Guainía: Land of Many Frontiers (Part 1)

Located at the eastern side of Colombia, bordering Venezuela and Brazil, and at the transition between the Orinoquia and Amazonia forests, is the department (state) of Guainia. Known as the “land of many waters” due to its rich hydrography, Guainia has remained on the margins of the country for centuries, with fragile connections to the political, cultural and economic centers. Far from the Andes mountain range and the major urban centers, the rivers, animals, plants, and indigenous communities of this region have endured despite the processes of modernization, development, colonization and civil war. Today, as Colombia tries to reinvent itself as a peaceful nation, and to overcome its long lasting armed conflict, Guainia is one of the “untouched” and biodiversity rich areas of the country that are becoming accessible and opened to exploration. We had the opportunity of visiting this territory some weeks ago and found it totally fascinating and inspiring. A powerful journey to a land of cultural, geographical, economic, geological frontiers.

It takes just one hour and a half flight from Bogota to get to Inirida, a small city founded in 1974 on the shore of the Inirida river and the capital of the Guainia state. The fly is fast and calm, a journey over the planes of the Eastern Plains (llanos orientales) that extend after the Colombian Eastern mountain range. There are not roads nor highways that connect Inirida with other towns or cities in Colombia, only rivers. However, as an alternative it is possible to travel to Inirida by boat, from San Jose del Guaviare, a city port in the Eastern plains, and navigating the Guaviare river. In a fast boat it could take a couple of days, in a slow ferry, 8 days approximately.

Map of Colombia

The landscape from the air reveals a magnificent extension of forest, crossed by serpentine rivers and a network of water sprouts and lakes, drawing lines over a green territory. It is quite fascinating to realize how close the Orinoquia and Amazonian forests are from Bogota. Despite being in the imagination, and also in the communication network far away and distant, they are actually quite close. One commercial flight operated by Satena goes back and forth from Bogota to Inirida six days a week.

Inirida is a small city in the middle of the jungle savannas. With approximately 10 thousand inhabitants, the city reveals itself as a border town. Few paved roads and many rivers and sprouts surround it. From the airport one can use public transportation to get to the downtown and other areas. Transportation are mostly auto rickshaws (tuk-tuks), three-wheelers motorized vehicles that can carry 3-4 passengers and some luggage. According to one of the drivers that helped us during our time in the city, these vehicles have been imported from India recently after one Colombian ambassador discovered the potential of these popular Asian auto rickshaws. We were surprised by riding tuk-tuks in Colombia, and loved them. They are strong and sturdy, despite their small size, and one can fit more than expected in their open cabin. Known by some local as “toritos” these tuk-tuks helped us to get to the port, the hotel, the Coco Viejo – Amarru archeological park, waterspout Sabanitas, the inirida flower plains, and to downtown. The cost of a ride in this kind of public transportation is of 5-20 thousand pesos depending on the distance.

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tuk-tuk crossing a shallow waterspout

As a recently founded border town (1974), Inirida infrastructure appears quite new with few paved roads and new buildings with tropical aesthetics. Despite being a town founded in the 20th century, it could not avoid having a central square and chess-like layout. Buildings and houses made with cement and zinc roofs have been created in recent years creating spaces for commerce and restaurants. The central square is full of huge trees and a multi-sport court that also functions as a theater for public events. Its port, on the shore of the Inirida river is quite small, for approximately 10 rapid boats. Not surprisingly, the word “puerto” (port) has been removed from the name of the city some years ago given the precarious infrastructure for boats and other water transportation vehicles. However, it is precisely this lack of modern development what reminds us of the particular history, geography, and cultural specificity of Inirida. The small motor and rowboats that transit the Inirida river carrying people and goods continue to connect the city with a rich water network that crosses the Orinoquia and Amazonian forests.

Physical map of Guainía, with all its bodies of water

Rivers, waterspouts, and canals are part of a powerful communication network that has been used for indigenous communities for millennia. Today, multiple ethnic groups like the Curripacos, Puinaves, Tucanos, Yerales, Piapocos, Sikuanis, Cubeos, and Desanos continue to navigate such water network. Despite having become more sedentary and pushed to settle up in reservations by the goverment and religious institutions, these indigenous people maintain alive many of the nomad and linguistic traditions of ancient proto-Arawak Amerindian groups, moving through the many rivers of the Orinoquia and Amazonian forests and keeping these territories sustainable.

