Mocoa, Colombia: A taste of the Amazon

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Hot, dry wind blew through the our collectivo’s windows and onto our tired, red faces en route to Nieva.  We were shoulder-to-shoulder in a van jam packed with Colombians, weaving through traffic in only ways cheap taxi drivers can replicate under chaotic conditions, watching tired, crumbly buildings scroll past. Elissa was trying to find herself in the best position to catch the breeze by hanging her head near the open window when her hat blew off of her head and onto the road.  We were stuck in the back of the van watching the hat slowly get smaller and smaller as we pulled away.  We motioned to the driver to stop and were happy to look back and see that a pedestrian behind us saw what had happened and walked into traffic to get the hat.  We then watched in disbelief as he examined at the hat, tucked it under his arm and began walking away with his new possession.  This was upsetting of course, because being in the middle of nowhere it might not be the best time or place to find a suitable replacement hat.  Seeing this unfold, a woman in our van seated adjacent to the door got out, got the man’s attention who took the hat, and used her foreign tongue to get him to return it back into our hands with a big, concerned smile.  The overall friendliness of the people was a part of Colombia that kept showcasing itself, and truly drove the point home time and time again.  We thanked the woman up and down for her efforts who shrugged it off as no big deal.  Many hours, landscapes, and transportation switches later, we arrived in the foothills of San Agustin in the Southwestern part of Colombia.

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The desert, along with the efforts to reach our destination, took a lot out of us physically.  Those who’ve engaged in long term backpacking trips understand the tipping point between the need to feed your soul’s insatiable hunger for exploration and giving your mind, body, and heart some much needed R&R.  We chose San Augustin to take a small break, get some rest, and be at peace with the idea of doing nothing for just a day or two.  We scoped out a fantastic hostel outside of town built by Swiss expats, comprised of thatch roofed buildings with bunks, a nice grassy area to lay down on, a fire pit, and a great outdoor cooking kitchen (we also experienced more harsh realities of the open outdoor kitchen concept when someone- or something- took a strong proclivity towards the bag of marshmallows we bought for the campfire. After a short stroll through town we returned to find out the entire bag had gone missing).  It was a small hike to get to and from the village, but isolation was what we were after in order to find some solace and take a break.  San Agustin is best known for it’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, which attract tourists from all over the world.  These protected locations boast hundreds of sculptures carved out in stone that give us some insight on the indigenous cultures that came before Spanish and modern day Colombian influences. The statues were somewhat Easter Islandy in appearance, on a much smaller scale. We heard it was pretty worthwhile to see, but we did not wind up prioritizing any of them.  We instead bought lots of food, made some hearty meals, and met some travelers from Europe who wound up going the same direction we were headed.  Topics of discussion included life paths, philosophy, consciousness, and travel highlights- as usual.

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The following day we were all bound for Mocoa, which is a small city situated partly within the Amazon.  It’s one of the few locations in Colombia that is encapsulated within the footprint of the Amazon rainforest, and has relatively no risk of malaria to boot! Our collectivo dropped us off in a bustling mercado consisting of old brick buildings and stalls selling everything from sombreros, used shoes, food, tools, and every cut of meat imaginable.  This is always one of the most vulnerable parts of travel; arriving at a new destination, only to be met by a sea of hungry cab drivers eying you like hawks watching their prey, waiting to see what kind of paydirt they can get from you based upon your obvious lack of knowledge of how much a fare should actually be.  We found what we thought was a reasonable deal to get to our hostel and took off.  There was a police barricade in the middle of the road en route to our new home, which was placed to protect drivers from a protest amongst collectivo drivers.  They were standing together for an increase in their wages, or perhaps to increase their pay for hop-on-hop-off services for set routes.  The police gave us all the once over before allowing our cab to pass and keep moving along.  We arrived at the Dutch run Casa del Rio, which was a great little hostel sitting right on the edge of one of the hundreds of beautifully clean, turquoise rivers this part of the world seemed to sprout.  The river had families and small children playing and splashing in the crisp, translucent waters washing over the smooth edges of the large boulders the frequent flooding moved downstream.

