The Cerros de Mavicure mountains are not a touristy place nor easy to get to. A breath-taking jungle landscape with towering granite mountains located deep in the Amazon rainforest. It’s a sacred site for the local villages of Puinave Amerindians, an area protected by benevolent indigenous spirits.
Cerros de Mavicure is one of Colombia’s most unique landscapes, a lost world on the edge of the Amazon wilderness. Until recently it has been an area little visited by outsiders due to guerilla activity. But since post-covid tourism has been increasing. It’s mostly Colombians with a few foreign tourists coming to visit the Cerros, or fish the rivers. They mostly come to join a guided tour.
Cerros de Mavecure
Cerros de Mavecure is the most visited tourist site in Guainia and one of Colombia’s most unique landscapes. The Cerros mountains are islands jutting up and towering over the jungle canopy. Located in Eastern Colombia, 50 km from Inirida, these mountains have a mystical, prehistoric aura. Small wonder it is a sacred space and spiritual connector to many ethnic groups.
These mountains are made volcanic rock, solid, black granite dating back to Precambrian era. They are a visible part of the Guainia Shield, one of the oldest geological formations on the planet dating back 1.7 billion years – well before the era of the dinosaurs. The Guainia shield stretches from Colombia and Venezuela to North Brazil and the Guayanas. The Cerros are called tepyues or ‘dwelling place of the gods’.
Though there are other small mountains on the jungle horizon at this bend in the river there are 3 steep domes rising above a lush jungle landscape.
Pajarito is the tallest hill at 712 m. (2,366 ft.), Mono is 480 m (1,570 ft.) and Mavecure 107 m (506 ft.) and stands alone on one side of the river while two taller mountains are across the river.
Legend has it that the mountains began as 3 brothers who settled on a bend in the river. One brother was passionate about birds so he spent his days on the Cerro Pajarito (little bird). The second brother loved primates so he lived on the Cerro Mono (monkey) and the youngest brother didn’t have a connection with nature and used a blowgun to kill the animals his brother’s loved. Upset with the youngest brother, they decided to exile him to the other side of the river to Mavecure mountain. In Maku – ‘Mave’ means blowgun and ‘Cure‘ refers to the poison used in the darts to kill animals.
How to Get There – Inirida – Tour or no Tour
The Cerros mountains are a 3 hour boat ride from Inirida, the capital of the Guinia Department which is 918 kilometers (571 miles) north of Leticia. One could come make the entire trip by boat, from Villavicencio to Inirida, but between connections and layovers they say it would take more than 15 days.
To get to the Cerros one has to fly in from Bogota or Villavicencio to the town of Inirida. Following the Guaviare River from the air, it looks like a long, winding snake. Limited flights run from both cities, mostly through Satena, (round trip around 600,000 COP – $130).
The Cesar Gaviria airport in Iniridia is on the town’s edge. Beyond that there are some short roads stretching into the grazing land around town but then it all stops at the jungle’s edge. The rivers are the only highways into the jungle.
Inirida is a Colombian river town, the capital of Guainia, a province in eastern Colombia bordering Venezuela and Brazil, with a total population of 53,000. More than 32,000 live in Inirida – a city which is more like a pueblo than department capital.
It’s a busy port town flooded with tuk-tuk taxis and motorcycles, where river barges drop supplies and goods for the entire department. It’s a hot, tropical city. A safe town in which to walk around, it is made up of mostly tiendas or shops, a couple small supermarkets and two football stadiums but too few restaurants, bars and hotels.
The people of Inirida connect to Colombia by air while supplies are freighted on slow river boats. One day a barge carrying gasoline didn’t arrive in Inirida resulting in a shut down of the town’s transportation for the day.
Some people visit the Cerros mountains on their own. Some come to camp on the white sand beaches under the Cerros mountains. After a short stay in town, one must arrange for a boat to go from Inirida to Mavecure mountains. It’s a 3 hour boat ride each way. There are no regular passenger ferries. One has to hire a private boat or lancha and gas prices don’t make the final cost of the trip cheap. One could could go to the Cerros and come back the same day. But outside of photo opportunities and bragging rights it won’t leave much time to explore the area.
If one can find other travelers going to Cerros sharing the costs can make the trip cheaper than a tour. One could find 4-5 other travelers by organizing a trip through the Colombian travel blog sites or by hanging around hotels in Inirida like Hotel Tonina, Cabanas Guainiana Hotel (prices for a room range from 80,000 to 200,000 COP a night). If this sounds complicated perhaps booking a tour in advance is easiest way to go.
There are a number of website organizing tours to Cerros Mavecure. In Inirida, tour groups like Tonina have a physical presence in town and on-site flexibilty. Tonina has a large hotel on main street and takes bookings through their Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram accounts. They can organize tours to Cerros and surrounding areas for individuals or groups, for a day or 10 days. They know the destinations, boats and guides. They will add the individual traveler, or couple, to an existing group to make it more affordable. The groups expect 50% payment in advance but they won’t take credit cards. One has to find a way to deposit money in their bank account.
The tours are reasonably priced: 1,500,000 cop ($340) for a 5 day group tour which includes lodging, meals, guides, transportation and insurance. At these prices, tours are cheaper than traveling solo. Ultimately one will see and learn more with a guide. And the services and activities offered by the tours is recommended.
