War-zone tourism

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.”

Besides its bad rep, La Macarena lacks a decent road connection to Bogota and there’s just one flight per week from the Colombian capital. Hotel rooms are scarce; the high-end place is a run-down boarding house just off the town square.

Then there are the novice guides. None speaks English. One admits I’m the first foreigner she’s ever met.

Still they are an eager bunch and four of the students agree to take me to Cano Cristales. As it turns out, just getting to the park can be an adventure.

Step 1 involves boarding a leaky wooden boat with a sputtering outboard motor. The captain takes us down the Guayabero River and after about 20 minutes drops us off on the north bank.

A Jeep is supposed to carry us the rest of the way but the driver is a no-show. So, under the scorching midday sun, we begin walking down a dirt road that was built by the guerrillas during the peace talks.

After 45 minutes, the Jeep appears and takes us the rest of the way — though it conks out three times while crossing streambeds. At the entrance to Cano Cristales, a soldier writes down our names and assures us that everything’s under control.

“There’s never been any problems or guerrilla attacks,” he says. “It’s totally safe. You can even stay overnight.”

Finally, we reach the river. It’s breathtaking. But rather than a rainbow, it seems more like purple rain as the water washes over granite rocks covered with violet Macarenia clavigera plants.

In the deeper parts, the water is so clear we can see the white sand on the bottom, 15 feet down. My guides can’t resist. They strip down to their underwear and take the plunge.

Cano Cristales easily ranks as the most dazzling river I’ve ever seen. At times like this, it’s easy to believe those slick TV spots claiming that for visitors to Colombia “the only risk is wanting to stay.”

Perhaps the PR campaign will coax more people into visiting these out-of-the-way wonderlands. But for now — with the exception of a Colombian soldier and his girlfriend — we have Cano Cristales all to ourselves. And that, of course, is part of the allure.