Tourists In Colombia Can Now Take Jungle Hikes With Ex-FARC Guerrilla Guides

Jul 19, 2021
Originally published on July 20, 2021 6:03 pm

MESETAS, Colombia — I'm with a small group of tourists preparing to rappel down a 150-foot canyon next to a waterfall in southern Colombia. It's scary, but we're in good hands, with guides intimately familiar with this jungle terrain.

That's because the guides patrolled here years ago as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist rebel group known as the FARC. In fact, to escape from army troops, the rebels sometimes rappelled down cliffs like these using nothing more than tree vines — though for us tourists, they provide the requisite ropes and safety harnesses.

A tourist rappels next to a waterfall.
Carlos Saavedra for NPR

"These were things you had to do during the war to save your life," says Lida María Urrego, a FARC guerrilla turned guide who still goes by her nom de guerre, Daisy.

The war is now over, thanks to a 2016 peace treaty that prompted 13,000 FARC fighters to lay down their weapons. But many of them lacked skills to secure jobs in the cities. After benefiting from courses in tourism and hospitality at a state-run vocational school and funding from the Norwegian government — an enthusiastic supporter of the peace process — about 30 ex-combatants set up a tourism agency in 2018. They now give visitors a taste of what their lives were and are like, at a cost of about $125 per guest for a weekend junket.

Located in Mesetas, a town in what was once rebel-held territory, Catypsa Expeditions takes tourists rafting, rappelling and trekking.

Jose Luis Caviedes, an ex-FARC rebel, in his garden filled with herbal and medicinal plants. He survived a bullet to the head during the war and, like many former rebels, still bears scars from his wounds. He has lost the use of one of his hands.
Carlos Saavedra for NPR

The FARC's fearsome reputation isn't deterring tourists

Félix Sanabria, a former FARC guerrilla who heads the agency, says the rebels saw the region's ravines and river valleys as hiding places and perilous obstacles that had to be crossed while carrying rifles and backpacks filled with 70 lbs. of ammunition and gear.

A resettlement camp for former FARC rebels is decorated with revolutionary graffiti and paintings, including images of South American liberator Simon Bolivar and Manuel Marulanda, who founded the FARC in 1966.
Carlos Saavedra for NPR

"The truth is I never imagined that this would become a tourist attraction," he says, smiling.

He's not the only one pleasantly surprised. Colombia is home to snow-capped Andean peaks and lush Amazon jungle, but for decades, few tourists ventured into these regions, due to the guerrilla war that began in the mid-1960s and lasted more than 50 years.

Then, too, there was the FARC's fearsome reputation. The guerrillas funded their war by trafficking cocaine, extorting businesses and kidnapping civilians. Their abductees were sometimes chained up in the jungle for years until their families forked over large ransom payments.

The former guerrillas insist that they were fighting for land reform and to improve conditions for Colombia's poor. Sanabria, who admits to having taken part in kidnappings, remains proud of his guerrilla past. He claims the FARC's war atrocities haven't scared away visitors.

Tourists sit around a campfire at the resettlement camp for former FARC rebels, who told war stories and apologized for the human rights abuses the guerrillas committed during the conflict.
Carlos Saavedra for NPR

"Tourists want to hear directly from us why we went into the hills to fight and what we're up to today," says Sanabria, who is now 52 and joined the FARC when he was 12. "No one has said they don't want to be with us because we used to be guerrillas."

Spartan accommodations in a bucolic jungle setting

Between 2006, when the intensity of the war was near its peak, and 2019, the number of foreign visitors to Colombia grew by 300%. Like other tourism agencies, Catypsa was dormant during the worst of the pandemic, but the company is now reopening, hosting a handful of tourists on weekends.

Accommodations are spartan. Rather than at a hotel, we bunk down at one of several resettlement camps the Colombian government set up around the country to help former rebels transition to civilian life. Getting to our camp requires a two-hour journey from Mesetas over roads so muddy that the driver stops our decades-old Soviet-made SUV to put chains on the tires.

The camp's rustic buildings are decorated with revolutionary graffiti and pictures of rebel icons like Ernesto "Che" Guevara. It's named after Simón Trinidad, a FARC commander imprisoned in the U.S. for his role in kidnapping three U.S. military contractors in 2003.

The roads are muddy on the way to the Simón Trinidad camp, a two-hour journey from Mesetas.
Carlos Saavedra for NPR

The setting is rather bucolic. The camp's 80 residents tend yuca and other crops in the surrounding fields and look after children scurrying about the camp. The only blood spilled comes when several former rebels decapitate chickens for our evening meal.

Tough questions and tearful answers

At night, we sit around a campfire as Marco Alvis, a former FARC commander, fields our questions about the war. Bogotá high school student Manuela Jiménez asks if Alvis has ever killed anyone. He responds that amid the chaos of combat, it was impossible to tell.

Then comes another tough question: Why did the FARC kidnap so many people?

Edinson Castro, an ex-FARC rebel, is now a guide for tourists in the jungle.
Carlos Saavedra for NPR

Rather than explaining, Alvis suddenly tears up and apologizes and asks our forgiveness for the abuses the rebels committed during the war. Under the peace process, former rebels have been carrying out similar acts of atonement with war victims throughout Colombia.

