There is a lot of interesting story about finding this canyon, our guide, getting to San Carlos and about the area. However, if you are here just to know about the canyoneering descent, I’ll get right to that and talk about the rest later. We descended the La Chorrera – Inferior (lower) section of this canyon with many 100+ ft less-than-vertical rappels often involving (but not through) flowing water during what seemed like low-flow conditions (it hadn’t rained in a couple weeks). It was a great, non-touristy canyoneering experience guided by Manuel of Eco Guías Colombia who provided gear and wetsuits (one fit me at 6’6”!) and was exactly the authentic canyoneering experience I was looking for.
Getting to San Carlos
Even with the road fully paved now from Granada to San Carlos, it took 3.5 hrs each way to Medellín by bus (although Rome2Rio said 2 hrs). A bus leaves pretty much every hour from either Coonorte and Transoriente in either direction. You’ll at least have to stay the night before, but I’d say it’s worth staying a few days here. FYI, there are a couple San Carlos outside of Medellín, this is the one near 6.188538, -74.991972.
La Chorrera – Inferior (3C III 11r ~150ft) [ropewiki]
Originally we were going to do both upper (Superior) and lower (Inferior), but Manuel said this would probably take us to 7pm and if we wanted to avoid traveling at night in the mountains we’d have to just do Inferior.
We met in town at 7:15am, got a pastry and coffee in the square and met him at his guide shop to pack, gear up and hit the road in Manuel’s car at 8am. Stopping to pick up some lunch from local farmers (basically a simplified Bandeja Paisa wrapped in a banana leaf which was delicious), we arrived at our ‘trailhead’ after 45 minutes.
We walked past a cinderblock building with a military unit flag which was said to be an outpost and then through a couple barbed wire fences mostly on a walking trail before reaching the river. From the river, we left the walking trail and ascended through forest up a thin path on steep roots for 1,400 ft to reach the middle of La Chorrera to rack up at 9:15am. Manuel gained my confidence by keeping an eye on the weather on his phone to avoid any big increase in water flow from rain and mentioned two escape points proportionally down the canyon when I asked.
That busy instagram video above was from a canyoning festival they are holding annually in San Carlos. In reality, this seemed like a well-bolted but uncommonly-guided canyon and we were the only ones here. Throughout the canyon we would rappel eleven, less-than-vertical, 100+ ft rappels often alongside running water and a few times within it. Each rappel was pretty much anchor-to-anchor with no more than 20 ft walk between a couple on dry, horizontal rock. The best rappel was probably the one by a stunning waterfall which had dry rock for my feet (lead photo).
I had normal hiking shoes that didn’t have Vibram rubber (you can’t bring the perfect gear for everything while traveling) and anytime there was water over the rocks it was so slippery that it was like walking over uneven ice. If I got a little off balance when rappelling, I would just slip and hit the wall… So not the most enjoyable rappelling, although Sadie’s Vibram approach shoes had an easier time of it. This was made worse by the semi-dynamic ropes (Manuel indicated getting fully static dry ropes was difficult) which had a lot of elongation. Whenever I transitioned to fully weight the rope I might drop 1.5 ft instead of 1 inch like with the static ropes I’m used to so it was hard to judge rope behavior while navigating obstacles and skating on ice.
While I felt Manuel knew his stuff and this canyon well… I was a bit uncomfortable rappelling down a rope without knots on the end (common in wet canyons) with no prussic and no gloves, where if I weighted the rope and caused elongation it would jump through my rappel device at over a foot at a time as it contracted. Often with only 10-15 ft of extra slack after I found each anchor (I was first down, Manuel was last). The anchor situation was okay. Typically two decent condition, rusty bolts that didn’t spin (why didn’t they bolt with stainless in a wet, water canyon!?) and only once on a single semi-rusty bolt.
We made better time than Manuel expected with a little over four hours at 1:30pm reaching the bottom in a bouldery river where we had our lunch before hiking out (1 hrs). Overall, it felt like rappelling with a knowledgable, local friend and this was exactly the experience I was looking for! Would heavily recommend and wish we spent more time around San Carlos.
- 6:30am: Met in square, packed up at shop
- 7:15am: Left town
- 8am: Started hiking
- 9:10am: Racking up at top
- 1:30pm: Harnesses off for a quick lunch
- 2:30pm: Back in town
Avoiding “Adventure Travel” and Finding True Experiences
It is difficult to figure out “what is true” when looking for authentic experience in international destinations where everyone is willing to sell you a version of “the thing” which may or not be what you actually want. Even harder when you are trying to do it online. Whether it be a “Camel Safari” in Jaisalmer, India that turns out to be just walking around outside of town or canyoning in Costa Rica that claims to be natural but really is more like a rope course or zipline. These things may be what ‘bucket list travelers’ want so they can say, “I did the thing!”, but I’m willing to sweat, to bleed, I have technical skills and really just want a guide to help me understand how to do this activity in the country, provide gear so I can avoid the hassle of hauling around 20 lbs of gear with me everywhere and best case scenario, a guide that can teach me something or enable an activity I wouldn’t normally have the skills to pursue in The States.
