Updated on 01/25/2024
My name is Frank and I run a travel agency in Bogota, Colombia. Have fun while reading!
Would you like to immerse yourself in magical and previously unexplored areas? Colombia is a country known for its natural beauty and incredible biodiversity. However, due to more than 50 years of armed struggle by the FARC guerrillas, many areas were inaccessible to tourists and even to the state itself.
Thanks to the fact that the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas reached an agreement in 2016 that ended the armed conflict, these areas can be visited again. Today, many ex-combatants have set up companies so that people from all over the world can get to know the hidden side of Colombia.
Colombia and the war
Although Colombia is a country undoubtedly characterized by its natural beauty, unique and colorful villages, and charismatic people, unfortunately, the truth is that this nation gained fame through the constant violence that plagued the entire territory for decades.
In a way, that fame was once deserved. Colombia was the birthplace of drug traffickers, paramilitary groups, and the guerrilla group FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), believed to be the oldest in Latin America.
The FARC emerged in 1964 when then-President Guillermo León Valencia ordered the bombing of Marquetalia, a village in southern Tolima that was home to some former liberal guerrillas (the Liberal Party was one of the two main political forces in the country in the 20th century), but also many innocent farmers.
The Marquetalia bombing caused so much outrage that a group of farmers led by Manuel Marulanda Vélez, aka “Tirofijo”, founded the FARC. This group became so powerful that they managed to put the state in check in a war that lasted more than 50 years and took more than 260,000 lives.
The FARC settled in 242 municipalities in Colombia and was present in the departments of Meta, Caquetá, and Antioquia, among others. In the areas controlled by this criminal organization, there was usually no state presence and the violence was a constant companion, so that tourism was out of the question.
All of this changed when the then President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, initiated talks with the FARC in 2012 that led to the signing of a peace agreement in 2016. As a result, the violence in Colombia decreased drastically and previously inaccessible places could finally be visited by local and foreign tourists.
The formation of ETCRs and the arrival of tourism initiatives
With the end of the war, a process of reintegration into civilian life began for many former FARC combatants. The ETCRs (Espacios Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación) were created for this purpose. The 24 ETCRs (originally 26) are areas distributed in different parts of the country, created by the government in 2017 to help ex-combatants create productive projects that enable them to engage in economic activities create.
In the ETCRs, projects in agriculture, poultry farming and, of course, tourism were created. Most of these tourism listings show previously inaccessible trails and preserve their historical memory by telling anecdotes and stories of the conflict.
- Some of these initiatives are just at the planning stage or have just started.
Of the original 26 ETCRs, 11 decided to start tourism initiatives. Some of these ventures were not so successful, others were just beginning, but definitely one of the most successful was the idea of some ex-combatants from the ETCR Miravalle with a company called Caguán Expeditions.
The ETCR Miravalle is located in the department of Caquetá, in the municipality of San Vicente del Caguán, one of the municipalities hardest hit by the war. During Andrés Pastrana’s (1998-2002) government attempts were made to hold peace talks with the FARC.
To move the talks forward, the government created the so-called peace zone (a zone demilitarized by the government), which consisted of the municipalities of Uribe, Mesetas, La Macarena, and Vista Hermosa, in the department of Meta and San Vicente del Caguán.
The entire territory of the DMZ covered 42,000 square kilometers, which is slightly larger than Switzerland. The guerrillas took over the zone and ruled its residents for several years. Chaos was the order of the day, blackmail, cattle theft, drug trafficking, and other illegal activities were common.
Years went by and San Vicente del Caguán, once a territory at war, is now offering tourism plans thanks to the 2016 peace process. After the peace process was signed, some ex-combatants decided to use the tourist potential of this region and therefore founded Caguán Expeditions in 2017.
What does Caguán Expeditions offer?
Carlos Ariel García, the director and co-founder of Caguán Expeditions, told us that the idea of his company is to “offer plans that combine nature, adventure and of course historical memory”.
The different plans range from 1 to 4 days. Some of the experiences they offer are:
The adventure plans feature rafting in different sectors of the Pato River that previously could not be explored due to the conflict.
Don Carlos mentions that the rafting options range from level 1, which is ideal for beginners, to level 4 for more experienced athletes. Some of the offers are:
Rafting: This is level 2 rafting with a length of 11 miles (18 km) and a duration of approx. 3 hours and 30 minutes.
Rafting in the middle sector of the Pato River: It is a level 3 rafting and takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
- The complete offers can be seen on the website.
- When booking one of the rafting offers, accident insurance is included.
