Evening, the team is dropped off next to the old village school. It is now empty but for a few wires hanging from the rafters. We make it our home for the night and spread food and supplies on the bare cement floor before packing it all in our boats. We visit the few remaining residents and buy a few off-brand Oreo’s for dessert. Across the street is another abandoned house with “FARC” hastily spray painted in head high letters. Beside it, “the fight goes on!”
From La Tunia, it was nearly three days paddling to reach the boundary between the final cultivated land and virgin Amazon Rainforest. The family we met at the brink told us it was very far to the next inhabited area, but they didn’t know much more. Downstream we soon turned a corner and met an otherworldly scene of towering green walls bursting with sound and color. The walls varied little and never quieted for 12 days as we paddled through untouched rainforest with no sign of human activity.
Jules Domine, Aniol Serrasolses and I woke before dawn with the intent of climbing Cerro Chiribiquete, the high point of Chiribiquete National Park and an island of endemic flora and fauna like nothing I have ever seen. The mountains rise from the low elevation jungle floor in a dramatic series of steps and fissured towers and as we approached the base we entered a maze of cracks among giant blocks of jungle-covered stone. Walking flat ground until we reached a vertical drop of up to 75 feet into the space between rock pillars, it was a confusing route until breaking onto the more congruous flanks of the main mountain.
We crossed from lowland fauna to the drier, island ecosystem of the higher mountain and struggled to the top in the late afternoon sun, dehydrated and sore from straining our legs for the first time in two weeks. A life-saving spring near the summit rejuvenated us for the evening of exploring the summit platform, appreciating the spectacular Amazonian landscape from above, and gaze downstream at the unknown ahead.
In the morning we descended back toward the seemingly infinite ocean of rainforest diversity, arrived at the river and paddled to the entrance of the Chiribiquete Gorge, the first significant whitewater of the river. From nearly 150 meters wide, the Apaporis squeezed down into a slot 2 meters wide, dropping only a few feet, but still giving us the most whitewater excitement thus far.
The river narrowed then widened into carved bowls and caves where the spectacular geology of the ancient Chiribiquete rock formations were on display. Giant pieces of the walls calved into the river at points and created the class IV Chiribiquete Falls, the most exciting class IV any of us had seen. Short and sweet, a few more corners of overhanging jungle gorge and we were returned to the endless flat.
The group was paddling spread out at unknown intervals, Aniol and I at the front. We joked about getting a ride as we passed one of the only motor boats we had seen on the river before realizing the men on the bank were calling us over. Immediately we knew it was the dissident guerilla FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) group we thought we had passed paddling the night before. They had moved downstream since the last report, and were very curious about our intentions. Heavily armed but not directly threatening, the guerillas combed through our belongings and heads wary of suspicious goals and connections. Jules arrived and received much the same treatment. Soon they knew we were of little threat, and let us carry on to the village with the caveat that they needed to give us permission to continue further downstream.
We stayed in the village then moved to the the major whitewater goal of the trip the next day, 75 foot Jirijirimo Falls. We immediately knew it was not runnable and made camp on its edge, always anxious and aware that the guerillas could come any moment.
In the morning they did, and brought the news that we could not continue and would need to go upstream to their camp. This quickly changed the situation from a mild inconvenience to an increasingly concerning and possibly dangerous ordeal. At camp, we were on good terms with our captors and they kept us comfortable for either simply being decent humans or for the tactic of keeping us calm and under control. Either way, during three days at their camps I never felt threatened or in direct danger. Certainly there was the possibility. The morning of our departure, the only requirement was that we leave any electronics with them, and it was an easy decision to concede and say goodbye to our cameras and the guerillas.
With no communication equipment, cameras, more guerilla camps downstream, and an airstrip in the village, we decided to cut the trip short there and that night we were back in Bogota. I remembered the writing on the wall in La Tunia, and the fight certainly does go on.