Journey to Chiribiquete, Sistine Chapel of the Amazon

Thousands of years ago, indigenous people painted mythic stories on the stone escarpments of Chiribiquete, deep in the Colombian Amazon. In November 2017 four adventurers, three Poles and an Irishman, set out to fathom its mysteries.

After snakebite, guerrillas and three years of trying, Michal Dzikowski pauses within view of the Chiribiquete’s table-top mountains.

By Maciej Tarasin and Dominik Szczepański

"Half of Colombia is the Amazon jungle, the paradox of which is that Colombian people know nothing about it," said Ciro Guerra, director of Embrace of the Serpent, which won the Art Cinema Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Oscar. One of the film's main characters is Richard Evans Schultes, an ethnobotanist from Harvard University and a close collaborator of Albert Hofmann, the chemist who first synthesized LSD. In 1943, the same year Hofmann embarks on his first acid-triggered trip in his Swiss laboratory, Schultes hacks his way through the pristine Colombian jungle. He has been sent by the American government to find rubber, much needed in wartime. Schultes, however, having devoted his life to researching medicinal and hallucinogenic properties of plants, has already developed a different fascination.

He has heard about the table-flat mountains rising in the heart of Chiribiquete, which today is a national park of the size of Belgium. For thousands of years, unknown shamans etched on the sheer stone walls a remarkable collection of petrograms that one day would be called the Sistine Chapel of the Amazon Jungle.

Chiribiquete is the biggest archeological complex of rock murals in the northern part of South America. The paintings depict scenes of hunting and ritual dances as well as human and animal figures. Their age is the subject of an ongoing debate. Some sources claim they are as much as 20,000 years old.

Maciej Tarasin has been trying to reach these mythic paintings for three years. His first expedition in 2014 was unexpectedly foiled by guerilla fighters loyal to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). His second attempt in 2015 was derailed by the bite of a fer-de-lance serpent, the deadliest snake in the Amazon. The third expedition set out at the end of October 2017.

Underway again. Maciej Tarasin at the start of his third expedition in search of the Chiribiquete pictograms. Photo by Michał Dzikowski / clearskiesahead.com

Río Ajajú, November 2017

The team of three Poles and one Irishman spilled out of the tiny plane at La Macarena, Colombia. The remote Amazon outpost boasts a handful of dirt roads, the intersections of which are decorated with cheap bars overflowing with music, billiard tables and rough customers.

It took less than an hour by plane to get from chilly heights of Bogotá, situated at more than 8,000 feet elevation, to the edge of the equatorial jungle--just the right amount of time to drain a very handsome bottle of Irish whisky. The nearest hotel is not quite 100 meters from the airport. For the next three weeks the team would have to be completely self-sufficient, as there are no settlements in Chiribiquete, only the vast Amazon rainforest and the rivers that flow through it. To get from Jaguara, the starting point for their journey to the former penal colony of Aracuara, the team would have to travel about 700 km (440 miles) by water and cut through a few dozens kilometers of virgin jungle. A true muscle-building experience. Their dry bags carried ultralight Polish Pinpack rafts, paddles, snack packets of dried beef, energy bars, hammocks with mosquito nets, cameras, GPS equipment, satellite telephones and spare batteries. The adventure was about to begin.

“I was bitten by a snake. I am going to die,” Maciej said. “Camilo, am I going to die?” Camilo didn’t answer.

Giant anteaters scampered away at the sight of a speeding Toyota Hilux. A red sandy path snaked through low, sun-dried grass. Eight hours later the car went past a few empty ramshackle skeleton buildings and pulled up at the only inhabited structure in the spacious forest clearing. Three children peeked out timidly.

"They haven't grown that much," the three Polish kayakers agreed, smiling at the kids. The Irishman Shane Young followed them to the door. He was here for the first time.

Old friends. The children greeted the explorers with timid smiles. Photo by Michał Dzikowski / clearskiesahead.com

The others, Maciej Tarasin, Michał Dzikowski and Dominik Szczepański, had launched an expedition from this same jungle clearing three years earlier. Here they had listened to stories told by a man who called himself the last jaguar hunter. A few dozen years ago, he belonged to a team of hunters devoted to satisfying the whims of rich men who wanted to fill their trophy rooms with the skin of the magic animal. Jaguar, the hunter explained, was the most important of the animals--the guardian of the jungle, the symbol of sexual potency and the evidence of the universe's fertility.

