The River of Traps: A survival story (Part 1 of 2)

Posted: Mar 26, 2013 07:24 pm EDT

(By Maciej Tarasin) The Rio Yari, also called the River of Traps, Río de los Engaños, winds through the Colombian Department of Caqueta; flowing into the Rio Caqueta. Historically, it is the bastion of narcoterrorists. It was here that the complex of cocaine processing laboratories, built by the Medellin Cartel, was spectacularly destroyed in 1984. The founder of Tranquilandia, as the enormous factory, powered with the waters of the Yari, was called, was Gonzalo R. Gacha, also known asThe Mexican. Its capacity amounted to 3500 kg of pure cocaine a month.

The goal: Running the Rio Yari in Colombia

The Yari was my goal. I wanted to descend it because its grim legend made my heart race and my mind wonder about the secrets it guarded. I succeeded in descending the Ethiopian Omo River whose banks have witnessed the tribal wars for years. I was able to descend the canyons and rapids of the Rio Altamachi in the mountains of Bolivia. I was ready for new, exciting challenge.

In mid October 2011 my companion, Tomek Jędrys, a photographer fascinated with the Amazon rainforest, and I set out from Bogota to Cartagena del Chaira. It is a small place situated in the vicinity of the upper Yari where we plan to find a local guide who, we believe, will be able to take us to the river.

Finding a guide

The river harbor of Cartagena del Charia is busy in the morning. There are two men standing next to the long barque. I come up and plead my case to them, "I am looking for a man who knows the Yari River and who could be a guide."

The younger man makes sure he heard what I said was right, "You want to go paddling the Rio Yari all the way down? No engine?"

"Yes," I nod and they look at me with amusement mixed with incredulity.

The younger one tells me to come again to the harbor in a few hours as he might be able to find somebody interested. I spend an hour in the harbor to enjoy the riverside views. Every now and again a military motorboat fully equipped and manned passes by. The harnessed cart horses await their unloading calmly. In July 2011 a bomb planted on horseback went off wounding two soldiers in Las Damas, which is not far from Cartagena.

At about midday I am back in the harbor. In the tavern I can see four men. Among them there is my morning acquaintance. I order five Poker beers and we get down to business. They introduce Jose to me – a candidate in our casting for a guide. The only candidate. He assures he knows the upper lag of the river between Ciudad Yari and Santa Rita, which, according to our topo map, is the uppermost town on the Yari River situated in the middle of the rainforest jungle. Jose claims that guerrillas won’t be a problem and that his own presence guarantees safety. We must get to San Vincente del Caguan, from where there will be a further day of travel to Cuidad Yari. He suggests setting off on Friday.

Last security check and free to go

On 19 October I announce the good news to my friends on Facebook:

Alright I’ve bought 3 beers to all the people present at the harbor pub, with the exception of the waitress, who was on duty. The guide agreed to escort us through the guerilla controlled territory. Suerte.
The helicopters in the air, the soldiers in full gear in the streets the heat and the loud Latino music everywhere. But the horses waiting for their masters outside the pubs top it all.

At last, on 21 October we set out to San Vincente del Caguan and a day later our equipment lands on top of a huge truck which is to take us to Ciudad Yari. One last security check after we had crossed the bridge over the Caguan River and we are free to go.

We find ourselves on the savanna in the company of the local llaneros. We are moving slowly to the sound of Colombian music. The driver wearing a Jesus is the Truth t-shirt and his helping hand seated on the roof seem like nice young fellows. Another co-traveler is an energetic old man with a few machetes for his luggage. There is such serenity and essential goodness in his eyes that I call him the patron of all macheteiros.

A cheerful Colombian family join us on the way - they are exceptionally warm and friendly like most of the Colombian people I meet. Unfortunately, Jose is causing problems; either getting lost or being constantly hungry or buying beer wherever we stop for a break and making us pay for it. We’re worried that our provisions will run out before we actually reach the river.

"He actually wanted to slash your throat open"

At long last, after the whole day on the move, we get to Ciudad Yari. The people here are having a fiesta. Tomek joins in the fun dancing with the locals and filming cockfighting. During one of such raves Jose bonds up with Tomek. Our guide complains about being treated like a dog by me. The next morning Tomek tells me the whole story, "He actually wanted to slash your throat open."

