|Esperamos en Colombia|
Team riders: Mario Adolini, Gigi Rizitelli, Alex Pellegrini, Filippo Brunetti.
This wonderful country is rich in amazing and unexplored rivers and has an absolutely perfect climate, stunning landscapes and beautiful women. However, if you are planning a trip to Colombia you must be very patient because nothing over there is easy to do, it could be ordering a breakfast or finding someone who can drive you to the river's put in.
We understood it was not going to be an easy trip when, at the airport's baggage reclaim, only one of four kayaks arrived and no paddles! I can sum up the first four days spent in the degenerated city of Bogotá between hostel and airport in one sentence: “!Espera! Estamos en Colombia!”; isn't it funny that the Spanish word "espera=wait" is so similar to the Italian word "spera=hope"??
In the end, without any paddles but luckily with all the boats, we decided to leave for San Gil (6°33’6”N, 73°7’52”W). It was an obliged choice because that place is the heart of the outdoor sports in Colombia and therefore the best place to find some paddles in a country without kayak shops; then we could find in San Gil lots of every kind of nice rivers. Of course, as i wrote before, nothing is easy in Colombia; therefore even to find 4 paddles in a 3500 inhabitants village with 16 rafting companies was a mission that took all the day and almost all our patience!
In the late afternoon of January the 5th we were buying the paddles we found and at the same time got a call from the airport, that told us our paddles were in Bogotá. Now Mario had to run totally naked in San Gil as he promised in a moment of desperation for the lost paddles. For my part I decided to take, with Alex, the bus back to Bogotá and take the paddles from the airport. We were 400 km far away and the bus took 8 hours. Receiving the paddles, just a fast beer in the hostel and we went back to San Gil, ready for the next kayaking day.
We could find all the info about the water levels and about the put in and take out of the rivers from Cesar, the boss of the oldest rafting company in San Gil: http://www.colombiarafting.com/. If you speak with him in one of the rare moments in which he is not so busy with his job, he is a very dependable and likeable.
Without considering the "rafting section" of the Rio Fonce we paddled on January the 6th because it was not really interesting, the first real river we've done was the upper rio Mogoticos, a tributary of the rio Fonce.
Rio Mogoticos is a continuous creek class IV – V, in the jungle of an incredibly scenic valley. Regretfully we had to climb out of the river when Mario broke the second paddle in 20 minutes; luckily we were near the only bridge we had seen in many kilometers of being in river…
When I heard about a “huge volume river” I didn’t realize what the real meaning was, even when I was on the bridge near the put in of the rio Suarez (6°26’56’’N, 73°18’23’’W) I didn’t catch the drift and I kept underestimating the river. It took the first current output to make me understand it was not a joke, in a few seconds the huge volume of the water dragged me downstream for hundreds of meters and I couldn’t react at all!
Being very small in a big river, was a feeling I already tried in my Adige when it was overflowing, but here it was very different. More water (almost 700 m3/s) dropping down almost like a mountain creek. The waves were coming from all sides as in a stormy sea and I could hardly keep an eye on my buddies. In the first eddy available, some hundred meters downstream, we met everybody with eyes bulging for the ride. We had to change strategy: just few strokes but well done, so we could save energy and not break our arms.
At the take out a funny drunk Colombian has entertained us while we were waiting for the driver. He offered us "guarapito", kind of an alcoholic beverage made of corn, warm and with a strong flavor of fermentation.
The next day we discovered a hidden jewel of the Colombian rivers: rio Encino. To reach the put in it took hours of unpaved roads with mud and river crossings but beautiful landscapes in the heart of the unexplored mountains of Colombia.
3.20h of creek class III and IV in decreasing difficulty till the last part that is class II - III. Put in (6°6’52’’N, 73°4’36’’W) is in a scenic deep gorge at the confluence between 2 rivers. The river flows with constant gradient without very hard or unrunnable rapids. The feeling is to be right in the middle of a very dense jungle with huge branches that leave their aerial roots and their bromeliads beards hanging down to the water, but if you look better you can see all around farms and breeding animals.
The takeout (6°11’4’’N, 73°10’45’’W), was very easy to find, it was right before an iron bridge.
After this thrilling ride, in the evening we had to take Gigi to the doctor in San Gil with nausea, vomiting and high fever, and after being suspicious of the “guarapito” we immediately started on it again! Fortunately, a night of being on a drip and our friend was forced back up, to skip the last day of canoeing in the area of San Gil.
January the 10th, the final day was dedicated to the Rio Fonce, but this time the section from beneath the village of San Gil turns up to the confluence of Suarez. We had just little information of the section, because it was descended from Cesar only once, about 10 years ago.
