This is a guest post by Joost Wilms, who spent a year in the deepest Colombian Amazon studying tapirs and tells the fascinating story of what he did and how he lived alongside the Andoke tribe. Since then, as he mentions below, he founded the lovely boutique Dantica Lodge in Costa Rica (check out our article).
Around 1996 when I finished my biology studies at the University of Amsterdam, specializing in Tropical Ecology, I was offered the opportunity to work on a pilot study in the Colombian Amazon with tapirs. It was a one year study to see how the tapirs behave at the salt licks in the middle Caquetá region of the Colombian Amazon, and to see how vulnerable they are to hunting. Salt licks are mineral-rich soils where many mammals and birds come to eat the soil, and are popular hunting spots as it is relative easy to find game there.
Salt licks are sacred places to many indigenous tribes, so I had to get the permission of the tribes to travel there. That was not easy: it took about a month before I given permission, and I had to stay at the maloca (communal house) of the Andoke tribe for a week before I could set off. This was a beautiful experience because I became part of their daily life. I visited 4 salt licks, the first in the Andoke territory, this was a 3 day trip with a small canoe up a little river (see photos with the canoe). The other 3 salt licks I visited were farther away, on the border of Chiribiquete National Park, Colombia’s largest park but also one of its remotest.
The Andoke were already in contact with the modern world, but still respected their traditional habits and were faithful to their roots. They had motor canoes and rifles, but also self-made canoes and paddles (they made a canoe and paddle with a tapir grip for me) and bows and arrows.
To get there I travelled from Bogota to Villavicencio by plane, and then with a small propeller plane to Araracuara (which means nest of the macaws), a small community at the banks of the Caquetá river. There was significant army presence at that time because of the constant guerilla threat. This village was the last place to get provisions and I had a little house there as base. From there to the Andoke village was only 1 hour away, but to reach the other site it was a 14 hour journey with motor canoe from the last house, passing various rapids on the Cuñare river.
So nobody lived within a radius of 14 hours travelling. One of the really special experiences was that there was no human presence in the region, so no hunting. Therefore the animals there do not know people and have no fear. So I saw not only all the animals you can imagine, but they actually came to me, curious, sniffing. Tapirs at only 1.5 meters distance, pink river dolphin young and giant river otters playing with me. I saw a jaguar, an ocelot, a giant anteater crossing the Cuñare river, and of course many other species. We heard an anaconda throwing itself in the river near the Andoke salt lick, and my Andoke guide, Rodolfo, advised me not to take a bath in the river for the next 3 days. I was alone with Rodolfo, and we camped at a white sand beach for months (see photo of me sitting on the beach in the morning fog), only accompanied by some caimans in the morning when we woke up. We had supplies but had to catch our daily fish to complete our diet.
Colombia is a beautiful country, the most beautiful country in Latin America I think. 70% of the country is safe for travel now, so there is no problem for travelers provided you know where to avoid. The middle Caqueta region in the Amazon is still complicated, so not a recommended tourist destination, too remote and too dangerous. There is much guerilla activity, with many people in the Aracuara village involved, directly or indirectly, so difficult to know who to trust. With military presence vanishing over the year the situation became more unstable and unpredictable.
When I was working there, the guerilla knew I was there and granted permission. Anyway, we had a boat in Araracuara to pick me up and bring me to the Brazilian border in case the situation became too complicated. The idea was to work on a 4-year PHD study after the pilot study, but I decided to dedicate myself to photography and buying indigenous art instead of a career in biology. During my stay the military left the village, and the year after I left, the guerilla took the village of Araracuara.
One of my main worries during my stay was poisonous snakes: we had some serum with us, but no cold storage (we kept them in a water filled plastic container inside the forest) so they were not very reliable after a few weeks. And the distance to the nearest local hospital was still 14 hours by motor canoe, a long way in case of an emergency.
Since I was just with one guide, I had to learn to manage the canoe, learn how to cross the rapids and avoid fallen trees underwater in case my guide was bitten by a snake or had an accident. Not easy with a changing water level; the rapids change with this, so the route through them changes completely. Especially in the dry season the rapids were more difficult to pass. When we came from Araracuara we had to unload the canoe, because only when empty could we pass through the rapids. The food and fuel we had to carry by hand through each rapid, loading it on the canoe upriver (see the photo of me carrying fuel through one of the rapids). Part of the fuel we hid at different places along the river for the return trip back to Araracuara.
After this year I started to sell indigenous art through exhibitions in the Netherlands, and travelling in the Brazilian Amazon (mainly the Japura region). Two years after I started working with indigenous art, I met my wife in Bogota. I bought some land in San Gerardo de Dota in Costa Rica, because I worked there as a biologist student years before and always liked the area and climate. We decided to start a small eco-lodge and an art gallery there, since my wife is a textile designer who was also involved with local communities and tribes in Colombia. We called the lodge Dantica because the Andokes called me Dantica, which means little tapir in Spanish (ingh-tsa in Andoke), as a nickname since I was much taller than the Andokes. We expanded our lodge from 2 bungalows to 9 bungalows over the past 5 years, opened our restaurant Le Tapir at the lodge 2 years ago and opened two more galleries, one in Herradura near Jaco four years ago and one in San Jose half a year ago, all called Dantica (Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge and Dantica Gallery).