The nights in Inirida include lodgings, meals and transportation – simple hotels and good food. But upriver there are bunk houses and mess halls run by the local Puinave. There are 6-8 beds in each bunk house with bed sheets and mosquito nets. Nearby there’s a mess hall comedor with long, extended tables next to the kitchen run by the elder women. There are rustic toilets and one bathes in the Inirida river.
The Cerros have had increased popularity since the 2015 release of the Oscar nominated film ‘The Embrace of the Serpent’ El Abrazo de la Serpiente. The film is available to rent on Amazon Prime. The movie was filmed on the tropical Inirida River with the worn, weathered faces of the Cerros de Mavecure serving as a setting.
The tour companies work with the Puinave tribes who live in the two villages of El Remanso and El Venado, which lie at the feet of the Cerros mountains. Families run bunk houses in the village of El Remanso and also at El Venado which lies across the river and has a private bay on the Inirida River.
Travelers coming on their own can find lodging with families who have bunk houses, tents and hammocks to let. And local guides offer their services for various hikes and activities. Transportation must also be arranged.
The villages have solar panels for energy but no portable water. The tour operators usally send portable water on the boats with the tourists. The mess halls serve 3 square meals a day, mostly fish. The bagre catfish and bocachico fish are tasty river fish.
But not all of the villages want to work with the tourists. The Puinave live along the borders of Colombia and Venezuela. They have always been living along the Inirida River. They speak both Spanish and Maku, their native language. They say less than 4,000 from the tribe remain and live on reservations.
The tribes were forced to move around a lot to avoid the white settlers and Jesuit missionaries. Later they were invaded by the rubber tappers and traders, cattle settlers and evangelical missionaries. Throughout have been decimated by diseases. They say the adopted evangelical canons have caused them to isolate and loose connections with their rituals and cultural practices. Today the Puinave live by slash and burn agriculture, fishing, hunting and tourism.
Activities/Tours Around the Cerros and Inirida
There are various hikes and beaches to visit at the Cerros which merits the stay of a few days:
Hiking up Mavecure, the smallest mountain is allowed. It’s easily reached on foot, a moderate to difficult 2 hour climb when it’s dry but the smooth rock gets tricky when wet. Ropes and ladders are installed in tracts to help with the climb. It is advised one climb with a guide and leave at daybreak before the oppressive mid-morning heat. The taller mountains have already been scaled by professional mountaineers and but permission would be needed from the reservation before any ascent of them.
Hiking around the base of Pajarito takes you from a landing point on the river, through the jungle around the base of the mountain and finishes in the village of El Remanso.
A short boat trip to swim and sun bathe at Cano San Joaquin to enjoy the fine white sand beaches, float downriver in life jackets and bathe in the cool, red waters of the Inirida River with the view of the Cerros in the background.
Tour the village of El Remanso and walk up the hill to see the sun set over the jungle before walking to the harbor.
There are other sites to discover in and around Inirida:
The Port of Inirida – a hub of activity where river barges are unloaded. A couple of roof top bars sit atop the hill overlooking the port. It’s a great spot to watch a sunset while enjoying a cold beverage. A government run tourist office is located next to the port.
The Estrella Fluvial de Humboldt is where the Upper Orinoco River receives the waters from the Inirida, Atabapo and Guaviare rivers forcing a complex network of wetlands that make up the Great Orinoco River which flows to the Atlantic. The meeting point of the 3 rivers was first documented by naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt back in1802 who named it ‘Fluvial Star of the South’ or the Estrella Fluvial de Humboldt. He advocated for it becoming the 8th wonder of the world.
Boats leave early from Inirida for half-day tours. The boats dock at rocks in the middle of the river. Later they stop for sun bathing on the white sand beaches and swimming in the red blood waters of the Atabapo River. There’s a break for a beer on a river barge. Across the river lies Venezuela. Pink river dolphins can be seen breaking the water.
On the way back from the Estrella have the boat stop at village of Coco where they make and sell arts and crafts – hand woven baskets and bags, ceramics and wood crafts.
Fishing – boats can be rented in Inirida and will take you to the good fishing spots. The fishing here must be quite good judging by the number of fishermen from Bogota and Medellin. Most fishermen show up with their own equipment but in Inirida fishing gear can be easily purchased.
Hire a tuk tuk to take you from town to go swim at the Laguna de las Brujas with the locals. The swimming hole is just outside of town. It’s red, cool waters await.
Visit the ethnic, ecological park and reserve of Kenke. See the flowers of Inirida. A guide will explain the plants, teach you how balance a bongo canoe, how to use a blow gun and other indigenous traditions.
Parque Nacional Tuparro – is another overnight tour offered from Inirida to the National Park of Tuparro to visit the savannas, jungle, rivers and indigenous communities in and around the park.
When to Go
When planning your trip try to avoid the high seasons for tourism in Colombia which are the months of December to February and the weeks before and after Easter. The rainy season runs from April to August when the rivers swell and white sand beaches along the river disappear under water.
All said, a trip to the Cerros de Mavecure is recommended and worth the time, expense and sacrifice of getting there. If you have been to many beautiful places around the world, the magic, energy and landscapes of the Mavecure hills will surpass your best expectations.
(For more on Colombia’s Amazon see article Colombia’s Gateways to the Amazon)