Richard McColl

Araracuara waterfall

By the looks of things a hard rain was coming our way and off in the distance lightening flashed menacingly. I looked back at where I had slung my hammock, even beneath the thick set foliage there was no way I was going to remain dry after an Amazonian downpour.


Strangely the noxious swarm of mosquitos intent on doing me harm had ebbed, the growl of the Chiribiquete waterfall no longer sounded, as if its familiarity to my ears after a few hours had dulled the noise of the incessant tumble of water and the sky had opened to reveal an unforgettable jungle scene here in Colombia’s southern forests in the department of Caquetá.

By the looks of things a hard rain was coming our way and off in the distance lightening flashed menacingly. I looked back at where I had slung my hammock, even beneath the thick set foliage there was no way I was going to remain dry after an Amazonian downpour. I felt envious of my expedition companions and their compact tents. I had neither a bivouac nor a large enough waterproof. Rather than fret I just secured my camera.

For what it was worth only one day previously I had been christened “Rambo” by our guides and now their hammocks were strung up in an arc about my campsite, they knew best and I was amongst them. Last night I was ridiculing German, another of our expedition group, for having pitched his tent on the river’s beach putting himself at risk by striking camp in favored Boa hunting territory. Upon learning this I had sought out the highest, smoothest, flat topped boulder upon which to settle down for the night, surely the Boas here would get German first, and then perhaps other members of the expedition before they got to me.

The misnomer “Rambo” came about when half way through the first day of our three day river trip our guides Adán and Chayan had spotted a family of floating peccaries that had come out the losers in a battle with the nearby rapids of Gapitana. Adán, with a few deft and expert swipes of his razor-edged machete – his skill turning all of us seasoned expeditioneers green with envy - had the hog’s entrails out on the rock and ready to use as fishing bait. The rest was for our consumption.

Chayan, Ibrahim and Pedro carved hunks of meat while we looked on a little concerned, finally, once it was well boiled, taking out my knife, I slashed a branch to make a skewer and started to grill my portion over the fire. Apparently it was my ability with the knife rather than my bulging muscles or head band that led to my baptism as Rambo. I am happy to add that the name stuck with my ability to light fires and strike camp.

Chayan and his machete
Preparing the hog

Richard McColl

Richard is a British freelance writer based in Colombia. He is the author of the Michelin Green Guide to Colombia and when he is not tied to his desk in Bogota he is running his guesthouse the Casa Amarilla ( in a restored colonial mansion in Mompos and generally dreaming of travels to further out-of-bounds destinations in his adopted homeland.

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To get this far to the almost unvisited National Park of Chiribiquete required major logistical planning and a slight foolhardiness on our part. Nobody really knew how long the journey would take and information ranged from anywhere between 11 hours to several days and at 15,000 pesos ($7.50US) a gallon of gasoline we had to be sure and prepare well. Throw into the equation that only a few years back this territory was a FARC guerrilla stronghold and while the Medellin Cartel was at its zenith, the area was often referred to as “Tranquilandia” for the uninterrupted production of cocaine that was performed here in these jungles. So, in actual fact, the image of Rambo and of course the knowledge of this gruesome cinematic Stallone production was a reality here to the people of the Huitoto tribe who were now guiding us. They had lived it and perhaps more vividly and personally than most, for here in Caquetá just to the North of where we were now, was the former FARC DMZ of San Vicente del Caguán, an area larger than Switzerland, that served as the rebel headquarters and seat of peace talks between 1998 and 2002. This was the Zona Roja and Rambo existed.

Up until our arrival in Chiribiquete the whole journey up the Caquetá, Yari and Pesai rivers had been defined completely by food. After all, this is jungle living and while just as she provides she needs to be completely respected. Everything was to be smoked or moqueado, in particular the chamo or fish as Adán put it in the local dialect. And when Adán wasn’t casting a line, and embarrassing us with his more than prolific hook to catch rate, he managed to snare a chamo with a machetazo. It sounds unbelievable, but an unsuspecting Sábalo drifted in close enough for this true jungle survivor man to catch it with a blow to the back of its head with a machete.

But now, gazing at the storm in the distance and thinking of Tranquilandia and the laboratories for producing cocaine, my imagination wandered back to troubled times here. In a seemingly throwaway comment somewhere in the journey along the River Yari, Pedro had mentioned that Ingrid Betancourt – the one time Presidential hopeful and high profile FARC hostage held for over 6 years and liberated in 2008 – had been interned in a camp here. It is this kind of experience and that which was to follow that really struck a chord deep in my soul for here I was, in the distant hinterlands of my adopted country, really seeing up close and in a very personal way, the attitudes to the long running conflict in Colombia.

After all, if the likes of Pedro knew where Ingrid Betancourt was being held, albeit for a number of days, before being moved up into the jungles of the department of Guaviare, who else knew? And, who were our guides who were so familiar with the river and the jungle here?

And what of this storm? It was unlike any I had ever seen, contained and bright yet consistent…and then it was as if we all realized at once what was happening. The Colombian military was bombing the jungles to the North of us and what we could see, but not hear, were the bombing raids aimed at the stronghold of the high ranking 47 year old FARC guerrilla Fabian Ramirez or Jose Benito Cabrera. I would later learn that Ramirez was accused by the US Government for being responsible for the production of more than 1000 tons of cocaine.

Suddenly our suspicions were raised by every shooting star that crossed the night sky, was it in fact an air force reconnaissance plane. Furthermore I understood why we travelled out in the open, made our fires where they were visible and carried no rifle. Had we behaved otherwise, we too could have gone the way of Fabian Ramirez, just without the $2.5 million reward for our capture. Incidentally, while Ramirez’s backpack has been found, no trace of him has yet been discovered. And you’ll surmise from the fact that I am writing this article in Bogota, that we all made it out of Caquetá in one piece, but all with a story to tell and a more profound understanding of life on the edge of the long running Colombian conflict.

And for now I was Rambo.

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