A gun at his back, a muddy trail ahead, Jaime Garcia attempted to keep his composure. One foot in front of the other, marching, the forest a green blur in his periphery.
It was 1998, and this was every Colombian’s nightmare: Garcia, age 64, had been stopped in traffic in Bogota, forced from his vehicle, and kidnapped in bright daylight by a fraction group of guerrillas taking control of portions of the country.
Over the coming weeks, Garcia and a random collection of hostages were forced to endure a perverse trek through the wilderness that rings Bogota. He was held captive in a village, two years a prisoner while his family saved and scraped money together back home to pay his passage back to life.
“It was too hard, every day I was stressed, it was all I could think about.” I’m standing in a wilderness ranger station with Jaime’s son. Miguel Angel Garcia was 22 at the time, still in school. “We saved money for two years, we sold everything.”
It’s been almost 20 years since the kidnapping. But the pain still presses. Jaime saw men executed. He shivered nights away in the mountains, worked, toiled his days, and he tried to keep his mind out of the abyss.
‘Bad Old Days’
Colombia has one of the world’s highest levels of forced disappearances, a.k.a. kidnappings, including about 30,000 cases recorded over the last four decades. This is according to the U.S. Government’s CIA World Factbook, which, fortunately, also foretells a changed face of the nation.
In most parts of the country, the bad old days are no longer. By 2006, after a height of terror in the 1990s, the CIA reported more than 31,000 former paramilitaries had demobilized, a majority of the presence gone.
Violence — and particularly violence against foreigners — has fallen dramatically. Stories like Jaime’s are becoming history, not current events, and the country is stabilizing after decades of political strife.
Jaime’s son Miguel, who is today a climber and professional wilderness guide, stayed mostly in the city during the horrors of 1998 – 2001. It was safer there, usually. The wilderness was where the evil lurked.
As the oldest child, Miguel took phone calls from the murderers, threats and demands for money. His family recorded messages on a radio program, Bogota’s Caracol Station’s “The Voices of Kidnapping,” hoping their father would hear the outpourings on a crackling shortwave in the jungle.
A common message might be: “Wherever you are, think and feel that we are with you, please never lose faith.”
He did not lose faith. Jaime survived prison camp, and he was reunited with his family after two years and a large ransom paid off in three installments to the guerilla group.
His son Miguel did not recognize the man who walked into the home after the release. “He was skinny, and he had a beard, it was not my dad I thought at first.”
While visiting Colombia, a headline: “Peace Talks At Risk Amid Wave Of FARC, Military Fighting.”
But slowly Jaime reintegrated. He spent a week in a hospital psych ward, and he developed diabetes from two years of malnutrition in the camp. But he went back to work, he shaved off the beard, and he took back control of his life.
Colombia is a country of such tales. It is a land of sorrows and genocide, from tribal battles to colonialism, revolution to guerilla war. Cocoa leaves and drug factories, human atrocities, U.S. intervention, and covert missions by camouflaged men.
Today it continues, tamped back, however, from the horrors of the 1990s and before. Kidnappings are not common anymore, though not out of the picture in some parts. Renewed peace talks this month in Cuba between Colombia’s government and FARC rebels have gained international attention as a sign of hope.
But the drug war drags on, despite a world weary of the cycle and its complex, corrupted parts. And it’s now, and always has been, more complicated than cocoa leaves and smuggled powder. Land rights, natural resources, food, water, education, infrastructure, reciprocity, and control of airports and roads all swirl among the concerns and issues that bring out the bombs and the guns.
Fight Drags On
While I am visiting Colombia, a headline: “Peace Talks At Risk Amid Wave Of FARC, Military Fighting.” The Latin Post reports rebels “shot and killed three police officers out patrolling a stretch of highway.”
I was biking outside Bogota when it happened. Our group, tucking and swopping on a massive, 5,000-foot descent, had pedaled for an hour from the city to explore an area formerly controlled by a guerilla group.
“It’s safe here now,” one of the guides told me. “You wouldn’t come here a few years ago, but now it’s fine.”
