceans and its banks on the majestic Amazon River, Colombia is known as a country of three oceans; few countries in the world can boast about as many and as copious sources of water and the ecological reserves derived from them.

Traveling through the Colombian Amazon

An expedition to the Colombian Amazon represents one of the most fascinating eco-tourism adventures in the midst of flora and fauna in its wildest state.

An expedition to the Colombian Amazon represents one of the most fascinating eco-tourism adventures in the midst of flora and fauna in its wildest state. It is additionally an unbeatable cultural experience due to the possibility of journeying to territories where a score of indigenous ethnic groups are settled and to the invaluable natural treasures they guard. The main groups are Huitoto, Yagua and Ticuna.

Leticia, the Capital of the Departament of Amazonas

To get to the jungle and the river, and their many attractions, it is necessary to fly from Bogotá to Leticia, the capital of the department, near the border with Brazil and Peru. Leticia is adjacent to the Brazilian municipality of Tabatinga. In spite of its location on the southernmost tip of Colombia and the long distance from the main cities, it is a dynamic trade center for the two nations.

Leticia is the Capital of the Departament of Amazonas.

Touring the city, shopping, spending time with the community, and crossing the border to Tabatinga are among the first activities visitors carry out before getting on a motorboat to start a true jungle expedition on the respectable Amazon River. During the expedition, visitors become acquainted with Indian families, huge trees, multi-colored birds, reptiles, and, by a stroke of luck, with pink dolphins, the only ones that live in fresh water.

 

Navigating the Amazon

Although the department is bathed by countless rivers, the Putumayo and Caquetá among them, it is thanks to the navigability of the Amazon that it is possible to get to know many of the region’s charming sites, requisite places among the dense and fertile jungle where a savage feast fuses the sounds of the bountiful flora and the joyful fauna.

Amacayacu National Natural Park

After two hours on the river, visitors arrive at the Amacayacu National Natural Park, a majestic 294,000-hectare reserve where 150 mammal species, 468 bird species, and an undetermined quantity of reptiles have their habitat. On the tranquil waters of the vicinity of the park, the Victoria Regia aquatic lily, with leaves up to two meters in diameter, may be admired.

There are 150 mammal species, 468 bird species, and a large quantity of reptiles that have their habitat at the Amacayacu National Natural Park, a majestic 294,000-hectare reserve.

Thanks to the park’s lodging infrastructure, it is possible to visit a large part of the park and its environs for two or more days. Among the many things to do in this protected area are outings on the Nainekumaw trail, canoeing on the Matamata stream, climbing trees and walking through the canopies, visiting aboriginal tribes, and sailing on the floating house.

Puerto Nariño

A twenty-minute river journey from Amacayacu Park takes visitors to Puerto Nariño, together with Leticia, the only two municipalities in the department of Amazonas. The town stands out for its orderliness, cleanliness, and the absence of pollution, because among other things, in spite of having paved streets, there are no cars. A trip to Puerto Nariño’s lookout point is a must. It provides a 360º view over the Amazon Jungle.

Tarapoto Lakes

Following a trip along the road to the town and on the Loretoyacu River (a tributary of the Amazon), are the Tarapoto Lakes. They dazzle for their cleanness and calm, and because their waters are inhabited by the spectacular pink dolphins. The natives trace the species to a legend according to which the tribal gods were so envious of the handsomeness of an Indian that they turned him into a dolphin. With patience and the calm of this paradise scenery, it is very likely to be able to admire the magical dance of this rare, beautiful species.

Isla de los Micos (Monkey Island)

Isla de los Micos - Monkey Island - is passed during the journey on the river. It is inhabited by capuchin monkeys that are quite generous in allowing themselves to be admired despite being shy of humans. Before arriving at this island, located in front of the Santa Sofía district, there are several natural reserves on the Peruvian margin of the river inhabited by natives of the Marashá and Zacambú groups.

Tanimboca Canopy

On the way back to Leticia, the closeness of the Tanimboca Canopy offers a good opportunity to engage in adventure sports in the dense jungle. Among them are zip-lining on the highest part of the canopy, kayaking, and trail hiking. An excellent program for admiring once and again the biodiversity of the Amazon region. The canopy is reached after an 8-km road trip north of Leticia, on the way to the Tarapacá district.

The Colombian Amazon Ethnic Groups

Before bidding farewell to this exotic region, it is worth going to several communities that allow visits to become acquainted with their dances, handicrafts, and typical customs. The Huitoto ethnic group is one of them. Undoubtedly, the mysticism of this ancestral family will offer important teachings in regard to respect for nature and our older brothers. There, in the Amazon, the department that covers one tenth of the Colombian territory, humans, plants, and animals show us the infinite sense made by life in its wild, elementary state.