The Ancestral Secret of the Tepuis

Since she was a child, the author heard her father talk about a majestic territory, where nature was as extraordinary as archeological wealth. Years later, she traveled to the heart of the Colombian Amazon to discover Chiribiquete with her own eyes.


The lost world of the Chiribiquete mountain range was my favorite imaginary place as a child. I remember, that when returning from this Amazonian paradise, my father, Carlos Castaño Uribe, a Colombian-style Indiana Jones, was always bruised, looking like a shipwrecked man and so skinny that you couldn’t see him from the side. I was fascinated by his stories of that secret place nobody knew about. At school, I would look for references of this place and since it did not appear in any encyclopedia or map of the time, I doubted whether it was my father’s invention to amuse me or if the details he narrated were just fiction to make me dream.

Chiribiquete is a unique place on the planet. Crossed by the Equator, the park is located between the departments of Caqueta and Guaviare. It is one of the best preserved places on Earth. The herbaceous savannas and the Amazon plain are home to animals and species scientists dream of studying. For the indigenous cultures, it was the center of the world. The house of the Jaguar, which is the son of the Sun and the Moon: lunar white on the chest, solar yellow on the back. This feline and the Jaguarmen are the protagonists of more than 75,000 paintings found by my father on the rocks of Chiribiquete. What is most surprising is that some of them date back over 20 thousand years, which would be evidence of the oldest human habitation in Latin America, according to Gonzalo Andrade, from the National Institute of Sciences of the National University.

The Serrania del Chiribiquete in Colombia.

The Giant Marmita, with a “crater” of 260 meters in diameter and rock walls over 60 meters high is one of the icons of the Serrania del Chiribiquete.


More than thirty years ago, when my father was the director of National Natural Parks of Colombia, this extraordinary place was was found by accident. In 1986, he saw the monumental rocks of Chiribiquete from a small plane, after they had to divert their course to Leticia, capital of the department of the Amazon, because of a tropical storm. None of their navigation maps showed those plateaus, which are three times the size of the Eiffel Tower and which emerged in the middle of a virgin jungle. That first time, they just flew over and wrote down the coordinates of that place to which he would return so many times and on which he would work for the rest of his life, searching for a perfect formula to preserve and protect it.

Being called “the discoverer of Chiribiquete” makes him uncomfortable because he knows that probably many others traveled there before him, be they nomadic indigenous peoples, settlers or explorers. “I just discovered it for Natural Parks and to integrate it into the system of protected areas” he claims. However, he is proud that the real discovery was to come across rock paintings on his first expedition there in 1990. After climbing one of the rocks, he found himself in front of an enormous rock shelter with two huge and imposing jaguars. He has been in more than a dozen expeditions, accompanied by the most renowned scientists who have been studying the flora and fauna. He has fully devoted himself to archeology and the study of the cave paintings of this.


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Did you know that Chiribiquete is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

The pictograms found in Chiribiquete are findings that provide us new ways of interpreting our history:
they connect our ancestors to diverse aboriginal cultures throughout Latin America and the Caribbean (from what is now Mexico to Brazil). The same paintings appear in remote parts of the continent, showing evidence of a culture that unites us. It is believed that the shamans who painted on the rocks were nomads who came from numerous pilgrimage routes. Since it is a sacred temple, no one can live there, just visit.

A Family Reunion with the Tepuis

As a family joke, we keep saying that, in addition to his four children, my father has a fifth favorite child called Chiribiquete. I grew up listening to the stories about that enigmatic fifth brother, a mix between living nature, majestic stone plateaus, rich, remote cultures and thousands of paintings preserving their own living past. I grew up wanting to meet him, but we were too far apart and our family reunion wouldn’t take place soon.

The Giant Marmita, with a “crater” of 260 meters in diameter and rock walls over 60 meters high is one of the icons of the Serrania del Chiribiquete.

Although I had heard my father talk about Chiribiquete since I was a child, many years passed without a word about it. It was five years ago when he brought up the subject again, now with great discretion and concern. I learned of his sleepless nights after the Park went public with several articles published in national media and a documentary about Colombian flora and fauna, specifically in the virgin jungle and live nature of the amazon. Curiosity about the area grew and the way in which tourist dynamics began to develop had to overcome the informality and the very complex conditions of access to this Amazon territory. That touching and unlikely landscape is both seductive and elusive, and its greatness also lies in that very same inaccessibility. It’s a privilege to be appreciated without disturbing it.

