The apartment didn’t have running water on Saturday, so we left for the airport without showers, hoping Nils, our house sitter, would work something out when he arrived.
Our charter flight to La Macarena wasn’t big enough to interrupt the international traffic on El Dorado’s main runways, so we were taking off from a smaller runway about a 10 minute drive north from the main airport. This meant that when our flight was delayed due to rain we were stuck in this out-of-the-way hangar, with nothing to do but drink scalding hot herbal tea from small polystyrene cups; there was no heating and we didn’t have jackets or food.
The hangar was full of cute little propellor planes. Small birds fluttered around the beams above. Ground control weighed our bags and bodies, probably to determine how much fuel to carry on the flight. I was as heavy as I’ve ever been. A poster on the wall showed the usual banned objects; harpoons, bows and arrows, guns etc, and with a nice addition: pool cues.
We ended up taking off about 3 hours late, shortly after 9 a.m., flying just south of the geographic centre of Colombia, landing an hour later in a tree-blanketed landscape with skinny rivers running through it.
Half a dozen other flights had been delayed by the rain, so we had to queue to park after touching down. While waiting, our luggage was retrieved from the guts of the plane and thrown onto a cart pulled by a mule (“Donk-e-matic”, as Lily called him). Further up the field a large helicopter landed in long grass, and about ten white men in explorer outfits jumped out, one after the other, and ran like soldiers into the jungle.
Actual soldiers milled about on the runway, now cramped with a mix of single and twin propellor planes. A large billboard displayed acts of military entertainment (speedboats with floor-mounted heavy machine guns, missile-laden helicopters and giant planes) with the headline “FAST MILITARY FORCE” over “NATURAL PARADISE”. To one side, the beautiful serenity of the caño cristales river was being watched over by a brave recruit with deep, caring eyes.
It might seem odd to find the elements of war in such an isolated place, but this area has a colourful history. La Macarena is a little Colombian town in the southernmost part of the department El Meta. The town is a remote outpost in the vast plains of the Orinoquía natural region.
In the late 90s, FARC had enough of a military presence to have taken over certain areas of the country. They used obscure, remote regions like El Meta to hide their coca farms (coca are the plants from which you make cocaine), a very profitable industry they’d taken over from the drug cartels. Thanks to wealthy Americans who wanted to party, cocaine funded FARC’s weapons and soldiers; Americans paid for the drugs that funded a war that killed and displaced millions of people here.
Anyway, as part of fated peace negotiations in 1999, the Colombian government formalised FARC’s use of this region, turning it into a “demilitarised zone” for the government, called El Caguán. Nobody else had access to El Caguán – FARC would kill you if you were found here without permission. FARC controlled the park fully and all the activities in it, and they also took care of its conservation.
In 2010 over 2,000 bodies were found in a mass grave here. Locals say they were civilians killed not by the guerrillas but by the army and private militias. The army denies these extra-judicial killings, but people see murder as part of the Colombian army’s shady past, which includes their intentional murder of poor and disabled people during the “false positives” scandal. At some point the conflict here got so complex that you can no longer separate the good people from bad.
Even today, if you travel around the former El Caguán by land, you might find guerrilla “control points”. Understandably, Lily’s Dad was nervous about us bringing Mum here on holiday.
The government only started to regain influence in the area in the last 5 years – not just militarily, but socially too. Small, underfunded, isolated towns like La Macarena had lost any system of formal governance during the conflict, with authority being entirely in the hands of FARC. To gain back control, the Colombian government has invested in the economic recovery of these towns, bringing them basic services, particularly in La Macarena, where they’re helping create a viable development plan through tourism. That’s why there was such a military force when we landed, and why the insanely beautiful Caño Cristales is more than just a river.
Five tour operators serve the park. We’d chosen one owned by locals (rather than one of the increasing number of tour operators in Colombia owned by gringos). Unfortunately, the down side of hiring local was that they failed to provide a guide who spoke English. This was a real shame, as it meant Mum and I would be nearly entirely dependent on Lily for info. An amiable German couple in their 60s worried they’d have the same problem. I tried to lighten the mood joking that they could pay Lily for translation services. They didn’t find it funny.
We walked for ten minutes to another building where we got our induction video on the conservation efforts being made to preserve the park against the impact of increased tourism; no cigarettes, water bottles, sunscreen, bug spray, deodorant, shampoo, soap, creams or make up, as the river’s delicate plants couldn’t take the chemical bombardment. For some reason you couldn’t even wear sandals. This showed a remarkable care for the ecosystem that you just wouldn’t find in many other countries. They’re telling wealthy tourists “you can come here, but you won’t be at all comfortable, because even here this nature is more important than your money.”
The video noted that although the whole region is strategically important “both militarily and environmentally”, it’s the Caño Cristales river that “puts Colombia on a global playing field”. The video was full of words like preserve, respect, conserve, beauty, nature, nurture, endemic, protect, support, understanding, appreciation, legitimacy. This is, after all, the most beautiful river in the world, and they intend to keep it that way.
Conservationists are finding a balance between limiting the destructive elements of tourism and boosting the local economy. Their limitations are very strict. Even the various paths we’d walk along could only take a mere 35 to 80 people per day. Not adhering to the rules would force the park to close.
Our education over, we began walking through La Macarena. Our group consisted of two native guides, five Argentinians and Spaniards in their 30s (one of whom was doing a research vacation for his travel agency – not a bad job if you can get it), the three of us and the German couple who were unfortunately playing up to some stereotypes. They were explorer types having a fun holiday, perhaps more adventurous than others their age, and, like I said, very amiable. But… they liked things to be a little more well organised, structured and professional than the rest of us. For example, on this walk through town they remarked on the bad roads and muttered about the lack of a taxi. I told them that if the hotels were fancy, the roads paved, the signs in English, the cars comfortable, the food imported and all the rest, the country would be full of annoying tourists, and wasn’t it more beautiful to explore it like this, without all the chintz and fakery? They begrudgingly agreed. Just then, an escaped turkey ran pluckily past us, being chased by its giggling owner.
We stopped at the hotel to drop our stuff and put on hiking shoes for the afternoon walk. A moto-taxi took us to grab lunch at a restaurant, then we walked with the others down to the river. A motorised canoe floated us deeper into the jungle, towards rain in the distance marked by low, dark clouds breaking loose underneath.
After 20 minutes we docked against the riverbank and walked over to a conservation building. Two bees were locked in weary battle in the dirt. A lizard sensed my gaze and disappeared behind a rock. Two ponds rippled around the bobbing of hundreds of sunbathing turtles.
We sat at this house eating our packed lunches, while a marine infantry soldier with a large assault weapon came over to tick off our names on a list. A baby monkey called Sirilo capered around, looking for handouts, but we were told not to feed him as “human food damages his hair”. I had a baby monkey playing in my lap, which was incredibly cute.