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

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

The city of Mocoa on the Mocoa River

The Mudslide

A small, agricultural town, dedicated mostly to the production of sugar cane and cattle, Mocoa itself does not seem all that interesting. But then one learns the ordeals the town has been through.  On April 2, 2017, before dawn, on a Saturday morning, the rivers Sangoyaco, Mulato and Mocoa, all which run through and around the town, flooded, overflowed and slammed through the village burying the town in an avalanche of mud, boulders and debris. The early morning disaster left 254 dead and hundreds of homes destroyed.

Today, though still rebuilding, the town is open for business. Mocoa merits a visit for a night.  The main boulevard through town, Avenida Colombia, or Carrera 9, offers plenty of restaurants, bars and shops and the main square, where the cathedral of San Miguel de Macoa is located, has all the banks and government offices.

The Jungle

People visit Mocoa, not for the town, but for its surrounding areas. Mocoa offers access to the Amazon jungle. It’s more accessible, easier to get to and cheaper than flying 500 miles – from Bogota to the city of Leticia which is the standard ‘go to’ Amazonic destination; located deep in the jungle, it’s the place most people visit when ‘doing’ the Amazon. The area around Mocoa is a natural wonderland of turbulent rivers, waterfalls, swimming holes, dripping wet jungles teaming with wildlife, red dirt and park protected nature with well-maintained trails.

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 the meals are $3 each. There are mosquito nets over the beds, but on my visit, there were no flies or mosquitoes.

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 first waterfall is called Pozzo Negro or  ‘black hole’ is a great swimming hole 15 feet deep with cool water and jumping rocks 20 feet high. After climbing through steaming jungles it’s like finding paradise lost.

The second waterfall is called Puente a Piedra or ‘stone bridge’. It’s a massive stone shelf serving as a bridge over the river. Miraculously, there’s a restaurant here in the mouth of a shallow cave.

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.

There are other waterfalls to hike to in the area just outside of the park. 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.

Another reserve, this one privately owned, is Paway.  There’s a path by the bridge, just up the highway from the CEA. It’s a 15-20-minute hike up the path, most of it uphill to a gate.  Ring the bell by the gate.  Some German Shepherds will come and meet you followed by their owners. For a small entrance fee, they will all give you a tour of the butterfly house and the grounds where parrots and monkeys roam freely.  They have accommodations here as well as a bar where you can have a drink while visiting with the monkeys and parrots.

In Macoa, everyone puts out banana tables to lure the monkeys out of the jungle. Squirrel monkeys and saddle black tamarins are always hanging about on rooftops and in the gardens.

For those interested in birding expeditions there’s Harold, an English expat in town who takes people out on informative guided bird watching tours.

Yage – the hallucinogenic jungle juice

An indigenous woman at Fin del Mondo park shows the plants used to make the Yage drink.

This area of the Putamayo jungle is also well known as a place to procure and consume Yage (pronounced yah-jay). It’s a vine that grows in these areas and when combined with two other local plants – chancruna and changropanga – produces a drink that causes hallucinations.

The indigenous in the area of Macoa belong to the Pastos or Inga tribes and they have an ancient relationship with Yage (or Ayahusca as it called in Peru).  They have used the plant for centuries to cure emotional disorders and for spiritual guidance. Here one can find shaman, called a Taita, who will prepare you, supply you with the drink and guide you through the experience.

For more on this visit my post:  Yage – Mocoa’s hallucinogenic jungle juice.

The Amazon Jungle

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

Deforestation of the Amazon – a World Problem

The area is remote and up until recently had been controlled by the revolutionary group FARC.  They oversaw the farmers in the area allowing them to only clear 20 acres of land per family – 10 for crops, 10 for cattle pasture. 

But the environmental awareness of the guerrillas was forgotten when coca cultivation come into play. With the advent of drug cartels in the area, coca leaf production soared. A lucrative cash crop, the farmers cleared more land to grow more leaves to make coca paste to sell back the cartels.

Fin del Mondo guest house

But now the FARC and the cartels are gone. The area is returning to agriculture, often with exploitative rather than sustainable practices. More people are arriving, armed with chain saws, and are clearing more jungle to raise more cattle.

Companies, many foreign owned, are cutting down the trees for lumber and clearing the land, turning forest into pasture for extensive cattle ranching.  Some of these groups and families have cleared 200 – 2,000 acres of land each.

Colombia had been so preoccupied with the war that no one thought of the forests.

