Colombia 15th December 2011 to 5th January 2012


To travel the full length of Colombia on rivers / Raspadura Canal  

between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans


After our holiday in 2010 / 2011 where we went to Colombia to “find” the “Lost Raspadura Canal”, found and paddled in it -  Steve had this idea of traversing (paddling) from the Pacific Ocean upstream along the Rio San Juan , through the Raspadura Canal then downstream along the Rio Atrato to the Pacific ocean following in the footsteps of the cacao beans back in the 1800’s.


This plan was slightly ambitious since the upstream San Juan river is 250km and the downstream Rio Atrato is 500km. The Rio Atrato is said to be one of the fastest rivers in the world. Anyhow we roped Andrew Heading in as our 3rd companion and trotted off to Brookbank Watersports in Stockport to purchase two inflatable canoes. We had a few practise paddles in Mirfield canal which consisted of paddling upstream for 2 hours, turning round, paddling hard back and then going to the pub! Canoe photo. I soon realized that paddling against the flow of a canal in an inflatable which was subject to being blown backwards by the smallest bit of wind was very hard. Thus paddling against the flow of a Rio San Juan and against wind would very soon have us floating around the Atlantic Ocean !!!


The "plan" was modified slightly so that we would "by water traverse the full length "but could if necessary use motor boats! There was also the small question of crossing a significant chunk of open sea from the mouth of the Rio Atrato to Turbo. This we crossed by motor boat in 2011 and it was very rough. There was no way I was going to attempt to row it.


So on the 15th December 2011 me, Steve and Andrew Heading along with two canoes and a small amount of luggage (as one canoe weighed 23kg including equipment) left for Colombia with the usual news filtering through of the biggest rains in history. At least the FARC militia were quiet.....




Location - activity

Holiday write up


15th Dec 2011

Arrive Bogota 6pm

A 7am flight from Heathrow to Madrid then a 3hour wait for the flight to Bogota arriving in Bogota at 6pm. A very long day indeed. It was raining heavily when we arrived but we got a taxi without hassle and arrived at Casa Platypus to be shown to a delightful room. We quickly met German (the owner) then sorted out our kit and canoes.

All the photos in the Gallery

16th Dec

Bogota, bus overnight to Pereira then day bus to Quibdo.

Having been reassured that we could get a ticket at the bus station we had a reasonably leisurely day sorting kit. We got to the bus station at 5pm and tickets for a bus to Pereira for 7pm. In the plan this should take 13 hours and so we would then get a day bus to Quibdo to arrive there in the afternoon.


However at 11pm we slowed to a crawl behind lots of traffic and then to a stop. We sat for an hour then one female passenger went to the loo and fainted as she came out from it. This caused much ado and the driver took it upon himself to "get to the 1st Aid Station as fast as possible" ie by overtaking about 5km of standing traffic. The 1st Aider came on board, offered the lady some water and got off again. The traffic had moved a bit and not wanting to lose his place the bus driver started up the bus and moved with it!  We didn't move far though and it was obvious that there was something going on as we could see vehicles stacked up round at least 10 hairpin bends. At 3am all the vehicles turned their engines off and everyone went to sleep.


17th Dec

Quibdo - arrange a trip to Raspadura for the next day

At 5am (daylight) all the passengers of buses and lorry drivers got off their vehicles and wandered round the road. Enterprising locals quickly brewed up some Panela (sugar cane drink) and sold it to everyone. By 8am things were moving and the 1st vehicles through got a cheer. It was however 10am before we moved and then crawled up and over the pass. It was 3pm when we eventually arrived in Pereira and then the next bus was 7pm to Quibdo.


So another night bus - this one on much rougher roads and we arrived in Quibdo new out of town bus station, bruised and battered in a full tropical storm at 4am. Got a rip off taxi to the hotel where thankfully we had booked a room. And to bed, lying horizontally with outstretched legs was wonderful.


