Cordillera Oriental, Southern Colombia - October 2017
Colombia’s recent history has created a unique opportunity in the whitewater world. Three massive mountain ranges, high precipitation averages and decent infrastructure has created one of the ripest zones in the world for discovering whitewater classics. Words by Lane Jacobs. Images by Ben Stookesberry and Lane Jacobs
Colombia’s recent history has created a unique opportunity in the whitewater world. Three massive mountain ranges, high precipitation averages and decent infrastructure has created one of the ripest zones in the world for discovering whitewater classics. The following are accounts of two attempted first descents of rivers in Southern Colombia.
Night was quickly approaching as Ben and I found ourselves deep in an unknown box gorge. On day two in the department of Nariño in Southwestern Colombia we stood in the pouring rain, staring down a 100 meter hallway of a box gorge with a class V lead in. After trying to attain upstream and then climb up near vertical walls, we had found ourselves in a predicament of unacceptable risk. It was the first time in nearly 20 years of paddling class V that I was forced to paddle into the unknown, unscoutable and unportagable because of lack of options. We had gone one eddy too far.
It just so happened that we arrived in the Rio Guiza valley on the last day of summer, according our friend and local guide, Franco. We had put on 7 miles upstream with, what we had thought, was a very low water level. We paddled mostly class IV with a few class V rapids, all of which were very high quality. By the time we arrived to this section of the river, El Crudo Gorge, we realized that the river level was on the high side of high for the first descent of the lower Guiza.
After we were forced to drop into the gorge, our attitudes changed from desperation to focus and determination. We encountered numerous class V+ rapids and waterfalls with sheer walls on either side. One rapid in particular stands out above the rest. Ben and I were able to scout a complex lead in and see a massive recirculating pour-over at the bottom. We, again, tried to assess portage and escape options. Our best option was to roll the dice and try to boof the ledge hole. I went first and skipped out, luckily. I turned around to see Ben enveloped in the seam and disappear at the base of the 4 foot ledge. He surfaced in the backwash of the hole and was sucked back in. After a few cartwheels he luckily escaped in his boat.
After three miles of descending an inescapable gorge we made it to a foot bridge over the river. At that point we stashed our boats in the jungle and ascended 1000 feet out of the gorge and up to road. We eventually found Franco who had become very concerned with us not arriving at our take out. We rode back to Franco’s family “finca” where we went to sleep listening to the downpour of rain.
We awoke to head back to our boats to finish the remaining mile of river until the next road bridge. We hiked back in to the river and found it to have much more flow than the day before. With only a mile left, we felt that we could make our way down to the bridge in the pueblo of Altaquer. After paddling down a few hundred meters I noticed two men working in a little riverside camp and a strong odor of gasoline. Luckily, they did not see Ben or I.
Within another 300 meters we had arrived at another terrifying box gorge entrance, but this time with five times the water level. We were determined to not make the mistake of going one eddy too far, so we made the safe decision to hike out. So we hiked and attained upstream along the river bank.
Before long we had arrived at the riverside camp that we passed earlier, and we knew there was probably some sort of a trail up and out. As we approached the camp, the odor of gasoline became more potent and we noticed a black tarry residue covering all the plants. The men were nowhere to be seen at this point. I entered the compound of the camp to see numerous gas-burning stoves under a tarp next to an underground reservoir lined with an impermeable membrane that the stoves percolated in to via a pipe. There were gasoline jugs scattered everywhere and the black residue covered our boats and gear. I immediately turned back to Ben and told him we needed to leave.
My first thought was that it was a cocaine processing operation. We had learned later that day, however, that it was most likely a “cocina del crudo” or a crude oil kitchen. The Trans-Andean oil pipeline runs from the Amazon basin, over the Andes and along the river valley all the way to Tumaco, the port city on the Pacific coast. The pipeline is hundreds of miles long and the locals siphon off the crude oil to process it into gasoline. They then use it or sell it to cocaine labs. It is simply an element in the local economy that puts food on the table of the impoverished local families.
In the short time we had in the Rio Guiza Valley, we began to notice that the light green coca fields were virtually everywhere you looked on the hillside. It was explained to us that most local families have a hectare where they tend to their coca. It is simply a way of life in this corner of Colombia.
We continued upstream to another bridge we had crossed and from that point ascended up and out of the gorge, about 1000 feet. We passed numerous indigenous children of the Awa tribe that were making their daily 2 hour hike back from school to the other side of the valley. One older girl asked us if this was our first time here and Ben said yes. She continued to tell us that it was very dangerous and to be careful of the guerrillas on the other side of the river in the municipality of La Esperanza.
Our main takeout goal was still 30 miles downstream but given the water level we decided, without much discussion, that we should maybe set our sights on the main objective of the trip - the Rio Guayas.
