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xEurasia Odyssey

San Jose del Guaviare

COLOMBIA | Monday, 13 December 2021 | Views [54]

Cerro Azul - the beginning of the walk up

Cerro Azul - the beginning of the walk up

San Jose del Guaviare

 San Jose del Guaviare is the capital of the Guaviare province and lies in the Orinoco Basin of the Amazonian Rainforest on the Guaviare River.  There is only one road into the town which crosses a bridge over the river about a half hour away from the commercial center.  Most people fly in as I did.  The town is also at the end of the paved road into the sparsely humanly populated terrain extending towards Brazil over a 1000 km away. Calling the center commercial is a bit misleading as one generally thinks of the term referring to modern high rises; here the majority of the buildings are one to two stories with tin roofs, except for the government building that I can see from my hotel window. From what I observed, many of the shops deal with car, motorcycle, and boat repair, and others that sell primarily swimming items or toys and clothes for little children.  There are also jeans and shoe shops. Most of the roads in and out of town are unpaved, and the motorcycles are often driven by young people without a license.  I’m not sure about the cars, but those driving them seem to follow the normal rules of the road better than the motorcyclists do. As elsewhere in Columbia, salsa and Mexican dance music vibrates through loudspeakers set up in the shops across town.

Escape from the noise of the traffic and loudspeakers is somewhat difficult, but there is a shortish path by the river with a few lookout points that is a bit quieter. The path is supposed to be a wonderful place to see birds early in the morning, and by early I do mean ca. 4:30am, which is why I didn’t witness it. There isn’t much in town to interest most tourists, but in the surrounding areas there are a number of very worthwhile sites to visit. Chief among them, and the primary reason for my trip here, are the petroglyphs at Cerro Azul, a rock outcrop about an hour and a half over some, at times, deeply riveted clay dirt roads.  I was glad it was the dry season as otherwise it would have been very easy to get stuck.

 When we arrived at the starting point for the ca. 3 ½ hour walk in Serranría de Lindosa, we were met by a local who acted as the main guide for the site.  As I was traveling with a local nature guide, Juan, who spoke clear Spanish just for me, and a translator, 21-year-old Nicole, for the sections I couldn’t understand, this meant we would be a party of four going through the forest.  We were immediately joined, however, by 11-year-old Heidi, a local girl on school vacation who had yet to see the paintings in her backyard.  She was a delightful companion on the walk. Throughout the walk there were interpretative plaques in Spanish and English.  The first one explained the creation story of the ancient locals.  It read: “Before the origin of things, there was no sun, moon or stars.  Laman, the world creator, made a large pot with a lid in the dark. And everytime he lifted the lid everything lit up and a new day dawned.  After Laman lit up the earth, animals were not seen. So, Laman created the first bird. The bird traveled from the underground world and brought with it all kinds of seeds to sow the palms and fruits that inhabit the planet. The next day, Laman made a prayer, and all kinds of animals were born. He decided to have a party so that we would remember what happened. Between dances and songs, Laman created the paintings so that we would never forget how life began. Although, we do not know who made the paintings, contemporary indigenous groups make interpretations of the stories they portray.” As an aside, vultures are the birds associated with the underworld in Amazonian mythology.

