Florencia – Colombia’s Golden Gate to the Amazon
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Florencia is a city in the southern department of Caqueta. It is nick-named, ‘the golden gate to the Colombian Amazon’. The town is located on the banks of the Orteguaza river and lies 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, like Mocoa and San Jose del Guaviare, is an entrance ramp to the Amazon which is 37% of Colombia’s total territory.

Founded in 1902, the city quickly developed around rubber plantations and was named after the hometown of an Italian businessman, an important figure in the rubber trade, from Florence Italy.

Water taxis on the Orteguaza River

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 history of Florencia is written in blood, sweat and tears-

Back in the day, soldiers used to be sent here as punishment. In the early days, when native quinoa seeds were a popular medicinal plant in Europe, it is reported 50,000 indigenous were killed and another 50,000 put into slavery by colonizers to expropriate, clear and work the lands. It was called the War of Colonization. Starting in the 1840s, large rubber plantations were established in the rain forests. Slavery increased and yet more virgin forests were cleared.

In 1964, the area was occupied by the revolutionary forces of the FARC (a Marxist guerrilla group). The area was isolated and an ideal place for the rebels to hide. The farmers produced lots of food and children – both of which were needed and forcibly taken by the rebels to advance their fight. Everyone in town seems to have horror stories to tell about these dark years. And while the residents may still be recovering from conflicts of the past, they refuse to be the victims.

Narco-trafficking started in the 1970s and 80s. Farming coca became the number one cash crop. The money flowed. Many children saw no sense to studying when they could make so much money in the drug trade. Escuelas della muerte or death schools taught kids to torture and kill.

By the time the military and paramilitaries came to town to repel the rebel occupation it wasn’t long before they too were profiting from the drug trade. Thousands of people disappeared in the years of violence. Families were displaced from their farms and forced to move away.

Florencia, after 60 years of war, was long considered unsafe for tourists due to its central role in the Colombian conflict. The area finally started to open up in 2016 when the government made peace with the FARC.

The drug trade has now gone deeper into the Amazonian jungle. Today Florencia makes it living through commerce and farming. The region is known for its cedar, mahogany and rubber trees along with banana production and cattle raising.

The government is also embracing and promoting ecological tourism as an industry of the future. Though they could try harder. The tourist office in the center of town was always closed. But the people in town, a friendly lot, were more than willing to assist. Two policeman made some calls to someone in the administration who emailed me files of things to do in the area with names and contacts.

Things to Do in Florencia

Florencia is a hot and somewhat dirty city with a frontier feel to it. 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 Museum of Caqueta

The museum, located in the center of town, is an historical/cultural museum founded in 1999. The museum houses over 2,000 pieces of photographs, crafts and various exhibits donated by the Caquetena families and local native tribes. Crafts, feathered headgear, dresses, beads and walking sticks from local, native tribes are on display along with photos and objects from past conflicts between the guerillas and military. There’s a nice coffee shop on the main floor and professors who show up to give guided tours for a donation.

El Encanto Petrolyphs

Just a short taxi ride from the center one can visit the El Encanto Petrolyphs in the neighborhood of Torasso near the university. Here there are human figures,16 meters long, carved in rock along the Hacha River along with other ancient and mysterious carvings.

Huitoto Indigenous Community

Caqueta has strong connections to its indigenous culture. Just outside of town is the Huitoto community, an indigenous tribe from southeastern Colombia. One can visit their Maloca, a long spiritual thatched house, used for their rituals. It’s a great place to learn about the culture and traditions of the Amazonian indigenous people. Here one can interact with the locals from the tribe. They will show you yage, coca leaves and other traditional medicinal plants and set out their arts and crafts for purchase. The Maloca opens everyday at noon.

One can also hire a taxi and go on a solo tour to see the sculptures of Emilio Garzon. The artist has several renown sculptures in the parks of Florencia: the Monument to the Colonizers, the Monument to the Goddress of Chiara, the Monument to Life, Monument to Peace and the Monument to Effort and Hope.

The Calera Restaurant

Lunch at the famous Calera Restaurant just outside of town is a must. Open for lunch everyday, the restaurant is located on a private finca where one can walk along groomed trails exploring the farm. Go down to the river for a swim amidst the cacophony of the squirrel monkeys. Accustomed to tourists, the monkeys will take bananas right from your hand.

At the restaurant they serve river fish and trout but are famous for their smoked cachama which is the pirarucu fish related to the piranha family. Probably the best dish I ever had in Colombia.

Take a taxi to the restaurant. It is only 15 minutes outside of town: Via Antigua, the road to Neiva, Km. 5. The taxi drivers all know it – Tel. 3102889948

The Ferry Marco Polo

It soon becomes clear, as the roads end in a muddy jungle, one must rely on boats to discover the Amazon.

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. Claim one early as they are grabbed up quickly. After the leaving the dock, the captain gives an informative talk on the history of the area with its cultural, political and ecological transformations.

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 with red snapper, chicken, pork, rice and plantains. Local girls appeared from a nearby farm on horseback to sell their crafts.

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.

Outside of Florencia

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. (caquieta.extremo@gmail.com) 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

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. Our guide Guillermo picked us up in a tuk tuk in the town square at 8 a.m. and took us to the reserve.

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

Thanks to the knowledge and enthusiasm of the guide Guillermo, this was probably my favorite trip. The cost of the tour is 130,000 cop ($26) per couple. To contact: tel. 3128253751

Portal del Fragua is a jungle paradise located between two mountains of thick vegetation along the Fraguita River in the town of San Jose del Fragua. Contact Alexander at tel. 3132687683.

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. 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.

How to Get There

The best hotel in Florencia is Hotel Royal Plaza in the main square of Parque Santander. There are other hotels in town but none of them came recommended.

To get to Florencia there is a small airport, the Gustavo Artunduaga Paredes airport, where one could fly in from any major Colombian city. There are daily flights from Bogota.

Or you can catch a bus to Florencia from anywhere in Colombia. The city of Neiva to the north is a good departure point, especially if visiting the Deserts of Tatacoa. Or if you’re coming from archeological parks of San Agustin in the south, the bus from the nearby town of Pitalito is a 3 hour bus trip up and over the eastern Andes.

For more articles on Colombian Gateways to the Amazon see:

Mocoa – End of the World – A Gateway to the Amazon

San Jose del Guaviare – Exploring the Amazon from the Outside In

Colombia’s Gateways to the Amazon

Cerros de Mavecure

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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