Afterwards, Jiménez, the high school student, reflects on what she's seen and heard.

"I've heard all my life that 'FARC did this, FARC did that.' They kidnapped people. And now you see them asking for forgiveness and wanting to make up for everything they've done," she says. "I don't think they can make up, exactly. But I think if they continue to do this tourism, that it's really nice. They want to share paradises that have never been seen because of war."

Tourists raft down the Guejar River in an area that used to be controlled by FARC rebels.
Carlos Saavedra for NPR

Among the hidden gems is the Pato River, about 100 miles south of Mesetas, where another group of former FARC combatants takes tourists rafting. Its guides have become so skilled in whitewater that five took part in the 2019 World Rafting Championship in Tully, Australia.

Another is that cliff next to the waterfall we're about to rappel down.

Jiménez's mother, Margarita Martinez, has never rappelled before. But after she makes it safely to the bottom, she points out that the former guerrillas guiding her down have been surviving in the wilderness all their lives.

"Actually, it gave me much more confidence than just a regular guide who does a little training," she says. "It was better to be in their hands."

And with that, she starts back up the cliff to do it all over again.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Colombia is home to snowcapped Andean peaks and lush Amazon jungle, an ideal vacation destination. But drug violence and a long-running guerrilla conflict has kept tourists away for decades. In 2016, Colombia's largest guerrilla group disarmed, and now some ex-combatants are guiding tourists through former war zones. For our international travel series Wish You Were Here, reporter John Otis takes us into the jungle with former militants.

(CROSSTALK IN SPANISH)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: I'm with a small group of tourists preparing to rappel down a canyon in southern Colombia. It's a 150-foot drop next to a massive waterfall, but we're with a couple of pros.

JAIRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Our guides, the husband-and-wife team of Jairo and Daisy are intimately familiar with this jungle terrain. For years, they patrolled here as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist rebel group known as the FARC.

DAISY: (Speaking Spanish)

OTIS: To escape from army troops, Daisy tells us, the rebels sometimes had to rappel down cliffs with just tree vines - though, for us tourists, they've provided ropes and safety harnesses.

DAISY: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: These were things you had to do during the war to save your life, she says.

(CROSSTALK IN SPANISH)

OTIS: When the war ended five years ago, 13,000 FARC guerrillas laid down their weapons, but many lacked skills to secure jobs in the cities. So with funding from the Norwegian government, about 30 of them set up a tourism business in Mesetas, a town that used to be in rebel territory.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: They attract a lot of tourists from Bogota, a six-hour drive away. The most popular activity is rafting, here on the Guejar River, which features swimming holes, waterfalls and plenty of rapids.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAFTERS YELLING)

OTIS: Despite the thrills, sightseeing with former guerrillas does feel a bit odd. Though it claimed to be waging war on behalf of Colombia's poor, the FARC also trafficked cocaine, carried out massacres and kidnapped civilians for ransom.

FELIX SANABRIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Former rebel Felix Sanabria, who heads the tourism agency, insists that the FARC fought for a just cause and claims its war atrocities haven't scared away visitors.

SANABRIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Tourists want to hear directly from us why we went into the hills to fight and what we're up to today, Sanabria tells me. No one has said they don't want to be with us because we used to be guerrillas. Indeed, the whole idea is to give tourists a taste of what their lives are really like.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Rather than a fancy hotel, for example, we bunked down at a resettlement camp deep in the jungle, which is home to 80 former FARC rebels. Alongside them, we eat rice, beans and chicken stew in a rustic mess hall. The guerrilla experience costs about $125 per person.

(CROSSTALK IN SPANISH)

OTIS: At night, we sit around a campfire as Marcos Alvis, a former FARC commander, fields our questions about the war.

MARCOS ALVIS: (Speaking Spanish).

MANUELA JIMENEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: One member of our group, Bogota high school student Manuela Jimenez, asks if Alvis has ever killed anyone.

ALVIS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He explains that amid the chaos of combat, it was usually impossible to tell. Then comes another tough question - why did the FARC kidnap so many people?

ALVIS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Rather than explaining, Alvis, who now has tears in his eyes, apologizes to us and asks our forgiveness for the abuses the rebels committed during the war. Under the peace process, former rebels have been carrying out similar acts of atonement with war victims throughout Colombia. Afterwards, Manuela, the high school student, reflects on the emotional evening.

JIMENEZ: It's really weird. Like, I've heard all my life, FARC did this, FARC did that, they kidnapped people. And now you see them asking for forgiveness and wanting to make up for everything they've done. And I don't think they can make up exactly, but I think if they continue to do this tourism, that it's really nice. They want to share paradises that have never been seen because of war.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATERFALL)

OTIS: One hidden patch of paradise is that cliff next to the waterfall we're about to rappel down.

(CROSSTALK AND LAUGHTER)

OTIS: Manuela's mother, Margarita Martinez, had never rappelled before. But after she makes it safely to the bottom, she points out that the former guerrillas guiding her down have been surviving in the wilderness all their lives.

MARGARITA MARTINEZ: So, actually, you gave me much more confidence than just, like, a regular guy who does - you know, who does a little training. So, actually, it was better to be in their hands.

(CHEERING)

OTIS: And with that, she starts back up the cliff to do it all over again.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Mesetas, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.