Mules kick ass on the Rio Ariari!

The Ariari is a river we have wanted to paddle since we started planning our trip back in the UK. The idea of hiking in for 3hours with mules, rather than putting us off, excited us quite a lot! But it did mean we had to get up at 5am!

We hired 3 mules- two kayaks per mule except for the ‘lucky’ one that only had to carry Dave’s boat, which was easily the heaviest and tied on in such a way that every step the mule took the boat hit him on the head!!! We all felt a mixture of guilt and amusement at the plight of these animals as we headed out on our walk to the river. They definately lived up to the saying ‘as stubborn as mules’ as they stopped every few minutes to eat anything that took their fancy, or relieve themselves on the path.

 

Eventually we got to the tributary of the Rio Ariari, the Rio Azul, where we were to start. The Azul was a great 2km section of class IV low volume steep creeking. We all set off together, but with our friend Emilio prefering the Lone Wolf style of paddling, we were quickly reduced to the 4 of us; occasionally catching up with him when there was something of interest!

 

After an hour we reached the Ariari. A beautiful, steep, technical, big volume class IV/IV+ river in a deep and commiting canyon. At first we were a bit purturbed by the horizon lines and huge boulders but we soon got into the swing of it; boofing, flaring and riding the waves for some sweet lines. However, we had a few interesting moments too: some unintended hole surfing, and an unfortunate swim from Niamh. All too quickly, it seemed, we reached the end of the canyon and the start of easier read and run class III which led us all the way back to Puente Ariari.

 

We celebrated at the take-out with a big fat sandwich and headed back, victorious, for swim beers. Little did we know that was not the end of the day. Upon arriving back at Rafting Guayuriba we were met with ‘Quieras Fiesta este noche?’ – Do you want to party tonight? Niamh’s face lit up and so we went back to the hostel for a shower and shave, then headed out for a night on the town in Villavicencio. After far too much rum and beer we found a night club that seemed to satify our French and Colombian compadres, but alas, it was too much for poor Fran who fell asleep in the club despite Shakira being on the playlist! Dave, Lowri and Niamh soldiered on and salsa-ed hard until 2am when we all bundled into a taxi for the half hour ride home. Another long but satisfying day in Colombia!

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Guayuriba-arriba-arriba!

After the brown rivers of San Gil and the surrounding area the team decided what we needed was some cleaner water. So from Bogota we headed out on another bus journey, only four and a half hours this time, to Villavicencio in the department of Meta.

 

From our American friend Mark we had acquired the number of a contact near Villavicencio, a french chap called Theo Rivaud who runs a small rafting company. Theo very kindly picked us up from the bus station and gave us a lift to a hostel, complete with swimming pool, near to his base on the Rio Guayuriba. He had a raft trip going out the next day on the lower section of the Rio Guayuriba and so we tagged along – the perfect way to check out the local run.

 The lower section started out with a very chilled out forty-five minutes of grade 2/3 before the river narrowed and canyon walls closed in for a short section of 3/4. After this blast of excitement the river mellowed again and there was a chance for the rafters to try out some kayaks and for the safety kayaker Emilio to try our new boats!

The following day we were up for more of a challenge so we decided to paddle the upper section of the Guayuriba, and for economys sake, the lower section as well, in all five hours on the water! The upper section was 20km of grade 4/4+ in a stunning steep sided gorge, with some steep technical rapids and some fantastic read-and-run. Theo and Emilio came along too to speed up the trip with their local knowledge and add some gallic flair!

The next day we had a rest from paddling while we sorted the logistics for the river next on our list- the Rio Ariari. We checked out the local town of Acacias, had some typical colombian cuisine of fruit salad with icecream and …..grated cheese!?- before hiking into the jungle to go for a swim in one of the small side creeks which flow into the Rio Guayuriba. Along the way we bumped into some prisoners and their guards returning from their days’ labour.

Next up our adventure on the Rio Ariari!…..

Buzzing on the Suarez

To complete our stay in the wonderul San Gil we had to finish with the much talked about Rio Suarez, a big volume III+-IV+ rafted section, described as ‘muy fuerte’ (very strong). With most of our team feeling back on form we headed to the put-in to see what the river had in store for us.

