Florian Daltrozzo scouting the Rio Majuas
photo: René Boom
One of the most memorable exploratory trips I have done in Colombia started out strange as usual. Before ever leaving we postponed the trip for 5 hours. I remember walking down the streets of San Agustin trying to find a taxi to take us up the Magdalena Valley. Normally the streets have a wild-west feeling, but this day things were even more unorganized. I walked past a motorbike driver who was lying half asleep beside his motorcycle in the middle of the road. As I walked by, I was not the only person looking at the scene: Another guy driving his motorcycle down the street looked at the sleeping man and crashed at the same moment. After all, it might not have been a wise idea to try and leave town for a multi-day mission on New Years day in Colombia! At least not at 11 a.m. with a hangover….this hour still belongs to the night in this country full of people who love to party. I have enjoyed a few New Year parties in Colombia and should have known better. Time to postpone the trip and catch a few more hours of sleep...
So around four o’clock, we managed to find the only available taxi driver in town to take us to Quinchana, a few hours drive up the Rio Magdalena. There were four of us: myself, Rene, Emiel from Holland, and the Italian Flo. The plan was to paddle a part of the river, which we did not explore the first time we headed up the valley. As soon as we took off, we also noticed that the taxi driver was still in the “party mood” from the night before. To say that he was totally drunk would be exaggerating, but to say he was sober would be lying as well. After a few problems with the engine we finally got to Quinchana from where we would have to hike up the hill for half an hour to get to a shed to crash for the night. It was already dark when we started the steep hike. The next day we loaded the mules and began the 6-hour hike to the put-in.
When we got to the puente Barandillas it was still early. This is the point where we put in on the previous trip because the Magdalena further up looked too high. This time it looked really low, so while we walked another two hours to get to the village of San Antonio we were already thinking about an alternative. The walk is high up on a ridge with another river on the other side: the Rio Majuas. All we could see from the ridge were two drops and both looked un-runnable to us. We spent the night talking with local farmers and they all agreed: a few fisherman have been down to the river, but just in one place where there was a path going down. We made up our minds and decided to take it on (we just had to think what else the river had to offer beside the two drops). The geographical maps showed that the river drops around 200 vertical meters in the stretch we were going to paddle. We thought this would take around 4 hours to complete.
With nothing to do but enjoy the nature, we went to bed early followed by an early wake-up call. We still had to walk two hours to get to the river from the ridge. Before leaving the eddy I had a last talk with Alvaro, our local guide. He would bring the mules to the take-out so we were not stuck there with our boats. I also told him he could expect us to be there in 4-5 hours. I told him if we didn’t make it back today, no worries, but after two days he should go for help.
It was a beautiful canyon starting off with some really nice rapids. After some relatively easy kilometers we came to the double drop we saw from the ridge the day before. As we expected, this one was a hard portage. Portaging in Colombia often means making your own trail with a machete. Immediately after the first portage we found another portage, which required jumping off a huge rock to make it back to river level. Around the corner came the next surprise: an 8-meter waterfall that twisted sideways with a bad cave at the bottom. It took us quite a long time to get everybody and all the boats through here.
It was after this drop that the river started to be really enjoyable: not too flat and not too steep. We continued for a few kilometers before Flo signaled us to stop in an eddy. When we got out to scout all we saw was a huge horizon line and the whole river dropping between two walls. We decided to take a better look, and climbed up the right side of the river. It was steep and slippery, providing us with the first few thorns in our hands as we tried not to fall. Unfortunately sometimes it was necessary to grab the wrong plants.
What we saw made our hearts beat fast. After two holes the river split up into two channels as it took a sharp turn right. The right channel landed completely on rocks and the left channel looked like a marginally runnable 10-meter drop. To see the landing we had to climb quite a bit more. In the meantime it was getting dark. Time to make decisions! Four people with four different opinions is not always easy, especially when daylight is running out as suddenly as it does in Colombia. The options were: running the drop now, running the drop first thing in the morning, hiking out with the boats, or abandoning the boats and hiking out. We decided to sleep here for the night and let everyone have the time to think about what to do next. The decision was made a bit easier when I accidentally kicked Flo’s boat into the river and watched it go around the corner.
