Colombia’s old maximum-security prisons put Alcatraz to shame. There was the penitentiary of Gorgona; a small Pacific island prison protected by treacherous currents and venomous snakes, inspired by the blueprints for Auschwitz. Then there was Araracuara – a forgotten jungle outpost, hundreds of miles from the nearest town, surrounded by nothing but forest, wild rapids, and death. The Amazon rainforest’s “Green Hell” nickname was never more apt than for the unfortunate inmates of Araracuara.
Not that those poor souls didn’t deserve to be sent to the jungle in punishment for their crimes – Araracuara was home to over one hundred of Colombia’s most violent offenders; a who’s who of murderers and rapists that would have caused even the most hardened explorer to quake in their gumboots. In fact, even one of the Colombian Amazon’s sturdiest adventurers, the indefatigable Richard Evans Schultes, was frightened by the prospect of being stuck in Araracuara. While making his botanical collections there in 1944, he worked “armed with pistols and shotguns […] avoiding whenever possible the streams and gardens where the prisoners gathered.”1
My trip to Araracuara was directly inspired by Schultes’ travels in the northwest Colombian Amazon. I was in the chilly Andean city of Pasto when a friend in Florencia called to invite me on a 10-day expedition along the Caquetá River. At that time I happened to be re-reading One River – Wade Davis’ intoxicating account of Schultes’ travels2 – and faced with the prospect of dipping my toes into the world that the book so vividly brought to life, I couldn’t say ‘yes’ quick enough.
I hastily stocked up on some necessary provisions and made a mad dash down the eastern flank of the Andes to Puerto Asís, where I boarded a small turboprop plane to Puerto Leguízamo (or ‘Puerto Lejisimo‘ as Putumayo natives semi-affectionately refer to the faraway town). From there, I hopped on the back of a motorbike driven by a man who surely had a deathwish, and headed to La Tagua, a tiny settlement on the banks of the Caquetá River. It was here that I was scheduled to meet my companions for the rest of the journey.
The meeting hour arrived that afternoon and there was no sign of them. An hour passed, then two, and by nightfall, they still hadn’t arrived. There was no phone signal in La Tagua and so I paid for a room in a tiny hotel and spent a fitful night drifting in and out of sleep, kept awake by the constant shrill whine of mosquitos circling my head. My travel companions finally arrived late the next day. Their outboard motor had broken down upriver but that was now fixed. We filled up six barrels of gasoline and began our slow progress down the Caquetá River.
Anyone who assumes that a long river journey in the Amazon is a thrilling experience is sorely mistaken. Spending more than a week travelling by river in the jungle is exciting at first, but quickly turns tedious as the largely featureless landscape slides by endlessly. We were travelling by slow boat, and in order to reach our final destination and make it back, we would need to be moving for at least ten hours per day.
The experience became almost like meditation after a while and I quickly got used to positioning myself in the prow of the wooden craft – head and face covered to avoid the constant sun – and staring off into the distance for hours at a time. Anything to puncture the boredom became a thrilling experience: thatched malocas looming out of riverside clearings; a flock of cormorants so large that their inky blackness almost blocked out the sun; a Howler Monkey swimming across the muddy river; even an engine failure was a cause for muted celebration as it gave me the rare excuse to take a swim.
We slept where we could and would often find ourselves gripped by panic as the sun set and we still hadn’t come across a settlement. There were nights that felt as if they were pulled from the pages of a cheap horror paperback – the wild-haired man living alone in a jungle cabin with three ragged dogs and severed deer hooves as coathooks immediately springs to mind. But other nights were a welcome relief – we spent several nights in small Indigenous villages, taking mambe3 and ambil4 and eating freshly caught payara and boruga5. At one point we were briefly detained by dissident guerrillas from the former FARC 1st Front, but that’s a story for another time.
Experiencing Araracuara made it all worthwhile though. The Devil’s Canyon rapids make arriving in the small settlement by river impossible, so we were forced to disembark before the rapids and hike 10km across a plateau to reach Araracuara itself. We passed by the airstrip – carved out of the jungle and hard rock many years ago by the prison’s inmates – and a forgotten military base. The soldier’s only warning was to keep to the paths – the forests surrounding the village are riddled with landmines.
We heard the roar of the Devil’s Canyon long before we saw it. There were hints of its raw power as we approached on our rented metal vessel: the water became choppier, we began to toss and turn in the swell, and spray leapt from the growing tumult. Nothing could have prepared me though for the sensory overload that is the Cañón del Diablo of Araracuara.
The roar of the rapids, as the huge Caquetá River squeezes its bulk through the narrow canyon walls, was so loud enough that I had to raise my voice to even be heard above the din. Blue-and-yellow macaws wheeled above the treacherous waters, their normally piercing shrieks drowned out in the chaos. Fishermen clung on to battered wooden platforms, precariously jutting out over the whirlpools and vicious eddies. It was glorious and terrifying all at once.
I thought about the prisoners who were once housed in Araracuara. They weren’t constrained by any actual walls or bars; the jungle and the wild waters made escape impossible anyway. Araracuara was once synonymous with nothing but death and punishment – a figurative hell on earth – and being there in the wondrous din it was easy to imagine it that way. But standing there in silence surrounded by the chaos of the river and the towering canyon walls felt oddly euphoric after the endless days of travel and I was so determined to drink in every inch of it that I lingered long after our captain headed back to the boat. Finally – reluctantly – I turned my back on the Devil’s Canyon. There were still hundreds of kilometres to travel and we needed to get moving.
Images of the author by Gilmar Botache. All other images by Chris Bell.
- Davis, W. (2014). One River: Explorations and discoveries in the Amazon rainforest. London: Vintage Books. p. 249
- For a fascinating visual insight into Schultes’ time in the Colombian Amazon check out ‘The Lost Amazon: the pioneering expeditions of Richard Evans Schultes’ by Wade Davis, which features prints of Schultes’ remarkable black-and-white photography
- Toasted and powdered coca leaves mixed with the ashes of the Yarumo tree. The resulting green powder has been taken ceremonially and medicinally in the Amazon for thousands of years. See the gallery of images for photos of coca leaves and mambe
- A paste made of pure tobacco
- ‘Payara’ is a predatory species of dogtooth tetra with sharp fangs that can grow up to 30cm in length. ‘Boruga’ is a local name for the Lowland Paca, a large Amazonian rodent. See the gallery for a photo of a baby paca