ecilia 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 paralyzing past and is moving forward.
“She wants to build peace,” Daniel said of Cecilia. “She never wants to go back to war.”
A sport of patience
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.
Our Audubon-trained guide, Jose Luis Ropero, took the lead. Though new to the eco-tourism industry, the former lawyer came prepared with binoculars, a field book and a speaker affixed to his backpack. Birding is a sport of extreme patience, but sometimes you need to goose the game. To attract hummingbirds, he played the call of a pygmy owl on his phone. The tiny birds consider the buff raptors their protectors and will appear if they know their bodyguards are nearby. Two sparkling violetears fell for the ruse.
Jose Luis led us to a section of the trail that typically has as much air traffic as Dulles International Airport over the holidays. Birds darted overhead before disappearing in the brush. I instinctively ducked. Jose Luis showed me in his book what I had missed by looking left instead of right: rufous-breasted chat-tyrant, slaty brush finch, black-and-white seedeater and Perija tapaculo. Few people have seen the Perija thistletail, a range-restricted specimen the color of cocoa beans, but I spied a flash of feathers while it was rummaging around the vegetation. I now count myself among the elite birders.
At Trankilandia, I took care to follow the rules posted along the river. I made sure to not step on the fauna or swim or lie down. But I did crouch on a rock and lean my face as close to the Macarenia clavigera as I could get without needing snorkeling equipment.
The waterway near a portal to the Amazon is one of two Colombian rivers harboring the endemic aquatic plant that resembles dabs of paint made by an impressionist. (The other is the harder-to-reach Cano Cristales in the Serrania de la Macarena.) The colors peak in the summer, but in November, the river still displayed a Lilly Pulitzer palette of pink and green.
The crowds didn’t arrive until late morning, and I walked alone along the ruffled banks. I alternated views from macro, for the full spread of hues, to micro, for a close-up of the artists responsible for this gossamer landscape. In December, the plants will dry up and release their seeds, which will attach to rocks and repeat the life cycle that has been spinning rainbows for ages.
Any semblance of a colored-water theme was completely accidental. It was just a coincidence that after the river we boarded a motorized canoe on Laguna Negra, or the Black Lagoon.
“Look, look,” shouted Daniel from the middle seat. “It’s a little cuckoo.”
The bird — and turtle — parade continued. Herons shot like arrows across the bow. Hoatzin with faux-hawks hopped among the branches, emitting their emphysemic coughs. A stork did an impression of a lamppost. Kingfishers streaked blue against a darkening sky.
A downpour cut our boat ride short. We sought shelter in a raised wooden house owned by an 88-year-old man named Jesus, who had three puppies and no teeth. I passed the time meditating on large plastic canisters filling with rainwater.
Tourism took root here earlier than other affected areas in Guaviare. Our guide started his lagoon tour 10 years ago. Jesus told Daniel that he planned on building a tourist attraction on his island. The skies cleared before we could learn more.
Decoding ancient messages
Handmade painted signs with life-affirming messages lined the road to El Raudal.
“Welcome! Let yourself be surprised. Enjoy the town,” read one.
“Park here. Walk. Feel the breeze of this natural paradise,” read another.
The placards put a happy face on a community that has suffered several hardships, including the crash of the coca industry and the debilitating conflict.
During its most prosperous times, the town had two discos, a health-care facility and a brothel. The population rose to 200, before dropping to eight. But its residents have devised a comeback strategy, and I was a part of it.
We settled into a long boat often used to transport merchandise down the Guayabero River to the market in San Jose del Guaviare. The river was wide and smooth, until we hit a patch of rapids that caused the bow to bounce and my body to wobble on the narrow plank seat. The driver pulled up on shore, and we set out for the hike up to the pictographs.
If this were the United States, the guide would have asked about our fitness level and required us to sign a release form. But this was Colombia, and so, without any preamble, we scrambled up a trail that was steep, slippery and choked with giant boulders. It took all hands, feet and other body parts to reach the rock art.
Little is known about the pictographs, but whoever drew them had a lot to say. The rough canvas displayed a jumble of ladders, zigzags, geometric shapes, dogs, fish, snakes and humans with their arms up and legs crossed like a ballerina in first position. The drawings said a lot about the area, but they neglected to prepare me for one sighting — or maybe they didn’t want to ruin the surprise. On our way back to the village, a pod of pink dolphins frolicked a few feet from shore. Even the baby joined in the cetacea fun.
The area contains more than 25 pictograph sites, but only three are open to the public. We visited the second one, Cerro Azul, in the fading light of day. Jose Noe Rojas, who owns the property, stood before the images that date from 11,000 to 12,000 years ago. He said the artists could have been members of the hunter-gatherer tribe, the Nukak, but exact identification is undetermined. I asked him to translate some of the figures. He pointed to a drying rack for yucca, two half-moons and a cow that designated a cave, and a shape that resembled a bar graph.
“This signifies the places you should walk,” he said, “and the places you should avoid.”
Lodges once left behind
For nearly 10 years, two eco-lodges near the Ecuadoran border lay abandoned. At one of the properties, Reserva La Planada, the FARC pilfered all of the furnishings, leaving only the library behind. To thwart the military, the rebels buried mines on the main pathways, which hindered the movements of the Awa indigenous communities inhabiting the forest. Many fled to the nearest town, Altaquer, where they still reside.
In 2012, the United Nations declared the area mine-free. The Awa who staff the lodges returned to work. Guests trickled back, too.
We spent a night in each lodge. At the first one, La Planada, the main road was closed for construction, so we had to roll our luggage through town. We detoured at a sugar cane production facility, where we watched the workers turn cane into panela. They gave us each a taste of the raw product (so sweet, obviously), and Daniel bought two bars for 50 cents. At night, we searched for wildlife, discovering palm-size crickets, bug-eyed frogs and a cockroach that decided to bed down on my pillow.
To reach Reserva Rio Nambi, we had to hike more than a mile uphill, slogging through mud and tiptoeing across rickety bridges. As we climbed deeper in the dark forest, halos of light illuminating our way, we faced only one real threat: running into a tarantula. (The fear was unfounded: The spider didn’t even twitch a leg at us.)
‘Everyone here has a story’
At a rehabilitation facility housing former FARC fighters, I felt as relaxed as if I were at summer camp. I jumped right into the activities, not waiting for the head counselor (in this case, Cecilia) to blow the whistle. I collected mangoes with children knocking the tree as if it were a piñata and played billiards with a pair of players who clearly misjudged my skills. Despite the loss, I still earned a cold beer from the commissary.
The facility in Cesar is one of 26 centers the government and the United Nations established to help the rebels transition back into society. The residents, who still profess an allegiance to the group’s political arm, are learning new trades, such as plumbing, carpentry, farming and tourism. Several of the camps have created immersive experiences that allow guests to sample a day in the life of the FARC. Late sleepers will need to reset their circadian clocks.
“We would wake up at 4:50, and by 5 a.m., we would have our tents broken down and our packs ready,” Cecilia said as we entered the shaded campground. “We would stand in rank and file and get our jobs, cooking or guarding the space.”
Cecilia led us to an open-air kitchen dominated by a piece of cooking equipment designed during the Vietnam War. To minimize 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.
Lettering by Craig Ward for The Washington Post; animation by Sarah Hashemi; photo editing by Annaliese Nurnberg and Dudley Brooks; design and development by Elizabeth Hart.