In the past 25 years it has been reported that the farmers have cleared and fenced off 130 million acres of Amazon forest in just Colombia alone. Ranching isn’t illegal and there’s nothing being done to stop the farmers and ranchers.

 At this rate of expansion, the Amazon forest in Colombia may just disappear in the next 70 years.

The soils of the Amazon are extremely fragile. If the trees are cut, alternative crops can not be generated. Grass grows and the flora and fauna disappear. The humid Amazon grass turns into a mirror that reflects the temperature of the sun increasing the greenhouse effect and global warming.

Deforestation of the Amazon will have devastating implications for changing the planet’s climate.

Yage – Colombia’s Hallucinogenic Jungle Juice

The indigenous in the area of Mocoa belong to the Pastos or Inga tribes and they have an ancient relationship with Yage or Ayahusca as its called in Peru.

Yage (pronounced yah-jay) is a vine that grows in these areas and when combined with two other local plants – chancruna and changropanga – produces a drink that causes hallucinations. The locals have used the plant for centuries to cure emotional disorders and for spiritual guidance.

The mother of the Taita who also runs the hostel Fin del Mondo near Macoa

To prepare this magical potion of jungle juice, the vine is hit with the business end of a machete a few hundred times to tenderize it and then boiled together with the other two plants. Only a qualified shaman knows how to correctly make the potion and what’s the proper dosage.

The Yage Vine

William Burroughs, author and one of the late beat writers, came to Mocoa, in the department of Putumayo, in 1953 in pursuit of Yage. He had heard about it being used by the indigenous at the headwaters of the Amazon.

In a series of letters from Colombia to Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs described the Yage drink as mind altering, life changing and ‘the most powerful drug he had ever experienced.’

The letters between Burroughs and Ginsberg were published as “The Yage Letters” in the mid-1950s. Burroughs said the world he experienced through the drug changed him and eventually influenced the ‘cut-up’ style he used in his works in the early 60s – most notably his book “The Naked Lunch”.

What ‘The Yage Letters’ also did was help create a sort of drug tourism in the jungles of Colombia and Peru. People from around the world have been coming here for decades to find a shaman and experience the mind-altering effects of Yage.

There are number of Yage shaman, locally called ‘Taitas’, in the region of Putamayo and around Fin del Mondo, a park of waterfalls in the jungle a short trip outside of Mocoa. In their native language El Taita means God, wise man and healer.

Carlos, a Taita and his wife harvesting the yage plant in the jungle of Mocoa

All the jungle hostels will casually make the introductions and the Taitas love to talk about Yage and its affects. Like wine salesmen they joyfully promote the plant and sell the experience. They make the Yage experience seem natural and uncomplicated. And for a price $15 – $50 per person they will supply the potion and guide people through the experience.

Full disclosure I didn’t do Yage but I did talk to a Taita, Carlos, about the experience.

For a few days before the trip you have to cleanse and quiet your body – go on a fruit and vegetable diet and not have sex.

The Taita will talk to the people who want to do Yage to assess their energy and to determine if the person should partake and if the Taita wants to guide them. Apparently your true personality and all your demons reveal themselves in spades during this experience.

Basically the Taita does an interview to eliminate the psychopaths – which is more than they do in gun shops in the States.

Then at sunset everyone goes to a hut in the jungle where the Taita serves up the potion in a dried gourd bowl. Initially the potion causes motion sickness, nausea and diarrhea which is a ritual cleansing. The Yage experience is much more than a recreational drug.

“First the yage cleans the body, then it cleans the soul,” Carlos told me. “Yage is not toxic,” he said. “It will not hurt you. People are toxic and can hurt themselves.”

The Taita explains to the people everything that is happening. He listens to the people during their Yage experience. He is a translator of symbols, a guide and therapist.

I got a pretty good nose for hustlers and carneys but these guys seemed legit.

They are definitely respected in their tribes and also given tribal political, judicial and counseling responsibilities. They are calm, verbal, philosophical types who take care of the people under their care.

A lot of people in the tribe still do Yage on a regular basis. The Tiata I talked to said he does it every couple of weeks to keep sharp.

He doesn’t smoke or drink and thinks marijuana and alcohol are mind numbing drugs and mushrooms are a simple low end hallucinogenic.

For me travel and the jungle are already a drug in themselves. But if you really want to go over the waterfall to see what’s on the other side of the rainbow – there’s a place and plants for you in Mocoa.