(CNN)— The water was cold, and shouts echoed across the river. As the ship approached the rapids, a roar rose to a standstill, and then a shout of “PADDLE” was heard, and the six rafters displayed the deep tumbling waters in impressive synchronization.
Since they were released by the rapids and the hulls barely splashed, you would never have guessed that some of these men and women are more accustomed to carrying weapons than oars.
The Pato River in Caqueta Province in southeastern Colombia was once one of the main battlefields between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the People’s Army (FARC-EP in Spanish) and the Colombian government.
A divided group is seen as Marxist volunteer police officers fighting for rural rights or dangerous criminal organizations. They handed over their weapons after signing a landmark peace agreement in 2016. The leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia obtained non-voting representation in Congress, and ordinary people have the opportunity to return to civilian life.
Frellin “Pato” Noreña is a 33-year-old ex-combat who is responsible for guiding river expeditions.
Thousands of men and women emerged from the jungle camps and, with the support of the Government Reorganization and Standardization Agency (ARN), they moved into existing communities designed to reintegrate former guerrillas into society.
Close to the edge of the cliff above the rumbling foam of the Pato River, Miravale is one of them.
There are less than 50 people in this row of single-story concrete buildings, with a fragile corrugated metal roof, which makes people feel peaceful but full of life. The fathers pushed the baby strollers to the only street in the village, while members of the army who had a base nearby stopped to chat and chat with the locals who shared a cup of coffee outside their homes.
Compared with the 25 other communities in Colombia where ex-combatants and civilians are mixed, Miravalle is unique. Here, the community is using rafting to promote peace.
Miravalle is located above the Pato River.
Recovering from 52 years of conflict
The Miravalle and Pato rivers are located in the El Caguán river basin, which is about the same size as Switzerland. It has a worrying history. It is the unofficial capital for the activities of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. After the withdrawal of the army as part of the peace negotiations, it became a three-year demilitarized zone under the control of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in the early 2000s. When these failed, the region returned to a violent power struggle.
Museo Local de Memoria Histórica looks at the remains of the 52-year conflict.
It is easy to understand how the terrain provided the perfect cover for the guerrillas to maintain strategic control of the area for so long. These remote and desolate highlands are densely forested and located at the transition point between the Amazon jungle and the foothills of the Andes.
The rolling hills are always shrouded in mist and covered by tropical forests, while winding rivers cut the land and take away some of the highest rainfall in the Amazon.
Now, this 9-kilometer-long Class III to Class IV rapid shows how tourism can help heal deep wounds. Visitors can learn about the conflict from the former guerrillas themselves and the civilian teammates they experienced on the other side.
When the residents picked up the paddles, the comics compared the past and the present.
A new form of tourism
On a sunny but particularly humid day in April, conditions are ideal for handling the foamy rapids of the Pato River, one of the best waters in Colombia (if not for rafting in South America).
It is also possible to paddle more gently along Fisherman’s Canyon Class I and Class II. It was an afternoon drifting in this narrow canyon. Thousands of years of rainfall and dripping vegetation cut the steep canyon into bulbous roots. At high altitudes, macaws-one of the more than 460 species of birds that live in the area-perches in cracks in the rocks.
The calm waters of Fisherman’s Canyon provide some gentler paddling.
In Miravalle, you can visit the Museo Local de Memoria Histórica (Museum of Local Historical Memory). Founded by donations from community members, its exhibits are very attractive. One of the exhibits is a copy of the manual used to train FARC recruits, which shows you how to complete everything from launching grenades to establishing an orderly camp. This is a bright but fascinating window of the world left by the guide of Caguán Expeditions.
Although a glimpse of the logistics of the war may be fascinating and disturbing in the same way, the guides are careful not to glorify the conflict. On the contrary, changing the perception of the region is at the top of their list.
“One of our dreams is to show Kaqueta from another angle. In some parts of the country, they associate it with violence, insecurity and drug trafficking. But what about the beautiful scenery?” The 44-year-old guide Hermides “Profe” Linares said he is a 30-year veteran of FARC.
Guide Hermides “Profe” Linares, a 30-year FARC veteran, proudly showcases the natural beauty of the region.
“Rivers can be used to build peace”
It all started a few years ago when the former FARC commander Hernán Darío Velásquez (better known as “El Paisa”) brought the raft to The area, and with the help of the Colombian National Training Agency (SENA), brought people to the river.
But it wasn’t until 2018 when Mauricio Artiñano, a research officer from the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, visited that everything changed. He contacted Rafael Gallo, the owner of Costa Rica rafting operator Ríos Tropicales and a founding member of the International Rafting Federation (IRF).
Gallo immediately realized the commercial rafting potential of the river and sent two of his coaches to Colombia in August 2018. Afterwards, a one-and-a-half month intensive training on rafting guidance, kayaking, river safety and rescue skills was carried out.
Miravalle’s murals show revolutionaries and the commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
“We sent out invitations to everyone who wanted to join and become part of the team. About 20 people were there,” Moreno recalled. Interest quickly faded. “On the third day, three people were leaving, and two more gave up the next day, until we finally had eight people, the one we stayed today,” he snorted.
At the official graduation ceremony attended by members of the United Nations and the Colombian government, all eight people were a mixture of former fighters and civilians, and all were certified as guides by the IRF.
Since then, rafting has brought them all over the world. In 2019, the team participated in the World Rafting Championships held in Australia under the nickname “Peace Rafting”. The name was adopted after they were asked to compete with the newly established IRF Peace Flag. Before they left the home court, the Minister of Sports presented them with the Colombian flag, a moment that symbolized the tremendous changes the region and community experienced.
The rafters didn’t know it at the time, but using drifting to find peace after a long conflict was not a new idea. After all, this is a sport that requires extreme teamwork to avoid putting everyone in the water.
The roots of the Rafting Federation (IRF) are at the end of the Cold War, when Russian and American rafters gathered to drift in Siberia. Since then, “IRF has always been interested in understanding how rivers are used for peace building in different countries,” Artiñano explained.
“We have entered a new world”
In a country that is still struggling to heal, inviting tourists into the area to have a frank discussion about the conflict, its origins and impact may be an antidote to these wounds.
When tourists arrive, “the guide tells their stories over and over again, they talk about hardships, overcome trauma, and create an incredible sense of empowerment and self-recognition,” Riano said.
This is the point of view of Mauricio Artiñano. He believes that the tourism projects established after the peace agreement provide real possibilities for peacebuilding. “In order to free Colombia from the terrorist incidents that have occurred over the past 50 years, it is important to build bridges for dialogue and reconciliation. Tourism is one way to achieve this goal.”
Tourism officials believe that discussions about conflicts can help heal wounds.
Talking about the history of rural life and conflicts is essential for the tour guide. “We have a responsibility to tell these stories because they are the root of what really happened,” said the 33-year-old ex-combat Flylin “Pato” Norenha, who joined the FARC when he was 16.
No matter where you go in Miravalle, you will be extremely proud of the achievements of rafting. Once a border and battlefield between the FARC and government forces, the Pato River is now a neutral place where civilians, the former FARC and even the occasional army row boats.
“Before, this river was very dark, and you didn’t know what was on the other side,” Norena said, staring at the opposite side of the Pato River. He looked visibly relieved, “Now we see it, we see the tourism industry. It’s like we have entered a new world.”