Government troops keep an order in the region. Young men in helmets and camo clothes braap by on motorcycles. Guns prop off backpacks and swing from straps, glued to military and police who stand at traffic intersections and street corners.
On the Friday the officers are shot we coasted through an idyll of farms, tiny villages, terraced fields, chickens, kids playing, and past donkeys tied to posts. Truck exhaust and manure are the theme odors in this backcountry, where potatoes and maize grow in the shadows of mountains huge and unexplored.
I’d come to Colombia for this look behind the curtain, to bike, trek, and climb in mountains few North Americans have seen. We’d spend a week hopscotching from Bogota to parks and preserves within a couple hundred miles of the metropolis.
Miguel began the week as my guide, my lens to the adventure and the history of his country. He ended as my good friend.
Open To Travel
Last year, about 375,000 people from the United States visited Colombia, according to ProColombia, the organization responsible for promotion of international tourism in the country.
They come for business and cultural sites in the city, or they head to the country’s Caribbean coast. Increasingly people come for the wilderness, too, which is among the most diverse on the planet.
Get off the airplane in Bogota and you’re breathing air at 8,600 feet above sea level. This isn’t the jungle, as some people think, but a high-altitude capital of 8 million people. Art is everywhere, and so are universities, libraries, monuments, and parks, prompting Bogota’s moniker as “The Athens of South America.”
Three arms of the Andes Mountains cut through central Colombia, two ringing Bogota. On a clear day, a hundred miles past the human sprawl, you can see snowcap peaks.
With Miguel and Julian Manrique, a fearless videographer from WhereNext.com, I drive north toward one of the far summits. Our goal is Iguaque National Park, a preserve abutting guerilla lands that’s famous for a lagoon and a native legend about the cradle of life.
To The Mountains
Villa de Leyva, an alpine village of 10,000, is a colonial time warp, cobblestone streets and a huge town square, founded in 1572. We arrive midday and unpack gear at a hotel near a statue of an old patriarch.
Our lodging, at Hotel La Posada de San Antonio, is old-world. A courtyard. Fountains and statues. Plants. Leave your passport up at the desk, and get your key tethered to a wood square, room numeral carved on the face.
Incongruous, but fitting, jazz plays on an old set of speakers. Billie Holiday croons, reaching a note, then fading as I walk to my room.
“Travel in pairs if you leave the hotel.” A guide had given us this warning. But I needed a few supplies, and I was alone.
The moon is a sliver as I trek back to the hotel. Stray dogs are beginning to bark.
A sleepy afternoon in Villa de Leyva is timeless. Stone walls, murals, shops, kids chasing, smiling in the squares. Stray dogs nuzzle up, calm, friendly, wanting something. Church bells ring.
Late that night we meet for dinner, Miguel, Julian, and our group. We kick plans around for the next day, the big climb, struggling some with two languages, imperial and metric systems, and unknowns.
“So, 40 kilometers up and down the mountain, and back to town?” I question. Nods and noncommittal affirmations from across the table. “I’ll pack a headlamp just in case,” I say.
The moon is a sliver as I trek back to the hotel. Stray dogs are beginning to bark. “They fight at night,” someone had said. The old city is going to sleep as equatorial stars prick the black overhead.
Time To Climb
Chickens wake up the town, and at sunrise we’re bumping north out of Villa de Leyva. It’s 30 minutes to a farm where Miguel got permission to start the hike.
An old sign reads: Iguaque National Park. It points right, a turn off of the gravel road and uphill toward a wall of hills.
Yosemite this is not. Crowds are nil, and details about the peaks above do not seem to exist. But Iguaque is a stunning national preserve and the very reason I came to Colombia, blending adventure with a glance at the history unique to this place.
Miguel had scouted the park the day before, checking in with a ranger about our plans. We had no map, but the trade route in the park, the Sendero de la Laguna de Iguaque, would lead us to the base of our alpine objective near 12,500 feet.
