Colombia’s Wild Land is Prime for Fly-fishing and Brimming With Adventure

Female holding peacock bass
Female holding peacock bass  Gregg Bleakney


After decades of civil war, a new peace deal has finally opened the country’s remote interior to hardy travelers, making Colombia the hottest adventure destination on the planet.

Don’t forget to shuffle your feet to scare off electric eels,” says our fishing guide, Dani Herrera, as he wades upstream into the mirror-clear waters of Colombia’s Río Elvita, on the country’s eastern flatlands, near the Venezuela border.

Nothing in his voice suggests he’s joking, so we follow him, holding our rods overhead with both arms when the river’s current f lows up to our necks. A few hundred feet upriver, we clamber onto a sandy bank and begin casting into the shade beneath bushes growing along the banks. Rebekka Redd, a professional angler who jumped at the chance to come along on what would be her second trip to these waters, throws the first cast, and after just a few tries, her line shrieks and she’s battling what we’ve come here for: peacock bass, a Technicolor beauty that can grow to 20 pounds. They are infamous for destroying lines and tackle when they strike, and, once hooked, can take an hour to land. Redd’s is only a juvenile—five or six pounds—and she soon has it on land.

Rio-elvita
Gregg Bleakney

Next up is Bruce Mazur, a close friend of mine and lifetime fisherman, who quickly hooks and lands a second, bigger one.

“All that stuff you learn over the years about sneaking up on the fish and trying to trick them with perfect casts—none of it matters here,” Bruce says, marveling. “This is feral fishing, wild. You blast it out there and hold on tight.”

After Bruce comes Juan Carlos Lenz, the software entrepreneur and fly-fishing fanatic who brought us all together. After a few graceful throws, his line is buzzing and he’s heaving against another fish. By the end of the afternoon, we’ll have landed more than a dozen monster peacocks. Even I, a fly-fishing neophyte, hook one. Lenz grins when he returns from releasing his catch, a 13-pounder he fought for a scant 10 minutes. He beams and says simply, “Colombia.”

You can fish for peacock bass from Florida to Brazil, Panama to Singapore, but until recently it was almost impossible to chase the fish in Colombia, even though the country’s rivers are teeming with them. For decades, the eastern half of the nation, a spiderweb of streams tumbling down from the Andes to the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, was controlled by separatist FARC rebels. This wild land is jungled and steamy and ideal for hiding, and guerrillas and drug traffickers drove most Colombians out of the region. It wasn’t only in the east, either: The risk of fighting and kidnapping made travel outside of Bogotá, Medellín, and other major cities too dangerous for decades.

But after a landmark peace accord in late 2016, tensions have eased and the outer regions are opening up to locals and tourists alike, who are flocking to the country in record numbers. Travelers are now exploring untouched seaside villages, birding and hiking trails in jungles that are among the most biodiverse on the planet, and high-alpine road and mountain bike rides that have forged a generation of the world’s leading pro cyclists. Today, Colombia, in large part because it was off-limits for so long, is fast becoming the world’s most-sought-after adventure destination.

Colombia-civil-war
Colombia’s civil war meant that the only reliable transport was small bush planes, and today that’s still the primary method of travel in the eastern plains. Gregg Bleakney

 

In the flatlands, or llanos, part of what’s drawing travelers is the pristine rivers.

“In some ways, the FARC was good for the environment. They protected the land by keeping everyone off of it,” says Lenz. “There was no illegal mining or commercial fishing because businesses wouldn’t risk being out here.”

Soft-spoken with a boyish face, Lenz, 50, knows this firsthand because he has been traveling in FARC-occupied hinterlands for decades. The son of a pilot, Lenz grew up flying, following his father’s example by enrolling in the Civil Air Patrol, a nonprofit collective of civilian pilots that use their small planes to transport doctors to remote regions. The organization f lies 12 weekend brigades each year, one per month, transporting 60 doctors each time. The pilots help where they can in the villages, but there’s often downtime. So Lenz, who is as passionate about fly fishing as he is about f lying, began packing along his rods and reels. On one trip, he landed at a cattle ranch on the flanks of the Orinoco Basin owned by a friend from Bogotá. He’d brought only a single lightweight rod, and when he tried fishing the Río Elvita, a peacock bass snapped off the tip on his first cast. He returned the following week with a burly 10-weight rod.

“It was the best days of fishing of my life,” Lenz remembers. “My arm was so sore, I was almost tired of fishing. Almost.”

Through his fishing exploits, Lenz met Daniel Herrera, a board member of the largest fishing club in Colombia. A matchstick of a man with a face that’s creased from years on the water, Herrera ran a fishing lodge in Costa Rica for more than a decade before recently returning to Colombia to help launch a nascent ecotourism operation. The company, Wild Luxury, is building high-end lodges in five locations around the country that will offer jungle hikes, bird-watching, horseback rides, natural springs for swimming, and, of course, fishing. Our trip in the Orinoco and Amazon basins is Herrera’s opportunity to debut the business.

