Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Caquetá & Putumayo's friendly fire

There's a school of thought that suggests that travellers who seek out 'non-tourist' areas are generally doing themselves a disservice. Basically, the reason why some places aren't holiday hotspots is that there's just nothing of interest in them. There's merit to that of course.

The, um, bustling port of Puerto Rosario on the Putumayo River, Putumayo, Colombia ...
Puerto Rosario's 'port' on the Putumayo River.
Yet, places off the beaten track have very often appealed to this writer; 'the only tourist in the village' kind of thing. What's more, especially in relation to Colombia, why some locations aren't popular isn't necessarily because they're dull, it's more a case that they're seen, or at least were seen, as being potentially dangerous.

The sparsely-populated departments of Caquetá and Putumayo, with large tracts of them once being guerrilla territory, are examples of this. Other Colombians, never mind foreigners, would generally only go there if they had to, and for many that's still the way.

Fair enough, in a country full of beautiful landscapes, the argument could be made that whatever these two departments have to offer you'll find similar in other more trusted – and more 'happening', perhaps – regions.

That might be true, but for those looking to step off the tourist trail somewhat yet still be entertained, Caquetá and Putumayo (from the little bit we saw of these large departments) don't disappoint. Impressive sights, refreshing clear-water rivers to escape the heat and very friendly people await.

On that last one, it's largely due to the fact that tourism has been pretty much alien to many of the towns we visited that practically everyone goes out of their way to help – even more so than the Colombian average. Indeed, if you were being overly picky, at times it gets a bit too much if you're just looking for a moment to your self or with your fellow travel companions. You can't have it all your own way all the time, though.

As for those clear-water rivers, the brown-tainted Putumayo excepted, they serve as decent substitutes for sea and sand in this sweaty tropical region on the doorstep to the Amazon, hundreds of miles away from the nearest coast. Caquetá's capital Florencia and the adjacent Belén are well-equipped in this regard.

The river between Villagarzón & Mocoa, Putumayo, Colombia.
A land of rivers, many refreshing rivers ...
The town of Curillo marks a departure point to make a crossing into Putumayo via the voluminous river of the same name. The route we took was a two-hour speedboat journey up river to Puerto Rosario. Only a few short months ago the idea of a couple of foreigners travelling solely for tourist reasons to Curillo, Puerto Rosario and, further into Putumayo, the town of Puerto Guzmán was largely unheard of. But a modicum of ignorance on our part worked in our favour.

It all felt very safe, despite what some Colombian friends in other parts of the country were telling us. The friendliness of the locals was apparent throughout. Only in Curillo, the local teenagers apart, did people seem a little more stand-offish. That wasn't in a cold way, however. It was just they appeared less interested to ask questions and engage compared to the other towns. That might be down to a policy of minding your own business in an area with a recent violent past.

Putumayo's principal city, Mocoa and the nearby Villagarzón are a bit more 'on' the tourist map, but there's no sign of the locals suffering tourism weariness. A big reason why they appear more popular is down to the Fin del Mundo ('End of the World') trek situated halfway between the two urban centres. It's certainly worth checking out, but if you go during a holiday season as we did, it's not exactly a remote escape into the wilderness as you'll have plenty of companions during the 30-minute or so hike to 'World's End'.

That aside, it will probably be some time before the areas we visited become as popular as the more established places on the Colombian tourist scene.

Yet with a few important fundamentals already in place and the region becoming, hopefully, more stable in a post-conflict Colombia, there's no reason to completely rule out these parts just because they don't tend to be featured in the guide books.

Sure there's no better guide than the friendly locals you'll meet there.
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