Next Vacation – an Adventure Through a War Zone?

One of the reasons that I love living in Colombia is that nothing is simple here. Everything is an adventure.

We are planning a grand three week road trip around Colombia for the holidays – the coffee zone (Manizales, Pereira, Salento and the spectacular Valle de Cocora), onto Cali to spend Christmas with friends and  attend festivities at the Feria de Cali (a 10 day celebration considered raucous in a country that knows how to party), then onto Popayan (a beautiful colonial city) and from there to San Agustin (archeological site set amidst stunning scenery) and the Tatacoa Desert (a great place to star gaze) and back to Bogota. It should be an amazing trip and we are very excited, except that we still need to buy a car that will get us over some notoriously bad roads and we need to figure out what is the real scoop re the security situation, especially in the stretch from Popayan to San Agustin.

While it’s easy to forget as we live our pampered lifestyle here on the outskirts of Bogota, this country is still at war. Peace talks are under way but kidnappings still occur as do other acts of violence. Just a few days ago, 4 trucks were stopped and burned down by the FARC (leftist guerilla movement) on a major highway that runs from Medellin to the coast. Police turned up and four of the police officers were shot and killed. Granted it was 2 am, a time when nobody should be on the road here, but still this is a highly traveled road and a reminder to not take security for granted.

The road from Popayan to San Agustin is in the Red Zone, which means it is in an area of known guerilla presence. It is also a fairly big backpacker route. There has not been any violence on this road in many, many years. I called foreign owned hotels in both Popayan and San Agustin and was reassured by Brits and French people that many travelers take this road and that nothing has happened. There is even a military base on this road and military checkpoints checking the buses that come through and that there should be no problems as long as we leave early in the day.

It all sounded reasonable enough and we were pretty much set on making the trip with our Colombian friends, who were originally cautious about security in the region but after investigating the matter, decided that it was safe enough to do it. The unnerving thing is that every time I mention this trip to other Colombians we know, they make a face when I get to the part of going from San Agustin to Popayan and say something about checking out the security situation there or about taking an alternate (meaning way, way longer) route.

This is where is gets complicated. How to distinguish real danger from very understandable post-traumatic stress? Many people here have been directly and indirectly affected by the violence over the years with loved ones kidnapped or even killed. Everybody who was alive twenty or even ten years ago is well aware of the danger and to a lesser extent, the violence continues in certain parts of Colombia to this day. The concern re security is understandable.

And yet, is it accurate? As a British hotel proprietor I talked with said, “I haven’t heard of anything happening on this road in the 7 years that I have lived here. I don’t want to sound offensive but I sometimes think Colombians are too cautious. It’s like they have been traumatized and are living in the past.”

When I delve deeper by asking questions of the Colombians who scrunch up their faces, they either don’t really know what the security situation is in this area or refer to incidents that happened 10 years ago. They point out that we are foreigners and should we be stopped by the guerillas, we would make very attractive kidnapping targets. The guerillas aren’t out to kill anybody. They just want money but spending 6 months or longer in a guerilla camp in the jungle with our three kids is just too much adventure even for an adventurous soul like me.

Yet what are the chances that we would be stopped by the guerillas? Even the people who scrunch up their faces admit that the chances are small. How small, nobody can say. So therein lies the dilemma. The adventurous traveler in me feels really lame doubling back and taking a much longer route while other travelers do this route routinely (they are backpackers on buses however) but the mama of three feels really responsible for the safety of my girls, even if the chances are remote.

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