This time the man wasn't there to greet them, but soon a woman emerged from the shadows of the hut. She had acquired a few white hairs in these three years, but her shy smile remained unchanged. Just as before, she slaughtered one of her chickens, boiled some broth and served the meat with a mountain of rice and fried plantains.

The crew enjoys a humble feast before entering the jungle. Photo by Michał Dzikowski / clearskiesahead.com

On 30 October the men launched their rafts on the Río Tunia. The river was the color of milky coffee. Three hours of paddling later, they spotted an old man walking along the right bank.

"Good morning. Are the things quiet on the river?" Maciej asked, remembering what happened the last time he was there.

"Quiet," confirmed the man, a slender Indian named David.

His shirt had a few buttons missing which did not make any real difference as he wore it unbuttoned all the way down. It was still a long way till noon but the temperature had exceeded 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).

"Three years ago we were stopped by the guerillas," Maciej continued his questioning.

"FARC?" asked David. "Yes, a few fronteros have been hanging about on the river since yesterday," he added casually. In this part of Colombia indigenous people have been rubbing shoulders with guerrillas for decades. Though the rebels had signed a historic treaty with the government since the last time we were here, the peace hasn't reached every corner of the jungle. Not every guerrilla was ready to relinquish his weapons and give up the dangerous and lucrative cocaine business.

Shell casings in the jungle are testament to the 52-year civil war that ravaged Colombian society. Photo by Michał Dzikowski / clearskiesahead.com

Initially FARC members hailed themselves as protectors of the people and opposed the exploitation of Colombia's natural resources by foreign corporations. But it's a slippery slope from Marxist ideals to the riches of the drug trade, and the FARC had slid a long way during Colombia's 52-year civil war. At its peak the FARC controlled almost half of the territory of Colombia. Much of the rest fell under the control of right-wing paramilitaries, who had different political views from the FARC but a remarkably similar business model. Guerillas terrorized villages, kidnapped people for ransom and extorted protection money, but their bread and butter was always the cocaine trade. As men like Pablo Escobar amassed huge fortunes, Colombia's civil war smoldered for more than five decades. It was the longest conflict in the history of South America. 250,000 people lost their lives and 60,000 went missing as a result.

There was a way to evade the thugs cruising Río Tuni, and David turned out to be a key to implementing the plan. For two days he and two companions guided the four explorers through the jungle surrounding the Río Ajajú, the river that would carry them into Chiribiquete.

Río Tunia, December 2014

Three years ago when they first traveled this river, the explorers had built a raft out of tractor tubes and balsa logs. Accompanied by an indigenous guide, they set off down the Río Tunia, where after a few days they encountered a long, yellow wooden boat with a blue engine. It was occupied by two men and a woman and matched the description of the one belonging to a certain Don Léo, the local boss in Jaguara village. The travelers had yet to meet Don Léo, though they had enjoyed the hospitality of his home, which doubled as the village guesthouse under the stern supervision of his wife. Don Léo's relations with the guerrillas were not clear, but it was obvious that he was a man with a serious clout, especially as his companions were clad in camouflage military shirts and trousers.

"Don Léo!" Maciej shouted when the boat was only a few meters away. "How good to see you. We've slept at your wife's, Señor, she makes the best breakfast ever."

As Maciej's Spanish is far from perfect, he might have said something closer to: "We've slept with your wife."

The bulky helmsman was dumbstruck, and the red-haired female guerrilla almost fell out of the boat laughing. The trio landed their boat on the sandbank. The red-haired woman's ample bosom glittered with jewelry and she was grinning like a Cheshire cat. The helmsman's eyes twinkled as he bombarded the explorers with questions. He wanted to know who they were, what they were doing there and if they were aware that it was a guerrilla-controlled area. The explorers assured him that their expedition was all about nature, ancient paintings and endemic species of Chiribiquete--not politics.

Though the rebels had signed a historic treaty with the government since the last time we were here, the peace hasn't reached every corner of the jungle.

The guerrillas listened to the explanations, lit their cigarettes and told the travelers to wait. They said they would be back the next day and announce the decision of their superiors. Obviously there is a chain of command to be followed in FARC.

So wait they did, Maciej Tarasin, Dominik Szczepański, Michał Dzikowski and their Indian guide, Camilo Matapi.

