In Colombia, adventures in former rebel strongholds

Cecilia Rodriguez padded down a mountain trail, her pink Crocs gripping the craggy earth with the tenacity of hiking boots. A floral-ribboned hat shielded her face from the sunbeams poking through the forest canopy. Around her, morpho butterflies fluttered their iridescent wings. Doves cooed. A dog dozed beneath a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia sign.

The former FARC fighter stopped before entering the base camp near the town of La Paz to explain what a visitor would have seen in a similar spot a few years ago. An armed guard would be posted there, she said. If danger were afoot, she continued, the sentry would clap loudly or tug on a rope strung with bottle caps. Guerrillas surrounding the redoubt would rush to the scene. Depending on the interloper, a gunfight might have ensued.

That, of course, was before the peace accord in 2016. Today, all was quiet on the Colombian front.

“People didn’t feel safe until after the peace accord,” said Daniel Buitrón Jaramillo, who founded the eco-tour company Colombia Eco Travel in 2010. “FARC and ELN [the National Liberation Army] had strongholds in the mountains. They were fighting over control of the area.”

For nearly 70 years, Colombia had been ensnared in conflict. The violence started with a civil war between the country’s liberal and conservative political wings. In the 1960s, FARC, the country’s largest insurgent group, formed to advance its leftist world view; the military and paramilitaries countered with oppressive force. Drug cartels and coca producers further plunged the country into turmoil. Large swaths were considered off-limits, including sections of the Amazon rain forest and the Andes, including the three destinations (the states of Cesar and Guaviare, and the area west of the city of Pasto) on our 12-day itinerary. Only researchers and audacious adventurers dared to visit the forests and jungles, and they risked kidnapping or worse.

Previously, most tourists had stayed close to the major cities of Cartagena, Medellin and Bogota and the central area. But the so-called negotiated peace has ushered in a period of cautious optimism and stability. Gates to once-forbidden lands are cracking open. Areas trapped in a Rip Van Winkle dream are waking up to find travelers eager to enter. Now, tourists can go tromp off after birds and discover rock art in the mountains, float down rivers rippling with pink dolphins and sleep over in lodges where the frogs are louder than the guests. They can meet members of indigenous tribes and FARC, and ask both about their lives before and after the accord. And they can experience a country that has freed itself from its paralysing past and is moving forward.

“She wants to build peace,” Daniel said of Cecilia. “She never wants to go back to war.”

Because of Pancho, I could overlook the cold shower, brief generator outage and dinner of fried plantains accompanied by a mound of shredded cheese. Pancho was a rescue monkey who lived with a Shih Tzu at a guesthouse and coffee farm near the Serrania del Perija, part of the Andean range. I could also excuse the hiccup in hospitality because, a few years ago, few ventured up to the mountain road to the Serrania del Perija.

After we downed several cups of house coffee, Pancho sent us off for a day of birding. Colombia claims more than 1,930 bird species, including four endemic ones that live in the Serrania del Perija.

We arrived at dawn, in time to watch the sky turn blue ombre over the snowcapped peaks of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The air was still. Even the birds had not yet found their voices.

Cecilia led us to an open-air kitchen dominated by a piece of cooking equipment designed during the Vietnam War. To minimise detection, the vents directed the smoke downward. A question about the bathroom was answered with a trench in the ground. For bathing and laundry, she showed us a tank and a hose. Throughout the tour, she dropped in anecdotes about herself. She joined the organization at 15, she told us, and fought in the 41st front, where she faced “a lot of conflict.” As proof, she pointed to both sides of her backside and lifted her pant leg to reveal a long scar inching down her ankle – bullet wounds.

“Everyone here has a story,” said Cecilia, which is her nom de guerre. “We want to open up this space for sharing and to show people our side of the story.”

And then she continued with hers.

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