San Jose del Guaviare – Exploring the Amazon from the Outside In
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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 fire trails winding through the jungle. From here one can explore the Amazon from the outside fringes.

Prone to flooding during the rains, these roads are only accessible by jeep and motocross bikes. And the rivers are navigated by dugout canoes with small, transom mounted gas motors. In May, the winter rainy season begins. The rivers rise 15-20 feet becoming torrential rapids carrying trees and jungle debris downriver making the rivers unnavigable for all but the largest boats.

The Majestic Amazon

The Amazon river basin is home to the largest rain forest on earth. Covering over 35% of Colombia’s total territory, it borders 8 different countries. The Amazon basin is roughly the size of the lower 48 states of the United States, 2.7 million square miles, and covers 40% of the entire South American continent. Made up of a mosaic of ecosystems: tropical rain forests, jungle, flooded forests and savannas – the basin is drained by the Amazon river. The second largest river in the world, after the Nile. The Amazon, by sheer volume, is the world’s largest, discharging more water than the 7 next largest rivers in the world put together.

Travel to the Amazon

Remote, impenetrable – travel to the Amazon has become difficult and somewhat expensive these days. No longer can you pay a captain to string up a hammock on his freight boat and ride the Amazon cheap – like I did in the 1970s. Since there are no roads, one has to fly into Amazon river towns like Leticia and Iquitos – a 500-mile trip from Colombia’s capital city of Bogota. And since everything is so far away it’s necessary to hire guides, tours, boats, jeeps and motor cross bikes to get around.

As an alternative, towns bordering the jungle, like Florencia, Macoa and San Jose del Guaviare are becoming more popular allowing exploration of the Amazon jungle from the outside in.

San Jose del Guaviare

Offering infinite opportunities for anyone looking for adventure, San Jose del Guaviare is relatively new to tourism and intent on expanding. But this is still a place for travelers more so than tourists. 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.

The area encompasses nearly one-third of Colombia’s territory but only a small fraction of the country`s 49 million people.

Safe to Visit?

Until five years ago, the area had been off the tourist trail, ignored by both foreign and national tourists. A remote area, it had been a guerrilla-controlled territory for 30 years and a main producer of coca leaves and base production for the cartels. It was once considered one of Colombia’s most dangerous places. But with peace accords between the government and the revolutionary group FARC, and a major police crackdown on the jungle farmers producing coca leaves and base, the area has been declared safe to visit. Today, this past reputation is their only impediment to developing a tourism industry and a common problem on Colombia’s frontier.

San Jose has all the necessary services from which to explore the Amazon. There are inexpensive eco-lodges just outside of town, decent hotels in town 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.

I was invited by Geo Tours of San Jose to visit some of the sites around Guaviare. Geo Tours is a tour company, founded in 2015, comprised of 5 coordinators and 10 guides. These local tourist operators work alongside the communities offering sensitive and sustainable tourism involving the local people.

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

A young couple who run a cabin rental and and campsites in the countryside near San Jose del Guaviare

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 paintingsA 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.

You have to pass through a bat-filled cave (Caverna La Nevera) to get to the cave paintings on the mountains’ upper tiers

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.

Looking out over the the jungle from a lookout ‘Mirador del Orion’ on Cerro Azul

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.

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.

Summer red Algae blooms in local rivers – Geotours photo

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. Just saying.

Swimming holes, waterfalls and lakes

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.

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.

Swimming with the dolphins – photo Geotours

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 also article: Mocoa – Gateway to the Amazon

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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