18th Dec

Quibdo - recce of Raspadura canal

Slept till 8am then had a good breakfast of hot chocolate (drink), scrambled eggs, soft cheese, fried bread like thing and fried plantain (like banana). Then tried to find buses to Raspadura with no joy. It was hot and we were tired. None of the old bus offices existed anymore and in the end we rang Heiver - our friend from 2011. He told us we had to get a small minibus to the "Terminal" . That was great - very cheap and easy. We got a bus to El Dos and walked out to Plan de Raspadura (like we had the year before). Through the village and out on the dirt track was exciting. "Would the canal still be there?". 1km and we were diving into the jungle ever hopeful and yes it was. Not used for transporting wood now it had got quite overgrown and there was a new track carved through the forest alongside it but it was still intact. It had a lot more rain in it than last year and we had a struggle to wade through parts of it. With thoughts of snakes etc we kept our shoes and trousers on and just got wet. Andrew was very impressed and after walking as far as we could and finding the start of the San Juan, then the canal and the watershed, then the start of the Rio Atrato we made our way back to the village and waited for another bus back to Quibdo.


We planned to go downstream to the Pacific now and then return with the canoes to Raspadura before continuing onto the Atrato and the Atlantic.

 No 1 to 8

19th Dec

Quibdo / Istmina - Bus to Istmina, sort ferry to Pacific

Bus sorted early. A vacant hotel took some finding but very nice.  Istmina is a very busy town but not as noisy as Quibdo. Very pleasant and with the river running through it easy to while away some time. We inquired about boats - in the morning to Baja Calima - which is the where a road connects across to Buenaventura; the big port on the Pacific. We didn't want to go to Buenaventura as it had a bad reputation but got tickets to Baja Calima.

 9 to 19

20th Dec

River San Juan

At the ferry at 7am but the boat left at 9am but had to come back as they travel in pairs and the other one had broken down. About 10.30 set off. We were told we couldn't film which was a shame as the villages and river were very nice picturesque. 6 hours on the boat - our bottoms were sore on the hard seats! Baja Calima is very small and run down but a few basic hotels which were friendly and ok. Good food as always - chicken and rice! Took some video as we decided we couldn't get right to the mouth of the river as no transport that way.

 20 to 30

21st Dec

River San Juan

In the morning sat by the ticket office from 6am. It opened and we got tickets somehow. All rather confusing. Lots of boats coming in and out; mainly wooden ones which although they have outboards tend do go from village to village. Our speedboat loaded up and eventually set off about 10am. On the way back there were a couple of locals filming so we were able to take more pictures etc. We got to Istmina at 5pm and decided to get back to Quibdo that night. Arrived battered with sore bottoms about 8pm. Our hotel was full but we managed to get in nearby in a strange new hotel in a converted shopping precinct.

 20 to 30

22nd Dec

Istmina / Quibdo

Sorted bags out as now the plan is to take the canoes to Raspadura Canal and do some filming before setting off downstream following the Rio Atrato back to Quibdo. Got a taxi to the bus station then a bus to El Dos which is the nearest town to Plan de Raspadura where the canal is. Booked into an ok hotel and walked round the small town. The river has strunk a couple of metres since we were here on the 18th Dec.


23rd Dec

 Quibdo / El Dos

 Portaged the canoe in its bag 2 miles down a rough road to Plan de Raspadura. Had a lovely breakfast of "pastelarias" which are baked rice and chicken parcels which are wrapped and cooked in large (banana?) leaves.  Took the canoe to the canal and tried to paddle through it but because of the huge drop in water levels not much of the canal was navigable. The weather was brilliant though and we took lots of video and photos. We just made it back to El Dos before the rain started and from 5pm right though the night it continued to rain.


That evening (in the rain) we walked downstream looking for a place in which to launch the canoes next morning. We were looking for somewhere at least knee deep but in sheltered water. The river was very low as can be seen on photos and we thought we would actually have to get a tuk-tuk about 10km to the town of Raspadura before we could launch.


 22 to 31






32 - 42

24th Dec

Rio Atratro - launch canoes and paddle 85km to Quibdo

It rained and rained and rained all night and was raining hard when we got up at 6am. The river levels had risen at least 2 meters and so we only had to walk (carrying the canoes) about 2km before we thought we could launch. The river was flowing scarily fast, Steve and Andrew got the canoes ready while I filmed from the relative dry of a tin shed. At 8am we were ready to go. It was still raining. We set off and it certainly was a baptism of water ! Me and Steve in one canoe, Andrew following in another. The river was quite narrow and twisty. We basically concentrated on not getting swept into one bank and then the other. A few times had us piling into the reeds / banks and having to extract ourselves from the undergrowth and set off again.


