(Note: The following will be amended into the next version of my book, Renegade World Travel. It will be under the safety section, under a heading like “Traveling in a Conflict Zone? – Try Not To Get Sold To a Revolutionary Guerilla Army”)
The light from the rising sun spilled gently over my sleeping eyes until I wakened to hear the soft chattering of other dwellers that were stirring in our shared hammock hut. That sunrise was one of those moments that each travel-lover has to know. It was a feeling of being in a “WOW” moment, at a “WOW” time, and in a “WOW’ place on Earth – Sum Total, Exuberance!! Soon thereafter came the cozy warmth of daylight which lulled me back to sleep for another 5 hours.
When I woke, I went down and met up with Nalu (aka; Lulu) down along the shore. We talked to the park staff, took a photo of their map, and set out to hike to the Indian Pueblito and then the nearby town of Calabazo. We would stay there for the night and then go back to Taganga the following day. We got ourselves some sandwiches, grabbed our bags, and merrily set out on our way. It was just after noon when we left Cabo San Juan.
It was a beautiful hike, albeit a very steep one as well. After about 1.5 hours of hiking, we decided to stop to take our lunch on a boulder by a little stream. The stream looked so refreshing that we decided to take a little bath. Once in, we noticed that the streambed was filled with millions of specks of gold Mica. It was so delightful that we just had to do a little yoga in this Colombian river of gold, I mean… how could we not?!?!?
All along the path, there were beautiful butterflies, mad marching aunt armies, huge trees, and other typical jungle furnishings. There were not, however, any other people. We expected to hit the Pueblito at about hour 1.5, but we did not find it until hour 4. This is when we realized how not-to-scale our map truly was. The Pueblito, was an “-ito” for a reason. It is basically a stone house and a stone trashcan in the middle of the jungle. There were also some little ruins where Indians probably once had lived. Nalu and I were relieved to be in the Pueblito, and near Calabazo – or so we thought.
We kept along our way. The trail seemed to get a little smaller. The trail started to split a lot and it was tough to figure out which way to go. Sometimes the trail was so small, we couldn’t tell if it was man-made or a trail made by an army of aunts. A few times, we took the wrong split and ended up far-out on obscure trails that would end in man-made barricades. We were lost in the jungle of east Colombia, so we pretty much knew what those barricades meant and we turned around. Hours were passing and I was out of water. It was getting dark and there were still no people.
The night came and it began to rain, still no sight of a “town”. But alas, after passing a gorge full of lightening bugs and some candle-lit dwellings, we stumbled upon the road. Finally – some relief…. Or so we thought. We settled in for a little dinner, but we soon discovered that there were no hotels in Calabazo. The restaurant owners said that there was a good hotel just ten minutes down the road. The police, armed with their assault rifles, were happy to serve as our personal bodyguards and even helped get us on-board the correct bus.
One Wrong Path Begets Another
This seemed fun, at first. Nalu had never been on an adventure like this, and this sort of spontaneity is what I love about traveling. All was well, until we realized that the driver had not let us off at our stop. When we complained, he said that it was too dangerous for us to get off the bus, that the hotel was too far off of the road for us to safely walk. We asked about another hotel close-by and he said there were none until Maracaibo, Venezuela. He said that we could find a safe place to stay there, but that it was 4 hours away.
Nalu and I became restless. We asked if we could get off and catch a bus going the other way, but the driver said that it was far too dangerous for us to do that. Soon thereafter, we passed through a tiny city with a hotel that had people lounging in front. Nalu saw it as we passed and asked the driver why he did not stop there. He answered that we had to have reservations, but we knew that was a lie because the hotel was too small to even have phones.
Things Start Getting Very Sketchy
The driver was trying to be nice but it was easy to tell that he was on drugs. He asked us not to go to the back of the bus, but my friend ignored him. When she got back there she found 20 huge men and no women. The men leered and made very inappropriate comments. I was sitting quietly in front, when the bus slowed down and came to a halt. Nalu came and sat by me while the men started piling off on to the roadside. I was bracing myself to be gang-raped by 20 Colombian dudes, when they told us that the bus had “broke down”. No one laid a hand on us, remarkably.
Somehow, they got it going again and off we went. The bus then broke down again, this time in a small town called Palomino. After being questioned by the driver about whether I was part of the police, a big man came and sat next to me. He said that we needed to stay quiet and not get off the bus. He said that if anyone knew we were there, they would shoot us dead. While I kept quiet, believing the man, Nalu stormed away in search of a safehaven. The man quickly chased after her, leaving me unguarded. He tried to stop her from talking, but she made it over to an elderly couple that was sitting along the side of the road. When she told them our story, they responded that they would take us in as their children and that we should come in straight away. Just like that – we ran off in the night and escaped into their hacienda. God bless those people!! God bless them!! We slept in an unlocked room and the woman checked on us throughout the night – just like we were her children. In the morning, we paid our $12 and quickly hopped on a bus bound for Santa Marta.
This all left me with a very unsettled feeling, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. After all, no one harmed us… they just lied and threatened us to try to keep us on the bus with them. Nalu and I were playfully curious about why those men so badly wanted us to stay on the bus. It was not until I got home that I found out what had really been happening. I know someone in the USA who is Latin and had lived in Colombia (working for the US Government) for quite a while. When I told him our story, he looked at me as if he had seen a ghost. He then remarked that I was extraordinarily lucky to have escaped that situation. He explained, with certainty, that the men were negotiating to sell us to the FARC. He explained that FARC control that area of Colombia and that they have a lot of money; that they would pay a lot of money for Nalu and I. The men were trying to keep us on the bus long enough to get us to the point where the transaction could be made.
This bewildered me, for I was not familiar with “FARC”. Just an FYI, FARC = Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, i.e.; The Guerilla Army. You know, the one that murders Americans for fun, just to watch them bleed. The men on the bus almost sold us to them. And it all made sense when I looked at the heat map of FARC activity in Colombia (see below).
“There by the grace of God, go I.”
The Moral of the Story
I scolded myself, “How could I have gotten into this situation after traveling all across the developing world? I should have known better!” But then, I pin-pointed some key factors that contributed to this situation. One, I was traveling in FARC-controlled territory. This is not the normal, developing world type of danger – it is complete, total, and very real danger! Not a good idea to go there, period….
Second, I was, for the first time in my life, traveling with a girlfriend. I let her do a lot of the talking since her Spanish is better than mine. I did not ask the normal questions I would, and I was not afraid to go too far from others, since I was not alone. On my own, I would have never gone hiking to Calabazo. I would have never gotten on a bus going towards Venezuela when I knew there were safe hotels an hour down the road in Santa Marta. But these being said, I would have never gotten off that bus in Palomino if it weren’t for Nalu… in the end, it was her bravery and defiance which saved my life.