On the border of Colombia and Venezuela, surrounded by ancient rock formations, impenetrable jungle, mighty rivers, and vast savannah, lies El Tuparro National Park, one of the largest national parks in Colombia, but one of the least visited. Indeed, this majestic wilderness saw just 300 visitors in the whole of 2016 and has barely reached 100 so far this year! Welcome to Tuparro, one of Colombia’s most unexplored national parks.
El Tuparro National Park is not one of the 20 or more Colombian National Parks that are completely closed to the public; however, in spite of the incredible sights offered by the park, it remains one of the most unexplored jewels in the park service crown. Why is that? For one thing, Tuparro is not an easy place to visit: travellers must first fly to the capital of Vichada department, Puerto Carreño, before travelling south by 4×4 for over three hours along muddy roads. Then, they must jump in a boat and continue another hour or two upriver along the Orinoco before reaching the park. However, for all the complications in arriving at Tuparro, it is well worth the journey.
The principal attraction of Tuparro is the incredible Maipures Rapids, a natural phenomenon once described by the legendary scientist and explorer Alexander Von Humboldt as “the 8th Wonder of the World.” These giant series of rapids are part of the Orinoco River and lie just alongside the National Park office, where guests must stop in order to register their visit to the park. There are various hikes surrounding the rapids: visitors can simply walk along the river bank, taking in the thunderous noise and spray of Maipures, or they can hike up one of the surrounding rocky hills to enjoy breathtaking panoramas over the surrounding savannah and the distant tepui mountains of Venezuela. These surreal rocky hills are remnants of the Guyana Shield, rock formations which predate the division of America and Africa and are some of the oldest rocks on earth! Climbing these ancient rocks alone is worth the effort in visiting Tuparro.
As well as the rapids, it is also possible to visit a small indigenous village along the Tuparro River, home to a small population of the Sikuani people. Visitors can learn about their traditions and culture, including their cultivation of manioc and spicy peppers, and their myths and legends. From the village, there is a small hike through the jungle to the beautiful Caño Lapa, a remarkable narrow channel that a small river has carved out through the ancient rock.
Along with unique landscapes and cultures, the park also has remarkable biodiversity. It is one of the last strongholds of the endangered Orinoco Crocodile – the largest predator in the Americas. Although you are unlikely to encounter these mighty predators for yourself, there are hundreds of other species to enjoy on a trip to Tuparro. Particular highlights are the green and black Poison Arrow Frogs that live, somewhat incongruously, atop the ancient rocky hills towering over the rivers and jungles, and the Pink River Dolphins that visitors can often see swimming in the meeting point between the Orinoco and Tomo Rivers.
In order to enjoy all of the off-the-beaten-track wonders that Tuparro has to offer, it is necessary to visit with a certified guide or tour agency. First of all, it’s nearly impossible to get there independently, and, along with that, once you’re in the park, you will need a guide and boat in order to access all of the most spectacular spots. Luckily, there are several companies that can facilitate a visit to this most overlooked national park. The most highly recommended is Viajeros del Orinoco, an eco-tourism agency run by a couple of biologists who once studied in the park. They offer a professional and highly knowledgeable service and are the best people with whom to discover the wonder of Tuparro.
You won’t find Tuparro National Park in many guidebooks or on many travel blogs, but it is truly a paradise waiting to be discovered. So make the most of its incredible isolation now, and book that flight. It might not be the cheapest trip you can take in Colombia, but it is certainly one of the most unique – you won’t bump into many other travellers who’ve explored Tuparro, that’s for sure. You won’t regret discovering this unexplored national park before everyone else does!