Rafting Colombia’s Pato River with former FARC combatants

(CNN) — The drinking water is chilly and shouting echoes across the river. As the boat techniques the rapids, a roar goes up to keep nevertheless, right before a shout of “PADDLE” and the six rafters dig into the tumbling waters in an impressively synchronized show.

As they are introduced by the rapids with hardly a splash in the hull, you would under no circumstances guess that some of these adult men and women are extra accustomed to bearing arms than oars.

The River Pato in the Caquetá department in southeast Colombia was when one particular of the key battlegrounds involving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Military (recognised by the Spanish acronym FARC-EP) and the Colombian governing administration.

A divisive group considered alternately as Marxist vigilantes preventing for rural legal rights or a unsafe legal business, they surrendered their weapons in 2016 following a landmark peace accord. FARC leaders had been offered non-voting representation in Congress and the rank and file the option to return to civilian existence.

Frellin “Pato” Noreña is a 33-calendar year-aged ex-combatant who guides river expeditions.

Steph Dyson

Thousands of gentlemen and girls poured out of jungle camps and, with the guidance of the governmental Company for Reincorporation and Standardization (ARN), moved into ready-manufactured communities constructed to reintegrate former guerrillas back again into modern society.

Clinging to a cliff edge earlier mentioned the rumbling foam of the Pato River, Miravalle is one particular of them.

Household to fewer than 50 men and women, this row of one particular-story concrete structures with flimsy corrugated steel roofs feels peaceful but whole of everyday living. Fathers force small children down the village’s only road in prams, although members of the army, who have a base nearby, prevent to chat idly with locals sharing a cup of coffee exterior their homes.

As opposed with the other 25 communities across Colombia that dwelling a mixture of previous combatants and civilians, Miravalle is unique. In this article, the local community is utilizing rafting to broker peace.

Miravalle is perched above the Pato River.

Miravalle is perched over the Pato River.

Steph Dyson

Recovering from a 52-year conflict

The downing of arms by the FARC marked the stop of a 52-calendar year conflict performed out in largely rural Colombia. The bloodshed took above 220,000 typically civilian lives and displaced far more than seven million Colombians.

Miravalle and the Pato River sit in the El Caguán river basin, an spot around the dimensions of Switzerland. It has a fraught historical past. It served as the unofficial capital of the FARC’s activities, starting to be a demilitarized zone less than FARC manage for a few yrs in the early 2000s, soon after the army withdrew as section of peace negotiations. When these unsuccessful, the area returned to violent power struggles.

Museo Local de Memoria Histórica looks at remnants of the 52-year conflict.

Museo Regional de Memoria Histórica seems at remnants of the 52-yr conflict.

Steph Dyson

It is effortless to recognize how the terrain offered great protect for the guerrillas to maintain a strategic keep on the region for so extensive. These remote and ferociously inhospitable highlands are heavily forested, sitting at the changeover level in between the Amazon jungle and the foothills of the Andes Mountains.

Undulating hills perpetually capped with mist are blanketed by tropical forests, although serpentine rivers dissect the land, carrying away some of the greatest rainfalls in the Amazonian area.

Now this 9-kilometer extend of Class III to IV rapids is exhibiting how tourism can support recover deep wounds. People can learn about the conflict from the mouths of the previous guerrillas on their own and their civilian teammates who lived by way of it on the other side.

A cartoon compares the past and present as residents take up oars.

A cartoon compares the earlier and present as residents just take up oars.

Steph Dyson

A new sort of tourism

On a apparent but characteristically moist day in April, disorders are great for tackling the foaming rapids of the Pato River, a entire body of h2o considered between the finest in Colombia, if not South America for rafting.

Gentler paddling along the Course I and IIs of Fisherman’s Canyon is also on the cards. It is really an afternoon spent drifting by way of this slim canyon, whose steep walls have been whittled into bulbous shapes by millennia of rainfall and drip with vegetation. High earlier mentioned, macaws — one particular of about 460 fowl species residing in the area — roost in fissures in the rock.

The calmer waters of Fisherman's Canyon provide some gentler paddling.

The calmer waters of Fisherman’s Canyon offer some gentler paddling.

Steph Dyson

In Miravalle alone, there is the Museo Community de Memoria Histórica (Nearby Museum of Historic Memory) to check out. Founded applying donations from community customers, its exhibits are nothing at all brief of intriguing. A single these types of exhibit is a duplicate of the handbook applied to educate FARC recruits, which exhibits you how to do anything from launching a grenade to placing up an orderly camp. It is a stark but engrossing window into the world that the guides at Caguán Expeditions have left.

When a glimpse into the logistics of war might mesmerize and disturb in equivalent steps, the guides are careful not to glamorize the conflict. Alternatively, shifting perceptions about the area is high on their list.

