When Chiribiquete National Park in Colombia was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2018 we were excited. The area’s tepui mesas, rock paintings, and chance to see jaguars made it an adventure travel destination we wanted to explore. Then we realized that Chiribiquete is pretty much inaccessible except by plane (and, as we write this, even that’s not allowed). So we went to nearby and accessible San Jose del Guaviare instead for four days of nature in this diverse part of Colombia that has only recently become safe for tourism. Here’s what to expect including a detailed day by day account and some information we wish we’d known before we went.
Exploring Guaviare day by day
Until just a few years ago, the town of San Jose del Guaviare and the natural areas around it were virtually free of tourists due to FARC activity. With that problem in the past, Colombians and foreigners are now able to explore this part of the country freely.
Located close to Chiribiquete National Park, the area around Guaviare (as everyone calls it) offers similar attractions including tepui mesas and ancient rock paintings plus its own mini version of Colombia’s famous Caño Cristales “rainbow river” (a place we’d previously visited and covered for BBC Travel). We spent four days exploring the area with a Bogotá-based tour company called Outlanders.
Day 1: Bogotá to Guaviare
Our trip started around 10 pm with an eight-hour overnight bus ride from Bogotá to Guaviare in a large private bus with air conditioning, USB chargers at seats, reasonably clean and comfortable conditions, and a bathroom. No food was served and no stops were made. We (mostly) slept.
Day 2: Ancient rock paintings at Cerro Azul and Serranío la Lindosa
After crossing the Rio Guaviare (home to pink dolphins) via the longest bridge in Colombia, our bus arrived at a roadside restaurant near Guaviare at 6 am and we had the chance to stretch our legs and eat a big hot breakfast. Then we piled into a cluster of small 4X4 trucks along with our luggage and traveled to nearby Playa Guio Hospedaje. This basic place is not in the town of Guaviare, as we expected, but located down a rough dirt road off the main paved highway. It’s a peaceful, pretty spot but also a bit of a hostage crisis since it’s more than 6 miles (10 km) from Guaviare town and is accessed via a short boat ride across a stream that runs into Laguna Negra.
Playa Guio has a large creaky wooden dorm building with a tin roof and about 20 bunk beds covered by mosquito nets, two shared toilets, and two sinks (a few private cabins with private bathrooms are available for a supplement). There is electricity, but the ceiling fans in the dorm building didn’t work.
After dropping off our luggage and claiming a bunk, we changed into hiking clothes, took the boat back across the stream, and got back into the 4X4s for an hour-long drive on cement and dirt roads to reach the Serano la Lindoso area. We saw a troupe of titi monkeys in a tree on our way.
The area’s famous red rock paintings are mainly found in three places: Nuevo Tolima, El Raudal de Guayabero, and Cerro Azul. We were headed for Finca La Florida where the owner claims to be taking care of the nearby Cerro Azul area and its red pictographs. We’re still not sure what that actually means, but he sent us all off down the trail with two of his sons as guides. The trail was in good shape, including one sturdy bridge and two ladders made from the indestructible fake wood used by many national parks, so somebody is doing something to maintain tourism infrastructure in the area.
We walked for about 30 minutes with some climbing up and down slopes under jungle shade to reach the first small wall with rock art where we could see a few images in red (experts think the artists used pigment made from natural ochre and animal blood), but the best was yet to come.
We climbed steeply to a much larger wall covered with hundreds of images. Some are obvious (turtle, jaguar) some are not (is that a pizza?). Most are believed to be thousands of years old, but the rock art is still being studied. After passing through a 650 foot (200 meter) long tunnel (basically, it was a cave with entrances on each end, so bring a flashlight) we were finally near the top of Cerro Azul.
After climbing a bit more, we reached a lookout point over the jungle and some clearings for cattle grazing which our guides told us were not there a year ago. Next, we passed the longest and most varied wall of rock art, including one particular image that has gotten the attention of experts. The image is of a dog and some theorize that because dogs did not exist here until the Spanish introduced them, that means the art on this massive stretch of wall is much younger than the rest of the rock paintings–perhaps only a few hundred years old instead of a few thousand years old.
With that mystery knocking around in our heads, we returned to Finca la Florida where lunch (chicken, rice, salad, cold beers for sale) was waiting. Then we got back into the 4X4s for the drive back to Playa Guio Hospedaje for a cold shower (bring a towel if you can because there are just a few available at the hostel) and dinner (beef, rice, salad). Though it was extremely hot and humid all day, it cooled down enough at night for a comfortable sleep under the mosquito net.
Day 3: A sunrise swim, a river walk, and Los Tuneles
We got up around 5 am for a boat trip from the guesthouse to nearby Laguna Negra to see the sunrise, look for wildlife, and swim in the lake which was refreshing, but getting back into the small boat with no ladder was not pretty. During the peaceful outing in the still-cool air, we saw howler monkeys, herons, parrots, and tucans.
After a full hot breakfast back at the guesthouse, we got back in the 4X4s for an hour-long drive on a dirt road to reach a swimming area, bar, and restaurant. From there, travelers walked in the relatively shallow La Esperanza River to reach Pozos Naturales. Be sure to pack water shoes, don’t carry anything unnecessary into the river, and put cameras, phones, etc. in good ziplock bags or (preferably) a proper dry bag.
