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Antioquia – Colombia

By Sam Ricketts

Passing the season virtually anywhere in South America is the perfect option for the traveling whitewater kayaker and/or rafter. Over the past eight years I’ve sporadically travelled to South America, exploring Patagonia in Argentina, Southern Chile and Colombia. Because of the cultures, friendships, quality of rivers and life for me it’s hard to resist returning. Colombia specifically, is a paradise that is quickly turning into one of the top tourist/whitewater destinations in all of Latin America.  

The vast and diverse country that borders Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Venezuela has a vibrant as well as dark history. For over 50 years Colombians endured a brutal civil war due to political unrest and heavy drug production and trafficking, tearing the country apart and deeming tourism almost non-existent. Now in 2018, after official peace treaties have been agreed upon between the government and rebel guerrilla groups, Colombia is safer than it has ever been and tourism is now an industry that is skyrocketing, and for good reasons; Colombia has an Atlantic as well as a Caribbean coast, it is blanketed in Amazonian rainforest, holds the world record with over 1900 recorded bird species(18% of the world’s bird population), snow-capped peaks (5775m is the highest), endless river systems to be explored all year round and the list goes on.  

My first trip to Colombia was in 2012 with five fellow kayakers. We were amazed by the hospitality of the locals, often meeting farmers and fishermen on the banks and being hollered up to for hot food. Areas that were once red zones were now open and safe to the public, meaning that all we needed to do was to pull up google earth, pick our river and go.  Classic sections and multi days with no shortage of rain water are everywhere. Great food, yearlong spring weather and multiday kayaking paradise.

This year I decided to spend another summer season in Antioquia, Colombia in a small mountain town named Cocorna. A close friend by the name Dan Dunn is now based in Cocorna, operating a kayaking and rafting company on rivers in the valley, four years after we completed the first descent of the Cocorna river with another friends of ours, Pete Lodge. During the war, the rebel guerrillas used the town as a base where bombs were set off on the streets and they took everything they could from the locals, forcing them to spend most of their time confined to their homes. The local people of Cocorna lived in constant fear and in a sense, imprisonment.

Today the safe, incredibly friendly and beautiful pueblo (town) of Cocorna is hands down the perfect hub for kayaking in Antioquia. From the Cocorna River branches an amazing drainage of classic rivers with deep gorges, dense jungle, whitewater galore. Rios (rivers) including; Rio Calderas, Rio Verde and the Famous Rio Samana, all drain into the Magdalena River. Colombia has two main river systems; The Magdalena River, which flows into the Atlantic ocean and the Cauca, which drains into the Amazon basin. This area is pure wilderness. Along side to the many kayaking and rafting opportunities, it’s also jungle, river, waterfall and paragliding galore. 

The Rio Cocorna flows right next to town and it’s easy to shuttle on top of a Chiva (the local, slow, very cheap, colourful and glamourous old four-wheel transport) and receive a scenic tour with your boat to the local section. It’s only one Kiwi dollar for a return trip which is hard to beat for one hour of awesome class 4. Then grab a cup of coffee or a lunch at the store and repeat. It is also possible put on from the highway, but this section is steep and serious class 5. If you want one of the best multidays of your life, you can start in Cocorna and finish on the Rio Magdalena. Which would be six to seven days of world class multiday class 4-5 kayaking. 

It’s important to remember while you’re enjoying the warm creeks and big water rivers that Colombia also boasts some of the world’s most poisonous reptiles and insects. It is key to do your research on the types of snakes in the areas, wear repellent for mosquitos and buy a cheap machete for portaging/ setting up camp. Some of the most naturally beautiful places I have ever seen have been deep in these jungles. We are so lucky to be able to pass through such potentially volatile and unforgiving places in our kayaks while running whitewater, observing untouched landscapes as they have been for thousands of years. A place packed with life and booming with the sound of birds and insects, it can sometimes hurt your ears!

Colombia isn’t just class five jungle descents, it has many great beginner to intermediate runs, something for everyone. Climate, hospitality, a very smooth and easy to understand accent of Spanish which is great if you are beginning to learn. Book a flight, come and experience it for yourself.

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