The first part of the walk followed along a fence to neighboring pastureland, then there was a short stretch in the secondary forest, before crossing a wooden bridge over a creek into the maiden forest where the tree cover was much denser than it had been before the bridge. The path was well-worn and easy to follow. We passed through trees, whose sap smelled like Vicks Vap-0-Rub that was used for medicinal purposes, saw amazing blue butterflies including the blue morpho, and found a few different kinds of caterpillars on leaves. After about 20 minutes, we came to a fork in the road and took the right-hand path. The left was the one we would follow on the loop back. From this point the path headed moderately uphill until we came to the first petroglyph panel, which was fairly washed out.  There were some yellow painted symbols and a few red ones, but for the most part the panel had suffered from weather related damage.  The images that were visible were more clearly evident in the next panel just a little bit further up hill. This one was probably 30m long and had extensive, often overlapping images.  They covered the gamut of hunting scenes, various animals that were present in the area when the painters were working, and geometric designs. There was one figure that sort of looked like a Celtic knot, but somewhat more open; I was told this was supposed to be a labyrinth from which one cannot come out, but a few scholarly sources indicate that it was representative of the skin of an anaconda. There are other images of anacondas, which are supposed to relate to a different Amazonian/Southern Columbian origin myth, which says that the anaconda fell from the sky to create the Amazon River. She was pregnant when she fell to earth and the indigenous peoples of the winding Amazon Basin were born from her eggs. Anacondas are also important figures in shamanic and hallucinogenic activity throughout the Amazon Basin.  No one really knows what the symbols and images meant to the people who painted them, though. Trying to figure out the original meaning is almost impossible today as the images have been painted over and the newer layers disturb whatever the original sequence might have been.  Additionally, lichen have eaten away at many of the lower-level images, while weather has been a factor in fading on the upper levels. Regardless of the damage, some of the images on this and the next that relate to prehistoric creatures have been carbon dated to around the 14,000 BCE, while the majority are after the 2nd C BCE; many of them are very impressive. 

After taking far too many pictures of the images, we continued on climbing over rocks and tree roots until we came to the entrance of a cave.  The path goes through a fairly long cavern before coming back out into the light, where there is a wonderful overlook over the forest.  While in the cave, we shut off our headlights so that it was pitch black and absolutely silent, except for the calling of the bats who live in the cave and the sound of their wings as they flew by. It was an amazing experience, sitting still in complete darkness listening to eerie cries and feeling the bats pass by my head. After a few minutes the others, except for Heidi, who was quiet throughout, got restless. When we turned our headlights back on and headed further on the path, we saw lots of hanging creatures on the ceiling.  Not too far from the exit, there were green shoots growing.  How they could do so without light, is a mystery, but they were fairly tall and seemingly healthy plants. From the overlook, we climbed up just a few more feet to the second level panel, which is quite large. The images are almost the same as below, except that now two tapirs are highlighted. According to legend, they are said to be like us. In the underworld, Bak, jaguars are their mascots, and when they are there, they shed their animal skins and take on human form. When they come into our world, they transform back into the animals, and we need to take care of them. There is also an image of a person climbing a ladder, which is supposed to explain how they could paint high up on the cliff. I was told that they believe only the leaders or shaman were allowed to paint the higher images, which is why there are fewer of them, while anyone in the tribe could paint the lower images.  As only a few of the paintings represent women, it is assumed that only men were allowed to make the images. As in San Augustín the paint came from minerals in the local rocks and fauna. There was one last panel, before the path headed downhill skirting the side of the hill to rejoin the flat path back to the entrance.  Once there, the owner of the finca prepared a lunch of eggs, corn, rice and a tomato and cucumber salad for us.  It was a perfect ending to a good walk with fascinating images and an other-worldly cave experience.