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The owner created this hostel because he fell in love with the nature that this underdeveloped and often overlooked area of Colombia has to offer.  To go to Mocoa, you have to go well out of the way of the easy route for travelers bound for Ecuador, which is a nicely paved road around some treacherous mountain passes that corners off Mocoa from the southern border of Colombia and Ecuador near Pasto (for the willing, a visit to Mocoa would mean a 10 hour trip to Mocoa, then a 10 hour trip back towards Popoyan to take the easy route to Pasto, thus isolating it from most visitors; we chose a different road to Pasto, which I’ll elaborate on in the next post).  The communal building and entrance had a 4 foot high wall to divert the water from the river to protect itself against the frequent flooding that the region can have during rainy seasons.  There were banana trees dripping with little green fruits on the path between the office and our bungalows, complete with a wooden footbridge over a seemingly tame stream about ten feet below.  The owner of this hostel also brought tennis to the area, and had the only tennis courts in this part of the world for Colombians to play on.   He was very informative on the lay of the land, and told us about his family of monkeys that frequently visited the hostel, usually after the fresh bananas hanging from a hook outside of the kitchen.

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After doing a bit of research we narrowed down the options of the dozen plus hiking routes that would help us explore all that the fringe of the Amazon had to offer. Elissa and I were pretty eager to check out a river called Fin del Mundo to enjoy some spectacular swimming holes in the hot, sticky air that seemed to settle in around 11AM every day.  After flagging down a collectivo that was completely full, the driver told us to get on anyway. We mounted our feet on the bumper and hung on to a welded metal bracket shortly before we started  going 100+ kilometers per hour down the road.  Our driver stopped in front of a sign that had the name of our destination on it, and we gave him a few bucks before he took off out of sight.  We got right to work trudging over a huge wooden rope suspension bridge that spanned across a wide, shallow river below.  A Colombian man was carrying large pieces of wood from one side to the other without blinking twice at the old bridge that was in a serious state of disrepair.  On the far side of the river was his horse, which looked like it had carried a few dozen planks some distance up to this bridge.  We passed several houses along the river and eventually had to pay a few bucks to a property owner who was providing an easement to the river.  We were instructed to sign in and sign out on a visitors log so that authorities wouldn’t send a search party if we didn’t come back.  We hiked uphill for the better part of an hour through forest and jungle on make shift wooden stairs pounded into the muddy earth.  Eventually, we encountered he river that we had been seeking and found some beautiful little swimming holes.  I decided that a quick jump off a large boulder (I saw a person do this ahead of me, monkey see monkey do) was a great idea, and almost immediately regretted the decision.  The drop was a bit larger than I had anticipated, and I didn’t admit it to Elissa, but it actually scared the hell out of me.  After shaking the cold water off my skin, we kept going downstream admiring the felled trees, crystal clear water, and fresh natural air that was waiting for us to soak in it’s essence.

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The trail was not for the faint of heart, and at times required walking over slick, mossy terrain on the edge of rapid waterfalls careening down onto hard, flat bedrock.  I remember thinking how much potential there was for broken limbs on some of these paths while marching behind Colombian families with small children in tow.  The stream went from vertical falls to flat, meandering segments that kept company with a lush green forest. Eventually, the faint sound of churning water turned into an omnipresent applause in a large, open rock amphitheater of beauty. There were dozens of Colombians swimming, picnicking, and drinking libations on this perfect afternoon.  Teens and young adults were jumping off the 10 foot drop and into the cold, refreshing pool below us.  There was a small food shack built into the side of the small gorge, which was puzzling considering how far we were from any sort of roadway.  The overall mood was jovial; everyone was there to enjoy the cold, fresh water on a hot, sticky Saturday, and we were part of that same crowd.  After soaking in the scene for a few minutes, we pressed onwards, knowing that the biggest attraction was further downstream.  More mossy ledges with overhanging trees and damp, wet bedrock wove through the jungle while the stream became smaller, and more condensed.  A tiny crowd of people eventually appeared near the end of the trail, and looked like tiny figures in a sea of hazy trees in the far distance beyond them.  They were standing on the edge of the 260 foot waterfall, which was also the trail’s namesake, Fin del Mundo, “the end of the world”. It felt dizzying to lay down on the edge, peering over to watch the solid stream of water vaporize on it’s tremendous journey to the surface below.  Enormous boulders, probably the size of houses, looked liked tiny glistening pebbles from our vantage point above.  A large family enjoyed our curious approach and began chatting us up, gifting us oranges, and eventually insisting that we partake in a large group family photo with them.  Colombians are extremely friendly, through and through, and this was certainly the case that day.  We hiked back through the falls, jungle, and back to the road to continue on home.  And just as you can depend on finding anywhere in Latin America, a woman was waiting at the entrance of the trail making fresh, taffy-like candy that was both gooey and delicious.  She was kind enough to let me snap a few shots of the process for an ongoing project of hands around the world.

