Colombia’s Golden Gateways to the Amazon
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Travels to the Amazon rainforest are strenuous, timely and costly. It involves a lot of pre-planning, airfare and physical expenditure. There are other, more manageable, ways to see the Amazon.  Flying into the heart of the river basin is just one approach. Another would be to see it from the edge of the savanna. It’s cheaper, easier and can be reached by car, bus or plane.

The Amazon Rainforest is located in S.E. Colombia where prairies end and the roads shrink to jagged paths used by pedestrians, horses and motorcycles. As the farms and riverside towns deep in the interior reach to connect with the metropolis, the rivers are the highways for small boats until abundant rains create torrential river currents boats won’t challenge. 

These last cities, villages and outposts on the edge of Colombia’s Amazon are called:

The Golden Gates to the Amazon. 

These gateway cities and villages have a frontier feeling to them. They are hard and exotic. In the cities there are all the services and transport any traveler could want. Further downriver, the villages are small and get smaller the more one gets closer to the primary forests of the Amazon.

Colombia’s Amazon region makes up 35% of the country’s total territory. To know Colombia is to know the Amazon.

Here are 3 cities on the rim of Colombia’s Amazon: Mocoa, Florencia and San Jose del Guaviare

Peering over the Fin del Mondo waterfall.


Located in the department of Putumayo in southern Colombia, Mocoa is a remote gem on the fringe of Colombia’s Amazon jungle. Located in a tropical rain forest, the area is filled with rivers that feed the Amazon river.

People visit Mocoa, not for the town, but for its surrounding areas offering access to the Amazon. Located deep in the jungle, the area around Mocoa is a natural wonderland of rivers, waterfalls, swimming holes, red dirt and wet jungles teaming with wildlife.

The Amazon Jungle

The city itself merits a visit for a night.  The main boulevard through town, Avenida Colombia, Carrera 9, offers plenty of restaurants, bars and shops and the main square has all the banks and government offices.

Beyond Mocoa the roads come to a stop but the rivers keep flowing into the jungle.  Trips can be arranged to towns up the Caquetá River like Puerto Limon by contacting boat operators.

Fin del Mondo Park

Fin del Mondo is a waterfall and a park near Mocoa. To get to the park take a taxi from town, down the Mocoa-Villagarzon highway to entrance of the park Fin del Mondo or ‘end of the world’. Pay a $8 park fee at the little house at the entrance of the park and then hike the trail to the waterfalls. The park is open every day but Tuesday. One could do the hike in a day. Get there first thing in the a.m. and return to Mocoa. But the park closes at 4 p.m. and the stay of a night or two in the park makes it all a lot easier.

There are basic hostels and guest houses along the way. But only one, called Fin del Mondo, has fixed restaurant and sometimes internet service. It’s $15 a night for a room and meals are $3 each. There are mosquito nets over the beds, but on my visit, there were neither flies or mosquitos.

Fin del Mondo Hostel

The next morning it’s a 4-mile hike, a climb of 1,800 feet, up the mountain, to see three magnificent waterfalls. Inlaid tree trunks and stones make a good trail for most of the way but trudging through mud is inevitable and the red jungle mud affectionately sticks to your shoes. There are six main swimming holes along the way.

The third waterfall is the namesake prize. Fin del Mondo is a waterfall that plunges 250 feet, over a sheer cliff, plunging to the Mocoa valley below. Park attendants are on hand to harness you up and let you climb to the edge of the cliff to sit and look out at the waterfall and the vast expanse of jungle below. On a clear day the village of Mocoa can be seen in the distance,

The Ornoyaco Waterfall is a hike off the Mocoa-Villagarzon highway just past the suspension bridge. Take the path by the bridge. It’s a 1.5 – 2-hour hike that leads to a waterfall and remote swimming hole in the middle of the jungle – a site few people ever visit.

Another waterfall in near the Fin del Mondo park is Ojo de Dios or ‘the eye of God’. This trip requires a guide.  One can usually be obtained around the entrance to the park.  A walk through the jungle leads to a creek gushing through a hole in the roof of an open cave – yet another swimming hole to enjoy.  