If you book the longer offers, this is usually combined with visits to waterfalls and hikes. There are medium and difficult hikes.
It’s not the mainstay of the company, but Don Carlos told us that they are going on a tour of downtown San Vicente del Caguán while some ex-combatants share the history of the town and what happened in the demilitarized zone.
There is also a museum called “Manuel Marulanda Vélez” where Don Carlos tells: “We tell stories about the armed conflict with the voices of the protagonists themselves”. In the museum there are some items and costumes that were used in the war.
Note: To get to San Vicente del Caguán, you can take a flight to Florencia, the capital of Caquetá. From there it takes about 3 hours by car to reach the city.
Remando por la Paz
Social networks: https://www.facebook.com/RemandoporlaPaz/
This is another initiative that has come from some of the ETCR Miravalle members and has a moving history.
After the conclusion of the peace agreement, 5 ex-combatants and 3 members of the community of San Vicente del Caguán were trained as rafting guides. They managed to improve so much that this group represented Colombia at the World Rafting Championship in Australia. Their initiative to become rafting guides on the aforementioned Pato River led them to be among the finalists of the BGTW International Tourism Awards for the best tourism project in the world.
Last year, together with the Caguán Expeditions initiative, the municipality of San Vicente del Caguán and the Caquetá government, launched a rafting festival called “Remando por la Paz” (Rowing for Peace). Various communities in Caguán took part in this festival. The first edition took place on November 7th and 8th, 2020 and it is expected that there will be further editions.
- For more information on prices, you can contact the provider directly on social networks.
When talking about successful tourism initiatives emanating from the ex-combatants of the FARC, Caguán Expeditions and Tierra Grata are mentioned again and again. Tierra Grata is an initiative that was born in the ETCR of San José de Oriente and is located in the municipality of Manaure, in the department of Cesar.
The FARC, or more precisely the Caribbean bloc of this organization, was present in the Cesar department for several years. Attacks like the one in 1999, in which two police officers died and eight were wounded, are still remembered.
After the peace agreement was signed in 2016, several ex-combatants who took advantage of the ETCR’s proximity to the Serranía de Perijá Regional Nature Park decided to launch a project in which they can present the natural wonders of the region and also preserve historical memory.
Some of the experiences offered by Tierra Grata are:
ETCR and Murals of Art and Color
Most plans include a visit to the ETCR, where you can enjoy the colors of the village. This is because the facades of the houses are painted with beautiful graffiti. Among the paintings are birds, patterns alluding to the history of the guerrillas, and various designs.
As a curiosity, the former guerrilla leader Jesús Santrich was arrested by the Colombian authorities in 2018 for allegedly being linked to drug trafficking. For this reason, they made a mural in Tierra Grata to show their support for Santrich. However, the guerrilla leader fled in 2019, which raised many doubts about his involvement in the drug trade and the betrayal of the peace agreement.
Thereupon Jesús Santrich announced that he would return to using weapons. For this reason, the residents of the ETCR of San José de Oriente erased the mural, showing their intention to continue to live in peace.
Fariano camp and historical memory
There is a replica of a FARC campsite just 500 meters from the ETCR. Here tourists can experience what it was like to live in a FARC camp.
As a former fighter mentions on the UN website, the aim of this replica of the FARC camp is “that the tourist learns in detail what the day of a guerrilla was like, how we lived, what our routines were like during the confrontation and how we live now that we are at peace”. In the camp, you can see the “cambuches” in which the guerrillas slept and stayed during the armed conflict.
Historical memory is important to most of the ex-combatants tourism initiatives. Tierra Grata offers a two-hour hike to the so-called Finca Borja. The way to the farm is called the “Route of Peace”, and as you walk along it, the ex-combatants tell how the peace process that ended a 50-year war came about.
A special feature of this project is that some guides in Tierra Grata are qualified to lead a birdwatching tour. Since Tierra Grata is surrounded by mountains and nature where the dry forest ecosystem is present, it is possible to find beautiful and exotic birds such as:
- Red-billed Emerald (Chlorostilbon gibsoni)
- Orange-crowned Oriole (Icterus auricapillus)
- Golden-winged Sparrow (Arremon schlegeli)
- Red-billed Scythebill (Campylorhamphus trochilirostris)
- Pale-legged Hornero (Furnarius leucopus)
- Insurance is included with any experience you book.
- Manaure can be reached in about 50 minutes from Valledupar, the capital of Cesar.