We rounded a bend and saw a log bridge only 2 foot off the water level. There was no way we could get under so we made a frantic attempt to cross the flow and beach ourselves on a sand bank. Andy quickly ploughed in behind us. So we had only gone 5km and we were portaging already!


After that the river soon widened out and became benign, In fact we ran aground more times than not. It was difficult to tell which way the river was going as the gold dredgers had carved up the natural banks and made huge spoil heaps in the middle of the river. We soon learnt the tell tale signs and one obvious sign was the flow of the rubbish and debris that flowed from one bank across to the other but always showing us where the main direction of flow was.


The tributary continued on for about 20 miles like this. The first gold dredger we saw was a novelty and we took pictures. After we had seen at least 30 of them and finding them noisy, in the middle of the river, churning out spoil heaps and had to be avoided as they trailed ropes and pipes - we soon looked forward to seeing untrashed river banks and experiencing some peace and quiet.


We stopped at Raspadura town and had a good breakfast (now 10am). It was a nice town where the people were curious but friendly. Soon back into the river and joining the main Rio Atratro where the dredgers stopped and the scenery became proper jungle.


The rain stopped mid afternoon and the sun came out raising the temperature 20C as it did. We planned to get to Quibdo and had booked a hotel there for Christmas day and so paddled and paddled. Through the afternoon, into the dusk. From about 5pm we could hear music and thought we were nearly there but no. As with all rivers this one twists and turns but also in the jungle on the river we soon learnt that sound carries at least 20km and so although the music of Quibdo could be heard we had to paddle another 3 hours before we got there. It started raining again at 5pm and just came down consistently all night.


Our average speed was about 10km an hour. We were getting very tired and knew that we had a large tributary to cross to reach the far bank and Quibdo. We rounded the corner and saw the lights. Paddling upstream now to counteract the flow we were full steam ahead for Quibdo. I was working so hard  didn't even notice two motor boats that nearly collided as both drivers were too busy watching us in amazement to look where they were going! Andy saw it and wished he had had spare hands to film!


Quibdo was alive with party goers but the shore was clear of boats and so we could land by the steps and landing area. While Steve and Andy deflated the boats I walked to the hotel and checked in. The owners seemed oblivious to the fact I was dripping river water all over their hotel. I was so pleased to be back there!


After carrying the canoes back to the hotel and depositing them in a soggy pile we went out for dinner and beers. 85km on our first day in 10 hours.

 44 - 47


(and videos when I get them converted to mpg)

25th Dec

Quibdo - rest / holiday

Amanda had given us a joint Christmas Present which we opened in the morning. It was a Hamper with crackers, cake, Baileys and biscuits. We had the Baileys in our coffee and ate the cake for breakfast (along with eggs and plantain). Then we had an easy day wandering round Quibdo enjoying the festivities. It was quite hot and we had to keep diving into cafe's to cool down. The atmosphere was good and it was a large family get together on the river front. We had lunch with Heiver and his family then met up with Carlos (facebook page ) and his friend Glenford for a dinner of the best pastalerios in Quibdo.


26th Dec

River Atrato

It rained heavily all night and was still raining at 7am so we had a leisurely breakfast hoping it would stop but no! So once again we inflated the canoes and set off paddling in the rain. The rain stopped at midday and it was nice from then on. It was soon apparent that camping was going to be impossible as with all the rain there wasn't any land visible at the riber banks. Just trees emerged in water. Therefore at 3pm we started looking for suitable deserted houses / sheds in which to camp. We found a brilliant half built house just passed Pena after 45 km and asked the neighbour if we could sleep there. She was happy enough to we made camp. The house was built on stilts and had two rooms and then an area under cover that didn't have a floor in it yet so we pulled the canoes up there. We had dinner of rice, pilchards and tomatoes and watched the boats going passed. People were surprised to see us but no-one minded. Under one mossy net we all slept in one room which opened out onto the river.