End of the road. The only way to Chiribiquete is by jungle and river. Photo by Michał Dzikowski / clearskiesahead.com

Three days later the guerrillas still did not come.

"Let's not wait for their go-ahead. Let's just go,” Michał suggested. Maciej went to talk to Camilo. He'd had some dealings with the guerrillas in the past. Once, when Camilo was a self-employed gold-digger, the guerrillas opened fire at his boat at night. Maciej trusted his instincts.

Camilo shook his head no. For the first time in a week he did not smile. Before and after he was full of laughter. He giggled when piranhas swallowed all his fishing hooks, meaning the only food for the week would be rice and ground manioc flour. He howled with laugher when he had had bad luck to be given a ride by an inebriated bike driver, as a result of which he fell off the bike 14 times. He laughed when his Polish friends spat out the scrambled turtle eggs he'd prepared, which he found delicious. He chortled uncontrollably when Maciej almost choked on his overcooked tapir steak, but what truly split his sides was the story about Władysław Gomułka. To kill the time while waiting to hear from Colombian communists, Maciej told the Indian about the Polish ones. Later Camilo kept repeating the name of the former first Secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers' Party--back then the only party in the country--every time bursting into laughter. Soon he found himself nicknamed "Gomułka."

But then, the third day after the meeting with the guerrillas, Camilo was not amused.

"Go on without me if you want. I know these FARC people and I do not wish to cross paths with them ever. They are capable of anything," he said and all the others had to agree that there was nothing else for them to do but turn back.

A week later, somewhere by the dark waters of the Río Mesai on the other side of Chiribiquete, Camilo confessed to having heard more than he had initially shared. The guerrillas said that if we continued down the river without their consent, they would open fire without warning--a detail that had eluded the Poles' rudimentary Spanish.

But before the expedition members reached the Mesai, they had to somehow get back to Jaguara. They packed their bags and after a dozen kilometers of cutting their way through the jungle, they arrived at the village. There, they were to arrange transportation to La Macarena. Only nobody wanted to give them a ride.

No footwear is a match for the Amazon mud. Photo by Michał Dzikowski / clearskiesahead.com

It was Christmas Eve. The Indians from the neighboring villages came to take part in soccer championships. The first to kick off were men. The goal posts were made from bars, the ball was deflated but the players fought hard. Then the girls came out to play and the heat doubled and the whistles got sharper. After the match everybody danced and drank aniseed aguardiente. An equally disgusting drink is yet to be discovered. The next day the expedition members rode small motorbikes to La Macarena. They tried for two more weeks to find a way to reach Chiribiquete and its famed murals, to no avail. There was nothing to do but return to Poland and make a new plan.

Río Cunare, December 2015

A year later Maciej and Dominik were back in Colombia and reunited with Camilo. They brought with them a SOAR inflatable canoe, to which Camilo mounted a small pecky-pecky motor. They set off up the Yari and Mesai Rivers to the springs of the Cunare River. Seeking the ancient murals they descended into a rocky well. The water slowly dripped down the white rocks. Thick vegetation abounded.

Maciej jumped up, feeling as if stung by a bee. To make sure what it was he took a quick look at the tuft of grass overgrowing a narrow rocky ledge. When he turned around again he was pale. There were two red marks below his elbow.

"I was bitten by a snake. I am going to die. Camilo, am I going to die?" he asked the Indian in Spanish. Camilo did not answer. Instead he searched through the grass. The snake was a meter long, with silver ruby-stained skin. Camilo lopped off its head with his machete. Keeping the head, he threw the body into a stony crevasse at the bottom of which a narrow stream flowed.

A collaborative masterpiece filled a fragment of white wall about 40 meters long and 15 meters wide--an eerie testament to the dreamworld woven by men and women now dead for thousands of years.

Maciej did his best to stay optimistic. Dying among the tepui, in this place the Indians call the "houses of the gods" would be far better than dying bed. Maciej tried to find comfort in the thought.

Chiribiquete’s sheer-walled mesas are an inconvenient place to be bitten by a deadly snake. Photo by Michał Dzikowski / clearskiesahead.com

Perhaps the snakebite had been pre-ordained. Nightmares has haunted Maciej the previous night. That morning he found a snake skin in the rainforest, and when his turn came to rappel down onto the rocky ledge, his instincts screamed danger. Now he was standing halfway up a vertical rocky wall, sucking snake venom out of his forearm, though he knew it was in vain. He was more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) from the nearest village, a five-day trip for a healthy traveler. Camilo cut the snake's head and removed from it a white bladder the size of a human eyeball. Some dark substance sloshed inside.