The Agua Bonita Festival
It’s strange, but even in the worst organizations, where violence is the daily bread, there will always be people interested in art and culture. At FARC, this happened in 2014 when this criminal organization was still active. Some members of the guerrilla founded the Fariano cultural group.
In this cultural group, they practiced dance, singing, theater, and other activities. After the signing of the peace process, these people ended up in the ETCR Agua Bonita, in the municipality of La Montañita in the department of Caquetá.
That is why art and culture are the supporting pillars in this ETCR. One of the initiatives launched by the ex-combatants was the “Agua Bonita Festival”. The idea of this festival is that artists from all over Colombia come to paint the facades of the houses of ex-guerrillas. These paintings allude to the history of the FARC, historical Colombian figures such as Jaime Garzón, who was a comedian murdered by the Colombian state, and murals with natural motifs.
As the UN discovered during its verification mission, this initiative began to generate tourism and a graffiti tour was soon offered. In addition, universities and students also began to frequent the area.
The festival was a success, this year (2021) the festival took place for the fifth time and ended on April 30th. For those interested in speaking to ex-combatants and seeing this beautiful and colorful village, Agua Bonita awaits you with open arms.
Note: It takes around 45 minutes to get to La Montañita from Florencia, the capital of Caquetá.
The Fariana Route
In the inhospitable and dry department of La Guajira, more precisely in the municipality of Fonseca, is the ETCR Pondores, which offers the Fariana route.
The FARC has been present in La Guajira for years. In 2012 it was estimated that the now demobilized 59th Front, called Resistencia Guajira, was settled in the department with a force of around 120 men.
However, La Guajira, or more precisely the ETCR Pondores, went down in history as the last place where the FARC handed over their weapons to the UN. Various initiatives began to emerge with the peace process, and the most striking one was certainly the Fariana route.
This initiative aims to rebuild a FARC camp so that tourists can see what life was like during the time of the conflict. Visitors can see the cambuches (the makeshift dwellings where the guerrillas slept), learn how they cooked, and hear the ex-combatants’ version of the conflict.
You can stay overnight in this replica war camp, see the crops and learn about them at the Museum of Remembrance. This facility contains items of clothing and equipment that were used in wartime.
- Fonseca can be reached in 2 hours from Riohacha.
- There is no information on the Internet, a website or social media. The experiences of 15 American tourists on the Fariana route can be read in the article in the Spanish newspaper El País.
Social networks: https://www.instagram.com/manatutravel/
Another tourism initiative by former FARC fighters is emerging in the ETCR Charras, in the Guaviare department, in the municipality of San José del Guaviare, with a company called Manatú Travel.
In the department of Guaviare, the FARC has been present since the 1960s and in 1993 the Eastern Bloc of the FARC was founded, which resulted in at least 600 men being present throughout the area.
According to the ETCR’s website, some ex-combatants are working on a tourism initiative called Manatú travel, a tourism agency that is offering a plan called “Tour exploring Guaviare: Trails of colors, ancestry and peace” that will show the department’s most iconic locations.
This initiative seems to be in the process of being set up. There is no website and social networks do not explain what is on offer. Attempts to contact them have so far failed.
It is likely that there will be more information about this initiative in the future as it, along with 3 other agencies from the Guaviare, was chosen to represent the department at the Colombian Association of Travel and Tourism Agencies’ fair in April 2021.
Restaurante El Cielo
This restaurant is an exception. It is not an initiative of ex-combatants from the FARC, but of Juan Manuel Barrientos, a man who, with his restaurant called El Cielo, gave various people wounded in the conflict a chance.
Juan Manuel Barrientos is considered one of the best chefs in Latin America and is also recognized as a fighter for peace. The cook had to flee Colombia as a child because of violence by drug cartels. When he returned to the country and started his project called El Cielo, he decided to help those suffering from violence.
Wounded soldiers, demobilized guerrilla fighters, indigenous peoples, and ex-paramilitaries were given the opportunity to work in the world of gastronomy. This enabled people who were once enemies, such as the military and guerrillas, to work as partners in peace.
The El Cielo franchise currently operates in Bogotá, Medellín, Miami, and Washington, with the latter receiving a Michelin star this year (2021), the highest recognition a restaurant can achieve.
This made El Cielo the first Colombian-run restaurant to receive this important recognition. If you want to support the work of people who have taken part in the armed conflict and at the same time enjoy good food, El Cielo restaurant is a good choice.
Its restaurants in Colombia are located in:
Calle 7D # 43c-36, you can get there by the metro Line A
Calle 70 # 4-47, in the Chapinero district
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