 The following day we left at 5:45 for Laguna Damas del Nare, a lagoon with the pink dolphins.  If it had been the rainy season we would have had to leave much earlier as the dirt roads become very difficult to navigate when they are flooded and/or muddy.  Luckily, December is the dry season. The car ride to the trailhead took almost two hours of driving time.  We did stop for breakfast after about an hour at a roadside café. Columbian breakfasts here comprise either eggs, chicken, or beef accompanied with rice and a corn frittata. It is more than filling. Once at the trailhead, it is about a 4km walk through savannah-like pastureland and then secondary rainforests.  There were watermarks on the trees that showed the water level during the rainy season; it was two meters above the ground we were walking on. During that part of the year, the path is navigated by canoe. As it was still early in the morning, bird songs filled the air, broken only by branches crashing when red howler monkeys threw down large plantain leaves.  In addition to the howlers, we saw a number of squirrel monkeys and one that sort of looked like a capuchin, but I couldn’t be sure. Once we arrived at the place where the canoes depart, we found that we needed to wait awhile as there was a baptismal mass underway. Apparently, the region is so difficult to get to and, as there is no village nearby, the farmers can’t get to a church on a regular basis. The wandering priest, Catholic, makes his rounds to the outlying areas, and we hit the day he was here. He was a tall blond-haired young man, probably early 30s who looked like he belonged in Northern Europe or the US and not in the Amazonian rainforest.  His speech, as far as I could tell, was Columbian though. The service was filled with dance music, once again reminiscent of Mexican mariachis. They seem to be quite popular in Columbia. Once the service was finished, Nicole, who was trying to translate for me, and I had to take showers so that we could wash away any creams we had on. The locals are trying to keep the laguna pristine and they don’t allow any food, drink, or creams/sunscreen etc. in or on it. I did find it a bit odd, however, that the guys didn’t need to take a shower, and they were the ones who went in the water, while Nicole and I watched from the boat. After the showers we were allowed to get into the seven-bench metal motorized canoe. We skirted the shoreline and saw fisher eagles and hoatzins, and I could almost make out a caiman in the underbrush, but again wasn’t sure. We also saw some turtles near the shore, but the reason for the trip, and what made it extra special, was the dolphin family that lives in the laguna. There are only three of them, parents and a two-year-old, and they stayed fairly close to one another while we were watching them. They swam silently by the canoe for a while, letting us take a few photos before they headed back to a different part of the horseshoe shaped laguna. It seemed they left when Juan and the driver, Alex, climbed down a wooden ladder on the side of the canoe to go for a dip. Contrary to the advertisements, the dolphins weren’t pink, but rather the normal grey, but their noses were longer and faces flatter than ocean dolphins. Juan said that during the rainy season when the river flows into the laguna, the dolphins get more exercise, and they turn a bit pinkish then. In the dry season, the laguna is cut off and they can’t get out; they have more than enough fish available to them, so they don’t need to work as hard to get it as they do when the fish can escape.

The boat ride was a delight. There was a slight breeze on the 90-degree sunny day, with just a few white fluffy clouds. All good things have to come to an end, though, and all too soon we made a final cruise around the laguna and headed back to the departure point. Once there, our hosts, Paco and his wife, Nubia, made tamales with duck for us for lunch accompanied by homemade lemonade.  My general rule of not eating anything that isn’t boiled, baked, or peeled, has been completely ignored this trip, and the local food has been tasty. After lunch, Nubia wanted me to try a fruit from a tree in their garden.  Everyone around me started to laugh when she said that local legend has it that the fruit enhances the sex drive. I’m not sure what good that was going to do me as I’m traveling solo, but it was good for a laugh. The fruit, Borojoa patinoi, looks like a large fist sized brown nut, which when cracked open has a paste-like purplish inside. To make the dessert, the insides are scooped out and them blended with a kind of sweet cream to form a sort of pudding. It had a tangy taste that I liked, but Nicole didn’t, she found it to be just sour. The conversation with the couple was stilted as my Spanish isn’t good and what I can understand is more Spanish Spanish or Mexican Spanish, but the different words for common items in Columbian Spanish, make understanding difficult. Somehow, though, with Nicole’s help, I could piece together that they have been living in the forest for about ten years, and two years ago, just before the pandemic, they started an institute to preserve the laguna, dolphins, and local flora and fauna. They were hoping to get tourism to pay for it, but everything stopped when COVID hit and the country went into lockdown. Tourism is slowly starting again, but they do not have any cell or internet service, so when something happens on the road, much less on the path, they don’t know and can’t help. This apparently happened during the rainy season when a car flipped over with people they were expecting. It wasn’t the good way to start their new enterprise. Paco and Nubia have their hearts in the right place, and I sincerely hope they can make their dream reality.  It was getting late, so we walked back the same 4 km to the car and drove to the provincial capital.  On the way we came across what I thought was a rodeo, but which turned out to be a nasty Columbian sport. The vaqueros, cowboys, on horseback chase a bull, grab it by the tail, and flip it over. They get more points the more times they can flip the bovine before they reach the end of the shoot. While it’s not as cruel as killing a bull, it’s still mistreating the animal. In a way, the day was filled with experiences that showed different cultural ideals: early and contemporary belief in living with nature and not misusing it, and then with the ‘rodeo’, the conqueror attitude that animals are for human use and sport. I hope this attitude dies out quickly!