A huge, beautiful surf wave in the ever glorious sun made a good start to an incredible run. Massive grade III+ wave trains were interspersed with meaty hole dodging grade IV rapids giving us the buzz we’d been looking for!

About an hour in we came to the first big momma grade IV+, the aptly named Labyrinth displayed 3 big lines, a bit of mix and match in the middle before heading left or right around a giganto hole in the centre. Definitely would’ve liked to see how they managed to raft it! With some lovely big pools after almost every big rapid and beautiful scenery, it was a river that lived up to expectations.

After a brilliant day on the water already, we ended up at the last and biggest rapid, the ‘Sorpresa’ – something that certainly would not look out of place on the Zambezi. With the raft (our ride home) overtaking us whilst Niamh took her time deliberating, we all ended up paddling hard; avoiding some fat holes, riding some massive waves and nailing the line. Saweeet!!

Having had an amazing day and having made some great friends over the past couple of weeks we had to end our time in San Gil with a proper fiesta. It started with the colombian tradition, saved in most over countries for 13-16 year olds, of drinking in the park before continuing to the out of town club complex: complete with supermarket, karaoke bar and… petrol station?! We shook it like Shakira and left San Gil in style, saving our hangover for  our 8 hour bus trip back to Bogota… fun times!

Good night out not complete without meat on a stick

Our salsa skills coming along nicely

Success on the Chicamocha!!

After Lowri and Niamh heroicly got our boats out with the help of a lovely local raft guide called William, it was time to actually paddle our kayaks. We headed for a 2 day big volume class III/IV run called the Chicamocha, which had come highly recommended. It isn’t often rafted because the road to the get out is really badly damaged by landslides and the cost of transport is quite prohibitive. But Johana was really keen to get all our new friends together on the river for a special trip, so soon we had 6 kayaks and a raft all loaded up.

Once on the road we had the usual problems – leaking radiator, dodgy brakes and major road works. At one point we all had to get out and walk down the highway because the weight of a trailer, a raft, 6 kayaks, 13 people and all the equipment was too much for the van to handle!!! The roads in general are pretty good in Colombia but they are REALLY steep with loads of switch backs.

We got on the river at 2pm, starting off really sedately with some class II and III. The beautiful canyon scenery definately put a smile on our faces. Towards the end of the first day was the longest and hardest rapid. It was approximately 2 km of class IV/IV+: a great way to end the day.

A bridge over the river signalled the pueblo of Jordan where we would spend the night. It was a beautiful town of only about 60 people (apparently more used to live there but they deserted the town in fear of guerillas a few years ago). We strung up our hammocks in the town square and set ourselves up for an evening of cards and wine. Burro being the game of choice.

As it turns out hammocks are really uncomfortable to sleep in so we got hardly any sleep and were rudely awoken by the baking sunshine!! After a breakfast of egg soup (!!??) we were ready to rock and or roll. Day 2 provided us with yet more spectacular scenery. The most memorable rapid was where the river constricted down through a narrow little gorge creating some big waves and holes, which the locals named The Box.

We got to the get-out at about lunchtime and started the hike up the steep hill in the blazing heat, cursing our kayaks all the way to the top. After 30 minutes of leg burning work we reached the vans in a sweaty mess… then had to go back for our kit! Who says kayaking is all in the shoulders?!

Dainer, the hero of a raft guide, put us all to shame by portering the rolled up raft all the way on his own. The drive out of the canyon was pretty sketchy but what an amazing road and stunning views. It was obvious why not many people made it down here.  We celebrated our trip with a couple of shots of rum in the nearest town; completing a pretty perfect couple of days.

3 hours that turned into 4 days

Well Colombia has certainly been pretty eventful so far! We spent a day in Bogota getting supplies and beta from Mark Hentze. After pouring over maps, we booked ourselves onto a bus to San Gil – the adventure capital of Colombia. And adventure is what we got!