Julian ran ahead for a photo as we started the hike. A dirt road dipped and climbed through mountain farms, some alive, some dead, destroyed barns, vines, workers quiet and bent over in a field of plants. “Potatoes,” Miguel said.
A couple miles into the hike, at a station, a park ranger greets Miguel with a smile, stretching out a hand. They ramble in Spanish, and I catch a few words with my rusty comprehension.
Laguna Iguaque is legend in the region, a high-altitude lake with native significance as an Eden of sorts. A woman and a boy emerged from the waters to initiate the human race, climbing naked from the depths into the sun and the long grass around the lagoon.
We head uphill, over a creek on a wood-slat bridge. We duck into a forest so thick it resembles a jungle, though nudging near treeline on a mountainside.
An insect flutters out from a log, buzzing past my legs. “That is a poisonous one,” Miguel warns, “hurt very bad.”
I leap ahead, scamper over roots, and run a few steps to get away. The light is suppressed beneath a canopy, but I can see sunshine ahead.
Into The Alpine
Ghost soldiers stand in the mist. They sway in the wind at 10,000 feet, dead guerillas or native warriors I don’t know. Fog rolls and slicks leaves, dampens the grass.
We’re halfway up the mountain, nearing the lagoon, the birthplace of life. Frailejones, the anthropomorphized plants, stand like Joshua trees, messy-haired guardians of Iguaque’s highlands.
The páramo lies beyond. In the park we’re a scant five degrees north of the equator. But as a high-mountain biome, the páramo is a unique ecosystem with moss, succulent plants, shrubs, grasses, and a tundra-like appearance that contrasts abruptly with the jungle-forest below.
Miguel stops at a rise in the trail. The wilderness in the distance was home to rebel camps, crop fields, and cocaine labs. Guerilla troops walked this path, Miguel said, but it is safe now.
As a guide with Colombia-based Bluefields for his day job he brings youth into these wilds. They hike to the ranger station, and they trek up into the hills. He says he’s proud to show Bogota kids the beauty of the wilds, to push their bodies and spirits on trips away from the exhaust, graffiti, and crowded streets.
It’s a clear day, the valleys to the east are exposed. Miguel again points out and far away, motioning into the past, too. “The village was beyond those mountains,” he says, referring to his father’s hostage site.
We walk uphill, zipping up our rain shells as the air cools. Treeline is now far below, and we’re somewhere near 11,000 feet.
A spark ahead, sunlight glinting. Deep waters in a bowl, an alpine cradle in the páramo.
At the lagoon I bend to touch the waters of life. Julian and Miguel are smiling, ecstatic at the sight of the lake, the alpine terrain. It’s windy but peaceful, a mountain refuge just 100 miles from the chaos of Bogota.
The summit is still high and beyond, and Miguel is looking for an approach. We track east around the lagoon then head uphill, the plants of the páramo, the frailejones, the spongy ground, all slow our pace where the trail ends.
A crag guards the top of the ridge. Mossy stone, blocky and beaten, it squares off against the sky.
I grab an edge and pick my feet off the grass. Reach, test the hold, then pull up onto a climb. It’s a penultimate pitch, a final obstacle before the ridge of rock that leads to the top.
On the summit the view drops away. Wind rolls up the valley, and the clouds fly low, just a few hundred feet overhead.
Thunder bursts from below; seemingly we’re above the storm. My watch altimeter reads 3,816 meters, just more than 12,500 feet.
Miguel poses on a rock outcrop, a fin of stone suspended with air beneath. He turns his back to me and Julian, the wind picking up. His arms go out, wings, and the air rushes like a jet up from the lagoon.
He shouts, a summit requisite, celebration and relief. But it’s more than that, I can tell. This is his first time so high in Iguaque. The wilds for so long off-limits are now open, free.
I’m eying the virga and dark clouds. Thunder, a warning again, and then rain.
I pick up my backpack, shoulder the load. On the top of Colombia, I take a final look. Then I suggest we pack up, sight out the lagoon. Time to head down, back toward civilization again.