COLUMBIA The Jungle and Amazing Rivers
3 Last year after completing the Argentinian-Chilean kayak tour, which was accompanied by a very nice weather, some rain and clouds, we decided that our next year adventure is going to be somewhere in the tropical climate! At first the dice fell on Costa Rica but a week later we decided for Colombia, mostly because of the connection there-the French Jouls Domine and his stories about epic kayaking adventures. Once we had our minds set on Colombia it was time to collect the remaining information about how, where, when, put ins, take outs, shuttles, maps, etc. Then finally we packed and left!
Two months later we found ourselves at Medelin’s Rio Negro airport with a good classical crew consisting of me, Igor Mlekuz , Jernej Mlekuz and Fabian A. Bonanno (ARG) who came to pick as up with a non-kayaker Erik Sturm (SLO). They were already 10 days in Colombia before we arrived! We met the rest of the crew in the legendary Casa Kiwi hostel (in Medellin) lead by Jouls Domine (FRA), Ben Marr (CAN), Erik Parker (USA), Todd Wells (USA). We were ready to paddle and challenge some of Colombian tropical jungalised rivers, but our “boats” were stuck in Miami because American Airlines screwed us and left our “preciouses” there. One more day of waiting and we were ready to attack the rivers. Jouls already organized a van and a Colombian driver Carlos, who was waiting on standby for action! Jules Domine spent the last few years in Colombia exploring new rivers and made the plan to go towards our first Colombian descent, Cauca. Jules and the N. American crew got the beta with GPS coordinates and with Jules’ knowledge we were ready to start! Cauca is one of the two largest rivers in Colombia. It lies between the Occidental and Central cordilleras. From its headwaters in south-western Colombia near the city of Popayán, it joins the second biggest river in Colombia, Magdalena River near Magangué. We put in in Santa Fe de Antioquia, 120km from our take out point in Valdivia and we packed for a 4 day multi trip. The boys planed that we will be able to do it in 3 days and had 1 extra day of food just in case. The last day supposed to be the hardest, because of the canyon and steepness. We put in late and after 2 hours of easy paddling we found a sweet camp-site where we made a fire, nice dinner and took time to chill during a nice clear night. I was stoked that we were finally on the river after all the preparation and non-paddling days!
The next morning the sun woke us up and after breakfast it was time for action. Cauca started to offer the first good rapids with big and clear wave-trains, lots of fun, we were all fired up! At the first bridge we stopped to rest, we have found our first perfect wave with a big eddy on the right side. Amazing spot, I enjoyed it even with a full boat of gear! During the way down the river many nice rapids followed there were no rocks in the middle, just water and astonishing land scape. After many kilometres we saw lots of mining caves and some coca fields, which is one of the reasons why this river was never paddled! At the end of the day we past the future dam, that is under construction and is about to destroy another amazing valley. Just after the bridge that followed, we found the best camp spot ever, after the full moon and fire we enjoyed the Colombian night!
Next day was the highlight of the trip, amazing canyons with countless waves. We stopped many times and had surf sessions on stout places, so much fun! It was a full on day with many long and big rapids all in the same friendly stile open big stoppers, waves and lots of water. The last 15km the river calms down and all the way to Valdivia it is flat. In Valdivia we took out and had some beers while we were waiting for Carlos. At first the boys planned to do our second descent on Nechi. When we first talked about it, no one thought about dropping so deep in the guerrilla zone. Just after we started to drive down from Yarumal on a dirt road to the bridge near the town of Anori, we realised that this is pure guerrilla zone.
The next day we packed for 5 days, with one extra day of food and headed to the river. One good sign was that some people from a grocery store down at the bridge gave us milk and bread for free, like a sign that we are welcome and of no threat to them! We started to paddle from the edge of civilization towards the unknown. The start was intimidating after a few km, coca fields started to appear on left and right but just surprised farmers saw us. After 25 km of class 2-3 we came into a canyon with colourful side creeks, a very nice scenery. After some more flat water we dropped into a class 5 granite section. Just when I got some decent confidence the river dropped into a chaos of boulders and turned behind the right corner. It was a portage! We started to scout the portage and soon realised that it is going to be a portage fest. That day in 2hrs we were able to do 200m, the only way to advance was to make a path thru the jungle with machetes. The first night we camped high above the river in the jungle, with no fire, just humidity and little bit of intimidation.
We started the next morning with scouting and searching for a decent way to portage to the river! Machetes were cutting 2hrs before we found a solution. There was an edge just under a granite wall and had enough trees to make an anchor point, for rappelling on a granite block in the middle of the river, 7m lower down. We had a plan but it took us a whole day of climbing and walking and an extra jungle camp site to make it over. On the third day we finally found what we were searching, big granite boulders and big California stile rapids put on big smiles on our faces. Another full on day in class 5 rapids, gave us motivation and lots of good lines. Camp site 3 was close to perfect, except the lack of warm fire.