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In 2018, I had the opportunity to join an effort to consolidate that preservation work. It was an archaeological expedition to gather material and records that would serve as new arguments in favor of the postulation of Chiribiquete as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We left on an hour-long flight from Bogota to San Jose del Guaviare and then we took off on a plane, authorized by National Parks, to fly over Chiribiquete. Since an essential part of the preservation of this territory depends on keeping it intact, visitors can only fly over the area by plane to appreciate the majesty of the jungle from above. During the first minutes of that flight, I saw patches of deforestation alternating with the jungle, but my hope returned as soon as I saw a compact and lush green extending to the horizon. From those 8,500 feet, I remember seeing for the first time the gigantic tepuis my father used to tell me about when I was a child: they emerged in the middle of the vegetation as monuments of nature dedicated to the gods.

The Serranía del Chiribiquete is amazing, as well as the entire Colombian Amazon region, but with the particular characteristic of being a place that almost no one has seen despite its immensity and the fact that it hides ancestral secrets inside its massive rock plateaus. The feeling of respect for the tepuis is overwhelming: they are as tall as the skyscrapers in Manhattan, but rising in the middle of a dense and lush jungle, inhabited by rich amazonian fauna and flora, besides being home to intact indigenous cultures. You must see it from the sky, but even from high above, Chiribiquete seems to caress the clouds.

On the Way to the Family Encounter with the Tepuis

In 2018, Chiribiquete was recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site in a special, mixed category that exalts both its natural wealth and its cultural relevance. It is an exceptional case, similar to that of Machu Picchu, in Peru. This achievement synthesized, in part, the long work and struggles carried out by my father for over thirty years.

Chiribiquete recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site
© Courtesy Environmental Heritage Foundation

The rock paintings in this area date back nearly 20 thousand years. The jaguar is the protagonist, along with other powerful animal species.


Those were years of patience and understanding my father for his exaggerated dedication to his projects with the Fundacion Herencia Ambiental, which he leads with his wife Cristal, socio-environmental projects with communities and indigenous people in the Colombian Caribbean, and the joint work with Natural National Parks, led by his successor, director Julia Miranda, who has been his ally and key figure to ensure continuity and to strengthen the special care scheme the Park required.

Besides having worked to achieve the declaration by UNESCO, this careful work has helped quadruple the size of the protected area. My father has been very committed, almost radical, in the preservation of that cultural richness, which has survived mostly because of the difficulty of reaching and entering the area. I was confronted by his position, because even though I admired his sacrifice for the Park and his ability to keep quiet about everything they found in these expeditions, I was convinced that Colombian people had the right to know about it.

No one takes care of something they don’t know about. Therefore, I began to brainwash him, and also to change his ideas. Many had already tried: television channels, Colombian media and writers. Nothing. It took me all the experience I got in a strategic communication firm in order to achieve it. I had lots of arguments. But the most important one was that no one would take care of Chiribiquete if they did not understand how important it was. So, in 2019, those three decades of research, that intimate relationship of love and knowledge that he has established with that remote Amazon, ended up gathered in his book Chiribiquete: la maloka cósmica de los hombres jaguar (Chiribiquete: the Cosmic Maloka of the Jaguar-Men).

Today you can see Chiribiquete only from the air, with permission to fly over from the Air Force and National Parks. Those who want to see the paintings can see them outside the Park, in Cerro Azul, a site adjacent to San Jose del Guaviare with the same indigenous tradition. It is not allowed to enter to avoid endangering the pristine state of its paintings and the indigenous communities. But today, like the shamans, Colombian people have their book and images to travel there from their thought, and arguments to demand their protection and care from the government.

When I met my older Amazonian brother, Chiribiquete, I felt that my family was finally complete. When I saw it from above, all the images and videos faded as I watched the most shocking thing I had ever seen. When I got to see its cave paintings, thanks to the exceptional opportunity to be part of a scientific expedition, I felt that an entire indigenous people had embraced me from 20 thousand years away. And now, as I write these words, my eyes thank my father’s voice and I wish to be back flying among the clouds of the Amazon to fill myself with Chiribiquete once again.

Text by María José Castaño