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waterspout near Inirida

As a matter of fact, one of the most powerful experiences one has when visiting Guainia is to encounter such lively and powerful nature, so much richness and beauty in natural resources. However, it is important to remind us that such ecosystem has not been untouched by humans. In contrast, it was preserved by multiple indigenous communities that inhabited these lands for thousands of years, developing knowledges, practices, and sustainable ways of living that kept the rivers and forests alive.

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Inirida port

During our visit we had the opportunity of navigating several rivers. From the port of Inirida city, in a small motor rapid boat we did a couple of trips and explored a small part of the complex water network. Navigating north we encounter the Guaviare river, which earthy yellow and brown Andean waters meet with the forest dark waters of the Inirida river. Near to the point where both rivers meet there is the Amarru (aka Coco Viejo) archeological park, a site with ancient rocks and petroglyphs left by Arawaks thousands of years ago. Going north through what becomes the Guaviare river, we encountered another crossing point, the black waters of the Atabapo River. Its waters are so dark that during the day they reflect the sky as a mirror. The sun, appears in the reflection as a moon that is dissolving in oil.

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Sun on the Atabapo + Guaviare river intersection

At this intersection we found the town of San Fernando de Atabapo, a city founded by the Jesuits missionaries in 1758, in what is today Venezuela, and what used to be the indigenous town of Maracoa inhabited by the Guaipuinabes. The geographic, political, and cultural importance of this town, was revealed to us once we continue to move towards the north, and surrounding the peninsula we encountered the magnificent and mighty water of the Orinoco river. This crossing point revealed to us as a hub in the water network of the Orinoquia and Amazonian forests. For thousands of years, even before the foundation of San Fernando de Atabapo, this site should have been a hub for the encounter of Amerindian peoples, for the exchange of goods, knowledges, and traditions.

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Orinoco + Guaviare rivers intersection

In the 19th century Alexander von Humboldt, one of the first European explorers who navigated and explored this territory and water network, described the region as “the major ecological and fluvial reservoirs of the world.” He gave the name of “fluvial star of the south” to the intersection of the Orinoco, Guaviare, Atapabo, and Inirida Rivers. Their encounter shows us the beauty and power of a water network that still today remains at the frontier of western civilization. As a matter of fact the “star river of the south,” still today, is also a reservoir of indigenous cultures and peoples, of animals, and natural resources. The borderland character of this region, however, has also made it more vulnerable to the economic, political and cultural processes of colonization and extraction that since the 20th century have tried to exploit natural resources. First the rubber entrepreneurs, then the illegal mining of gold, coltan, tungsten and nickel, and more recently the fishing and trade on ornamental fish.

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Atabapo river

Given the current political tensions between Venezuela and Colombia we did not disembark in San Fernando de Atabapo. Instead, we stopped in the Colombian town of Amanaven, at the shore of the Orinoco. After having lunch and some rest we took the rapid boat and navigated the Atabapo rivers towards the East. We moved over the blue sky reflected on the mirror surface of the Atabapo. White sand beaches and enormous rocks at the shore surrounded what appeared more like a fluid oil painting. When approaching to the beaches, the river waters turned red and brown, creating an effect of diffusion, like the one of brewing tea. This time of the year was the end of the summer and dry season that last for approximately 5 months and several white sand little islands invited us to stop our boat. In one of them we disembarked, walked on the sand, climbed rocks, and swam near the shore. Technically according to the motor boat captain, all the islands and rocks over the river belong to Venezuela, so we were actually at the other side of the border. We rarely saw boats crossing the Atabapo river, just few rowboats of fisherman that seemed to emerge from the clouds and sun rays painted on the river waters. At the end of the afternoon we returned to Inirida city using the same route that took us to the Atabapo. Although there are small canals and waterspouts, as well as wetlands, that connect the Atabapo with the Inirida River, the safest route was using the big river highways that we took for getting there.

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