The fourth day we started on class 5 rapids, after lunch the river slowed down and was getting wider and the first signs of population started to appear. Coca fields were above us all the way down the river and surprisingly a lot of people were mining along the river banks. Miners had their families in shanty towns above the river banks in the middle of nowhere. Nechi was getting totally flat, wide and slow, luckily we got a shuttle from a local boater to the town of Zaragoza, where our driver Carlos was waiting for us! After the first shot of white-water, we went back to Medellin in Casa Kiwi, to get the second round of shots in the local disco. Meantime Ben, Igor and Jernej were about to leave Colombia and Andraz Krpic (another Slovenian) flew in and joined our crew. Three days of resting and we were back in action, this time down south-east of Medellin, on Samana, on a super classic 2 day run. Again the river was amazing with few class-5 rapids but a lot of great class-4 stuff. At the take out I felt a bit sick and over the night it became really bad. The boys went paddling on the stout Caldera, and I only saw the pictures. I took the first morning bus to Medellin’s hospital. Doctors had found a no-name virus, that was a pain in the ass for 6 days, with high fiver and cold at the same time. They thought it was Denge but the blood test on the sixth day confirmed that is a no-name virus. The same day we packed and moved to Carlo˙s San Gill on far east in Santander region. Ten hour drive followed and Carlos-our driver, had to leave us because of work at home and dropped us off in the hotel. San Gill is a beautiful town, nature there is switching from jungle to cactus vegetation and rock canyons. For a warm up we did Fonze, a local river that is flowing thru the city, our only 1 day run.
In the next few days Jules showed us his organizing skills one more time and organized a unique adventure, Para- kayaking. We paraglided in a tandem from a cliff above the Cichamocha canyon and landed at the river put in. Our kayaks were waiting there, ready for a 2 day trip down the river. It was easy paddling, with beautiful views of Cichamocha canyon, the contrast in comparing with the other rivers was astonishing, big walls of dry vegetation and relaxed paddling. We slept in the middle of a small village forgotten by time in a warm Santander night.
A day after we came back in town, most of the crew was ready to say good bye. Erik and Todd went home, Fabian found a job in a local rafting company and Jouls started to work for his new outdoor company. Me and Andraz had different plans!
The next day we packed for a 3 day mission on Suarez, we have found a shuttle to the 90km far put in and went for a new adventure. Water was high! We started at the bridge before Barbosa at 3 p.m. with a fast rhythm, and pushed it down all the way to the dusk. We were able to past the first nice section of slides and stoppers and paddle over a steep continuous section. It was hard, a combination with steepness and lots of water gave us some hard working to do but we loved it! Late in the afternoon we hated the flat part of the river and just before dark found a sweet camp spot! After dinner we fell in our hammocks and rested for the next day’s action.
I woke up early in the morning and Andraz joined me just when the breakfast was ready. At 7 a.m. we were already paddling, after 1h of flat water the sun was slowly coming up in the sky. Suarez was collecting water from side creeks and gradient started to be aggressive. The first rapids were full on, the river was raging and we just dropped in “read and run stile” from eddy to eddy. We did some rapids that were scary and decided to slow down. Countless hard class 5 rapids followed, we knew that mistakes are not an option in these conditions. Suddenly in a long right turn, where I passed on the left side, Andraz made a small mistake and a stopper got him. With some bad luck he was back washed vertical in a stopper and was not able to roll, he had to eject. When I saw that from an eddy below, I stopped to breathe for a while. I started to paddle towards him, he was able to save himself in the right eddy, I luckily saved his boat. The paddle and the water case were dragged into the eddy on the other side. Andraz was injured, while he was swimming, the water pushed him to the bottom and he had an ugly bruise on his back, that forced him to take pain-killers. We agreed that we were lucky and needed to slow down. We had a wild rhythm before the accident and after 2hrs we were already at the finish which is where the rafting section begins. In a few days me and Andraz were on our way home, Andraz had just a bruise and was feeling ok.
Colombia was a special and a wild adventure, it is rough and savage paddling in a jungle with poisonous bugs and insects, animals and guerrillas. It is an ultimate, astonishing and breath tacking experience. Hope I will come back one day! Thanks to all the sponsors that make it happen, Alpin Action, PeakUk, Ophion paddles, Different-eye, Liquidlogic, Jung avtoodpad, Plineks, SitGo, EKS-expedition kayaking Slovenia. See you out there!