 53 -64

27th Dec

River Atrato

Up early at 6ish and breakfast of pasties and coffee before getting off. We had a Tactical Pilot Chart for Choco area which was extremely accurate for all the river bends and also showed towns; some had names, others not. Because of the lack of land we now aimed to get to a town each night. We knew we could paddle between 50 and 75km in a day and so estimated where we had to stop. I had a garmin GPS and plotted the positions of the towns. Often they were only 20km in a straight line but we would cover 40km or more.


We set off in the rain and paddled for 2 hours before arriving at Beta where the police wanted to see our documents. The town was up on a hill and so Andrew and I walked to a shop and bought fruit and small bottles of water. Everything was ok when we got back to Steve and we had an early breakfast of chicken and rice there.


We set off again and after another couple of hours came to Tengashi, another police checkpoint but everything ok again. We paddled round looking for a shop to buy food / breakfast./ water. The only one we found was small with the usual tinned ham, pilchards, rice, biscuits. I bought some ham and biscuits and asked about water. The nice lady showed me through her shop and house to the kitchen at the back which was under water. There was a tap fed from a tank of rain water. "Better than river water" I thought and filled up all our bladders and bottles while little fish nibbled at my toes!


Off again and now we had to stop at the next town as it was getting late. As we approached it we could see that it was largely under water with a lot of rubbish etc floating around as well. Heading for the only building with a balcony we came to a stop. Many people and children came crowding round and we asked if we could sleep somewhere. To our amazement we were told that this building was actually a hotel! However the ground floor had been flooded and all the rooms were under a mucky sludge. Two lads set to with a mop (which we had to buy) and bucket and cleaned one room out. No-one had stayed here for decades. The bunkbeds had been lived in by mice and the shower/toilet was nothing but a room with no units in it at all. However it was 7pm and we had to stay. The kids kept crowding round and we were tired and just wanted to eat. After a while they drifted off and with only a few helpers we made dinner of pilchards, rice and tomatoes! Andy slept on the balcony and me and Steve had the room. During the night mice ate through one of the dry bags and ate half the bread rolls then left the ants to carry what they could away!

 65 -  79


72 is how I dried my washing!

28th Dec

River Atrato

Up very early as we wanted to be off. Paddling was subdued as we were tired, we hadn't had any breakfast and it was hot. We paddled through two flooded towns. At the second one the fishermen were sorting their catch out and on the platform was a dead four foot long crocodile! This made us think; we didn't think there were crocodiles in the river! We then stopped at a town on a hill where the locals seemed quite scared of us. There wasn't anything else to eat in the shops and so we lived on biscuits all day. At 2pm it started raining very hard and at 4pm we came to Bella Vista where the big navy gun boat was moored. We saw a restaurant and went and had fresh fried fish and plantain - brilliant. Andy and I went in search of a hotel which we found. When we returned to the boats Steve had been chatting to the commander of the gun boat who spoke good english. He said we could put the boats on his deck overnight. He also expressed an interest in buying one of the canoes and so it was duly arranged that when we got to Turbo (our final paddling destination on the Atlantic coast) that we would get in touch with a friend of his and exchange!


This was a strange town in that most of it was concrete houses built in a row with concrete roads. It all looked out of character with the rest of Choco Province. We learnt that the government had built the town to try and win the favour of the locals in the area.  There was a huge power station and no power. People had generators to run their enormous speakers!!! The hotel was modern with showers etc but no water as the water pump needed power. Each bathroom had big water tubs (all empty). The hotel had no power until 11pm and then only in some rooms and it went off again at 4am. I got up and had a shower at 11.30pm and filled our water tub up so that we could flush our toilet.

 81 - 94

29th Dec

River Atrato

It didn't stop raining all night and in the morning it was very heavy again but we had to keep moving so after pontificating for a couple of hours we set the canoes down and paddled off. It was raining hard and the canoes were filling up fast so after an hour when we saw a town (Viga del Fuerta) we pulled under cover of a deserted house overhang. The rain seemed to ease and so we set off again only to be stopped by the police at the checkpoint just out of town. This time the commander was a "jobs worth" who seemed to think there was a problem with us paddling any further. He wasn't having any of it so I suggested he rang "our friend; Oscar - the gun boat commander" whose mobile number we now had! Quite interesting watching him having a conversation on the phone and surprise surprise when he rang off everything was ok. Except that we still had to go to the police station and fill out forms etc, etc.