Dodge Ram
 

After a warm up day on the main rafting run, the Fonze, we wanted to do one more day trip before heading out on the multiday Rio Chicamocha. We found out the Mocoticos, a grade 3 to 5 creek, was low but running. We were a little dubious at the put-in as the river was only a couple of metres wide and the last time we’d seen it it was miles below us in a deep canyon. But a call back to the local raft guides confirmed the level to be OK so we waved goodbye to our new friends, expecting to see them at the take-out in about 3 hours.

6 hours later, after some fun bouldery grade 3-4+ we were getting tired, it was getting dark and the river was getting steeper. Surrounded by steep sided hills covered in dense jungle and no road in sight, we had to make a tough call… take on the jungle or try to continue to the take-out. A quick look downstream made up our minds. We hauled the boats out and started to hike up through the jungle.

After a while the jungle gave way to plantations, then a field of long grass. Luckily the moon was full with a clear sky making it actually quite a beautiful night for a walk! From the field we could see the light of a house, so like moths we headed straight for it… emerging from the darkness in our helmets and BAs, like monsters of the night. Quite an entrance to a party it turns out!

What a relief to get to a road, even if it was just a dirt track. We knew that if we followed this track we’d get to the main road, where we would finally be reunited with our concerned friends. Our saviours arrived and we drove back to San Gil feeling a mixture of embarrassment, relief and dread for the following day…

Tuesday arrived far too soon for our tired eyes. On one of the busiest days of the year our fantastic hostess finally managed to flag down a truck in the street to get transport. Potentially not as good as it first seemed when the drive back to the river took hours due to a dodgy truck and even dodgier driving. It was 1pm before we even started to hike down from the dirt track, but we weren’t far from the end – our maps said so!

After 5 hours of grade 5 boulder choked choss and epic portages that included some abseiling and a hell of a lot of hauling of our stupid pointless kayaks and it was about to get dark on us… AGAIN.

We knew we needed to get on the river left bank, so by 5.30 we ferried across in the only place possible, ditched the boats again and started to thwack our way through the jungle. It was much thicker here. We were either pushing through dense vegetation or having to gorge walk on the edge of the river – and by now it was dark.

We had a moment of joy when we reached a barbed wire fence and got into a field of long grass – surely we were close to civilisation now. But the field ended and after wading through a stream of cow poo we were back in the jungle. Somewhere on this bank there is a path to the road… so we continued pushing and climbing through the thick jungle, then back in the river and back up into the jungle, sometimes having to do some scary scrambles over small cliffs.

We took a break on a small sandy beach and had a few biscuits to replenish our sugar levels. A spider the size of a tarantula scurried past – suddenly the reality of having to spend the night down here without proper shelter seemed to hit us all. We pushed on. Back in the river and then back in the jungle until eventually we got to a place where we could go no further. A cliff we couldn’t climb and no way round below. A sinking feeling passed through us all. After an unsuccessful sat-phone call (note to all: remember to read instructions), we were forced to retrace our steps. Our only hope now was to return to the field and following the fence-line as high as we could in the hope of escape or we’d be spending the night with the spiders and scorpions.

And there it was… a small barbed wire gate and our path to freedom. We’ve never loved a path so much! The path lead to a house which lead to a road which lead to the bridge! With signal for the first time that day, we called the others who came to our rescue… AGAIN (with a new driver and truck as the first one gave up on us)!

After getting home the tolls of the day began to set in as Fran began to vomit and Lowri’s finger began to swell. Today both Fran and Dave have been incapacitated with sickness so our boats have rested in the canyon. Tomorrow (day 4), Niamh and Lowri will return at the crack of dawn with a couple of local hunks they’ve sweet talked into coming to help! Hopefully we can avoid a 3rd benighting from one river…

Lift-off is imminent!

It’s almost time time for us to jet off. Our bags are packed, cameras charged and boats outfitted to perfection. Reports say river levels are good and the weather is fine.

We fly to Bogota via Madrid, where we’ll stay a night in a hostel before trying to rent a truck for our month of adventures. Once we’ve found our chariot of choice, we’ll head to San Gil for a few warm up runs before getting out and about in the lesser well-known paddling areas.

Stay tuned for updates & photos once we get there!