Monday, 12 February 2018

The independent traveller's guide (of sorts) to Guaviare

Broadly speaking, there are two types of travellers: Those who do some sort of planning, research if you will, before getting to their destination; and those who just rock up to a place, a kind of 'see what happens' approach.

These days, I tend to find myself more in the latter camp. It's part of the adventure really. If we've to plan for a break, something that's meant to be relaxing, it can almost take the fun out of it.

On top of this, I usually prefer travelling alone. I find it quite a release to hop on a bus companion-less, heading to some destination I know very little about and where I don't know anybody on arrival. A chance to get away from it all and lose myself in my own thoughts.

Ciudad Piedra, Guaviare department, Colombia.
The view from the top of one of the many large rocks at Ciudad Piedra.
Thus was the style of the recent visit to San José del Guaviare, the dusty small town and state capital of Colombia's Guaviare department.

Up until recently, the place was generally regarded as being off limits to not just tourism but pretty much any unnecessary visits. It was a 'zona caliente', that is to say a hotbed of violence in Colombia's internal conflict.

In Bogotá, across the stratum divide, this view still seems to hold for many. "Be careful going down there" was the refrain from most, as it is when one goes to many regional outposts. Now by area it is a big department, about the size of Croatia actually, and I only explored a small section of it around San José, so I can't speak for it all.

Yet, what I did experience was nothing but friendly folk in an environment that felt anything but threatening. Indeed, in terms of having personal belongings robbed, the chances of this happening in San José seem pretty remote. Alas, we can't say the same for the country's capital.

The biggest problem with the place — which in some ways is paradoxically a plus — from that independent, off-the-cuff traveller perspective, is that the tourism infrastructure isn't quite in place (yet). If you haven't signed up with a tour company, getting around to see the many wonderful sights can prove to be a bit of a headache.

Of the fledgling tour companies in operation, Geotours del Guaviare is one that I had the pleasure to chat with and get some useful information on my second day there, by accident as it was albeit. However, doing tours on your own with these can be pretty expensive (though if you're coming with dollars or euros in your back pocket, it won't seem too much at all).

Los Pozos Naturales, Guaviare department, Colombia.
On our way to the refreshing natural wells with the help of Saúl ...
Nonetheless, where there's a will, there's a way and all that. So while I was given a chance to go on a group tour with one agency, sticking to my independent guns, from San José's main square I contracted a motorcycle taxi guy (cum guide, of sorts) to bring me to some of the sights of interest.

Considering the agency prices, Arnulfo's negotiable 80,000 COP for an 'all-day' (09:00 to 18:30 as it turned out on day one) trip seemed reasonable. (That's just over 22 euro. And yes, I did get it at a lower price; we are in straitened times.)* In fact, the motorbike ride in the hot sun was an attraction in itself, if a little bit testing on the posterior.

Although he wasn't the most informative, Arnulfo turned out to be good company all the same, if a little difficult to understand at times. We got over the small setback of him struggling to find the 'pozos naturales', natural wells, at the end of our first day. That I opted for a second day with him is proof of that.
Ancient rock paintings, Cerro Azul, Guaviare department, Colombia.
The ancient rock paintings at Cerro Azul ...
Alongside the natural wells that we eventually found (with thanks to a third party, Saúl!), on that first day we took in the rather mysterious, ancient indigenous rock paintings of Nuevo Tolima, followed by the impressive Ciudad de Piedra (Rock City) and then the rock tunnels. It's what the tour agencies call the 'rocoso', 'rocky' trip, with all the attractions being within relatively easy reach of each other (with transport that is).

On day two with Arnulfo we went to Cerro Azul, or 'Blue Hill' if you like, where there are more indigenous paintings to try to 'decode', a 'cool', in every sense of the word, bat-filled rock tunnel to traverse, as well as stunning views over the vast plains-cum-jungle.

A refreshing tienda pit stop came after that  — Arnulfo's call, honestly. In fairness to him, it's a sweaty trek up and down Cerro Azul in the energy-sapping sun, while the motorbike journey alone to get there from San José is a good 90 minutes, most of it on unpaved roads. He deserved a beer or five.

Once 'watered', we briefly took in Laguna Negra, the Black Lake. By that time, with the sun setting, the blood-sucking flying insects were out in force and I was left badly exposed. They were the biggest threat faced over the four-day visit.

Going to Guaviare in dry season means missing out on the chance to see majestically-coloured rivers, akin to the more renowned Caño Cristales (an advantage for the Guaviare versions is that they're far easier, and cheaper, to reach). The best time to see the rivers 'in bloom' is between July and November.
An anteater in San José del Guaviare, Colombia.
This anteater caused a bit of excitement among the concerned locals in San José ...
Also, on the fauna side of things, Guaviare has much to offer. In this regard, I didn't see a lot on this occasion — an unexpected visit of a young anteater to the centre of San José that caused a bit of excitement was as exotic as it got.

In any case, it's just another reason to go back. We can call this a reconnaissance mission of sorts for the independent traveller. The contacts and groundwork have been laid for that return visit.

*Both Arnulfo (+573115678891) and his brother Antonio (+573115559047) offer moto-taxi services.
There are a host of hotels in San José del Guaviare, from basic to slightly more upmarket. The likes of Residencia Casanare a block away from the main square has rooms available from as little as 10.000 COP.
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