We set off towards town along the planks across the flooded fields with the plump commander following us. He shouted as we were going too fast and he had to have a rest in the porch of someone's house. "This is going to take all day" we thought but he decided to turn round and ordered some soldiers to escort us instead. It soon became obvious why; the next section of walkway was flooded and the river water poured over the tops of the soldiers wellington boots! Through town we were escorted and this was the biggest town we had come across since Quibdo. It took ages to process our paperwork at the station; not helped by the fact that the generator hat to be cranked up in order for the computer to work. Eventually we were given a document - a disclaimer - and escorted back to the checkpoint. By now it was 1pm and too late for us to get to the next town by dusk so we decided to stay.


Back into town we paddled - no easy feat against the current but at least the rain had stopped. We found a very nice hotel; the best yet! Electricity, water in the cistern, showers that worked, TV's, fans and very clean. The canoes were safely on the balcony below and we went for a walk. All around town was a concrete walkway that all the locals knew the width of under two foot of water. We didn't and so fell off it occasionally into deep water!! I got my nice dry clothes soaked and wasn't impressed. We found an Internet cafe with a wooden walkway into it and sat with our feet in water on the computers. We also found a good restaurant and had our now staple meal: chicken and rice!

 95 - 114

30th Dec

River Atrato

A good early night and so up early for more chicken and rice. It was raining again and we gave the police checkpoint a wide berth but they waved us through. After a couple of hours the river split: we thought the main throughfare was to the left and so took that branch. It soon became obvious that it wasn't as all the boat traffic stopped coming passed, the jungle either side was dense and we only passed three villages: Napipi (which we had been told not to stop at), Opogodo (which looked flooded and uninviting) then Isla Los Palacios which although I translated it as "Island of Lost Palaces" was tiny and had no buildings that were above the water level. So we continued onto another one that was marked on our map. We could hear music and thought it was the town but paddled and paddled without coming across the town that was marked. We passed the bend in the river where the town was supposed to be and the music continued on in the distance. We realised that it must be Villeneuve at least 20km away. So it was either sleep in the canoes (Steve's suggestion) or continue paddling into the night (mine and Andy's idea) so with the power of veto we paddled on!


We arrived at 8pm in the dark and straight away spotted a school which had balconies out the water. That will do we thought and paddled over. It was good. Even had an open toilet block out of water. We made camp on the balcony which seemed good. The locals called out to us but no-one came over to see us and they soon went back to partying. We ate and settled down for the night. This is when the mosquitoes came out in force. Up to now we hadn't had much trouble with them at all. I only had 6 bites at 9pm but at least 26 in the morning some of which weren't mossies but something else that came up in red itchy lumps with a pinprick in the centre which bled. Steve and Andy were unsympathetic and so in the morning we packed up in silence and paddled off.

 120 - 127


127 is the school

31st Dec

River Atrato

It wasn't raining and was hot instead. Paddling was hard as we were tired and slightly grumpy! We did enjoy the silence on the river though. The banks were full of jungle noises and we saw monkeys quite a lot. There was also this weird howling noise that sounded like the wind but there wasn't any. We decided it must be Howler Monkeys. Where the river joined back up there was a large town but we couldn't cross the flow of water to get to it so we missed it and continued on. The river traffic soon appeared and they were obviously pleased to see us again. The boats ranged from wooden dugouts with outboards or being paddled going from village to village or fishing to bigger speed boats that do the full 9 hour journey from Quibdo to Turbo each day. Everyone had heard of us though and often english speaking people would be waiting for us to arrive at their town so they could help us.