"Drink it"

"What is it?"

"Yel," Camilo answered, as if that explained anything.

Maciej drank some of the black liquid. The rest of it the Indian smeared over the wound. Later he explained that people of his tribe believe that each animal, with the curious exception of a tapir, has in it yel -- the cure for snake bites.

With that, Maciej said "I prefer to die by the river," and started down the stream, which led through a succession of caves. The rocky tunnel was dark and seemed to him like a passage to another world. Would it be light or darkness on the other side for him?

After only 50 meters, the path they thought would take them back to the boat came to an abrupt end. The Río Cunare was at the bottom of the precipice. To continue down they needed ropes.

"Is that it? Is that the end?" Maciej asked.

"It might be. I don't know," Camilo answered.

Maciej started down. Dominik again asked if this was the end of the line and this time the Indian nodded yes. Yet an hour later they were on the riverbank.

They pitched camp on an island in a bend of the river, whose black waters circled around the white sand. First they couldn't get the signal. When the satellite phone finally kicked in, they sent information to Maciej's fiancé: Maciej was bitten by a snake. According to Camilo, the snake is called pelo de gato. Find out what to expect."

The wound blackened. Maciej reached into his pack for a bottle of Hungarian white wine, meant to celebrate Camilo's 60th birthday five days hence.

"Camilo, let me open the bottle today. I'd like to have a drink before I die." The Indian nodded with understanding as they poured the wine.

The phone squeaked. The information from Poland was bad. "Pelo de Gato is an Indian name for fer-de-lance serpent, the most dangerous snake in the Amazon. First symptoms within 12 hours: paralysis, breathing problems, bleeding from the nose and ears. The venom might be deadly. Under no circumstances should you move or imbibe alcohol."

Dominik decided that if the worst should happen, they would bury Maciej in the white sand at the edge of the black river. It wasn't necessary. Three days later, thanks to the involvement of their friends, they were rescued by army helicopters. The physicians at the hospital in Bogotá said the snake most probably attacked without injecting its venom. If the fer-de-lance uses its poison the victim has only have a few hours left to live. The explorers asked about the antidote Camilo squeezed from the snake's severed head. The big-city doctors shrugged. "Folk magic," they said. "We haven't really looked into it yet."

Slow going: Dominik with no clear path ahead. Photo by Michał Dzikowski / clearskiesahead.com

Río Ajajú, December 2017

Having delivered them through the worst of the FARC-controlled territory, Señor David and his two companions left the team at the edge of a river less than 10 meters wide. The river was so small they weren't quite sure whether it was the Río Ajajú or just one of its tributaries. For two days numerous fallen trees blocked the river, slowing their progress. Michał and Shane chopped through the obstructions with their machetes. Maciej was occupied finding breakneck passages between thick branches inhabited by enormous black wasps, ants and spiders. They were no trouble compared to the mosquitoes and black flies. If they stood still for a moment they would be attacked by a soundless swarm. The itching was ceaseless, and grew worse at night. Fish were scarce and high muddy banks made camping impossible. The Ajajú was a nightmare. The men would rise before 6, paddle for 10 hours, make fire while swatting insects and fall into their hammocks just after 7 p.m. Ten days later, having paddled the distance of 300 kilometers (186 miles), they reached Jaguara Sanctuary, the complex of rock murals on the Ajajú River.

Awestruck: Shane examines the Jaguara pictograms. Photo by Michał Dzikowski / clearskiesahead.com

The four of them stood in awe, awe peering at hundreds of red pictograms. A collaborative masterpiece filled a fragment of white wall about 40 meters long and 15 meters wide--an eerie testament to the dreamworld woven by men and women now dead for thousands of years. Jaguars, tapirs and frogs. Warriors and shamans. An oniric tree with a man picking its fruit. A huge bat and a capybara. But most of all jaguars. Depicted in red pictograms with vertical lines, horizontal marks, circles, circles with dots in the middle or squares with dots in the middle. Jaguars were in the centre of the shamanic universe, having been regarded as dominating the earth, the water and the sky and guarding the rainforest. According to Indian mythology, jaguars are born of the sun and represent her on earth. Shamans believed they could transform into a jaguar using hallucinogenic substances like ayahuasca and yoco. The paintings seemed chaotic, as if created in a hallucinogenic state, the sense behind it all difficult to grasp: dancing, hunting, animals, plants and people.