The night was horrible because we did not plan for a multi-day trip and had nothing that could function as a tent, sleeping bag, food or clean water. At 2200 meters above sea level, and in a drizzling rain, it was a rough night. Rene and Flo ended up in a cave they found. Emiel and I found the only other suitable place to try and sleep, a very small beach. It was my first night ever to sleep with an emergency aluminum blanket. It was also my first night ever to sleep while hugging another guy. Try to sleep at least. Maybe instead of the word sleep I should say: “waiting for the daylight”. As the daylight came, our faces were full of insect bites. After another climb downstream to see what was around the corner, we decided to try and find a way out on foot. The idea of trying to hike out with the boats was forgotten within ten minutes as we realized the climb was too difficult. We tied the three boats to a tree and began moving. Flo showed his talents by climbing up, making the “path” for the rest. He had to climb using the trees lying on the vertical walls. After the second or third climber the little trees were gone, leaving nothing but a wet vertical wall. Finally we got to use the climbing equipment that we all had carried on every trip.
We lost the way quite a few times, but after a few hours we saw what we thought might be the last vertical wall before getting to a flatter part. Unfortunately there was absolutely no way to climb up this last vertical wall. We were forced to return to the river, trying to motivate each other whenever someone had a bad moment. How many times did I think to just go back to the river, spread out the boats and wait for the chopper? After all, I had asked our guide to call help after two days. This thought always left the mind as fast as it came in because of the reality: “hey man, we’re in Colombia, no chopper-service here”. And on we went. We were out of food and water, but we were lucky it was raining softly. Using the giant leaves to collect the water, we at least could drink a little bit.
It was time for our second route, a gulley going straight up. As we progressed well, it started to get dark again. As soon as we found a little flat part we decided to try and sleep again. Flo and Rene were a bit further up the hill than Emiel and myself so we again had the luxury of separate bedrooms. We tied all the gear on a tree and tried to share the same blanket again, even though it was torn in two. No sleep at all this night!
After an hour of hiking the next morning we reached what looked like the top. All we had to do now was walk upstream to reach the path from where we had seen the double drop 3 days, or a lifetime, ago. It took us two more
Florian Daltrozzo greeting the police in Quinchana.
photo: René Boom
hours of bashing through the jungle to get there. Happy we had made it out we collapsed as soon as we saw the path. The last hour of walking to reach the first house seemed like another day. When I took a rest I saw Alvaro our guide, racing up on a horse. He just came from town where he warned the police. We didn’t give a shit about that; all we wanted was food, water and a mattress.
The first house we past had a nice fire burning and the inhabitants made us the local agua panela with cheese. After a long rest we finally reached San Antonio, which is not a village but just a house with a few beds to share. After a huge meal we slept for at least 17 hours into the next afternoon. When we turned on a little fm radio we heard the news. They talked about the lost foreigners who had been found and that the Italian embassy had been worrying a lot. Instead of returning to town the next day we went fishing and relaxed.
In the early evening two guys showed up: one with Arabic features and the other a dark costeño. They told us they were policemen and insisted on getting us on their video cameras. We had to convince them that we would not make the 6-hour horseback ride that night, and were allowed to leave at 5 am. They wanted to leave the area right away because this area was known as guerilla territory. To get here, they had pretended to be tourists, but with a mission.
In the meantime two locals had tried to go to the river where we were stuck to collect the boats. They had heard about the price of one boat being worth a year’s salary. We told them not to, and we would not pay a penny for two guys trying to commit suicide. Nevertheless they went and somehow managed to collect two of the three boats, they lost the third during the climb. “Never again” was all they could say afterwards.
When we reached Quinchana we were surprised by the number of people and cars waiting for us there. 4 Police cars and 2 ambulances were waiting. After taking photos with the military we went back to San Agustin where we were taken to the hospital and had to do a lot of interviews with the national television. When we saw the papers of the last few days we saw why: we had been front-page news. This was the first time in years that the police had gone into a guerilla area to rescue tourists!
-Kees Van Kuipers