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War-zone tourism

It's a national park “where the rainbow becomes a river.” And it's nearly empty.

CANO CRISTALES, Colombia – At this national park in southern Colombia, the pristine water cascades over red, purple, green and yellow plants growing on the rocky riverbed. No wonder Cano Cristales has been described as a place “where the rainbow becomes a river.”

But if this is paradise, why am I the only foreign tourist?

The park receives only a few dozen mostly Colombian visitors per week. That’s because Cano Cristales, which means crystal stream, sits in a patch of territory that was once ruled by Marxist guerrillas.

“Our reputation is terrifying,” said Luseyda Amaya, a high school teacher from the nearby town of La Macarena. “But people who visit are amazed. They come away enchanted by the beauty.”

More than 75 percent of travelers to the country stick to Bogota, Cartagena and other big cities. In contrast, the snow-capped Andean peaks of Tolima state, Amazon jungle sanctuaries and most of the country’s 57 national parks are ignored because they are located near former or active war zones.

But improved security has led to a drop in murders and kidnappings which has, in turn, boosted tourism. About 1.2 million foreign tourists vacationed in Colombia last year, an 8 percent increase from the year before. The industry has expanded another 8 percent this year, even as the United Nations World Tourism Organization reports an overall 7 percent drop in international tourism.

A series of government-sponsored TV ads is encouraging the trend, portraying Colombia as an undiscovered Eden. So far, though, it's been a challenge to attract visitors to sites that, in the past, were more likely to show up in the book "The World's Most Dangerous Places" than in the Lonely Planet guides.

Cano Cristales
Macarenia clavigera plants at Cano Cristales.
(John Otis/GlobalPost)

Cano Cristales is part of a Switzerland-size swath of territory that was ceded to Marxist rebels by the Bogota government in 1998 as a good-will gesture during peace talks. But instead of disarming, the rebels, who launched their war in 1964, used the zone to run drugs, extort businesses and stash kidnapping victims.

The negotiations collapsed in 2002 and since then the guerrillas have fled to more remote regions and a huge military base has gone up on the outskirts of La Macarena.

All of this has some of the more optimistic townsfolk imagining La Macarena as a hub for tourists heading for Cano Cristales. At the local high school, for example, students are learning how to be park guides by boning up on the park’s history and unique plant life and on how to protect the area from environmental damage.

“When we first started it was tough,” said Johana Vargas, 19, one of the guides who wore a Cano Cristales T-shirt. “Nobody thought we could open doors to tourism because this used to be rebel territory.”