Hey Macarena! A Family Vacation in the Land of Guerrillas

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Fernando Vergara / AP

An anti-narcotics police officer stands guard as a helicopter secures the area at the Sierra Macarena National Park, Colombia, on Jan.19, 2006.

With my family in tow I’m heading towards La Macarena National Park in southern Colombia, which is home to spectacular buttes and canyons, crystalline rivers, and a riot of wildlife. Even before reaching the reserve, my kids spot iguanas, turtles and caymans on the Guayabero River and gawk at an 80-pound catfish reeled in by an angler.

The placid splendor is a far cry from the bloodshed that marked one of my last visits to this region in 2002. Back then, the park and the nearby town of La Macarena were controlled by Marxist guerrillas. I pulled in shortly after the rebels had executed six townsfolk and relatives were sobbing over their coffins. My Colombian journalist wife, Alejandra de Vengoechea, has her own harrowing memories of the town. In the 1990s, rebels kidnapped her father and held him for six months until receiving a ransom payment. Much later while reporting from La Macarena, Alejandra met a guerrilla who seemed oddly familiar with the episode.

“I realized at that moment that he was the guy who kidnapped my father,” Alejandra recalled.

So it was not without a bit of trepidation that we chose La Macarena, located 175 miles south of Bogotá, for a week-long October break with our five and eight-year-old sons. Friends in Bogotá, not to mention my father-in-law, feared for our safety and wondered why we ruled out more conventional destinations like Cartagena.

The answer is that we were making a leap of faith that Colombia, where a guerrilla war has been grinding on since the 1960s, is finally on the path towards peace. A U.S.-backed army offensive has cut rebel troop strength in half and has driven the insurgents out of many of their traditional strongholds, like La Macarena. Last year the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest rebel organization known as the FARC, agreed to sit down with government envoys for peace talks in Havana, Cuba. As a result, Colombians are starting to venture out of their comfort zones to explore mountains and jungles that used to be war zones. We decided to join them.

At La Macarena’s tiny airstrip, police and soldiers — rather than rebels — now greet arriving passengers who are ushered around town by local tour guides wearing red vests and broad smiles. What we’ve all come to see is the nearby La Macarena National Park as well as Caño Cristales, a mountain stream where the water cascades over purple, red, green and yellow aquatic plants turning the river into a liquid rainbow. “It’s like a family jewel that has been lost for decades, and finally one day you find it,” says Bogotá business consultant Juan Gonzalo Vallejo following a blissful afternoon swimming with his family. “Now it’s time to enjoy that jewel.”

Last year the park attracted some 4,000 tourists, more than the entire population of La Macarena. The local economy was once dominated by cattle ranching and the illegal drug trade but now 500 townsfolk work in restaurants, in the 12 hotels that have sprung up, and as tour guides. Along the way La Macarena is shedding its image as the capital of FARC-land. “People used to say that La Macarena residents were guerrillas and terrorists,” says Edwin Lopez, who drives a motorcycle taxi. “But that’s changing thanks to tourism.”

The influx of visitors was made possible by thousands of government troops stationed at a sprawling army base on the outskirts of La Macarena. As officers show us around, Black Hawk helicopters come and go and sharpshooters practice on a firing range. But what makes the biggest impression on Martin, my eight-year-old, is a display of FARC photos captured by the army. They depict child warriors – some looking almost as young as Martin – with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. Instead of marching through the underbrush with their fingers on the trigger, it’s easy to imagine these youngsters guiding tourists through the jungle if the fighting ever stops.

“Peace is what will generate the conditions to develop this region,” Gen. Carlos Rojas, the base commander, tells me.  “So we have to bet on peace.”

Still, many Colombians are wagering that the war will continue. Three previous efforts to reach a peace accord with the FARC dating back to the 1980s collapsed and pessimism is growing given the lack of progress of talks held in Havana between the government and the guerrillas. After a year of butting heads, the FARC and the government have signed off on just one of the five points on the negotiating agenda. Some politicians want the talks suspended until after the May 2014 election when President Juan Manuel Santos hopes to win another four-year term. A Santos loss would be a harsh indictment of the peace process and would likely kill it.

In truth, La Macarena’s makeover feels every bit as fragile. As we hike and swim we are constantly reminded of the conflict. One afternoon we stumble upon the rusty antenna of an abandoned FARC radio station. When we consider straying beyond the established tourist route along the Guayabero River, boat drivers warn us that rebels lurk upstream. Back at the hotel, afternoon siestas are interrupted by choppers hovering overhead. This is not Yosemite or Yellowstone. All it would take is a single kidnapping or grenade attack to bring the tourism bonanza to a halt.

But at least for the moment security is holding, the peace talks continue, and legions of Colombians, including my wife and children, are getting to know their country a little better. As we check our bags for the flight home, I remember how I used to breathe a sigh of relief when departing rebel-held towns like La Macarena. Now, I’d like to stay a little longer.