Part I: Colombia
Chris Baer Scouting the entrance rapid on the Estrecho section of the Rio MagdalenaThe original research for this trip put a lot of different possibilities in my head. On the positive side, unexplored canyons. On the negative side, was the always interesting U.S. media. They spoke of kidnappings, Guerrillas, and for me the scariest issue land mines?! As usual my determination for an all out adventure won. I booked a flight to Bogota Colombia.
Collecting my gear in the Bogota AirportTraveling with a kayak is always a bit stressful. The week before the trip my head was spinning with the possibilities. Was I going to be able to check it onto the first flight, the second flight, into the cab, on the bus, how much will I have to pay for it? International kayak ownership is not for any one that is on a schedule, or expects anything to go smoothly. To my delight once again the boat got checked onto the flight. The adventure had officially begun. A quick flight from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale, an eight hour lay over, and another smooth flight that was only delayed a few hours to Bogota Colombia. Upon arriving in Bogota, I was deserving of a good nights sleep; but not until I got a quick walk about. My apprehension of a dangerous community quickly faded as I took few hour walk around the capital. It felt safe, at least as safe as any big city feels. Street food was on my mind, quickly I found myself immersed in the Colombian culture.
Classic, HURRY UP! and wait…Bad beta meant taking a taxi cab to the bus station and waiting ten hours for the bus to arrive. Upon arrival the crowd made an awkward charge. Lots of big luggage was heading underneath the bus. The driver looked at me disgusted with the size of my baggage and waved me over. It took a couple minutes to shift cargo, but we got the kayak to awkwardly fit. Then the drivers hand went out, he was looking for a bribe. I offered a low number and he hit me back with a number that was substantially more then what I was thinking. After a few minutes of bargaining and talking to everyone that could possible be in charge, I slipped the driver more then what I thought fair. The bribe was still distinctly less then what the driver was originally asking for. He smiled at me; I think he truly enjoyed the bargaining process; all I wanted was my kayak to make it to it’s next destination.
Twelve hour overnight bus rideAs the driver speed quicker and quicker into the curves, blasting his horn at every animate and inanimate object, the person sitting next to me stated to snore. It was about that time the child a row behind me let out a freakishly loud scream. I wasn’t going to get much sleep. Arriving in San Agustin I was in full zombie mode. I paid too much for a cab, and too much for a hostel room. I needed to pass out for a couple hours and regain normal human functions.
The local transport, Chiva
San AgustinThis lively little town has a Wild West feel, horses make their way down the main street almost as frequently as motorcycles and the colorful Chivas. The vibe is fairly relaxed with farming and tourism (it is a UNESCO world heritage site) being the main supply of income for the community.
One of the classic stone carvings outside of San Agustin
Feeling small in the steep canyons of Colombia
The second day in San Agustin I meet up with a french gentleman, Amid runs the local rafting company on the Rio Magdalena. A quick conversation with Amid, and he encourage me to join his commercial clients on the beautiful class 3 section of the Rio Magdalena. Por que no (why not) was all I could respond with. Rafts, kayak, two guides, eleven clients, and myself smashed into a pickup; we were on our way to my first Colombian river.
Jared Page wheeling through a sticky hydraulic
Joel Fedak pulling hard
Day 3 and the kayakers arrive, Kees Van Kuipers, Maudy Verb, Giorgio Codeluppi, Jared Page, and Joel Fedak. Plans were made quickly, we would paddle the Canyon section of the Magdalena a.k.a. Estrecho. This section is a classic representation of Colombian white water. Impressively containing walls, with an ever changing rock structure. The river section brought us through basalt, conglomerate, and polished granite. The rapids were fun class 4 with a few mixed in dangers (overhanging, caved out, conglomerate walls, and a couple sticky holes).
Joel Fedak deep in the Magdalena Canyon
The posy loading boats
Chris Baer trying to find that tight line
The Magdalena Valley, yep there’s white water down there
After paddling the Estrecho section, my eyes were wide open. Colombia has kayakable river drainages everywhere. The next section was targeted quickly, it’s a small creek that is viewable on the drive to San Agustin. Rio Naranjos is a tributary to the Magdalena, and has a relatively steep, low volume characteristic that looks promising. Both Keeys and Giorgio had paddled the section before, but it had been quite awhile (5 years). Our beta once again was marginal at best. Keeys even told us not to use the information he had written for the Colombia Whitewater guide book.The water level at the put in looked pretty low. The rumor was there was another tributary that was going to add substantial flow to the river. To me it looked like an acceptable personal first descent level; low enough water to deal with the unpredictability of the run at river level.
