Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
After over 50 years of fighting, Colombia’s FARC rebels signed a peace deal in 2017. Thanks to the help of the UN, some of them have turned their attention to other ventures—like becoming professional rafting guides and World Championship competitors.
As the sun warms the banks of Colombia’s Pato River, a group of rafting guides pull on their life jackets, laughing and chatting as they pile into their rafts. They wrap their hands around the paddles, push off into the swirling water, and begin paddling down the river.
The serene scene is characteristic of an early morning rafting trip anywhere in the world—but it would have been nearly impossible to imagine here just a few years ago.
Once a hub for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—who, depending on which newspapers you read, were either Robin Hood-esque vigilantes who subscribed to Marxist beliefs and represented the rural poor and fought for the redistribution of wealth or a criminal organization—this area, today known as the Miravalle Territorial Area for Training and Reincorporation (TATR), is rewriting its story, from one of bloodshed to a burgeoning tourism destination.
The same men and women who once took up arms against the Colombian government now pick up paddles. And this river, which former combatants crossed countless times during the decades-long armed conflict, is now the lifeblood for their commercial river rafting company.
Deep in the Amazon jungle in the municipality of San Vicente del Caguán (about 300 kilometers south of Bogotá), the Pato River had previously never been explored or considered for rafting or any other kind of river sports.
But the former combatants, who still lived in the area, had access to river rafts. As they began their socio-economic reintegration into society, they thought tourism might be an avenue worth exploring.
“It’s a beautiful part of the country that once was not accessible to tourists,” says Mauricio Artiñano, a planning officer with the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia. This UN organization was involved in the peace process between the Colombian government and the former FARC.
He saw that the ex-combatants’ enthusiasm and energy for the initiative was palpable, but there was one problem: They lacked formal training.
Artiñano decided to call on Rafael Gallo, one of the founding members of the International Rafting Federation (IRF) and owner of Rio Tropicales, an adventure company based in Costa Rica, for assistance—and in August 2018, Gallo visited Miravalle to assess the situation.
“They were totally transformed. They ran a safety speech like they’d been guides for years. They learned in a month and a half what normally takes a guide six to eight months to learn.”
“I was there to assess what the river’s like, what the training process is like, what the future is,” Gallo said. “When we got on the river, I learned they had a guy from Colombia who was teaching them to be guides, and I found out very quickly, after the first rapid, that this guy knew nothing about rafting.”
Subsequently, Gallo sent two of Rio Tropicales’ rafting instructors down to train approximately 20 people in river guiding.
In November that year, nine of the original 20 river rafting guides received their national and IRF site-specific certifications. Once again, Gallo joined them on the river.
“They were totally transformed,” he said. “They ran a safety speech like they’d been guides for years. They learned in a month and a half what normally takes a guide six to eight months to learn.”
The graduation celebration came with extra exciting news: The IRF had invited the team to attend the World Rafting Championships in Australia in May 2019.
The significance of this invitation couldn’t be underestimated, and the ensuing efforts to ultimately get eight guides (seven men and one woman—five ex-combatants and three local community members) from Colombia over to Australia symbolized so much more than just rafting guides seeking to compete in an international competition.
Getting the guides to Australia was the next task. The Colombian government and administrative offices along with private donors provided funding while the Australian Embassy in Colombia was instrumental in helping the guides get their visas—no small feat for former FARC combatants who, in another life, literally fought the government. The United Nations supported the entire effort.
“I think the other teams were very inspired by their story and everything they’ve accomplished in such a short time.”
The day before they left for Australia, the director of the Colombian Sports Institute presented the team with the Colombian flag to officially represent Colombia in the World Rafting Championships.
“That was a very big deal,” says Artiñano, “because, when you think about it, the FARC fought the Colombian state for 53 years, and now they were receiving a flag from the state to represent the country in an international sporting event. That was a very moving event.”
At the competition, the team placed last, but fared well, considering it had never rafted anywhere but the Pato River, never rafted on a slalom course, and were the first team to run the race.
“Everybody was very friendly to them,” says Gallo, “and they themselves realized they were capable of doing everything on the course—not as fast or as well, but they were as capable of running the river as anyone else.”
Of course, it wasn’t just about the race itself but their actual presence at the event that really mattered. “I think the other teams were very inspired by their story and everything they’ve accomplished in such a short time,” says Artiñano.
This isn’t the first time the IRF has championed rivers as a vehicle for peace; Gallo has worked on other post-conflict rafting initiatives in the former Soviet Union and Bosnia.
It extends beyond ex-soldiers as well. Similarly, former poachers in South Africa and Zimbabwe have turned away from a violent past to one that embraces tourism as a force for peaceful economic prosperity.
“My heart feels fulfilled to be part of a peace process through rafting and the river, which I’m passionate about,” Gallo says. “I don’t need to know the details about the past. This is about the future for the world.”
And it’s the future these guides are focused on. As the epicenter for FARC, the Miravalle region was hit particularly hard during the civil war, but in just a few short years, the community has demonstrated its commitment to the peace process and development following 53 years of conflict.
The Colombian guides also work in agriculture alongside developing their company, Caguán Expeditions, which offers river rafting trips, basic lodging, bird-watching and hiking trails, and an opportunity for travelers to learn about the community’s history and reintegration process. “There are small groups of tourists trickling in and I’ve taken several groups of young Colombians as tourists,” says Artiñano.
At first, the former combatants were apprehensive about talking about their past, but inviting people into their community and having these conversations is an integral part of the experience.
“The rafting, of course, is very exciting and a lot of adrenaline, but I think the Colombians I’ve taken there are happiest with having a first-time opportunity to meet former combatants, to hear their stories, and to exchange different anecdotes and stories regarding the conflict,” says Artiñano. “They keep reinforcing this idea that they’ve exchanged their rifles for rafting paddles, and they want to continue contributing to peace in Colombia.”
JoAnna Haugen is a writer, public speaker, and founder of Rooted, a storytelling platform at the intersection of sustainable travel, environmental conservation, and community-based advocacy efforts. A returned Peace Corps volunteer, international election observer, and intrepid traveler, JoAnna currently lives in Kyiv, Ukraine.