Wildlife Reserves within walking distance of Fin del Mondo

CEA – Centro Esperimental Amazonica is a well run government facility that rescues and protects injured, poached and abused animals from the area. It restores them to health and, when possible, releases them back to the jungle. There’s a good guided tour leaving the entrance every hour or so. Here one can observe the many different animals from the area kept in zoo like conditions.

(See full Article: Mocoa – the End of the World).

River boat taxis on the Orteguaza River


Florencia is a city in southern department of Caqueta. The town is located on the banks of the Orteguaza river  between the lower Andean foothills of the Cordillera Oriental mountain range and the Amazon basin. With a population of 168,000, it is the largest city in S.W. Colombia.

Florencia is hot with an average temperature of 31 degrees (88 degres F.) with 3,840 ml. (150 inches) of rainfall a year. One can tell it’s a rainy city as the buildings and sidewalks are all set a couple steps up over the road with large gullies to pull rainwater down the streets.

The city center is hopping during the day though quiet at night. While most of the fun, ecological things to do lie a short distance outside of town, the city itself should not be overlooked.

The town is not that big and can be covered in a day or two. One should visit the Plaza Pizarro and Parque San Francisco where the most important church, the Cathedral Nuestra Senora de Lourdes, is located. And don’t miss the Caqueta Museum or the town’s central market in the mornings.

The Ferry Marco Polo

Be sure leave a Sunday open during your stay to take the Ferry Marco Polo down the Orteguaza river. The ferry only runs on Sundays, but private trips can be arranged for any group over 20 during the week. The two story boat has hammocks strung throughout.

The trip goes through miles and miles of pastures and grasslands dotted with grazing cebu cattle. The land along the river was the easiest area for farmers to settle. Once covered by jungle, the area was deforested by settlers and now open plains and savannah jungle stretch as far as the eye can see. We stopped on an island called ‘La Isla della Amor” where the crew set up tables and chairs and served a nice lunch of red snapper, chicken, pork, rice and plantains which was cooked in a galley on back of the boat.

On the return trip, the ferry stops at a beach in the middle of the river so everyone can take a swim and play beach volleyball. There is a bar aboard the boat. The boat leaves at 10 a.m. and is back to the docks by 5 p.m. Price of tour with lunch 60,000 cop ($13). tel. 3164110752. Best to call to reserve a few days before.

The Marco Polo Ferry

There are numerous ecological and adventure tours one can book for a day:

Caqueta Extreme does rafting excursions on the Ortaguaza river which comes down hard and fast from the Andes on its way to the Amazon basin. There are rafting trips ranging from Level 1-3 with prices from 75,000 – 95,000 cop ($15-$20). The rafting excursions start 14 km. outside the city. The trips include transport to and from the city with side excursions into the jungle to see waterfalls and caves. ( tel. 3217357049

Dalias Natural Reserve

Dalias Natural Reserve is an eco-tourism reserve located in the town of Montanita not far from Florencia. The reserve is composed of 80 hectares with a conservation area about 80%. Natural attractions include caves, a 12 meter water fall and La Cajona canyon stretching 2 kilometers in length. The water in the stream is shallow and one can wade down the river and through the canyon whose walls are stained with natural oils. Here one is immersed in the flora and fauna typical of the Amazon region.

To get there take a taxi from Florencia to Montanita – 31 km. (19 miles) roughly, 30 minutes travel time. There are ride-share taxis or collectivos to save a few pesos. From Montanita take the path to the stream which carves its way through the canyon. It’s a 4 km. hike to get there. The tours leave from the village at 8 in the morning and returns to town at 8 p.m. The price is 180,000 per person with lunch included.

