A river of bliss and the wicked witches of San Cipriano…

As Juan Manuel shot around another corner with the velocity of an astronaut attempting to launch us horizontally into the side of an alien planet, the three of us grabbed what we could in the back… namely each other… and said a small prayer that we’d make it to San Cipriano alive. Me, David and Noah only wanted to go tubing, for God’s sake, but it was looking highly likely we’d end up nose-first in the back of a cattle truck, or speared ‘Final Destination’ style on perilous wooden poles being transported at the speed of light along the motorway.

Almost three hours later, having made it in one piece, we rearranged ourselves and boarded our bruja (‘witch’ in Spanish), named so because a series of these nifty motorbikes attached to boards with wheels run magically fast along the old train tracks, making you feel a bit like a kid on a fairground ride… or a wicked witch on a broomstick. Here’s David modelling one, and looking entirely unruffled by the previous torment. An admirable accomplishment: With the wind in our hair, me, the guys and a German girl called Rebecca soon put the car ride from hell behind us and were promptly deposited in a tiny village, whereupon we were led to wash away the last of our worries in a crystal clear river; “One of the top five clearest rivers in the world,” Juan Manuel told us proudly. He gestured to its iridescent greatness, already playing host to numerous local families, most of whom had set up tents on the pebbles close by.

Me and Rebecca swam in the shallows. Noah and David both jumped from roughly ten metres into the twinkly depths. Juan Manuel rewarded his questionable driving skills with a ginormous joint.

San Cipriano is tiny town of 500 inhabitants, predominantly of African descent – though there were just 92 people living in the part Juan Manuel took us to – close to Buenaventura in western Colombia. To live here you have to be born here apparently, but in spite of this, there was a disappointing lack of people with six toes and hunchbacks in the vicinity, proving that incest isn’t practiced quite as much as pumping iron appears to be, here. Most of the men were bare-chested hulks with bulging forearms, to be honest. Perhaps it’s because they’re pulling fish from the river all day?

After a lunch of fresh catch cooked on blazing coals we were led down a dirt track, along an ecological trail with a sign that read ‘refugio del amor’. As we approached the rapids with our giant tires we tried not to think about the fact that beyond the fluttering yellow tails of Mochilero birds making hanging basket-style nests from the trees, and the fleeting rainbow streaks of toucan’s beaks, lurked guerrillas and members of the FARC with machetes in one of the most dangerous rainforests in the world. We had no reason to fear. Juan Manuel is a well respected man after all.

Not only can he drive a car like Michael Schumacher on acid, he’s the second best BMX biker in Colombia and in his spare time, when he’s not tubing stoned and bleary-eyed down the river, he practices paragliding, kite surfing, kite boarding and was once even lettered in soccer. It’s all about who you know, in the rainforest.

On the river rapids we were swept along in a world of alternating swirls and calmer currents for at least two hours… maybe even longer. I kind of lost track of time (as well as my sunglasses – error) imagining a million unseen eyes training on me from the treetops… monkeys, parrots, snakes and terrifyingly MASSIVE spiders all looking out from their hidden homes. The jungle world unfolding around us as we spun in frothy circles was a kaleidoscope of emerald greens and once I’d successfully dodged a couple of spiders it was hard to think anything other than “wow!”

WOW. WOW. WOW! This is the real Colombia!

Upside down was the best. Tilted backwards with our foreheads in the water, a parallel universe let us float in the clouds and when it started to rain we fell silent in a land of sparkles and reflective stripes that should by all rights have been the opening scene in some sort of movie… maybe one about a boy called Mowgli who befriends a bear and sings songs about Bare Necessities. It’s revelling in the bare necessities like this, that makes travelling so exhilarating! You know when it’s just you and Pachamama and the distant squawk of birds… and the odd gun-toting FARC fiend in the bushes, if you’re unlucky.

These are the moments when I love this gypsy lifestyle… when a day and everything in it opens my eyes and shakes my foundations. And not just in a car seat death trap.

Fire. Water. Earth. Air.

In the end, that’s all there is.

There’s a trick to tubing on rapids. Struggling against the ass-pummeling rocks in the shallow parts, you kind of have to lift yourself on top of your tube, with as little of your body poking out the bottom as possible.  I still got a bruised ass but I’m taking my black and blue cheeks as a token of my albeit violent brush with nature – something that makes me more alive. And anyway, it was soon numbed by the peanutty potency of a local drink called bicho, which David liked to call “A Gypsy Moonshine.”

It’s made with nuts and sugarcane and we bought a bottle for the bruja ride back to the car. Yee-haaa!

Thankfully this moonshine also served to lull us into a false sense of security as Juan Manuel rocketed us all the way back to Cali, managing to get stuck in the comforting calm of a fucking-HUUUUUUGE traffic jam for at least an hour – in a tunnel. Hmm.

Getting to and from San Cipriano isn’t the most tranquil experience, really, but once you’re lazing in your private rubber boat, listening to the rain and the occasional shriek from a fellow tuber, you’ll be glad you swapped your salsa shoes for your swim gear and took the leap of faith.

**This is an extract from Latinalicious – The South American Diaries, which will probably be edited later as I’ve written this fresh off an overnight bus on two hours of sleep… ugh. Dragging myself out to explore Bogota… laters xxx