Thursday, January 24, 2013

Colombia, kidnappings, guerrillas, land mines, and amazing white water

Chris Baer Scouting the entrance rapid on the Estrecho section of the Rio Magdalena, Colombia, Joel Fedak
Chris Baer Scouting the entrance rapid on the Estrecho section of the Rio Magdalena

The original research for this trip put a lot of different possibilities in my head. On the positive side, unexplored canyons. On the negative side, was the always interesting U.S. media. They spoke of kidnappings, Guerrillas, and for me the scariest issue land mines?! As usual my determination for an all out adventure won. I booked a flight to Bogota Colombia.

Collecting my gear in the Bogota Airport, Wave Sport, Blunt Family Paddles, Big Agnes, Chris Baer, Colombia
Collecting my gear in the Bogota Airport
Traveling with a kayak is always a bit stressful. The week before the trip my head was spinning with the possibilities. Was I going to be able to check it onto the first flight, the second flight, into the cab, on the bus, how much will I have to pay for it? International kayak ownership is not for any one that is on a schedule, or expects anything to go smoothly.

To my delight once again the boat got checked onto the flight. The adventure had officially begun. A quick flight from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale, an eight hour lay over, and another smooth flight that was only delayed a few hours to Bogota Colombia.

Upon arriving in Bogota, I was deserving of a good nights sleep; but not until I got a quick walk about. My apprehension of a dangerous community quickly faded as I took few hour walk around the capital. It felt safe, at least as safe as any big city feels. Street food was on my mind, quickly I found myself immersed in the Colombian culture.

Classic, HURRY UP! and wait...

Bad beta meant taking a taxi cab to the bus station and waiting ten hours for the bus to arrive. Upon arrival the crowd made an awkward charge. Lots of big luggage was heading underneath the bus. The driver looked at me disgusted with the size of my baggage and waved me over. It took a couple minutes to shift cargo, but we got the kayak to awkwardly fit. Then the drivers hand went out, he was looking for a bribe. I offered a low number and he hit me back with a number that was substantially more then what I was thinking. After a few minutes of bargaining and talking to everyone that could possible be in charge, I slipped the driver more then what I thought fair. The bribe was still distinctly less then what the driver was originally asking for. He smiled at me; I think he truly enjoyed the bargaining process; all I wanted was my kayak to make it to it's next destination.

Twelve hour overnight bus ride

As the driver speed quicker and quicker into the curves, blasting his horn at every animate and inanimate object, the person sitting next to me stated to snore. It was about that time the child a row behind me let out a freakishly loud scream. I wasn't going to get much sleep. Arriving in San Agustin I was in full zombie mode. I paid too much for a cab, and too much for a hostel room. I needed to pass out for a couple hours and regain normal human functions.

San Agustin

The local transport, Chiva, colorful, Colombia, San Agustin, Chris Baer
The local transport, Chiva
This lively little town has a Wild West feel, horses make their way down the main street almost as frequently as motorcycles and the colorful Chivas. The vibe is fairly relaxed with farming and tourism (it is a UNESCO world heritage site) being the main supply of income for the community.

One of the classic stone carvings outside of San Agustin, colombia, Chris Baer, San Agustin
One of the classic stone carvings outside of San Agustin
Feeling small in the steep canyons of Colombia, Joel Fedak, Chris Baer,
Feeling small in the steep canyons of Colombia

Rio Magdalena

The second day in San Agustin I meet up with a french gentleman, Amid runs the local rafting company on the Rio Magdalena. A quick conversation with Amid, and he encourage me to join his commercial clients on the beautiful class 3 section of the Rio Magdalena. Por que no (why not) was all I could respond with. Rafts, kayak, two guides, eleven clients, and myself smashed into a pickup; we were on our way to my first Colombian river.

Jared Page wheeling through a sticky hydrolic, Chris Baer, Colombia, Canyon, Estretcho, Magdalena
Jared Page wheeling through a sticky hydrolic
Joel Fedak pulling hard, Magdalena, Colombia, Chris Baer, canyon, estretcho
Joel Fedak pulling hard
Day 3 and the kayakers arrive, Kees Van Kuipers, Maudy Verb, Giorgio Codeluppi, Jared Page, and Joel Fedak. Plans were made quickly, we would paddle the Canyon section of the Magdalena a.k.a. Estrecho. This section is a classic representation of Colombian white water. Impressively containing walls, with an ever changing rock structure. The river section brought us through basalt, conglomerate, and polished granite. The rapids were fun class 4 with a few mixed in dangers (overhanging, caved out, conglomerate walls, and a couple sticky holes).

Joel Fedak deep in the Magdalena Canyon, estretcho, colombia, Chris Baer
Joel Fedak deep in the Magdalena Canyon

The posy loading boats, Colombia, San Agustin, Chris Baer
The posy loading boats
Chris Baer trying to find that tight line, Joel Fedak, colombia, estretcho, Magdalena
Chris Baer trying to find that tight line
The Magdalena Valley, yep there's white water down there, Chris Baer, Colombia
The Magdalena Valley, yep there's white water down there

Rio Naranjos

After paddling the Estrecho section, my eyes were wide open. Colombia has kayakable river drainages everywhere. The next section was targeted quickly, it's a small creek that is viewable on the drive to San Agustin. Rio Naranjos is a tributary to the Magdalena, and has a relatively steep, low volume characteristic that looks promising. Both Keeys and Giorgio had paddled the section before, but it had been quite awhile (5 years). Our beta once again was marginal at best. Keeys even told us not to use the information he had written for the Colombia Whitewater guide book.

The water level at the put in looked pretty low. The rumor was there was another tributary that was going to add substantial flow to the river. To me it looked like an acceptable personal first descent level; low enough water to deal with the unpredictability of the run at river level.

Jared finding a fun boof in the upper Naranjos, Chris Baer, Naranjos, Colombia,
Jared finding a fun boof in the upper Naranjos
The section of white water leading to the confluence was filled with conglomerate sieves. After passing a very marginal water quality tributary we found ourselves very slowly portaging our way down the river right side of the creek. We climbed over large boulders, through the jungle, all the while surrounded by garbage and sewage from the up stream community.

Looking for an exit in the Rio Naranjos, Joel Fedak, Jared Page, Chris Baer, Colombia
Looking for an exit in the Rio Naranjos
By the time we reached the confluence our morale was rather low. The crew could only laugh about our silly selection of white water. From the confluence down the water quality, and rock structure got much better. We routed into one polished boulder garden after the next. The last major rapid is a dark intimidating hallway that ramps off a clean six foot boof.

Classic beauty in Colombia, Chris Baer, flower, peach, pink beautiful
Classic beauty in Colombia
The adventures are just beginning here, and I am getting more and more excited about Colombia.

Chris Baer, smile, yellow flowers, river, mountains,
Another adventure by Chris Baer


  1. Dear Bear,

    i need some pictures of the Rio Magdalena for my tiny website about nice looking catfishes.

    In future i will design a fish tank for a very special species and need to know about the naturally materials i have to use.

    Did you think that it is possible to publish some of your photos with a direct link or something else like that on my homepage?

    Kind regards

    1. Yea Chris we can work something out, please contact me via email, and I can send you the pics