“A person of our dreams is to demonstrate Caquetá from another standpoint. In some pieces of the nation, they associate it with violence, insecurity and drug trafficking. But what about the attractive landscapes?” states 44-yr-previous guide Hermides “Profe” Linares, a 30-calendar year veteran of the FARC.

Guide Hermides "Profe" Linares, a 30-year veteran of the FARC, is proud to show off the area's natural beauty.

Guide Hermides “Profe” Linares, a 30-yr veteran of the FARC, is proud to present off the area’s pure beauty.

Steph Dyson

‘Rivers can be utilised for peace building’

“Rafting was often at the back again of my intellect”, says 38-year-outdated Duberney Moreno, captain of the community’s rafting workforce, Remando por la Paz (Rafting for Peace), and a member of the FARC for 13 years. He is heat, jovial and quite simple to like — as are all 8 guides who head up Caguán Expeditions and lead guided rafting journeys on the Pato River.

It all begun a few decades in the past when former FARC commander Hernán Darío Velásquez, much better regarded as “El Paisa,” brought rafts to the region and secured the support of the Colombian Countrywide Education Provider (SENA) to get people out on the river.

But it was only when Mauricio Artiñano, a study officer with the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, frequented in 2018 that almost everything altered. He contacted Rafael Gallo, operator of Costa Rica-based rafting operator Ríos Tropicales and founding member of the International Rafting Federation (IRF).

Gallo straight away identified the river’s prospective for commercial rafting and sent two of his instructors to Colombia in August 2018. A month and a half of intense schooling in raft guiding, kayaking, river security and rescue abilities adopted.

Murals in Miravalle show revolutionaries and FARC commanders.

Murals in Miravalle display revolutionaries and FARC commanders.

Steph Dyson

“We prolonged an invitation to anyone who needed to sign up for and be element of the team. About 20 persons showed up,” recollects Moreno. Desire quickly waned. “On the third day, 3 individuals have been leaving, the upcoming day yet another two gave up until eventually we finished up with eight individuals, the types we continue to be today,” he suggests with a snort.

A blend of ex-fighters and civilians, all eight had been qualified as guides by the IRF in an formal graduation ceremony attended by members of the UN and the Colombian governing administration.

Rafting has because taken them throughout the environment. In 2019, the team competed at the Planet Rafting Championships in Australia under the moniker Rafting for Peace, a name adopted after they have been requested to participate making use of the recently recognized IRF Peace Flag. Just before they remaining house turf, the minister for sports offered them with the Colombian flag, a second symbolizing the vast transformations that the area — and the local community — have professional.

The rafters did not know it at the time, but using rafting for peace after a prolonged conflict is just not a new thought. Immediately after all, it can be a activity that necessitates excessive teamwork to keep away from planting everybody in the h2o.

The roots of the rafting federation (IRF) lie in the end of the Cold War, when Russian and US rafters have been brought jointly to raft in Siberia. At any time due to the fact, “the IRF has been fascinated in viewing how rivers can be utilised for peace creating throughout different nations around the world,” describes Artiñano.

‘We’ve crossed into a new world’

In a region nevertheless having difficulties to heal, inviting guests into the region for frank discussions about the conflict, its origins and its effect may possibly be a salve to these wounds.

This is the belief of Lizeth Riaño, CEO and co-founder of the non-profit Collective Impulse and former chief influence officer at Bogotá-centered tour operator Impulse Travel. Each companies have performed an integral job in monetarily and strategically supporting Caguán Expeditions, as well as other peace-constructing jobs across the place.

When holidaymakers get there, “the guides convey to their tales over and in excess of, they speak about the hardships, function as a result of the trauma, and make an outstanding feeling of empowerment and self-recognition,” says Riaño.

It truly is a point of view shared by Mauricio Artiñano. He views tourism tasks founded in the wake of the peace accord as supplying real alternatives for peace constructing. “For Colombia to move previous the horrors that occurred for much more than 50 a long time, it’s crucial to develop bridges of dialogue and reconciliation. Tourism is just one way of undertaking that.”

Tourism officials believe discussions about the conflict help heal wounds.

Tourism officers feel conversations about the conflict enable mend wounds.

Steph Dyson

Chatting about rural lifestyle and the history of how the conflict transpired is of uttermost worth to the guides. “It is our obligation to inform these stories since they are the root of what genuinely took place,” suggests Frellin “Pato” Noreña, a 33-year-outdated ex-combatant who joined the FARC when he was 16 decades aged.

Where ever you go in Miravalle, you will find a palpable feeling of delight in what rafting has obtained. At the time a frontier and battlefield between the FARC and govt forces, now the River Pato is a neutral location the place civilians, ex-FARC and even on situation the military, row together.

“Before, the river was darkish and you failed to know what was on the other side,” says Noreña, staring throughout the Pato River. He appears to be like visibly relieved as he says, “Now we see more than it and we see tourism. It truly is like we have crossed into a new entire world.”

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