The plan was simple: the put in was at the last bridge of San Gil and we could decide when we wanted to leave the river on the left bank. We just had to cross 50 meters of jungle that separates the river from the cow fields and walk in search of a "finca" from where we could call and get the driver.
Simple, as far as the river was not so easy. Imagine 300 m3/s which descend on the track of a creek which was on a bed of huge, sharp basalt peaks forming thresholds with huge deadly holes. After 4 km of river, that we did in 4 hours, we found the umpteenth unrunnable rapid, so we decided to take out and we arrived in a “finca” where they offered us fresh fruits and mandarin juice. Don’t you think it’s crazy that this nice and easy put in and take out section had only been run once before and we were the second to complete it?
GUAYABETAL – VILLAVICENCIO
With an almost 24 hours transfer, because of an accident on the road that kept us all night on the bus, we arrived in the sad village of Guayabetal (4 ° 12 ' 59 "N, 73 ° 48 ' 57 "W). There is rafting company of Theo a Frenchman, who has chosen Columbia for his home and the tranquility as his life-style.
Just arrived we found ourselves in front of the Rio Blanco, class III – IV; in a spectacular valley in full Colombian style! (Put in: 4 ° 13 ' 5 "N, 73 ° 52 ' 41 "W; takeout: 4 ° 12 ' 15 "N, 73 ° 48 ' 36" near Guayabetal).
On January 13th, we woke up around 4.00am to reach the distant Rio Azul. That day I realized one of my dreams: to reach the put in of a river, completely lost between the mountains, with a trekking of about 3 hours in comfort with the mules that carried our boats, while we had just to enjoy the view. Wonderful! The witness was the SD card of my Canon, which has had to endure the storage of hundreds of photos. At the put in (3° 47' 52"N, 73° 56' 50"W) we have understood the meaning of the name Rio Azul, a creek of crystal clear turquoise water that flows toward the valley, reflecting the lush green of the surrounding vegetation.
After about 2 km III - IV we reached the confluence with the Rio Ariari and the water volume changes significantly, offering challenging rapids in a narrow valley. The feeling of being in another world is enhanced by gold seekers who are up to their ankles in water, and tireless running with their big sieves. From seeing their huts on the shore line you can tell that even if you work with precious metals it’s not a profitable job.
At the takeout (3° 46' 40"N, 73° 51' 24"N) we assisted something that we had already seen: Mario, was delirious, with an insane green color and with a very high fever, sprinting toward the clinic of Villavicencio, that for his misfortune was a few hours away with the jeep.
The next day, we recovered our unfortunate friend, and we headed toward the infamous MedellÍn, for the last act of our journey.
This big city is completely different to Bogotá, with its residential skyscrapers covered with red bricks, the underground elevated and especially the nightlife of the “Pink zone” which offer entertainment unbridled at all hours of the night!
January 15th should be a relaxing day before last kayaking day in Colombia, and until late afternoon the problems began when we had embarked upon in “Pink zone” for an aperitif.
Saturday night in one of the most famous towns of perdition around South America threw us like a hurricane and before 5 o´clock in the morning we were not able to get back to the hostel.
At the following morning I took all my love for the kayak to get up early and try to organize a trip. The boys have not given any signs of life until there was everything ready, therefore, armed with a good will, I rented a giant jeep (because I like to do things well!), which was brought in front of the hostel. And then everyone understood that I was not joking, they had to get up and prepare for the day on the River.
The rivers around this area were the Rio Chirimurro which flows into the Rio Guatapé, it was about a 2h30min drive from Mendellín. The organization has been, strangely, simple: We left Gigi and Alex at the put in (6°17’34’’N, 75°4’4’’W), Mario and I were going to search for the takeout (6°17’36’’N, 75°1’41’’W) on the road that runs along the river. For the recovery we stopped a kind of tuk tuk in Thai style which took us, for little money, to the put in.
On a river we seemed to be in a botanical garden, the valley was full of trees, laden with flowers of every kind of color, while a big mass of green water was flowing through massive rounded and ochery boulders. Unfortunately a long and difficult transshipment has slightly deteriorated the final of the river, and was forcing us to take out after sunset. The beauty of the landscape surrounding the rio Chirimurro and rio Guatapé can be seen by crossing it by car and kayak, which adds points to my final judgment.
At this point, the time had come to go back to Bogotá and to start with the planning for going back home. As expected, it turned out to be quite hard; I’m not here to bore you with the details; it is enough to know that, among other things, we risked to miss the flight by wrangling to be able to load the kayaks!
Overall, it was an experience that I would recommend to a well-knit group of paddlers/kayaker, accustomed to travel because, despite the efforts, what remains in the memories of the beautiful places, the people and the rivers.
I WOULD GO BACK THERE EVEN TOMORROW!!!