Unfortunately, no one told us about the conditions of the day so we had no water shoes and no dry bag for Eric’s cameras, so we had to bushwack through an unused “dry trail” above the river which was badly overgrown, not entirely dry, and had many steep sections and precarious log crossing. The guide often lost the trail and he really could have used a machete.
After about an hour of that nonsense, we reached Pozos Naturales and rejoined the group. Here a series of deep natural pools have formed in the rocky bed of the river. After a refreshing swim (wear your swimsuit under your walking clothes – there is no changing facility), we had to go back along the same dismal “trail” to return to the area where the trucks were parked. Then it started to pour and we (and our non-water shoes) got soaked anyway.
Lunch of whole fried fish and salad and a cold beer took the edge off a little, then we put our soggy shoes and clothes back on and climbed into the 4X4s for the drive to a nearby trail to an area called Los Tuneles.
Unlike the trail to Cerro Azul, which is shaded by the jungle, the trail to Los Tuneles is very open and exposed to the sun. Put your hat on and re-apply your sunscreen. The trail can be muddy, sandy, and peppered with unavoidable puddles, so keep your water shoes on as well. The attraction out here is eroded rock formations which those with very vivid imaginations claim look like animals including a whale. Why can’t rocks just be rocks?
The trail continues toward an even more dramatically eroded area and along the way, we passed a very weird plant that our guide told us only grows here. Soon we reached Los Tuneles where, you guessed it, weather and time has eroded the rock away to create tunnels (they’re open to the sky so need for flashlights here).
After walking back out the same way we came in, we got back in the 4X4s and drove into the town of Guaviare for an early dinner at a mediocre hamburger joint (the beers, not included, were cold, however). Near the restaurant, we notice a new sculpture in a small park. Further inspection revealed that it’s the Guaviare Monument to the Victims of the Conflict in the area and a lasting reminder of the violence that caused so much local suffering and kept this region closed to tourism for so long.
Day 4: Puerto Orion, Ciudad de Piedras, and Rio Tranquilandia
After breakfast at 7 am, we loaded back into the 4X4s with our luggage for an 8 am departure to the trailhead toward Puerto Orion. This is another natural rock formation about 50 feet (15 meters) by 40 feet (12 meters) which has eroded enough to create a window (like many of the formations in Arches National Park and Natural Bridges National Monument in the US). During certain times of the year (usually December) you can see the Orion constellation through the natural window in this formation.
With Puerto Orion behind us, the crazy rock formations continued n an area called the Ciudad de Piedras (City of Stones) which included a section of naturally-eroded tunnels that were similar to those we saw the previous day. After another 1.5 hours on a very hot, sunny, and exposed trail, we reached Rio Traquilandia which is a smaller (and much more easily accessible) version of Caño Cristales because it contains the same blooming aquatic plant which produces vibrant underwater colors. We were happy to see two guards posted on the riverbank to ensure that people don’t harm the fragile plant by walking or swimming in the river.
From there it was a short walk to a riverside bar where swimming was allowed because the aquatic plant is not present there. After a refreshing dip and a few cold beers, we were picked up by the 4X4s and driven back to the spot where we had breakfast on the first day. Here we had lunch (chicken, rice, salad) and the chance to change into dry clothes for the bus ride back to Bogotá in the same comfortable private bus in which we came. For some reason, the trip back to the city included a pointless one hour stop at a roadside cluster of sausage restaurants. This was a frustrating delay which meant we did not get back to Bogotá until 10:30 pm.
Choosing a Guaviare tour company
Outlanders tour company started in 2014 and they began running trips to Guaviare in 2016. We liked the energy of the young owners, the fact that they were relatively early-adopters of the Guaviare area (it can still be hard to find a tour company serving the area), and we also liked the fact that Outlanders provides insurance in case of emergency (not all tour companies do that). All clients are given a resort-style bracelet at the start of the trip to prove they’re covered.
For now, Outlanders’ clients are mostly Colombians and expats living in Colombia, so their 3-4 day Guaviare trips are usually offered over weekends to more easily fit into work schedules. Our trip included a lot of Colombians, some Spanish tourist, some Brazilian tourists, and one German girl living and working in Bogotá.
San Jose del Guaviare travel tips
Lots of rough dirt road travel in the back of those 4X4 trucks which have been outfitted with bench seats and a cover, but be prepared for bumpy and dusty transport.
Some very hot hiking and parts of some trails are steep and rocky and can be wet as well, so wear light clothing and good shoes which you don’t mind getting wet. In addition, bring a pair of water shoes like Crocs or neoprene booties (not flip-flops) for the morning spent walking in a river.
High SPF sunscreen, a hat, and good insect repellent are also necessary during all excursions.
Communication about the details and requirements of each day were sometimes lacking, so ask a lot of questions about activities and conditions and necessary gear before you depart to be sure you pack right.
Thought Outlanders has staff members who speak English, local guides in Guaviare speak Spanish only.
The itinerary can and will change especially on busy weekends. The local guides seem to have the power to move groups and activities around to avoid congestion, etc.
Drinking water is supplied throughout the trip.
Outlanders hosted us on a 3-day Guaviare trip so that we could experience the company’s service and tell you about this part of Colombia
Here’s more about travel in Colombia