Rafting Colombia’s Pato River with former FARC combatants


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

As they are produced by the rapids with hardly a splash in the hull, you would never guess that some of these males and females are additional accustomed to bearing arms than oars.

The River Pato in the Caquetá department in southeast Colombia was at the time a single of the major battlegrounds concerning the Groundbreaking Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army (known by the Spanish acronym FARC-EP) and the Colombian federal government.

A divisive team viewed alternately as Marxist vigilantes fighting for rural legal rights or a harmful legal firm, they surrendered their weapons in 2016 subsequent a landmark peace accord. FARC leaders were being given non-voting illustration in Congress and the rank and file the option to return to civilian life.

Frellin “Pato” Noreña is a 33-calendar year-outdated ex-combatant who guides river expeditions.

Steph Dyson

Thousands of men and females poured out of jungle camps and, with the assist of the governmental Agency for Reincorporation and Standardization (ARN), moved into all set-designed communities built to reintegrate previous guerrillas again into society.

Clinging to a cliff edge previously mentioned the rumbling foam of the Pato River, Miravalle is 1 of them.

Home to less than 50 individuals, this row of a single-tale concrete structures with flimsy corrugated metallic roofs feels tranquil but whole of daily life. Fathers press young children down the village’s only road in prams, whilst users of the army, who have a base close by, halt to chat idly with locals sharing a cup of espresso outside the house their houses.

When compared with the other 25 communities across Colombia that property a combination of former combatants and civilians, Miravalle is exclusive. Below, the community is applying rafting to broker peace.

Miravalle is perched above the Pato River.

Miravalle is perched above the Pato River.

Steph Dyson

Recovering from a 52-calendar year conflict

The downing of arms by the FARC marked the finish of a 52-yr conflict played out in generally rural Colombia. The bloodshed took around 220,000 mostly civilian lives and displaced a lot more than seven million Colombians.

Miravalle and the Pato River sit within just the El Caguán river basin, an region approximately the sizing of Switzerland. It has a fraught history. It served as the unofficial money of the FARC’s pursuits, turning into a demilitarized zone underneath FARC regulate for 3 several years in the early 2000s, after the military withdrew as portion of peace negotiations. When these unsuccessful, the region returned to violent electric power struggles.

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

Museo Regional de Memoria Histórica appears at remnants of the 52-calendar year conflict.

Steph Dyson

It is simple to recognize how the terrain offered excellent protect for the guerrillas to retain a strategic maintain on the location for so extensive. These distant and ferociously inhospitable highlands are seriously forested, sitting at the transition position among the Amazon jungle and the foothills of the Andes Mountains.

Undulating hills perpetually capped with mist are blanketed by tropical forests, whilst serpentine rivers dissect the land, carrying absent some of the best rainfalls in the Amazonian location.

Now this nine-kilometer stretch of Class III to IV rapids is demonstrating how tourism can help recover deep wounds. Visitors can master about the conflict from the mouths of the former guerrillas on their own and their civilian teammates who lived via it on the other side.

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

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

Steph Dyson

A new sort of tourism

On a apparent but characteristically moist working day in April, ailments are best for tackling the foaming rapids of the Pato River, a human body of h2o viewed as amongst the finest in Colombia, if not South America for rafting.

Gentler paddling alongside the Course I and IIs of Fisherman’s Canyon is also on the cards. It’s an afternoon invested drifting through this narrow canyon, whose steep walls have been whittled into bulbous shapes by millennia of rainfall and drip with vegetation. Large higher than, macaws — a single of more than 460 bird species residing in the location — roost in fissures in the rock.

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

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

Steph Dyson

In Miravalle itself, there’s the Museo Regional de Memoria Histórica (Community Museum of Historic Memory) to stop by. Founded making use of donations from group users, its exhibits are nothing quick of intriguing. A single these types of show is a copy of the handbook utilized to coach FARC recruits, which demonstrates you how to do all the things from launching a grenade to location up an orderly camp. It is a stark but engrossing window into the world that the guides at Caguán Expeditions have still left.

Even though a glimpse into the logistics of war could mesmerize and disturb in equivalent measures, the guides are watchful not to glamorize the conflict. As a substitute, shifting perceptions about the area is substantial on their list.

“1 of our dreams is to display Caquetá from a further viewpoint. In some areas of the state, they affiliate it with violence, insecurity and drug trafficking. But what about the beautiful landscapes?” claims 44-year-previous information 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.