Jared finding a fun boof in the upper Naranjos
The section of white water leading to the confluence was filled with conglomerate sieves. After passing a very marginal water quality tributary we found ourselves very slowly portaging our way down the river right side of the creek. We climbed over large boulders, through the jungle, all the while surrounded by garbage and sewage from the up stream community.
Looking for an exit in the Rio NaranjosBy the time we reached the confluence our morale was rather low. The crew could only laugh about our silly selection of white water. From the confluence down the water quality, and rock structure got much better. We routed into one polished boulder garden after the next. The last major rapid is a dark intimidating hallway that ramps off a clean six foot boof.
Classic beauty in ColombiaThe adventures are just beginning here, and I am getting more and more excited about Colombia.
Part II: Rio Caqueta, two days in a committing canyon
Yea! its walled in, look close that little spec is JaredThe Colombian adventure continues, next on the check list was the third descent of the Rio Caqueta. With some amazingly vague beta, “It should take one or… three days? there is some pushy white water! with a portage… or a few!?” Giorgio Codleuppi, Jared Page, Joel Fedak and myself packed our boats with a little better then an overnights worth of food, light weight sleeping arrangements, and few guaranties. What we could see from maps was that the canyon was covered in a dense jungle, and was very containing.
Middle of no whereWe piled into a pickup truck and made our way to the river. Upon arrival the river’s flow looked pretty low, but the general size of the river was huge! An estimated 4,000 cubic feet of water per second was pumping through the canyon. We put on directly below the highway and quickly arrived at a vertically walled section. It’s Beautiful! There are a few small water falls plunging hundreds of feet into the canyon. These falls make the walls glisten with their spray.
House size rocks, and hydraulics to match
Into the big rapids!Early on day one, receiving a single thumbs up I charged into what looked like the big side of a fun rapid. Coming into the blind bottom section it was one huge feature after the next. A couple strong forward strokes blasting through hydraulics, a quick brace, and a WTF! In front of me was a twelve foot wide six foot deep hydraulic. The bravado in me said to boof over the hole. My attempt was almost laughable. A quick window shade and I popped up just in time to throw a horrible looking loop towards the corner of the hole. One more window shade, and I resurfaced with a single thought, “That can’t happen again.” The group pulled over and took a time-out to reassess our hand signals.
Big and PushyThere was immense pour overs everywhere! Our group did a fair amount of scouting, wadded through side channels, and peering over house size boulders into the turbulent river. With an empty boat and a solid warm up, I know most of the marginal lines could come together… With a heavy boat and the looming walls of the canyon, skirting and running away from big features was the game plan. Late in day one the pace was slowing, it was one huge barely scoutable rapid after the next. We spent an hour of scouting a particularly nasty rapid, just to agree upon a cheat line. Climbing out of our boats at the next horizon line we were confronted with an enormous siphon, the entire rivers flow smashes into a couple apartment building size rocks and disappears. After our quick portage the light started to dwindle.
4,000 cfs siphon(Colombian rivers have been known to rise incredible amounts, last year Mark Hentze was washed away in the middle of the night do to a huge unexpected surge of water.) We chose an elevated beach and unloaded our boats. The scenery was beautiful; but camping in the jungle has a few draw backs. Sand flies, and constant precipitation, made the small damp fire a little less enjoyable. We ate food and shared stories of near misses with huge hydraulics. As the evening developed the temperature dropped, and I found myself with an inadequate sleeping system. I slept in every layer I had that wasn’t soaking wet.
