Wild Water Adventure Tours in the Canyons of Mesetas
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is emerging as a new water  sport destination for adventure tourism in Colombia. Cut off  and hidden from  the world by a guerrilla occupation for the last  3 decades Rio Guejar and Canyon Guape are  just now opening up and showcasing some of the most spectacular canyons and river scenery in the country.

Go tubing down narrow, black walled canyons dramatically illuminated by beams of  white light shining down from crevass openings in the jungle 40 meters  (130 feet) above. Once  a secret route and hideout for rebel guerrilla forces  today the canyon  is scenic wonder open to exploration.

Or go white water rafting down Rio Guejar through pristine waters and churning rapids past  surreal rock formations, float down emerald green waters though  silent river canyons or walk through the Macarena mountain range to discover one of the 84 waterfalls in the area. Guided tours are available at affordable  prices in the town of Mesetas which is only a 1-2  day trip  from the capital  ciy of Bogota.

Canyon Guape

Only  250 km from  Bogota, Mesetas is a village on the western edge of the Meta province bordering Los Llanos – the great plains of Colombia. The area, located in a foothills  of the Eastern Cordillera mountain range and sandwiched between the national  parks Sumapaz,  Serrania del la Macarena and Cordillra de Los Picachos, is the source of the powerful rivers of Arari and Guape. Up over the mountains and their  paramos, on the  other side, lies the Tatacoa Desert.

The guerrilla rebels are  still holed up in this vast unoccupied mountain area, they say.  People talk in hushed tones when talking about the rebels looking over their shoulders to see who’s listening. These rebels are the remnants of the same forces that once used to occupy the town. Until recently, Mesetas was a territory that belonged to them. It was cut off from the rest of Colombia. No one was allowed to enter  and no one dared leave.

But in 2016 a peace pact between the Colombian  government  the  guerrilla group FARC  was signed.  For this, president Juan Manuel  Santos received a Nobel Peace Prize (2016). Overnight Mesetas became one of the many villages finally free to  connect with the world. Then people from the outside came. Cautiously at first, but now they flock the town on weekends and holidays. The guerrillas haven’t bothered them. The business is good for the town.

The locals  always knew their rivers, canyons and countryside were special. The young men started working as guides taking people to see the  secret canyons and waterfalls they had been exploring since they were kids.

Word spread and people from  Bogota wanted to explore these rivers, canyons and amazing landscape.  Local guides started buying  rafts and kayaks to ferry tourists.  They hired farmers with jeeps, took groups to the local restaurants  and soon opened offices in the Mesetas.

Four years ago we didn’t even know what tourism was,”  tour operator and owner, William Delgado of Willitours said. “Today it’s our main meal ticket.”

There’s not a whole lot to  do in the town of Mesetas itself.  It’s a  farm town with few parrilla restaurants, a few bars, one new coffee shop. There’s a bridge on the edge of town with a swimming hole below where the children and families congregate in the evenings.

During the day rafts, kayaks, jeeps and  trailers and go up and down the streets. Tourists fill  the restaurants. Today the town is all about river tours and adventure sports. There are tours and  a constant river traffic coming and going every day. The prices are modest – around 250,000 cop ($65)  per day, per person and per activity. And most people stay  2-3  days just to take in the highlights.

Very little can be done without a guide. One must book a tour through one of the local tour agencies.  If it’s not a Colombian peak tourist season, one could book a tour  in town the day before. But it’s better to book online a week or two in advance. One could always add another day or two of activities while in town.

Mesetas only has one hotel, Hotel Dona Betty,  and it is usually  fully booked. To provide additional lodging,  tour agencies have encouraged the townspeople to open up their homes for guests.  These  ‘casa hoteles‘ or guest houses  let out rooms, some with private baths, for 100,000 per night per room per day.

“There is only one hotel  in Mesetas and we could use a few more,” Delgado said.   “If they  built a new hotel here  we  would fill it up immediately,” As it stands during holidays tourists have to  stay in hotels in the nearby towns of Granada and as far away as Guamal where they have to get up 4 a.m. to catch  a tour departing from Mesetas.

But people who could  build new hotels  in Mesetas are  reluctant to do so. They all  know the  rebels  are still up in the mountains.  The peace pact could fail and Mesetas could be occupied once again.  So investors are  staying on the sidelines for now.

The weekends and  holidays are always busy in Mesetas. Most of the people come from Bogota 250 km. away.  It’s a popular kind of group tourism geared towards a Colombian market. During the week the town is quiet.

A few foreign tourists appear here and there but for the most part  Mesetas is too new to be on their circuit. The tour operators  in town would like to lure more foreign tourists and they would like to see a more exclusive eco-tourism develop.

But none of the guides in town speak English and the operators think the humble lodgings and their simple food would not appeal to a foreign crowd.

Tubing  Guape Canyon: Day 1

Tubing down the Guape Canyon is a must do activity. It’s the main attraction for  people coming t0 Mesetas. Once a impenetrable hideout for the rebel forces today the canyon is a unique tour destination and  not for feint of heart.

Tubing in  this narrow canyon is only possible in the dry summer season running  from the beginning of January to the end of March.  The rest of the year heavy rains engorge the river making it too high, too fast and  the canyon  too dangerous for tubing.

A jeep picks you  up at your casa hotel at 6 a.m. and takes you down a gravel road for a 60 minute trip to the village of Uribe.  Here they stop for breakfast. Then it’s back in the jeep and another  hour  down the road to a  farm near the Guape River. Everyone meets,  is given a helmet, an inner tub and instructions  on tubing through the canyon.  Now grab and the inner tube and carrry it across a cow pasteur and down a  steep path to the  river.