Then again, maybe I’m still learning how to get one layer deeper beyond the English websites offering cookie-cutter “adventures of a lifetime” and how to connect with experienced guides for “authentic action sport experiences”. Language is also a barrier since miscommunication is the root of a large number of technical climbing accidents. There is also always the incentive problem where someone can “say they have the skills, equipment and experience” to get the business, but in reality they don’t. It’s a bigger deal if this happens descending flowing waterfalls than trekking to Everest basecamp.
Anyways, trying to avoid “adventure travel”, I looked for other people doing authentic canyoneering that weren’t the equivalent to a couple trivial rappels or zip lining. I didn’t find much, but happened on two articles:
- This one canyoneering in San Carlos through a cool program that teaches you Spanish and gets you out doing things over several weeks
- This one by an adventure blog near Ibagué doing an interesting looking canyon
I contacted both authors and they helpfully responded to give me more details. The ropewiki pages for many of the canyons I looked at had little information and disclaimers that you should be prepared to re-bolt the canyon if you descend it… This was the case with Salitre which looked like a fantastic canyon via the blog post from Uno de Aventuras who documented several true canyon descents in Colombia in 2017. However, when I talked with the author of “Uno de Aventuras” they pointed me to this company and indicated maybe it wasn’t super experienced in rarely descended canyons like this one seemed to be.
On the other hand I connected with Manuel of Eco Guías Colombia who quickly provided topos of some canyons that were a good fit for what we were looking for such as La Chorrera or El Brasil that didn’t require any jumps since we were worried about Sadie’s back. After some back and forth and some instagram images we scheduled our descent. Transportation was descent to understand once we were sure we found the right San Carlos, although to our surprise we had to wait for a later bus after arriving at the bus station because the one we wanted was full (probably because there was a festival going on in Granada and San Carlos). FYI the section between Granada and San Carlos is recently paved in the last few years if you read conflicting information.
Getting to San Carlos
Its my third day in Colombia, its been dark for an hour, the two hours from Rome2Rio for this bus ride is on its third hour and a person in military fatigues with an assault rifle has boarded the bus and asked all the men to get off. While some travelers can seem oblivious to the potential issues with night travel, I typically avoid it unless it’s a super common route. I have heard first-hand accounts of robbery by assault rifle in Central America, South Africa and Peru so until I get a feel of a country, I avoid it. Similarly, I don’t trust police or military because in many places in the world they are either economically or morally corrupt. Anything can happen when a person of power has authority to use a gun on you on the side of the road in the cover of night. Even in the USA.
Following directions (once I understand them), I de-board and there are four young 20s soldiers and one officer patting people down and asking people to empty their pockets. The young guys kinda don’t seem to know what to do. It is generally very casual and haphazard, one guy walks into the darkness to go to the bathroom after being searched. One guy with a backpack is being questioned further and his backpack searched more. Taking my phone out of my pocket I wonder if it will disappear but no one is interested. I don’t know if this is just a deterrence strategy, but they didn’t seem to really be effectively looking for anything. We all board the bus again.
I always knew I’d have some sort of midnight armed request to exit a bus and this was probably the best-case situation. There are a few more military we see on the road as we arrive in San Carlos. We leave the small bus office area and go to the square to a lot of activity and a small festival is going on. While waiting to be let into our apartment-hotel four motorbikes show up and eight military jump off. This group seems a lot more organized and focused. Two guys cover and watch the bikes while the rest look at a display and march off into the square. To me it looks like they are searching for someone. I try my best not to look too interested in the soldiers guarding their bikes while also keeping an eye on them as I wait a few dozen feet away.
A guy across the street sees us, “Brice?”. It is Manuel! We talk a little about the next morning and adjust our plan since all this military makes me think maybe traveling at night isn’t a good idea here (in retrospect, it probably is). His general reaction to the military was along the lines of, “Welcome to Colombia”. Planning things out to avoid night travel, I had made the assumption that in the summer, sunset would be later, but I didn’t take into account that we are near the equator, so it doesn’t change much.
Manuel helps us contact the person to let us into the apartment-hotel who of course he knows (its a small town). We get dinner in the square and watch the festival from the second level of a restaurant serving Colombian-Mexican food, the bass increases as the night gets later and music is very loud until 2am. Pretty good for a small town festival in a square.
San Carlos History
Doing some reading and from talking with Manuel who grew up through the violence and still lives in San Carlos I started to get some context about the military presence. San Carlos is a major hydro-power area and thus is important to the government. Guerrillas contested this area significantly and by 2004 80% of this people who lived in this town had left due to the violence. Across the country around 2010, the government essentially went to war with the guerrillas who would not always negotiate or keep peace deals. In 2016, given the government-pressure a big peace deal was reached across Colombia which brought safety and the prosperous tourism industry which has also delivered on economic integration of guerillas. The military is here to ensure they don’t loose this hydro-resource again and I’m guessing they had a higher presence because a festival was going on to make sure nothing happened. Just as there is more militarized police for many large events in the USA.
Looking back with my three week experience in Colombia and this context, I don’t think I needed to worry about the military presence I encountered too much in this area. It is actually a regret I didn’t spend more time in the area which is not on the main tourist track but had a lot of cool stuff going on. As always, using a guide supports the local economy and helps you better understand how to access nature in these areas regarding safety, land rights and cultural norms so can be a great way to onboard yourself to an area when unfamiliar and access more unique experiences. This was one of the highlights of the whole trip.