There is a hostel on the reserve which is a treat for birders as hundreds of parrots and toucans arrive to rest in the trees at night. One can be closer and take La Cajona tour from here. tel. Jose at 3112716650

Refreshing in a swimming hole

Bird Watching at the Mirador de los Tucanes

Caqueta is paradise for bird watchers. A local company called Caqueta Birding can arrange amazing 2-3 day bird watching excursions throughout the region. The best trip from Florencia is the Mirador de Los Tucanes which is located in a rainforest in the foothills of the Andes. Here one can view hundreds of species of birds including Toucans. The tour visits the local sites, stops at restaurants for lunch and brings you back to Florencia for lodging at night. The cost of the tours are around $100 U.S. daily per person. One can find them on facebook. tel. 3102302711

El Horeb Natural Reserve

El Horeb is another natural reserve. A group bought the 100 hectare farm back in 2004. The finca is miraculously returning to jungle. Located near the town Belen de Los Andaquies, 42 km. (26 miles) or 30 minutes outside of Florencia, stay in the quaint little village of Belen.

The reserve is surrounded by clear, clean rivers with caves and waterfalls. Our guide took us for a hike through the forests of the reserve. We forded streams, climbed through the jungle stopping at a waterfall where we had a picnic lunch served on banana leaves by the river, swam in natural pools and dove from tall rocks.

The cost of the tour is 130,000 cop ($26) per couple. To contact: tel. 3128253751

There are numerous other reserves and guided tours near the villages of Belen, Montanita, El Doncello, San Vicente del Caguan, Puerto Rico, Morelia and San Jose del Fragua. From what I’ve learned, too many to name and constant changes though updated information is getting easier to find. Even while visiting the edge of the Amazon, one must do some research and organize ahead of time.

(See full article: Florencia – Colombia’s Golden Gate to the Amazon)

Rock painting at Cerro Azul

San Jose del Guaviare

San Jose Guaviare is small jungle town in Colombia. It’s the end of the line where the grassland plains end and the Amazon jungle begins. All the roads end here, too. From here on it’s just washed out trails winding through the jungle.

Offering infinite opportunities for anyone looking for adventure, San Jose del Guaviare is relatively new to tourism and intent on expanding. The city, which just became the capital of the Guaviare province in 1991, has a wealth of natural attractions but only sees a fraction of Colombia’s tourism.

San Jose has all the necessary services from which to explore the Amazon. There are inexpensive eco-lodges just outside of town, decent hotels ranging from $15 – $80 a night, a fair supply of restaurants, supermarkets, banks, tourist agencies and guides.

Guide Will Be Needed: Arriving in San Jose isn’t particularly difficult, but to see the sights, all of which exist in the jungles outside of town, one must hire a local guide.

Geotours, probably the best known, is just one tour company offering a number of services to guided tour destinations and activities ranging from a day to a week.  For a fair price they will take care of all the trip details – accommodations, meals, transportation (jeeps, motor boats), guides and entrance fees.

They offer visits to nearby Cerro Azul cave paintings, the Ciudad de Piedra, Porto de Orion and Laguna Negra. Activities include birdwatching, fishing, and ecology hikes, visits to indigenous tribes and trips down the Guaviare River to swim with the pink dolphins. Longer tours are also available like the trip to Cano Cristales – an all inclusive 4 days and 5 nights river tour for $500. Custom travel can also be arranged and services altered to fit a travelers budget. Contact them at: Facebook@geotoursdelguaviare

Indigenous Tribes

There are many indigenous tribes in the area. The Nukak is a tribe of hunters and gatherers who first came into contact with the outside world in 1988. Since then 50% of tribe has been wiped out by diseases such as measles and influenza to which they had no immunity. Drug trade and conflict between the guerrillas, paramilitaries and Colombian army forced the Nukaks to abandon their homes in the jungle and seek refuge in and around the town of San Jose. Still waiting for the government to return their land, they now live in improvised camps where they are marginalized. The Tukanos, another tribe, live on more prosperous reservations and encourage tourism

Rock paintings – A dive into Colombia’s ancient past

These tribes have been living in the area for the last 20,000 years. And the area is famous for its ancient rock paintings. These paintings are one of Colombia’s greatest hidden travel adventures. The paintings can be seen in the areas of Nuevo Tolima, El Raudal del Guayabero and Cerrro Azul. Relatively free of tourists, travelers usually have the paintings and the mountains pretty much to themselves.