The  water on the  Guape river is cool even though the temperature is blazing hot. What starts off like some ‘tunnel of love’ carnival ride  turns into a swirling, spinning water chute into darkness.

You enter a canyon with black,  rock walls 40 meters (131 feet)  high.  Some parts of the canyon are just big enough for the tube to get through.  You crash  into the walls pushing off with your hands and feet.  Some stretches of the canyon become a  tunnel.

Then the  the  river opens to large caverns with narrow crevasse openings high above revealing  gnarly  jungle filtering the sunlight. Beams of light shoot  down illuminating  fascinating shapes in the rock walls. Large guachero birds fly around the canyon disturbed by your intrusion.

The river alternates between narrow rapids and wide caverns where the  river moves more slowly.  The ride down the  river through the canyon is only  3.5 km (2.1 miles) long but feels much longer and takes 4 hours before the canyon cuts you loose.

At  a clearing in the canyon everyone  stops  at a camp where locals serve arepas,  hot agua panela and coffee  cooked on a camp fire. By now the cool water and  cave temperatures have gotten to you. A little cold, you eat your meal and warm up in the sun.

A couple hours later the canyon  spits you out. You float down stream to a field where jeeps are  waiting to take you back to Uribe.  There’s  a late lunch of river fish and rice awaiting  at a nearby farm/tienda before the  long ride back to town.

White water rafting River Guejar

White Water Rafting Rio Guejar:Day 2

The rafting down the Guejar River is a  17 km. stretch of river with rapids  and  lots of rocks.  Depending what time of year  you go it can be a 7 hour  trip, during the dry season (January to March), or a 4 hour trip during the rainy season. Depends if you like your rivers a little lazy or more of a challenge. But even in the dry season the river offers enough difficulties to get your adrenaline up.

After a breakfast in town, the jeep takes you to a drop-off point by a bridge just outside of town. Here the guide gives everyone a little lesson on whitewater rafting.   Then it’s off.  There are a few rapids right at the start where, and if you don’t have a good group,  some rafts will be flipping over  spilling rafters into the whitewaters.

But the river also offers lots of wide open stretches where one can jump in and float downriver bouyed life jackets.  There are stops at sandy beaches where they  break out snacks and thermoses of hot coffee. The guides, quite good  at telling stories and history of the  river along the way, take go-pro group pictures which are for sale at the end of the day.

They point out the various landmarks, wildlife and rock formations with names like Titanic Rock, 3 Indians, Indian Laying Down. And there’s a nice hike up to  the waterfall near the  river.

Visiting Waterfall: Day 3

The next day can be  spent hiking through the countryside and lush vegegation of the Macarena mountain  range visiting a few of the region’s many waterfalls. Pelton waterfall (80 meters high), the Santuario , India and  Caracas  waterfalls are the easiest to reach.  The hike between each one is easy and  there is ample time to relax and swim in each waterfall pool.

There are also a 3 day trips to visit the waterfalls of  El Diamante, Angel and Lovers waterfalls. You hike through the mountains to get to  the falls.  The guides point out the  bird and wildlife. At at the end of each day you return to a hotel in Uribe. Food and transportation is included.

The tour operators have formed a municipal tourism council to protect the natural sites. They negotiate  mutual agreements for site access that are good for everyone and they work for the  enviromental protection and peace in the region.

There is a large presence of soldiers around town.  They a have a barracks barricaded by sandbags on  the road to the mountains on the outskirts of town.  Roadblocks by armed soldiers is a regular occurrence.

The  town  is growing. The tourists have given a much needed  shot of money. They are a little better off.  But most of all they are starting to get used to feeling free.

How to Get There

Mesetas can be reached via Villavicencio,  the capital of Meta.

There are several daily flights from Bogota to Villavicencio. The airport is nearer to the city center than the bus station which is a 15 minute cab ride from the center.

Buses run from  Bogota to Villavicencio and depending on the road conditions the ride takes 6 hours.

Buses leave from the bus terminal in Villavicencio to Mesetas going through  Acacias, Guamal  and Grenada.  The bus company Flota Macarena is the most popular with a departure every hour during the day.  The last bus leaves at 4 p.m. and the  133 km trip (83 mile) trip takes 3 hours (40,000 cop)  $10.

There a lot of comfortable hotels in Villavicencio for  a night’s rest. The  city center around Plaza Los Liberadores is interesting with  lots of  stores and markets.

The main plaza of Guamal

If you prefer to spend a night in a small  town, take a bus in the  direction of Mesetas to the city of Guamal, a little village in Los LLanos, one hour outside of Villavicencio. The  Hotel Vina Azul on the north edge of town is quiet, affordable and quite nice  with a very good  parrilla restaurant next door – Restaurante La Talaquera.

For more on Los Llanos see article: Los  LLanos Great Plains of Colombia

Here are  the names of some of the  different tour companies and travel agencies in Mesetas: Turem (the most  widely advertised) Wilitours, Frontera  Travel, Exploring  Paradise, Travesia Canon Rio Guejar, Aventurando Rafting y Cascadas, Green Aventura, Go Travel, Lagunero Trek Expediciones Rio Gueja.

Prices and programs vary so it pays to shop around.

All these agencies work together so it’s not unusual to sign up  and pay one  agency only to show up to find another agency conducting the tour.

What to Wear

Bring comfortable water shoes, a long-sleeved Lycra shirt, sun glasses, sun block, bug spray and a waterproof bag for your phone or camera. Leave your dry clothes and shoes in a bag in the jeep that brought you.  The same jeep will most likely be picking you up at the end of the day.

Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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