In Colombia, a Trip to a Natural Marvel Few Tourists Ever See

SINCE GROWING UP in the flatlands of southern Minnesota, I’ve gravitated to mountains. Now I live in the Colombian Andes, where clouds envelop my house. On vacation, I prefer a snow-capped peak to a sun-dappled beach. Even my recent excursion to the Colombian rainforest turned into a high-altitude adventure.

The destination was Los Cerros de Mavecure, three massive rock formations that incongruously heave up from the jungle floor of eastern Colombia. The buttes, the largest of which rises 2,360 feet above sea level, are spiritual totems for the region’s Puinave and Curipaco Indians, and for visitors, they can seem as majestic as Machu Picchu. But unlike the crowds that clamber up that Incan citadel in the Peruvian Andes, not many tourists make their way to Mavecure.

For most of the past half-century, Colombia’s guerrilla war scared away foreigners; the relatively few visitors stuck to the country’s Caribbean beaches, steering clear of the jungle, where drug-trafficking rebels often lurked. Yet Mavecure has always been peaceful. The guerrillas were more interested in areas, unlike Mavecure, that were rife with coca bushes, whose leaves can be turned into cocaine. “The area was always considered off-limits [to tourists] even though it was safe,” said Fernando Carrillo, a Colombian biologist who has lived and worked in the region for two decades.

The Inírida River winds through the Mavecure. At right is the smallest hill, simply called Mavecure.



Interest in Mavecure began to pick up in 2016 when the Colombian government signed a peace treaty that disarmed the guerrillas and opened up vast swaths of the countryside to tourism. Another boost came that same year when the Colombian film “Embrace of the Serpent” was nominated for an Academy Award. Beautifully filmed in black and white, the movie tells the story of an Indigenous shaman who guides two scientists through the rainforest on a quest to heal them with a sacred hallucinogenic plant found atop Mavecure. Though I’d lived in Colombia for 25 years, I knew nothing about the place until I saw this mesmerizing film.

In December, when Jennifer, a childhood friend from Minnesota arrived, eager to see the marvels of my adopted homeland, it seemed the perfect excuse to finally scale Mavecure. After paying $380 a person for an all-inclusive four-day trip with Aroma Verde, a tour agency and development foundation run by Mr. Carrillo and his wife, we took a one-hour flight from Bogotá to the jungle town of Inírida. Motorcycle rickshaws then whisked us to a chaotic port on the Inírida River where our guide welcomed us aboard a 20-foot aluminum boat with an outboard motor. Our party of three, which included me and my wife, Alejandra, and Jennifer, spotted egrets and kingfishers on the riverbank while parrots soared in formation overhead.

Our flight had arrived late and the sun was setting, so rather than pushing on to Mavecure, our guide pulled ashore at the hamlet of La Ceiba, which is home to 34 Puinave and Curipaco families. We were led to dinner in a spacious makeshift dining/meeting room under a thatch roof, and introduced to the village leader Fabio Pérez. While we all ate fried fish, green plantains and fresh pineapple, he told us that, for centuries, the Puinave and Curipaco had resisted the encroachment of outsiders, including rubber barons who sought to enslave them and missionaries who tried to eliminate their religious beliefs. but mr. Perez insisted that tourists are welcome. Since the peace treaty was signed, he said, about 40 Mavecure-bound visitors stop by La Ceiba every month with some of them, like us, overnighting in a bunk house built a few years back, where communal rooms are furnished with beds and mosquito net. Families also sell woven baskets, wood carvings and honey from an apiary project, and the income has allowed them to forego the environmentally destructive practices of logging the rainforest and dredging rivers for gold. Tourism “has improved our quality of life,” Mr. Perez said.

A group of tourists with the Sawa travel agency at the summit of Mavecure.



The next morning, we made a quick excursion in dugout canoes, paddling to a bend in the river to watch dolphins feed and frolic. These freshwater mammals grow up to 8 feet long, with bulbous heads and narrow, tooth-filled snouts. Playful as puppies, they put on a show by leaping above the surface and following our canoe. Back on our motorboat we sped south along the river for another hour until the horizontal tree line was suddenly broken by the three rounded bulges of Mavecure. The buttes are part of the Guiana Shield, a 1.7 billion-year-old geological formation that underlies much of northeast South America and gives rise to a series of tepuis, cliffs and cataracts including Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall.

According to scientists, the distinctive white streaks running down the sides of the three mountains are the result of rainwater washing away lichens and exposing the lighter-colored rock surfaces underneath. Puinave and Curipaco legend holds that the streaks are tear stains from an Indigenous princess who was held captive at Mavecure and cried herself to death.

We stayed in Remanso, a village at the foot of the buttes that features several rustic hotels and restaurants. There were no police, though we did come across the Guardia Indigena, a volunteer security force of Indigenous men armed with bows and arrows who posed for photos. Not that law and order was an issue during our stay: Nearly everyone was in bed by 10 pm

During a stopover on their way to Mavecure, tourists purchase woven baskets, necklaces and blowguns in La Ceiba, a village that is home to 34 Puinave and Curipaco.


John Otis

Two of the buttes, known as “Monkey” and “Little Bird” require special equipment to scale. So early the next morning, our guide took us to the smallest bluff, called simply “Mavecure,” a reference to the poison-dart blowguns used by hunters to kill game. Anyone reasonably fit can handle it. We were accompanied by about a dozen Colombian tourists of all sizes. The toughest sections are rigged with guide ropes and wooden ladders, and there are plenty of spots to stop, rest and take in the 360-degree views of the jungle in both Colombia and nearby Venezuela.

A stunning orange sunrise was our reward for making an early start. When we reached the summit, the clouds that obscured the two other mountains’ peaks soon lifted and the sight of their massive domes entranced our entire group. Jennifer, my fellow Minnesota flatlander, threw up her arms in triumph. Another member of our group, Bogotá social worker Cristina Mora, declared, “This country is full of surprises. We Colombians need to get to know it better.” As I reflected on its marvels—mountainous jungles, dolphin-filled rivers, sacred healing plants and mythological tear stains—I thought to myself: So do we Americans.

The author’s wife, Alejandra de Vengoechea (in red), and friend Jennifer Johnson, climbing to the top of Mavecure. The steepest sections of the route are equipped with wooden ladders and guide ropes.


John Otis

THE LOWDOWN // Visiting the Mavecure Hills

Covid Restrictions:

Foreign travelers to Colombia must present proof that they have been fully vaccinated at least 14 days prior to travel. Unvaccinated foreign travelers will not be allowed entry. Face masks are required in public areas throughout Colombia.

Getting There:

Satena airlines offers daily flights from Bogotá to Inírida on Embraer jets that seat 50 passengers. Outside of Inírida there is no cell phone service, so setting up a trip through a tour operator is highly recommended. Tour operators offering all-inclusive trips and English-language guides include Aroma Verde, Fundación Antrópico Amazónico and Sawa Travel.

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