The river was now very wide and quite straight. It was hard work paddling especially as the wind had picked up and made the river choppy. We were glad to reach Boca de Curvarado where we had already decided to stop for the night. It was a good town with three hotels; but all full or flooded. An english speaking local was helping us and he asked around for somewhere we could stay. A shopkeeper had a house that was half built that we could use. It was perfect. The upstairs was a large room with a balcony where we camped out. There was a maze of wooden walkways round the town and it was interesting to try and walk on them as they bounced a lot (especially with heavier British men on them!) The children could run along and found it amusing that we were unstable. More chicken and rice for dinner. The New Year's Eve parties were well on their way when we went to bed but I slept right through five lots of music, a cat / monkey on the tin roof above and even firecrackers that went off at 3am. Steve and Andy were not impressed!

 128 -156

1st Jan

River Atrato

We had decided to finish paddling here; we could only get to Rio Suscio anyway before time ran out and as the river was such hard work it would be a very long day to get there. We unpacked the canoes and dried them out to make carrying them easier. After breakfast (of chicken and rice!) we made enquiries about a speedboat. Yes at 1pm. So we waited around the docking area. At 12.30 a chap asked us if we had tickets. "No" we said. "Well I'm going". "Ok" we said, "how much", "70,000" - the usual price. So we agreed. He went off and came back with an injured local man on a stretcher in his boat. The chap had broken ribs or something and was in a lot of pain. The stretcher was made of wood and had no padding. They put spare lifejackets under the patient but it was extremely painful for him every time the boat bumped on the river. Anyway good for us as there were only 6 other passengers and we didn't stop at every insy winsy little village on route trying to pack more passengers on board (as is the norm!). When we got to the sea crossing the driver asked the passengers which way to go!  There was some discussion and off we went. I remembered that the sea was choppy and we got wet from last year but this time we were at the back of the boat and it was a lot worse. Out came the ponchos and we hid under them still getting drenched every time the boat hit a wave.


Into Turbo at 6pm. Very civilised. Across to the Hotel Florida where we had stayed the year before. Yes it had rooms. Excellant. Got settled in and went for chicken and rice.

 157 - 160

2nd Jan


Had a relaxing day round Turbo. We booked a bus the next day to Periera where we planned to get the overnight bus to Bogota. We contacted Oscar's friend who duly arrived and exchanged pesos for canoe. That will make our travelling life easier. Turbo hadn't changed much and we enjoyed wandering round looking at the wood and beer being offloaded in the rather smelly port. At night a stage was erected in the square and we hoped it would be local music. At 7pm it looked doubtful when smartly dressed people turned up and all sat on chairs. Then a few people in a white suits and off they went. Lots of chanting and hallaluias for hours and hours until everyone had gone to bed! Us included.

 161 -189

3rd Jan


At 6.30am we were at the bus depot. No bus. After an hour we asked and were told "problem on the road; come back in the afternoon" So we sat around a lot and came back in the afternoon. This is where a better knowledge of Spanish would help. There was a couple of Americans there waiting for the 4pm bus and they explained that there were landslides on the road and their bus was now 9am the next morning. We were getting worried as the total journey was 13 hours then 9 hours and we had a plane to catch on the 5th. We went and enquired about flights;  next day at 7am for £100. About £50 more than two buses so we booked the flights which took 2 hours of faffing and I went and cancelled the bus.

 190 - 192

Andy nicknamed "stain man"

4th Jan


 We flew from the new Turbo airport which happened to be an hour and a half hair-raising taxi journey from Turbo. So up early again. It was all very efficient though and got us there via Medallin at 11am. Back to Casa de Platypus courteous of Herman our owner friend. He was busy but we arranged to meet the next day for lunch before we flew.


Wandered round in the afternoon buying presents and enjoying the city.

 194 + 195

5th Jan


In the morning we walked up Monseratte; a hill overlooking Bogota. Its at 3100m about a 700m climb up. It was very puffing though as we hadn't used our legs much all holiday and we were affected by the altitude. There were loads of people doing the walk though and at the top (where you can also get a cable car to) there was a large church, lots of souvenir shops and lots of restaurants all serving entrails of one sort or another!


A lovely meal with Herman then relaxing before getting a taxi to the airport.

 196 - 217

 6th Jan

Flights etc 

I had managed to get us Emergency Seats so me and Steve had loads of leg room while Andrew (booked on Emergency Seats that weren't) had a whole row of seats to himself. Wonderful and so arrived in Heathrow having slept most of the flight.

Good journey home as the roads were quiet and all ok back at the farm!