The upper Rio Guiza has classic sections of whitewater, but El Crudo Gorge may never fall in the “classic” category. It is inescapable, surrounded by coca fields, has questionable security and is prone to erratic water level changes. The lower Rio Guiza, below El Crudo gorge, remains undescended and awaits a crew with more fortunate water levels. The following day, as we drove out of the valley and back to Pasto, I asked our driver why there were military checkpoints in the upper part of the valley but not in the lower valley. He responded with a smile, “because it is safer for them up here”.
According to Franco, no Colombian president has ever been to the valley, despite the road leading to one of the only two port cities on the Pacific coast. It is the home of the Awa indigenous people who have been caught in the middle of a civil war between the FARC and the Colombia military. The history of the Awa is strewn with massacres by both the FARC and Colombia military. The day we left the valley, 15 miles from our takeout goal, the Colombia military shot 27 Awa and killed 7 Awa protesters. The Awa were reportedly unarmed and protesting the military’s manual eradication of their coca crops.
After departing the Guiza Valley, we set our sights on a 100 kilometer section of the Rio Guayas which descends from the Cordillera Oriental and down into the Amazon basin. We traveled for three days to reach the town of Algeciras in the department of Huila. This is where we met up with Jules Domine, who was joining our team for the second part of our exploration.
Three days later, at 4:30am Ben, Jules and I were standing in front of the “chiva” in Algeciras. No one felt confident enough in the security situation to load our boats and gear and physically get on the bus. We still could not commit after months of planning. Jules stood there looking at me for a decision and I looked back, hoping he or Ben could be decisive. We had spent the previous day researching the security situation through conversations with the military, police, hospital, locals, drunks, bus drivers, barbers, you name it. In the end 50% of the people told us not to go and the other 50% told us we would be fine. Not inspiring odds. That morning we placed our faith in one final conversation with a Santana Ramos local. At 5am we loaded on the only transportation of the day to Santana Ramos, Caqueta, putting our fate in the sincerity of the local. We were within a 7 hour 4x4 ride of putting on the river I’d been researching for the better part of a year.
Within 45 minutes of leaving Algeciras, in the department of Huila we passed a landmine that had been flagged out a few feet from the road. Seeing the sign that said “Minas - Peligrosos” brought to the surface the gravity of the situation. The driver we had befriended told us that one team comes in to flag out the land mines and another team comes in to deactivate them. We were arriving in between the process of locating and removing the mines. I reflected the symbolism of the land mine’s removal process and our trip timing. But our decision was made, and at this point there was no turning back. The Rio Guayas is born in the remote mountains in the department of Caqueta. Our goal was to descend 100k to Puerto Rico, Caqueta in the Amazon basin from the headwaters. Just two years ago the access to Santana Ramos, which was the closest “town” to our desired put in, was controlled by FARC guerrillas according the locals. The peace process has improved the security the most in rural areas like Santana Ramos. Throughout our time in the Guayas basin we met no one that was hostile towards us. However, on the chiva ride one local told us he’d seen 15 FARC guerrillas in the next valley over so we remained on edge.
After driving for about 4 hours we came to the first visual of the Rio Guayas. It came at a point where a landslide had destroyed the road, leaving Santana Ramos inaccessible for over 3 weeks earlier this year. The Colombian government had been flying in humanitarian aid during this time.
Soon after, we crossed one of the only two bridges that cross the Rio Guayas, and we put in 5 kilometers down the road. A friendly local offered us some “Jarapo” he was brewing - an alcoholic drink made out of cane sugar. He helped us bushwhack down to the river through his property, where we put on.
From there, we spent three days descending the Rio Guayas through a mixture of mini gorges, boulder gardens and portages. We had a few close calls with sieves and one long portage.
By the end of day three we arrived at the last possible exit point before dropping into the steepest and most remote section of the river. We realized that again our water level was too high to reasonably commit to the ultimate goal, which is the lower section of the Rio Guayas. Although we had started with 300cfs, the river had grown to an estimated 4000cfs over the 47 kilometers we had descended.
Towards the end of day 3 we had seen a “finca” up on a ridge and decided it was our best exit option. For an hour and a half we hiked out through shin-deep mud as we made our way to the house. After arriving at the house, the young couple was very skeptical to say the least. We explained our situation to them and they agreed to let us sleep on their floor and feed us for the night.
The next day we hired Mauricio, the owner of the finca, to haul our gear out while we carried our kayaks. After slogging through the mud for 3 hours, we arrived in the town of Santana Ramos.
We soon discovered that everyone in the valley had already heard of the three gringos with boats trying to descend the river. It just so happened that there was a pregnant female who was having a medical emergency and had to be evacuated that day.
The same Chiva that we rode in on was leaving that evening to take the woman to a hospital. We loaded on the only exit out of Santana Ramos for 2 days and left the lower Rio Guayas, like the Guiza, undescended.
In the history of whitewater exploration, many rivers take years, decades or even lifetimes to complete. Sometimes you find a gem on the first try and sometimes it takes decades to discover the full potential of the river. For these two rivers, it is going to take more than one shot to discover what lies in the depths of their walls…