Guacharos and Gringos on the Rio Claro

In exploring the new freedom of having our own transportation we took the motos to the national reserve of Rio Claro 3 hours east of Medellin. It wasn’t many years ago that this land was untouchable to tourists due to the perpetual guerrilla violence in the area. Now it boasts one of Colombia’s proudest nature reserves openly accessible and beautifully set in a lush jungle river basin canyon, not to mention fully ready to take all of your money. The impending nickel and dimming should have been obvious as we sat sweating from the jungle heat at the reception desk to the park hotel being promised that although the room I was about to book was open aired without a fan or mosquito net it was quite cool at night, and lacked any and all mosquitos and bugs. The price for this fairy tale was more than triple my budget typically allowed for a private room. 

As we sat at dinner the first night amidst the humidity and various jungle sounds we were approached twice by workers from the resort offering us the various caving, zip lining, hiking, rafting packages. They all seemed a bit concerned that we were not interested. Which I guess in retrospect was probably a fair assessment as I don’t think a ton of tourists come here, plus we came during the week. So I imagine those that typically show up on a weekday only have a couple days of vacation and don’t want to waste any time, we however wanted nothing more than to waste time. 

The next morning we decided not to go on the caving tour that was pimped so heavily the night before, but instead decided to go out and find the cave ourselves. As we walked along the river we found a small beach which had the exit of the cave. The entrance to this 500m cave was across the river and up the hill another 2 kilometers. We decided against the hike as it was already late in the morning and we didn’t get much sleep because as predicted the room was hot all night and full of strange insects which I was convinced were crawling on me all night. Never the less we swam across the river and decided to at least explore the exit of the cave.

A short rope climb up a waterfall was rewarded by an erie series of marble caverns in knee high water. As we ventured inward crawling up the terraced cavern my dimly lit headlight did little justice in illuminating the full reaches of our surroundings. We entered a larger hallowed out cavern with inappreciably high ceilings when we heard the first screech. Something between an angry parrot and a cat in heat was howling at us from the depths of the darkness. Startled we crouched down fully expecting a wave of bats to buzz out of the cave. Nothing happened, but the screeching perpetuated and continued to sound more angry. Although in the back of our logical mind we knew very well that this cave was explored daily on canned tourist friendly tours, so the danger of this unknown sound had to be low. This logical mind was overruled however by our 2nd grade camping in the dark woods mind and it was a dragon that was coming to burn us alive and nothing less.  In my most machismo act yet I pushed Liz out of the way and made my way for the exit of the cave. Flailing, panicking, and near drowning in knee deep water we eventually made our way to the exit. After we fled the cave and made our way back to safe and sandy beach we were greeted by this fat English speaking muse of a 13 year old Colombian boy frolicking in the water who asked us if we were on the tour. We told him our story and how we just wanted to explore a few caverns. He seemed very knowledgeable about the cave, like he had either been on the tour, or was some kind of permanent river sage that I was just hallucinating. We asked about the noise, he answered without hesitation that it was a Guacharo.  Inquiring further he could only describe this mythical creature as a cross between a bird, bat, and an owl. At first he couldn’t find the English world for owl and said beetle, which in my mind would have directly fit the description for a dragon. As we listened to this young seemingly arrogant boy go on about the many random facts of the Guacharo it seemed pretty obvious in that moment that he was completely full of shit. At that moment the Guacharo flew out of the cave, and to my complete shock it was as he directly described, a large bird like creature that moved like an owl, and had the face of a bat. As it flapped around outside the cave it had these large dangling talons that we were convinced would have sliced us if we hadn’t got out of the cave when we did. I swam across the water again with my phone in my mouth to attempt to snap a close up of this strange beast.

Turns out it actually is called a Guacharo in Spanish, in English it’s known as an oil bird. The only bird species that lives in caves and uses echolocation similar to bats. Its body is unusually oily and was previously hunted for this property. It of course eats fruits and vegetables and not skerplunkering gringos.

#southamerica #backpacking #guacharo #oilbird #rioclaro

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