These paintings were made thousands of years ago. Photo by Michał Dzikowski / clearskiesahead.com

After an hour spent admiring the pictograms, the men turned around. Below them spread the valley of the Río Ajajú, the river itself only a lush green carpet of vegetation away, beautiful but unpredictable. After three tries they had finally laid eyes on the Sistine Chapel of the Amazon, but they were still hundreds of kilometers from civilization.

Maciej and Dominik wanted to continue the journey to see the other places with murals, but Dominik's health had begun to deteriorate and Michał and Shane were exhausted. They had no interest in paddling upstream to search for more panels and there was no point splitting up. It was time to get out.

The explorers continued downstream to the Río Apaporis, then bushwhacked 15 kilometers (9 miles) through the virgin rainforest to the Río San Jorge. They needed two and a half days to hike over the hills, the marshes and numerous streams. Michał cut the path through the foliage holding a GPS in one hand and a machete in the other. Having left behind the last obstacle, the muddy terrain blocking the access to the river, they carried on down the San Jorge into the Río Cunare and the El Tubo Canyon, where a motorboat was to collect them in three days time. Dominik was not well. While medical evacuation was an option, the men preferred to get out on their own terms. It was a race against time.

Photo by Michał Dzikowski / clearskiesahead.com

Maciej knew the Río San Jorge. Five years before, he had been the first European to explore the river together with his indigenous guide Jaime Gomez. Now, after portaging two waterfalls, the team paddled their packrafts through sets of dangerous rapids. Dominik was slowed by his illness, so Maciej stayed with him while Shane and Michał raced ahead toward the rendezvous. The river sped up forming a breathtakingly beautiful canyon. Sweeping toward the entrance of a rapid that began with a river-wide drop of about 1.5 meters (5 feet) backed up by a powerful hydraulic, Maciej scanned for a viable sneak. No dice. The left was too shallow, and the right promised a good mauling in a jumble of overhanging trees. He shouted to Dominik, "We’re going straight through the middle!" Maciej was first. He managed to escape the entrance hole, then rammed straight into a boulder. He looked over his shoulder just in time to see the hydraulic suck Dominik's packraft under, then spit it out like a giant camouflage watermelon seed. As for Dominik, he was launched through the air like the legendary Finnish ski jumper Janne Ahonen. They collected the pieces and continued on.

Finally they go to El Tubo.

The most powerful rapids of the Río Cunare forked out into three canals. Taking the middle option might have been deadly. The river formed a narrow canyon jammed with thick tree trunks. Shane and Michal had run the rapid hours earlier; it was just Dominik and Maciej now. The only viable line was on the left, but before they ran it they felt compelled to stop. Mesmerized like children they watched the sunset. The sun faded into the jungle in a splendid multitude of purple and orange hues. When the show was over, they strapped on there headlights and by their feeble light ran the last two big rapids in the canyon. They paddled in the dark, swearing and joking in equal measures. In high spirits they reached the camp where the boat was to meet them.

No boat, however, was to be seen.

Law of the jungle: Eat them before they eat you. Photo by Michał Dzikowski / clearskiesahead.com

The food resources were running out. They went fishing. Maciej stood over a rocky pond watching sabalos. It was dark, the only light coming from his headlamp flashlight. He used his machete to spear the fish in their heads and hit every time. The sack Dominik was holding slowly filled up. They were going to have a feast.

The next day the continued 10 kilometers (6 miles) downstream, where they found traces of the boat that had been sent to meet them. The ashes from the fire were still warm, but the boat was not coming back. They contacted Polish-American explorer Piotr Chmieliński on the satellite phone. Piotr arranged for a second boat to meet them two days later. In the meantime, the team continued their slow, hungry descent of the Río Cunare. As they paddled they indulged in a discussion on the exquisite taste of juicy pork knuckles, roasted chickens and, first and foremost, beefsteaks. They were turning the four years of hard effort to get to the obscure paintings into penny stories about delicious dumplings you can get in Warsaw or the best burgers they make in Mariek's hometown of Żory in the south of Poland. Well, the truth of the matter is, you can only dream new adventures on a full stomach.

Maciej, Shane and Dominik on the Río San Jorge, Colombia. Photo by Michał Dzikowski / clearskiesahead.com


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