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The next day we did a group hike with our European friends to find some more fun waterfalls hidden in the hills of the rainforest. We talked, sweated, and trekked up through muddy, clay roads, kept company only by the occasional small farm and other hikers.  Small, ramshackle homes sat proudly in the sunshine overlooking the river below.  More wooden logs carefully installed into the slope helped us climb upwards into the shade created by the thick crowds of trees. The trail split off and we began our descent, hopping down from earth shaped stairs onto wet tree roots, rocks, and mud.  The leaves all around us were dripping with moisture, and moss was collecting on trees in areas just out of reach from our hands.  The trail was extremely steep, and at times the path became more of an effort to swing from trunks to branches, down onto roots holding the slope together.  The air got more moist as we got closer to the water source. Tiny waves of mist floated through the air, illuminated by bolts of light sneaking through gaps in the forest canopy. The first waterfall almost looked fake.  It was nestled into the cliff, pouring out onto 3 different levels of flat, smooth rock and splashing its way further into the jungle out of sight. We all took turns standing underneath it while water pelted our heads in full force from the drop above.  The water was cold and felt amazing when contrasted against the hot, sticky air around us.

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The temperature dropped about 15 degrees as we approached the large falls.  There had been lots of rain the night before (one of the loudest thunderstorms I’ve heard) and the volume of water was absolutely bursting off of the cliff.  The force of the water falling created a constant wind full of moisture that pulsated rhythmically like a old engine idling.  The spray kept blurring my lense, and in order to grab any sort of image I had to set up, wipe the lens, and quickly snap 1 shot before repeating the entire process over again. Stefan decided to try and walk behind the falls, and disappeared shortly afterwards.  I followed suit, but noticed that the closer I became to where the falls met the earth, the windier and more intense the air became.  One slip would send me into a wall of water pounding down into either rock or water, I couldn’t tell.  I bailed on the idea altogether, and saw Stefan appear on the other side with a large smile.  We played in the water for a short while before heading back home to prepare a large vegetarian feast.

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Mocoa treated us beyond well, and was a very great pocket of Colombia to explore and get to know. The people who lived out here survived in rural isolation, but they also had a very serene setting to find themselves isolated within.  If we didn’t feel the urge to press on (we had been in Colombia over 2 months at this stage) we probably would have found a few more trails to hike, a few more vistas to soak in, and a had a few more trips to the mercado to buy fresh, delicious food to feast on.  But the road was calling, and that familiar tune kept us marching on.

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28 thoughts on “Mocoa, Colombia: A taste of the Amazon

  1. Dan,

    If you were flying into Bogota and only had a week to spend in Colombia…where would you go?

    Thanks for the stunning images and stories!

  2. Dan your shots are absolutely amazing! I read your bio and from what I gather you must have taught yourself the skill of photography after being gifted with your DSLR. Any advice or tips for self-taught photographers?
    I must admit I’ve barely used my DSLR after my big south-east Asia trip and would really love to get back into it!

    Great shots – really enjoying your blog! Keep it up!

  3. Amazing travel diaries! Makes me want to go to South America and nomad around the Amazon so bad. I have done my fair share of nomading around SE Asia, and starting to write some pieces about my adventures. You should check out my most recent post about a scooter adventure in the south of Taiwan, when mango farmers took my girlfriend and I in after breaking down and going out of their way to help us out. I think you’d appreciate the story:

    http://mytefl.net/blog/teaching-in-taiwan-farmers-saved-us/

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