On my third and last full day in San Jose del Guaviare, we drove to The Tunnels and after lunch to Puenta de Orion.  The Tunnels are only about 13 km from town, and the road to the trailhead isn’t bad. There are a few different sections on this walk, the first goes across the savannah to some unique black rock formations that look like they fell from the sky as there is no river or ocean anywhere in the area to have pushed them there – that is until one realizes that this whole region was part of the ocean prior to the rise of the Andes. According to Juan, some of the striations on the rocks stem from Pangea’s split.

On the way to the next stop, we came across a few more petroglyphs, so it seems they were scattered over a wider area than first assumed. We also saw the short tree/tall bush, a Moriche in Spanish, that Alexander von Humboldt called the Tree of Life, as it stores water and recycles it. He was the first foreigner to come to the region to learn and explore rather than to conquer and plunder. After a few kilometers, we arrived at a series of shallow cascading pools, called the Jacuzzi, which is a popular spot for locals to soak in the clear waters. They can only do so for less than an hour though, as the pool is small, and the regulating agency wants to make sure everyone can have their chance to become refreshed on a humid hot day. When there is no one else around, it is a beautifully serene spot.  From the Jacuzzi, we walked over to the tunnels.  These aren’t dark, the way the cave in Cerro Azul was, and they form a kind of maze, with tall thick vines and tree roots climbing the rock faces and hanging loosely in the middle of narrow slots. Juan was looking for animals in the tunnels, other than the bats, and found frogs and a very tiny lizard that was smaller than his fingernail, but which looked attentively at us. He let it go after I’d taken the photo. After the tunnels we headed back across the savannah to the car. 

In the afternoon we headed to the other side of San Jose, to Puenta de Orion, which is the most famous rock formation in Columbia.  It is the Columbian version of Arches National Park in Utah, although it is really only this one formation rather than the large area in the Southwestern U.S.  From the trailhead, we again crossed the savannah, where we came across the Flower of Guaviare, otherwise known as phaphalanthus chiquitiquenses. Then we skirted some of the larger rocky outcrops that were surrounded by rainforest vegetation. The trail migrates between rainforest and savannah until one suddenly turns a corner to find the Puenta de Orion. It is named after the constellation, which the indigenous people in the region called the Hunter, the same way the Greeks did.  The position of the moon shinning through the hole in the middle was used as a calendar for planting. From the Arch/Gateway, we walked a bit further through dense rainforesty terrain to another rocky outcrop that we scrambled up. On top there was an amazing view of the entire savannah with the Guaviare River and San Jose in the distant horizon. It was incredibly peaceful there. The only sounds were the wind, birds, cicadas, and an occasional falling palm frond. It was a perfect way to end the day and the trip to this very diverse region.

Tomorrow I fly to Bogota and then on to Santa Marta for the last leg of this Columbian adventure.

 

References:

Navarro, Alexandre. "The World of Anaconda: the myth of the snake-canoe and its relationsjop with the stilt villages of eastern Amazonia." Brasiliana: Journal for Brazilian Studies. ISSN 2245-4373. Vol. 9 No. 2 (2020). (downloaded from internet search)

Navarro, Alexandres Guida. "Ecology as Cosmology: Animals Myths of Amazonia (download from IntechOpen website)

 

 

 

Tags: and river dolphins, petrogylphs, rainforest, savannah

 

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