"Who?" I am not quite able to follow.

"Our guide! But I have been standing watch outside our tent all night," says he swaying unsteadily on his legs.

We decide to launch our equipment and start going down without the guide. I grab the heaviest bag with the boat inside and I walk about 400 meters to the Cano Guyabo – a tributary of Rio Yari. Tomek, still slightly boozed after the events of the night, hoists a bag with the food on his back and follows my example. I begin inflating the boat when a lovely Colombian woman comes riding her motorbike. She must be in need of washing off the kisses of the llaneros she had fun with at night.

A moment later a man in his forties comes up with a horse. "Where are you going?" he wants to know.

"To Araracuara," I answer.

"It’s a long way," the weather-beaten citizen of the savanna smiles.

We load our boat and we are off. It is only after a few minutes we’ve been on the river that, on the right side I spot a tapir’s head. The animal scuttles to the other side of the river to avoid us. It climbs clumsily onto the muddy bank and vanishes among the trees like a ghost. The monkeys fool around in the tree tops above our heads. The river is very narrow, which makes it possible for them to get from one side of the river to the other jumping in the trees. Caution is advisable to avoid running into one of many fallen tree trunks. Among the branches, hanging low above our heads there might be dangerous snakes.

A sudden tropical storm makes us stop. We decide to camp in the forest and continue the next day. At night we can hear tapirs’ making their noises, which reminds us of the sound of the Polish mountaineers’ horn-like instrument called a trombita.

The Yari, guerilla camps, giant otters and a jaguar

On the second day we get to the Yari. The river is about twenty meters wide and has the color of coffee with milk. That’s an improvement because the Cano Guayabo where we had begun our trip was narrow and from time to time we had to carry our boat over a fallen tree blocking the mainstream. The river flows slowly meandering a lot. Our SOAR canyon boat is not made for such conditions. It is to show its potential in the gorges, which are awaiting us in the middle and lower flow of the Yari.

Photographing the wildlife and abandoned guerilla camps is what occupies us most in the first week. In two of the camps we find bras, a file for machetes, pots, barrels and the remains of the huts. In the biggest of them there is even a little bench overlooking the river. I sit to admire the view but the dry wood gives way. I am lucky not to have rolled down the hillside as it looks like the fall could have been serious. Tomek is whooping with laughter and asks me for a replay on the camera. Two of the camps are quite old. Only one looks a few weeks fresh. We find something that looks like a grenade for the grenade-launcher. It’s old and a bit rusty but we still prefer not to come near.

After the rain, tapirs come down to the water. It is a chance to get the snapshots of them as they are feeding. They stuck out their funny snouts and tongues daintily picking leaves off the twigs. They don’t get frightened even when Tomek gets as close as a paddle-length.

Giant otters swim up to our boat shrieking and trying to keep us away from their young. They have developed quite a strategy. They swim towards us in groups sticking out their lean long necks out of the water and demonstrating their sharp teeth. You cannot miss numerous capybaras, which look like enormous guinea pigs grazing on the river meadows. Tomek spotted a jaguar on the right bank of the river. However, the cat makes off before the camera is ready to take it.

Galley slavery, gorges and waterfalls

The second week feels like galley slavery. The river meanders through the lush vegetation. The sun burns mercilessly and animals hide away. Every kilometer means considerable effort.

Waking up at night I feel I am not able to straighten my fingers, which are locked in a frame of a paddle grip. In one or two days we will get to the canyons. At last we reach the first rapids and we experience the great joy of white water. An impressive 4-class rapid is upon us. We approach from the left to avoid the powerful masses of seething waters of the mainstream. We jump a 2 meter high waterfall and paddle down the narrow pass between the black rocks at a great speed. Finally we get spat back into the mainstream and for half a minute the huge waves rock our boat up and down.

Every time we pass a gorge the river and its banks change beyond recognition. Instead of the solid wall of the forest we can admire beautiful rocky shapes, little canyons and wide sandy beaches. Hardly have we gone through two gorges when the San Rafael waterfall appears. We get the ropes out and get ready for the hard times when it turns out that the whirling trap in the middle of the river can be safely omitted by walking around. We wade in the warm grassy water pulling our boat behind through narrow passes between the rocks. We spend the night near the waterfall on a charming sandy beach lined with palm trees.

