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The jungle town of San José del Guaviare was once a place that very few travellers had visited or even heard of – heavily hit by the Colombian conflict and strongly associated with violence and the drug trade, the idea of a tourist industry in Guaviare was far-fetched. However, over the past few years, the region’s safety has improved hugely and it is now growing in popularity with tourists. So here are the top 10 things to see and do in San José del Guaviare.
One of the principal attractions of the region is the series of ancient rock paintings made by Indigenous peoples thousands of years ago. There are several excellent sites to visit – all of which are listed here – but Nuevo Tolima is the easiest to access. A one-hour drive from the town takes you to a rocky outcrop on the edge of the jungle, and a short climb up it leads to a huge wall of blood-red paintings overlooking a vast jungle panorama.
On the road to Nuevo Tolima, you pass by the ‘Stone City’ or Ciudad de Piedra, a geological formation which strongly resembles the avenues and plazas of an ancient, forgotten city. The region was once underwater and the action of the sea many millions of years ago formed the strange phenomenon, but wandering the quiet alleys and avenues of the ‘City,’ you’ll really feel like you’ve stumbled upon the Lost City of Atlantis!
Not far from San José are the Pozos Naturales, a series of beautiful swimming holes along a stunning, clear river. Thousands of years of erosion have left wide, deep holes in the bed of the river, which are like natural jacuzzis in the otherwise shallow channel. Spending an afternoon here, swimming in the holes and jumping from the riverbank is a great way to relax on a trip to Guaviare.
Another site for ancient rock painting, Cerro Azul – or Cerro Pinturas as it is sometimes known – is further afield than Nuevo Tolima, but is arguably the site with the most well-preserved rock art. Set on another rocky outcrop in the jungle, the hill is home to some stunning images of animals, people, and scenery, and there are also caves to explore and a truly breathtaking view over hundreds of miles of jungle.
Cano Cristales may be the famous red river of Colombia, but San Jose del Guaviare is home to several small rivers containing the same red algae that give Cano Cristales its famous colours. Both Tranquilandia and Cano Rosado are home to the red algae, and between June and November, the rivers flow bright-red! They also flow along rocks of the ancient Guyana Shield, making for some truly surreal and beautiful landscapes.
This jungle lake is a short drive outside the urban area of Guaviare and is easily visited for a few hours – a blackwater lake, Laguna Negra is especially worth visiting on a clear day, when the water acts as a mirror and perfectly reflects the vast sky above it. You can hire a kayak or a little dugout canoe and set out to explore the waters of the lake for yourself.
The furthest afield of Guaviare’s tourist attractions is also perhaps the most fantastic to visit: either a three-hour drive or two-hour boat journey leads you to Damas del Nare Lake, a lovely oxbow lake in the jungle, and home to some of the friendliest pink dolphins you’ll ever see. The wild dolphins are used to people, and will swim around your feet and even pull on the bowline of the canoe! The surrounding forests are also home to loads of species of monkey and birds, making for an unbelievable ecotourism destination.
The rapids of the Guayabero River are visited as part of a day-trip from San José, and also shelter yet another beautiful site to see ancient rock paintings. A boat journey from the edge of the town gives you the chance to observe pink dolphins, caiman, and turtles, before passing through the narrow canyon of the rapids. You can then climb a hill alongside the river to see the paintings and enjoy a stunning view over the neighbouring Macarena National Park.
One thing that has put Guaviare on the map for the right reasons in recent years has been the rise of birding tourism in the region, as keen ornithologists flock to the accessible jungles to observe unique species such as the Guianan Cock-of-the-rock, Harpy Eagle, Orange-breasted Falcon, and many more. Local expert Cesar Arredondo is the go-to guy for birding and ecotourism in San Jose: his company Guaviare.Biodiverso Travel can organize birding tours, as well as trips to any of the other sites mentioned here.
This small ecolodge just outside San José is located right next to Laguna Negra and alongside a small creek in the jungle – Playa Guio has several comfortable cabins on the edge of the forest, and it’s the perfect place to spend a night or two if you’re keen on nature. With many species of birds to be seen just in front of the cabins, and Howler Monkeys waking you up each morning, it’s an ideal place to get back in touch with nature.