“Now that we have a peaceful country, we want to open it up,” he says. “But we have to do it the right way.” The first lodge, which will open in December, is on a farm called El Recreo, which has access to the river we’ve been fishing all afternoon, Río Elvita.

The potential for sport fishing in Colombia parallels its tourism prospects as a whole. Though tourism here is seeing huge growth—up 150 percent since 2010—it’s still in its infancy. In 2017, the country had 6.5 million visitors. But the rapid growth is putting pressure on the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development to craft a master plan to deal with its parks and wild places.

“We have incredible places, incredible resources. And it feels like our time has finally come,” says Herrera. “But if you step back, there are just as many challenges.”

That’s the first thing you learn in Colombia: nothing here is ever as straightforward as it appears. As we break down rods in the dark after fishing, a couple of Toyota Hiluxes roar onto the property in a cloud of dust and headlights to transfer us to El Recreo. Though Dani tells us that El Recreo’s lodges will be ready for business in two weeks, when we visit them the next day, the thatched-roof structures are still lacking floors and plumbing and look like they could be months away from their (assuredly gorgeous) finish.

Instead, we camp on mosquito net–covered foam mattresses on the patio at the old farmstead, where we meet 34-year-old Carlos Restrepo, one of Wild Luxury’s main investors and owner of the 64,000-acre ranch. Restrepo, who camps alongside us, tells a rags-to-riches story about his rise, ending with him at the helm of a successful aircraft-leasing business. Without bush planes, there would be no fishing in Colombia. That goes for tourism across the country: While the threat of kidnappings is what kept travelers off the roads even just a few years ago, now that that risk has disappeared, it’s the lack of real highways and the prohibitive travel times that make it necessary to fly almost anywhere you go. So after two days on the Elvita, we hop aboard a Piper Arrow for a three-hour flight to La Macarena to fish the Río Guayabero.

man-fishing
On the prowl for payers or vampire fish (pictured below), so named because, well… just look. Gregg Bleakney

Though its proximity to two national parks is turning it into a budding ecotourism destination, La Macarena was the seat of power for the FARC guerrillas during the war. The town is back in government hands, but the vestiges of the strife—AK-toting soldiers patrolling the street corners and infantry boats on the Río Guayabero—are still visible. Even as the FARC rebels have assimilated into the political system, many Colombians can’t forget the atrocities committed during the war.

We motor an hour upriver in 40-foot-long canoes to a basic lodge called El Raudal, where Wild Luxury plans to build a series of modern cabins. In the river below, guests will cast for payaras, or vampire fish, which Dani says have bones like plates of armor, saber tooth–style fangs, and a strike more brutal than lightning.

prayara-vampire-fish
Gregg Bleakney

El Raudal sits at the mouth of a basalt canyon marking the start of Cordillera de los Picachos Natural National Park. The lodge manager, José Rubio, says that the Ministry of Environment recently changed the rules that once allowed fishing up the canyon. The move was aimed at curbing illegal commercial trawling, but it also technically banned sport fishing, too. Herrera and a local ecotourism group are appealing the law in hopes of gaining an exception for catch-and-release fishing, but the situation is fluid.

“It’s like the Wild West,” Lenz says. “There’s everything available here and everyone is rushing to claim a stake, and that leads to both great things and to new problems. But we have to start somewhere.”

With our expectations muted by the new restrictions, we clamber down to the river, where the first half-hour of casting seems to bear out the overfishing. At first, we catch nothing. But then, just as discouragement is setting in, a patch of the river surface the size of a VW begins to seethe and boil across the channel. Fist-size baitfish explode from the water like popcorn, followed occasionally by the silvery flash of a payara, teeth blazing. If you’re quick enough to toss your fly into the roiling mess, more often than not one of those vampires will devour it. The energy is manic during these boils. It’s impossible to throw out your line and strip it back quickly enough, over and over again until something hits. Once hooked, the fish rise and leap and pirouette on top of the water as if electrified.

Redd is the first to snag one, and she motors off in the boat to give the fish more room to run. Hers will be the biggest the group lands, a 25-pound payara with fangs practically the size of bananas. Then one hits Bruce’s line, and he cries out like he’s been tasered. The fight is outrageous, like 30 minutes of flying a kite in a hurricane.

“Oh, my shoulder!” Bruce bellyaches after we turn the fish loose. “That’s like standing in a dark room waiting for a Doberman to rip your arm off.”

Still, he smooths his fly, strips out line, and casts for another. In Colombia, where rebels are coming out of the jungle shadows for the first time in a generation, politics are as stable as they’ve been in decades, and the tourism industry is finally gaining traction, you have to fish while the fishing is good.