Guidebook Hermides “Profe” Linares, a 30-yr veteran of the FARC, is happy to present off the area’s normal magnificence.

Steph Dyson

‘Rivers can be used for peace building’

“Rafting was often at the again of my mind”, suggests 38-yr-aged Duberney Moreno, captain of the community’s rafting crew, Remando por la Paz (Rafting for Peace), and a member of the FARC for 13 decades. He is warm, jovial and pretty quick to like — as are all eight guides who head up Caguán Expeditions and lead guided rafting trips on the Pato River.

It all begun a several a long time back when previous FARC commander Hernán Darío Velásquez, greater recognized as “El Paisa,” brought rafts to the area and secured the support of the Colombian Countrywide Schooling Services (SENA) to take men and women out on the river.

But it was only when Mauricio Artiñano, a investigate officer with the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, frequented in 2018 that every little thing modified. He contacted Rafael Gallo, owner of Costa Rica-dependent rafting operator Ríos Tropicales and founding member of the Global Rafting Federation (IRF).

Gallo immediately acknowledged the river’s probable for professional rafting and sent two of his instructors to Colombia in August 2018. A thirty day period and a half of powerful coaching in raft guiding, kayaking, river safety and rescue abilities followed.

Murals in Miravalle show revolutionaries and FARC commanders.

Murals in Miravalle exhibit revolutionaries and FARC commanders.

Steph Dyson

“We extended an invitation to anyone who needed to be a part of and be part of the team. About 20 folks showed up,” recollects Moreno. Interest promptly waned. “On the 3rd working day, three people had been leaving, the future working day a different two gave up until finally we finished up with 8 people today, the types we remain currently,” he states with a snort.

A mix of ex-fighters and civilians, all eight had been licensed as guides by the IRF in an formal graduation ceremony attended by users of the UN and the Colombian govt.

Rafting has due to the fact taken them throughout the globe. In 2019, the workforce competed at the Entire world Rafting Championships in Australia less than the moniker Rafting for Peace, a identify adopted immediately after they have been asked to participate using the newly established IRF Peace Flag. Just before they remaining household turf, the minister for sports activities offered them with the Colombian flag, a minute symbolizing the wide transformations that the location — and the group — have experienced.

The rafters failed to know it at the time, but utilizing rafting for peace immediately after a extended conflict isn’t a new strategy. Right after all, it can be a sport that demands extraordinary teamwork to stay clear of planting everybody in the water.

The roots of the rafting federation (IRF) lie in the end of the Cold War, when Russian and US rafters were being introduced with each other to raft in Siberia. Ever since, “the IRF has been interested in viewing how rivers can be used for peace building across unique international locations,” points out Artiñano.

‘We’ve crossed into a new world’

In a state nonetheless struggling to recover, inviting readers into the location for frank discussions about the conflict, its origins and its effects may perhaps be a salve to these wounds.

This is the belief of Lizeth Riaño, CEO and co-founder of the non-earnings Collective Impulse and former main impact officer at Bogotá-based tour operator Impulse Journey. Each companies have performed an integral position in economically and strategically supporting Caguán Expeditions, as nicely as other peace-making jobs across the state.

When visitors get there, “the guides explain to their tales about and about, they talk about the hardships, function by the trauma, and build an incredible perception of empowerment and self-recognition,” claims Riaño.

It can be a standpoint shared by Mauricio Artiñano. He views tourism assignments established in the wake of the peace accord as giving authentic choices for peace building. “For Colombia to go past the horrors that transpired for more than 50 a long time, it is important to establish bridges of dialogue and reconciliation. Tourism is a single way of undertaking that.”

Tourism officials believe discussions about the conflict help heal wounds.

Tourism officers consider discussions about the conflict support recover wounds.

Steph Dyson

Chatting about rural lifestyle and the background of how the conflict transpired is of uttermost worth to the guides. “It is our duty to notify these tales due to the fact they are the root of what really occurred,” claims Frellin “Pato” Noreña, a 33-12 months-old ex-combatant who joined the FARC when he was 16 many years aged.

Where ever you go in Miravalle, there’s a palpable feeling of satisfaction in what rafting has achieved. When a frontier and battlefield between the FARC and government forces, now the River Pato is a neutral location where by civilians, ex-FARC and even on event the military, row with each other.

“Just before, the river was darkish and you failed to know what was on the other aspect,” suggests Noreña, staring throughout the Pato River. He appears to be visibly relieved as he says, “Now we see around it and we see tourism. It is like we have crossed into a new world.”



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