Cerro Azul

is a mountain rising from the jungle floor and has the largest display of these ancient rock paintings dating back 12,500 – 15,000 years. Blood red paintings were daubed on the face of ancient rock formations. The paint was made with natural materials such as ocher and blood. The paintings depict the activities of past hunters who painted everything they knew about the world on these rocks. There are extinct animals, geometric patterns, rivers, canoes, men with paddles, ladders, rivers, alligators, eagles and bats. One can spend hours gazing at the walls picking out patterns and themes.

The paintings fill the cliff facings at three different levels of the mountain. The first at the bottom is the easiest to view. Then there’s a quarter mile climb through a bat filled cave to get to a second level. The cave was a place where sacrifices were made to the spirits and people were buried. The second level has the best paintings. There are more on the top, upper – third level which requires some climbing skills.

These rock paintings are still a mystery. Some say the paintings were an ancient library. Others say they paintings on the rocks were a vehicle to communicate with the spirits. There are pictures of doors to other dimensions guarded by animal spirits. Deer and tapirs protected the doors by day and the bats by night. A lot of the paintings were mysteriously painted over by the tribes as if to hide their writings from other tribes or invaders. Lichen and a natural white salt naturally bleeding from the rock have been destroying the paintings over time.

On the top of the mountain, 1,100 meters above the jungle floor, there is a stunning lookout of the vast jungle below stretching as far as the eye can see.

Puerta Orion

Ciudad de Piedra

Just 11 miles south of San Jose, out of grassy, forest, scrub land – an ancient plateau rises from the jungle. It’s an alien landscape of rock formations called ‘Ciudad de Piedra’ or City of Rocks. The rocks and caves form pathways resembling ancient streets of a ruined city. Vultures circle overhead and coral snakes hide in the rocks.

Puerto de Orion

In the Ciudad de Piedra, a rock formation, called ‘Puerta de Orion’ or Orion’s Door, can be found. It is 45 feet high 48 feet tall. In December the earth rotation allows constellation Orion to be viewed through the hole in the rocks. And when the full moon rises moon beams shine through the door like a spotlight to the desert floor.

Canos Cristales and red algae blooms

Beautiful red algae grow in the rivers here from June to November. Canos Cristales is a famous Colombian destination to observe these seasonal blooms. But Cano Cristales is an 8-hour drive by jeep from San Jose or a 5-hour trip by boat. Most people pay big bucks to fly in from Bogota to the nearby town of Macarena and stay there. But the rivers of Tranquilandia, Cano Rosado and Cano Sabanas near San Jose, while smaller, are less controlled, easier and much cheaper to get to.

On the edge of the Amazon there are numerous swimming holes, waterfalls, lakes and mighty rivers to visit in dugout canoes. And with the heat and humidity of the jungle, these swimming holes are a real afternoon treat. Most guides include a couple swim breaks a day in the itinerary.

Cano Cristales

Laguna Negra

is a big, deep, cool lake with plenty of wildlife: turtles, caimans, 4 species of monkeys, parrots, hummingbirds, kingfishers, herons, storks, eagles and toucans are easily sighted. We trolled around the lake being followed by the guttural baying of Howler Monkeys and squirrel monkeys jumping from limb to limb. The farmer’s houses all have parrots they have raised and leave free to roam the tree tops. The birds call out in sassy Spanish and laugh at you when you pass by

Pink Dolphins

On a motor boat trip up the Guaviere River we were followed by the famous pink dolphins. The dolphins, when they follow the boats, are actually grey. But when you swim with them, they blush and get pink when excited.

Getting There: One can fly in to the small airport at San Jose.  The airline Satena operates flights to San Jose from Medellin and Bogota. Or one can travel overland. Take a bus from Bogota to Villavicencio (7-8 hours) and then another 6-7 hour bus ride to San Jose. It’s an easy two day trip through Colombia cow country with great views of Los Llanos or the great plains. Stop overnight in Villavicencio and treat yourself to a steak dinner – Los Llanos reportedly has the best beef in Colombia.

(See full article: San Jose del Guaviare – Exploring the Amazon from the Outside in)

Inirida, Guania and the Cerros de Mavecure Mountains

Cerros de Mavicure in Guainia

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 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.

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. 

Inirida River Port

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.

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. 

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.

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.

Cano San Joaquin 

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:

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