WHY COLOMBIA MAY BECOME THE NEXT GREAT ADVENTURE DESTINATION
No country on earth is more geographically blessed than Colombia, with its high-altitude peaks, lush jungles, pristine beaches, wildlife-rich rainforest, and strong coffee. Now that the guerrillas of the FARC are moving toward a peace accord, the land of cocaine and kidnappings may become the best unexplored adventure haven in South America.
We're flying in a Cessna 180 over jungle so dense that it looks like broccoli. Every so often, the canopy breaks to reveal an emerald patch, which marks the remains of a coca farm. Many of them in this 33,000-square-mile region southeast of Bogotá, called Meta, were wiped out 10 years ago during Plan Colombia, a controversial U.S.–backed antinarcotic operation that included aerial eradication of thousands of acres. The fumigation killed the local campesinos’ legitimate crops as well.
Out the window to our right is a flat-topped 8,000-foot mountain. A waterfall flows from top to bottom in such a voluminous cascade that we can see the rising mist from the plane. Like the peak, the waterfall has no name, although it’s at the center of 2,430-square-mile Serrania de la Macarena, which became Colombia’s first national reserve in 1948.
“All this used to be controlled by guerrillas,” Hernan Acevedo, our 42-year-old guide and copilot, tells us through his headset. “So this is pretty much virgin territory.”
It’s also restricted airspace. Because there are still military operations against guerrillas and drug traffickers here, Acevedo had to get air-force clearance. Our Cessna has a sticker on the tail that reads “National Police of Colombia Department of Anti-narcotics.” It’s an essential decal for any pilot to certify that he isn’t trafficking drugs.
“This is the first year I’ve ever flown up here,” our pilot, Mauricio Becerra, a 43-year-old software entrepreneur from Bogotá, tells me. “After this trip, you are going to know more of Colombia than 90 percent of Colombians.”
Acevedo estimates that he’s seen 50 percent of his country. With soulful brown eyes and a subtle sense of humor, he’s the son of a doctor-pilot who flew to remote villages to provide pro bono health care. Acevedo and Becerra now fly for Colombia’s Civil Air Patrol, a volunteer medical group that recently served 1,584 patients in a village north of Medellín. Acevedo is up in the air so often that his previous girlfriend demanded he choose between her and the plane. (He chose the plane.) Now, as parts of Colombia start to open up after years of paralyzing violence, Acevedo and a handful of his adventurous friends, like Becerra, are eager to explore it all.
In the past few years, international headlines have celebrated Colombia’s comeback—and for good reason. With 45 million people, 75 percent of whom live in the five major cities, Colombia is almost twice the size of Texas. It contains three mountain ranges, peaks topping 16,000 feet, some of the most biodiverse habitats in the world, and whole regions of untapped Amazon rainforest. Eleven percent of its territory is protected in national parks, and it’s the only country in South America that borders both the Pacific and the Caribbean, with 2,000 miles of coastline. These geographic wonders have made Colombia a grail for adventurers eager to chart the world’s last remaining unexplored spaces. They also make the country nearly impossible to connect by road and even more impossible to police.
In 2011, most of Colombia’s 1.6 million foreign visitors didn’t veer off the Gringo Trail: the colonial Caribbean charm of Cartagena, the Edenic splendor of the Coffee Triangle, and cities like Medellín and Bogotá. But the number of annual foreign tourists is projected to reach four million by 2014. Is the rest of the country ready for its close-up? I’m curious to find out.