Hunting for food

The next day, the third week of our expedition begins. Our GPS shows 120 kilometers to our destination in a beeline, which translates to three times as much by the river. Our food provisions are dwindling. Trying to save food, I set out hunting. I have a go at a caiman, which ends in a humiliating double failure; the caiman get away with the tip of the spear in its back. The machete remains our only hunting weapon now. Tomek gets lucky, though; he finds about a dozen tortoise eggs in the sandbank. We eat them that day.

Our contact is Senior Rozo from Araracuara village – a place where our expedition is to end. We talk to our friend, Anita Czerner-Lebedew, on the satellite phone asking her to get in touch with Senior Rozo and negotiate the terms of the locals coming to pick us up from the Yari. You can always rely on Anita, so in a day or two we can be sure to hear from her and be informed what has been arranged. We cross the Equator in good moods. With two thirds of our expedition behind us, we are coming closer and closer to our destination. Anita calls to tell us that the Araracuara locals won’t be coming to get us as the canyons in the lower part of the river are impassable for a motorboat. We are rather disappointed.

[Ed note: Check in again to read about Maciej's battle to survive in the river. "I am wearing my underwear, shorts, sandals, waistcoat with the GPS in the pocket; I also have my knife." That was the sum of his possessions - no food, no mate, no canoe and eventually, also no underwear.]

Maciej Tarasin and Tomasz Jedrys' canoe journey through Tranquilandia, Colombia, started at Ciudad Yari and put in at Cano Guyabo on October 23, 2011. Their planned end point was Araracuara, but they never reached Araracuara; the expedition ended for Tomasz in Raudal Tiburon, and for Maciej 15 km further down the river on November 13, 2011.

Maciej Tarasin, 38 years old lives in Upper Silesia, Poland. Paddler, adventurer and explorer of the Amazon. He has been following the rivers since 1992. In June 2008 he run Nahanni River in Canada together with Grzegorz Szalajski. Ethiopian Omo river expedition in December 2008 from Gibe Bridge to Mui Junction, was one of the last descents before the construction of Gibe III dam is completed. Piotr Opacian was a leader of that descent and thanks to him all ended up well. Hippo alleys and Mursi assault were the highlights of Omo paddling. A year later he tackled Bolivian Rio Tuichi on a self made raft. In 2011 the first descent of Bolivian Rio Altamachi was accomplished with an immense help of Natasza Szalajska & Waldo Urdininea - his paddling partners. October 2011 – an attempt of Colombian Rio Yari first descent. The Yari did not let go. An accident in canyon El Tiburon stopped the expedition. After search & rescue action of Fuerza Aerea Colombiana the participants were evacuated in Black hawk helicopters.

Tomek Jedrys, 36 years old, lives in Upper Silesia, Poland. Privately an owner of car rental company. Photographer and traveler. He is interested in indigenous tribes of the Amazon. He has been visiting various parts of the Amazon for the last seven years documenting lives of the people dwelling the “green hell”. In 2010 he organized “Around Rio Napo” expedition following the course of Rio Napo in Ecuador. In 2011 he participated in first attempt of Colombian Rio Yari descent- an expedition organized by Maciej Tarasin.


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Colombian soldiers and helicopters, at the start, and at the end - playing a role in Maciej's survival.
courtesy Maciej Tarasin
A local man: "You want to go paddling the Rio Yari all the way down? No engine?"
courtesy Maciej Tarasin
Maciej: "Hardly have we gone through two gorges when the San Rafael waterfall appears. We get the ropes out and get ready for the hard times when it turns out that the whirling trap in the middle of the river can be safely omitted by walking around. We wade in the warm grassy water pulling our boat behind through narrow passes between the rocks. We spend the night near the waterfall on a charming sandy beach lined with palm trees."
courtesy Maciej Tarasin
Maciej: "The Yari was my goal. I wanted to descend it because its grim legend made my heart race and my mind wonder about the secrets it guarded."
courtesy Maciej Tarasin