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Colombia: Seeking the poison dart frog

Take a trek through the rainforests of Colombia’s wild west to seek out the world’s most formidable amphibian: the poison dart frog

Colombia: Seeking the poison dart frog
The harlequin poison dart frog of Colombia. Image: Getty

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I’m deep in the jungles of Chocó, Colombia’s Pacific Coast, South America, date irrelevant. When you’re standing in primary growth rainforest, precisely half as old as time itself, the Gregorian calendar suddenly has little importance. 

This is the sort of trek that makes any traveller feel worthy of Indiana Jones, and, like him, I’m also on the trail of a rare and precious pre-Colombian icon. But, the treasure I seek isn’t the gold so valued by Europeans since the days of the 16th-century Conquistadors, nor is it jewellery or a precious sculpted idol. I’m in this remote rainforest on the trail of a living, breathing icon.

From here, it’s a three-hour hike back to base, and then — even travelling by boat and then plane — I’m still the best part of a day away from the nearest city. Worryingly though, just one false move in the land of my prey, the poison dart frog, and I’ll be seconds from death. Not that I’ll be able to count those seconds…

“Take off your wristwatch,” says Meno, as guests arrive at his wilderness eco-lodge, El Cantil in Chocó. “You’ve no need for it here,” he insists, spreading his arms as if drawing back a curtain
to reveal the dazzling blue Pacific Ocean. “The tides keep time for us. They’re the only clock we need. When the tide is in, it’s time to surf; when it’s out, it’s time to hike.”

El Cantil’s accommodation is basic, which only emphasises the wilderness atmosphere. Seven huts, lit at night by oil lamps, with glassless portals for windows, sit in an arc around a tiny bay. Electricity is only available in the lofty, domed dining hall.  

There are no roads leading to El Cantil. Out in the furthest reaches of Colombia’s wild, wild west, in a country that was, not so long ago, a no-go zone, there are seemingly no roads at all; the only way to get here is by boat. A small plane has delivered us the short hop from urban Medellin to the Afro-Colombian seaside community of Nuquí; it’s like landing on a different continent. The dense jungle is navigable only by waterways overlooked by shanty towns of shacks on stilts and, as we take a similarly ramshackle boat and follow the river from the centre of Nuquí to the ocean, we’re stopped en route at an elevated army guardpost on the lookout for narcotrafficantes — drug traffickers. From here it’s a straight shot down the rugged coast, zooming along beside playful dolphins and, if you’re here between June and October, breaching humpback whales.

Activities on offer range from rainforest treks to kayaking, canoe trips, stand-up paddle boarding and surfing, but the ultimate quest, graded as ‘extreme’ in El Cantil’s difficulty rankings, is the five-hour-plus hike to try to find the most poisonous animal on Earth.

The poison dart frog gets its name from its use by the indigenous Emberá people who, for centuries, famously applied its titular toxic secretions to their blowpipe darts when hunting, long before the Spanish brought guns to South America. There are several, uniquely coloured types of poison dart frog. The golden dart frog lives in the jungles of Chocó and its poison is said to be potent enough to kill 15 men (not that 15 men would be daft enough to lick the same frog, of course).

As we set out on our epic, humid hike from volcanic-sand beaches up to the top of jungle-clad Carrizalito Mount, where these frogs are most reliably spotted, Meno informs me about the various types of trees we pass and, as we get deeper into the dense rainforest, tells me that our amphibian prey is so toxic that even touching one can be fatal to some people. 

As if that thought wasn’t enough to make this sweaty schlep seem like an ever-long plod down the metaphorical green mile, Meno has an addiction which only serves to draw out the tension even more: he’s a rabid birdwatcher. With over 1,900 avian species, Colombia has the highest bird diversity of any country on the planet, which slows the hike to a crawl as we stop and start while he excitedly identifies random twitterings. A good half an hour is dedicated to trying to snap a rare immaculate anteater Meno can hear in the undergrowth, and its sweet song sends me into a reverie; dehydrated and daydreaming about sudden death in a dense jungle…

After a final, near-vertical push up the steep side of Carrizalito Mount, we’re finally in the lair of the poison dart frog, shaded in dense forest. Meno casually bushwhacks a path with a machete, while I creep along like a ninja behind him, fastidiously sure-footed, lest I slip on this slick soil and faceplant on a toxic frog.

My eyes scan the underbrush struggling to adjust to the low light, which makes these tiny terrors hard to spot. “There’s one!” urges Meno, but by the time I spin around to look, the frog has disappeared. “Here’s another,” he says, but again I’m not fast enough, and it’s vanished under the foliage, with Meno’s fingers in ill-advised pursuit, pulling aside twigs and leaves, trying to uncover the elusive frogs for me to see. I implore him not to.

Ten minutes pass and as hope and light fades, suddenly a brilliant shaft of sunshine pierces the leaf canopy and bounces a brilliant red into my retinas. Having worried throughout the journey that I might accidentally touch one, I now have to restrain myself from picking up the beautiful scarlet-and-black harlequin poison frog and popping him into my shirt pocket, such is his diminutive, vibrant, tree-frog cuteness. The more colourful the frog though, the more potent its poison.Suddenly they’re everywhere, some an inch-long and yellow-striped, dazzling and deadly. 

All too soon it’s time to leave and begin the long hike home before it gets too dark. After a few hours, I start to recognise individual trees. A hardwood as strong as metal; a strangler vine hangs like a mantle around the ghost of its host, from which it squeezed out the life; a ‘walking palm,’ said to prowl the forest in search of sunlight; and a wave-like rippled trunk that, when struck, echoes through the forest like a drum.

Then, the bristling forest ends abruptly at the shoreline, the naked beach a dusky chocolate in the twilight, sliding under the ocean’s quicksilver armour. The enveloping sea shimmers bronze, platinum and gold, crested by snaking ripples of foaming jadeite. Mother Nature’s clock is certainly ornate and it chimes inside Meno’s soul. Time for a sunset surf. 

Animal magic: Colombia’s wildlife

Cotton-top tamarin
They’re smart, social, mischievous and, at a mere 9ins tall, tiny too. One of the smallest primates, tamarins have an amazing fan of white hair and are found in tropical forest edges and secondary forests in northwestern Colombia.

Sword-billed hummingbird
The only species of bird with a beak longer than the length of its body, the sword-billed hummingbird’s bill is so long it has to groom itself with its feet. Found at higher altitudes in the Andes.

Sloth
The epitome of laid-back charm. Plus, once you’ve tracked one down it’ll always stay in shot, given these smiling tree-huggers move ever so s-l-o-o-o-o-o-w-l-y. Find sloths in the Amazon rainforest.

Spectacled bear
Classified as vulnerable by the IUCN, this endemic short-faced bear is found in the Andes Mountains. Try Purace National Park, Serrania de los Churumbelos, and Chingaza National Park.

Pink river dolphin
According to local folklore, pink dolphins transform into handsome men at night to charm the ladies. See them on an Amazon boat trip from Leticia and Puerto Nariño.

How to do it: Amakuna Travel offers a seven-night Adventures in Colombia holiday, including the Pacific Coast and Medellin from £2,200 per person. This includes four nights full-board at El Cantil eco-lodge, three nights at Patio Del Mundo, domestic flights, guides, transfers and some meals, and is based on two sharing. Direct international flights with Avianca, from £600 per person return.

Published in the Experiences 2017 guide, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)