Winging it

In the course of our travels, Steve and I have met many people, usually young but not always, who’ve embarked on big adventures, traveling for months. These folks typically have general itineraries, but they don’t book every hotel or figure out how to get from one point to another in advance. Because they have lots of time, they can play it by ear. We’ve never done that; I try to squeeze the most into the limited time we have by being super-organized. But on this trip, we finally had an opportunity to wing it.

When I was planning the trip, it made the most sense for us to fly home from Bogota, rather than Medellin (as Michael and Stephanie did). We also had a few more days, and I read about what sounded like would be a great place to visit en route back to the capital: an ecological reserve set within a deep marble canyon carved by the Rio Claro, a tributary of Colombia’s great Magdalena River. A two-night stay there would enable Steve and me to experience another of Colombia’s major biospheres: tropical rainforest.

Lonely Planet said countless buses traveled daily between Medellin and Bogota, and most would drop us off in front of the reserve. Sunday morning, after checking out of our hotel in El Poblado, we caught a taxi to the north bus terminal, hoping the guidebook’s advice was accurate. I talked to the guy in the information booth, and he said there were many, many choices. Within minutes, we had bought seats on a shiny Swedish-made Flota Magdalena directo (48,000 pesos — about $16 — for the two of us). Our printed tickets said “Rio Claro,” and with the assistant bus driver, we confirmed that the bus indeed would get us to Rio Claro in about 3 hours (mas o menos).

We took off a bit late and made a couple of unscheduled stops so that the cute girl passenger could take her Chihuahua out to pee. But I got Google maps to work on my phone, and it too confirmed our progress toward the big river. We also were sitting in the first seats behind the driver’s compartment, so I felt confident that he and his assistant wouldn’t forget about letting us off at our destination. Roughly 20 minutes after we would have arrived (had the bus been operating on schedule) we stopped in a town named Doradal to let off two other passengers. I took the opportunity to ask the driver how much longer it would be to Rio Claro,

“What?” he shot back irritably. “We already passed it. You didn’t tell me you wanted to get off there!’

Some squawking ensued (mostly issuing from me), but we got ourselves and our bags off the bus and learned that a taxi could take us back. This cost an extra $12 or so for a 25-minute ride in a South American style tuk-tuk.

It’s nice to learn that if the bus doesn’t get you there, a tuk-tuk will come to the rescue.

A little before 2, we walked into the reserve’s reception hall, where I was happy to hear that our reservation was in order. (Making the reservation had been another complicated exercise.) Our adventure in improvisional transit didn’t quite end there. We had to haul our rolling bags down a half-mile-long dirt and stone path that took us deeper and deeper into the sweltering jungle.

Entry path

We got the key to our room from the Reserve’s activity center, then we had to lug all our stuff another half-mile along the river to a flight of steps mostly paved with rough marble stones.

Path bridge
The path also included some footbridges, like this one finished with chunks of marble.

We hauled our bags up the 104 steep stairs that led to our private cabana (roughly $60 a night, all meals included). As soon as we opened the door, it all seemed worth it.

One whole side of our large room was open to the jungle. A superb spot for meditation!

Despite the climb, despite all the sweat which at times literally streamed from us, the reserve was a magical place. We learned that it is privately owned by a local cattleman-cum-conservationist. It includes more than 1000 hectares (almost 2500 acres), much of which at least appears to be virgin forest. The river may not be crystal clear (claro), but after seeing far murkier looking Colombian rivers, we could understand the choice of the name.

River 1


The vegetative landscape is almost indescribable. You could spend a week staring at it and not count all the types of trees and shrubs and ferns and bromeliads and other riotous plants that compose it. Although the river’s rapids range from only Level 1 to Level 3 (depending on the water level), the rushing water sounded loud even from our cabana so far above it. Over the millennia, the force of the water has carved a magnificant network of caves into the marble.

Cave 1


In addition to gaping at the staggering beauty of the place, a number of more structured activities are offered to visitors, several of which Steve and I took advantage of. On Monday, we hiked for more than an hour on the riverside trail, and then I enjoyed my first experience with zip-lining. (Steve declined, claiming he needed to be able to get me to the hospital).

The course included three separate lines that enable you to zoom over the river. Steve also served as photographer. Can  you spot me?

That turned out to be unnecessary, so in the afternoon we took part in a three-hour rafting excursion that had us paddling through the gentle rapids but also swimming in the river, hanging out in a huge cave, being drenched by a bankside waterfall.

Technologically, the reserve was pretty austere — no wi-fi and very little cell-phone service. That’s why  I couldn’t post anything for several days. We left the reserve Tuesday morning (via taxi to Doradal and then bus on to Bogota), and on that final leg of our Colombian exploration, the bus didn’t break nor did we miss our stop. We went home, but that’s nothing to blog about.

The entrance to the reserve is right by the side of the road and pretty flashy. A little hard to miss.

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