The Department of Meta, a cattle-farming subregion of Los Llanos, in the shadow of the Andes mountains. Photos by Bloomberg
Galavanta’s tented camp erected for travellers on a plain in Los Llanos.
Ask Colombian native Cristina Consuegra what she remembers about the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, and she’ll tell you stories about good luck and bad luck. Relatively speaking, good luck was losing your finca, or farmhouse; bad luck was finding out your family members or friends had been kidnapped. Worse luck was when they never made it back home.
In post-conflict Colombia, she’s like most of her compatriots — simultaneously optimistic about the future of her country and haunted by aspects of its past. She’ll never forget the worry that came with every chime of a breaking news update, she says, or rehearsing the cover stories her parents would craft for daring family vacations to the coffee region or La Ciudad Perdida.
But rather than banish those ghosts of the past to the history books, Consuegra is lacing up her hiking boots and heading deep into the mysteriously beautiful places that, until November 2016, were primarily known as FARC strongholds. What’s more, she’s taking adventurous travellers with her. Her goal? To replace those dark memories with happy ones, and to show the world Colombia’s most dazzling wonders.
As co-founder of the bespoke travel outfit Galavanta, which she runs with her husband, Consuegra is on the front lines of the country’s burgeoning luxury tourism industry. Already, she’s created trailblazing itineraries for billionaires and titans of industry who want to experience the country’s intrigue and natural beauty — which often go hand in hand.
Now she’s preparing to launch a formal set of “pioneer expeditions” in early 2018 that will explore the untapped natural bounty of the territories formerly controlled by the FARC, National Liberation Army (ELN), and paramilitary. Each trip is created in conjunction with Fundación Ecoplanet, a regional conservation organisation run by Google executive and ardent conservationist Francisco Forero Bonell, with a mission to uncover Colombia’s ecological treasures.
For the first time, she says, luxury travellers will be able to discover the fluorescent river of Caño Cristales, the pictogram-covered rock formations and caves of Serranía de la Lindosa, the jaguar-occupied Andean foothills, and butterfly-rich patches of the Amazon — all places that were kept strictly off-limits by one of the longest and most violent guerilla insurgencies of the 20th century.
Where you can go
It would be a stretch to say that the entire Colombian countryside is open to travellers in what is still a delicate, post-conflict environment. Land mines are still being cleared from certain areas, and there are still small pockets of militant communities. Poor infrastructure adds significant limitations — certain sites can be reached only by helicopter or Cessna, and hotel stock is thin.
But Consuegra has worked around these obstacles to make comfort and safety possible even in the most unimaginable of places.
Take Los Llanos. This wild, cowboy countryside near the Venezuelan border is largely overlooked by Colombians. Consuegra herself was caught off guard by the appeal of this onetime no-go zone where it’s possible to see jaguars, pumas, capybaras, howler monkeys and a kaleidoscope’s worth of bird species. Aside from a few very basic offerings, hotels there are non-existent, but in Consuegra’s book, the saying might as well go, “they will come, even if you don’t build it.” She created pop-up, safari-style lodges in safe, wildlife-rich corridors and opened up access to an existing villa with a private landing strip.
Then there’s Caño Cristales, a colour-changing river with mythical appeal near the town of La Macarena. Locals refer to it as the “river of five colours” or the “liquid rainbow” because of the plants that bloom periodically on the riverbed, making its waters look as though they’ve been stained in shades of pink, purple, yellow, green and red. “It’s only been accessible for the last few years with new flights from Bogotá, and two cute lodges run by a young biologist,” said Consuegra. The region has major ecological appeal: It’s where the plains, the Andes and the Amazon converge.
The Sierra Nevada, where the staggering ruins of La Ciudad Perdida and Galavanta’s own namesake lodge are located, was until recently the headquarters of paramilitary head Jorge Cuarenta, but Conseugra takes visitors there. Serranía de la Lindosa, where rarely seen rock formations are filled with ancient pictograms, was a stone’s throw from Pablo Escobar’s landing strip; it, too, is available to be explored. And on the west coast, in El Choco, where FARC rebels once went mano a mano with the ELN and paramilitaries, you can now watch humpback whales peacefully migrating north from Patagonia.
“People don’t realise Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world,” Consuegra said.
Where you can’t go
These days, you’re far more likely to see pink dolphins than paramilitaries on a remote Colombian adventure, but travel advisories are still in place for American and French travellers. The US State Department cautions about continued kidnappings and violence, particularly in rural areas, but says US citizens are not the targets. “You have to explore the risks separately in each destination,” Consuegra explained, adding that she consults with the military and professional security companies before recommending destinations to clients.
Some locations are off the table, but not many. San José del Guaviare, for instance, is a convenient stopping point for guests who want to explore nearby Tranquilandia, but the city itself is somewhat restricted; it has a clearly demarcated “safety zone” that’s taken very seriously.
There are other destinations where she’s unable to take travellers, not for fear of violence but of negative impact. Chiribiquete National Park in the Amazon, for instance, is believed by scientists to contain an ancient city below its dense jungle floor and has four remaining indigenous communities that have never come in contact with modern civilisation. Seeing the area’s spectacular wildlife and vistas would jeopardise these fragile communities and ecosystems — it’s been declared off limits for tourism by the national government.
The bottom line
Ultimately, Consuegra is leveraging tourism to help rewrite her country’s history, not by erasing the past but by revealing what violence had long obscured. She firmly subscribes to the government’s one-time promotional motto — that “the only risk [for travellers] is wanting to stay”.
Still, these trips aren’t cheap. Pulling off helicopter transfers to far-off sites, securing rare permits and creating pop-up tented camps comes at a steep starting cost of US$100,000 (RM419,000) for one or two people for seven nights. That means few will be able to see the country as she sees it, for now.
But this is just a starting point. Prices will drop as accessibility improves and other operators swoop in. And until then, “FARC tourists” get the privilege of being true pioneers. “We’re probably exploring 10% of the total national territory right now,” said Consuegra. “There is still so much more to discover.” — Bloomberg