Day Two we awoke to clear skies and gorgeous viewsOnce on water we were confronted with more scouting, and more running from huge pour overs. Arriving at yet another large rapid Giorgio charged in and disappeared over a large horizon line… It took him a few seconds to come back into view. When Giorgio looked upstream he once again gave us an awkward hand gesture. Joel was next to paddle into the melee. Upon arriving at the bottom of the rapid, Joel’s hand single was distinctly different. His hand signal portrayed a very well defined get left! Jared took off into the rapid looking for the left line, unfortunately he found himself disappearing off a large horizon line. From above I could see his boat catch major air twice before relieving itself of the hydraulic. Jared then rolled up just in time to fall into yet another, much larger hydraulic. His beating resumed immediately. Jared was dealing with a heavy decision, and oxygen depravation was working against him. Abandoning craft, sleeping arraignment, clean water, and food, Jared hit the eject button. Thankfully Giorgio and Joel were in great position, and cleaned up the situation quickly.
Giorgio Codleuppi making friends with a local fishing familyMid day on day two we exited the canyon. The gradient and pace quickly petered off, and we found ourselves slowly dodging fishing boats. We paddled the last two hours to our take out in the small community of Puerto Limon.
Puerto Limon, looking back at the beautiful Caqueta valley
Part III: First descent of Lower Rio Putumayo and another lap on the Rio Mocoa, Colombia
Come on horses you know you want to drag kayaks into that valley
South West of Villa Garzon is the gorgeous Rio Putumayo
Giorgio, Joel, and our motorcycle guides looking up into the Putumayo valleyFear and respect are often misconstrued. I respect the fact that I have no idea what is down stream during a first descent, there is no reason for me to fear that. White water is simply water, gradient, and obstructions. To understand these features and make solid judgement calls on the accessibility and kayak-ability of a given river takes years of practice.
Just an average day motorcycle scoutingIn the case of the Putumayo our team, Giorgio Codleuppi, Jared Page, Joel Fedak, and myself spent three full days scouting from busses, taxis, and motorcycles (three of us on the same motorcycle). After exhausting attempts to penetrate further into the canyon our team reluctantly agreed on a lower then desired put in location. The plan was to paddle for approximately six kilometers to the next accessible exit point: a small bridge in the village of La Mangua.
Joel Fedak, talked like a pirate the entire timePaddling day we started early, awaking with the sun. Our first hurdle was obtaining a pickup truck to transport us and equipment to the microscopic village of El Carmen. From El Carmen it is approximately three miles to our desired put in location. Wanting to save energy for the unknowns down stream, our group entertained the idea of renting horses. It only took a few minutes of chatting and one of the locals offered up his services.
Wave Sport horse
Look closely, we are bush whacking in there!If you have ever tried attaching kayaks to horses, you know it’s a struggle. The saddle system our farmer had wasn’t exactly kayak friendly. Our three mile hike took two and a half hours of constant kayak adjustment and prodding of the horses. Once we arrived at the river the farmer told us that we could paddle across, and hike another 20 minutes up the valley to arrive at our originally desired put in location. Daylight hours were burning fast, and we hesitantly gave up on hiking further into canyon.
What Colombian horses are supposed to doWe put on a beautiful river. The Lower Putumayo has clean clear water and the rapids consist of fun class 4+ boulder gardens. There were few blind horizon lines, but all main lines paddled well.
Chris Baer in an average rapid
Information I was able to attain after paddling the riverThe headwaters is large, a heavy rain in the drainage could be disastrous to anyone in the gorge. The mountain the river cuts through has an amazing rock structure. The lowest formations are formed of large granite pieces. This would have the tendency to build large nearly vertical features. The canyon section will be very demanding and deserves more inspection. If you would like to know more please contact me.
Torrential rain at the take out bridge
Rio Rumiyaco and Mocoa
International kayaking usually involves intricate logistics. That is not the case with this quick and easy afternoon lapper.
The river is truly across the street from the front doorHostel Casa del Rio. I would strongly suggest basing here while paddling in the region. On a casual day you can truly walk across the street and put your boat in the local swimming hole, the Rio Rumiyaco. Paddle down and enjoy the local swimming hole culture for about a mile, and then confluence with the Rio Mocoa.
Giorgio with a swimming hole ride alongUnfortunately this river is attached to the plumbing of the bustling city of Mocoa. The water quality is bad. Wearing ear and nose plugs is definitely recommended. The good news is that the river is super fun class four. There are a ton of great boofs, tight slots, and attainment moves hidden everywhere. It can also be paddled from bottom of the barrel low to flood stage. The take out is just outside of Villa Garzon. Catch a truck in the town and zip your way back to Casa Del Rio just in time for happy hour. Another adventure brought to you by Chris Baer