Rafting on the Pato River in Colombia with former FARC combatants
(CNN) – The water is cold and screams echoed across the river. As the boat approaches the rapids, a roar rises to stay still, before a cry of “PADDLE” and the six rafters sink into the tumultuous waters in an impressive synchronized display.
As they’re released by the rapids with barely a splash in the hull, you’d never guess that some of these men and women are more used to carrying guns than oars.
The Pato River, in the Caquetá department of southeastern Colombia, was once one of the main battlegrounds between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – the Popular Army (known by the Spanish acronym FARC- EP) and the Colombian government.
A divisive group considered in turn as Marxist vigilantes fighting for rural rights or a dangerous criminal organization, they surrendered in 2016 following a historic peace agreement. FARC leaders have received non-voting representation in Congress and the base has the opportunity to return to civilian life.
Frellin “Pato” Noreña is a 33-year-old ex-combatant who guides river expeditions.
Thousands of men and women left the jungle camps and, with the support of the Government Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization (ARN), settled in ready-made communities built to reintegrate the former guerrillas in the society.
Clinging to the edge of a cliff above the rumbling foam of the Pato River, Miravalle is one of them.
Home to less than 50 people, this row of one-story concrete buildings with fragile corrugated iron roofs is peaceful but full of life. Fathers push children down the village’s only street in strollers, while members of the military, who have a base nearby, stop to chat with locals sharing a cup of coffee outside their home.
Compared to the 25 other communities in Colombia that are home to a mix of ex-combatants and civilians, Miravalle is unique. Here, the community uses rafting to negotiate peace.
Miravalle is perched above the Pato River.
Recovering from a 52-year conflict
Miravalle and the Pato River lie in the El Caguán river basin, an area roughly the size of Switzerland. He has a busy history. It served as an unofficial capital for FARC activities, becoming a demilitarized zone under FARC control for three years in the early 2000s after the army withdrew as part of peace negotiations. When these failed, the region reverted to violent power struggles.
The Museo Local de Memoria Histórica examines the remains of the 52-year conflict.
It’s easy to understand how the terrain provided perfect cover for the guerrillas to maintain a strategic hold over the region for so long. These remote and fiercely inhospitable highlands are densely forested, located at the point of transition between the Amazon jungle and the foothills of the Andes.
Perennially mist-covered rolling hills are blanketed in rainforests, while serpentine rivers dissect the land, carrying away some of the highest rainfall in the Amazon region.
Today, this nine-kilometer stretch of Class III-IV rapids shows how tourism can help heal deep wounds. Visitors can learn more about the conflict from the mouths of the former guerrillas themselves and their civilian teammates who experienced it on the other side.
A cartoon compares the past and the present as locals take oars.
A new form of tourism
On a clear but typically humid April day, conditions are ideal for tackling the foaming rapids of the Pato River, a body of water considered one of the best in Colombia, if not South America, for rafting.
It is also possible to paddle more gently along Fisherman’s Canyon Class I and II. It’s an afternoon spent drifting through this narrow canyon, whose steep walls have been bulbous by millennia of rain and dripping with vegetation. Above, macaws – one of the more than 460 species of birds residing in the area – roost in cracks in the rock.
The calmer waters of Fisherman’s Canyon allow for easier paddling.
In Miravalle itself there is the Museo Local de Memoria Histórica (Local Museum of Historical Memory) to visit. Founded with donations from community members, its exhibits are simply fascinating. One of those exhibits is a copy of the manual used to train FARC recruits, which shows you how to do everything from throwing a grenade to setting up an orderly camp. It is an austere but captivating window on the world that the guides of Caguán Expeditions have left.
While an overview of the logistics of war can mesmerize and disturb in equal parts, guides are careful not to glorify the conflict. Instead, changing perceptions about the region is high on their list.
“One of our dreams is to show Caquetá from another angle. In some parts of the country, they associate it with violence, insecurity and drug trafficking. But what about the beautiful landscapes? says Hermides “Profe” Linares, a 44-year-old guide, a 30-year FARC veteran.
Guide Hermides “Profe” Linares, a 30-year FARC veteran, is proud to show off the natural beauty of the region.
“Rivers can be used for peacebuilding”
It all started a few years ago when former FARC commander Hernán Darío Velásquez, better known as ‘El Paisa’, brought rafts to the area and got help from the Colombian National Training Service ( SENA) to take people to the river.
But it wasn’t until Mauricio Artiñano, a researcher at the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, visited in 2018 that everything changed. He contacted Rafael Gallo, owner of the Costa Rican-based rafting operator Ríos Tropicales and a founding member of the International Rafting Federation (IRF).
Gallo immediately recognized the river’s potential for commercial rafting and sent two of his instructors to Colombia in August 2018. A month and a half of intense training in raft guidance, kayaking, river safety and rescue techniques followed.
Murals in Miravalle show revolutionaries and FARC commanders.
“We sent out an invitation to everyone who wanted to join and be part of the team. About 20 people showed up, ”recalls Moreno. Interest quickly waned. “On the third day three people left, the next day two more gave up until we were left with eight people, the ones we have left today,” he said with a snort.
A mix of veterans and civilians, all eight were certified as guides by the IRF at an official graduation ceremony attended by members of the UN and the Colombian government.
Since then, rafting has taken them around the world. In 2019, the team competed in the World Rafting Championships in Australia under the nickname Rafting for Peace, a name adopted after being invited to participate using the new IRF Peace Flag. Before leaving their territory, the Minister of Sports presented them with the Colombian flag, a moment symbolizing the vast transformations that the region – and the community – have undergone.
The rafters didn’t know it back then, but using rafting for peace after protracted conflict isn’t a new idea. After all, it’s a sport that takes extreme teamwork to avoid crashing everyone into the water.
The roots of the Rafting Federation (IRF) go back to the end of the Cold War, when Russian and American rafters were brought together to raft in Siberia. Since then, “IRF has been interested in seeing how rivers can be used for peacebuilding in different countries,” says Artiñano.
“We have entered a new world”
In a country still struggling to heal, inviting visitors to the region for candid discussions about the conflict, its origins and its impact can be a balm for those wounds.
When tourists arrive, “the guides tell their stories over and over, they talk about the hardships, go through the trauma and create an incredible sense of empowerment and self-recognition,” says Riaño.
This is a perspective shared by Mauricio Artiñano. He considers the tourism projects founded in the wake of the peace agreement as offering real possibilities for consolidating peace. “For Colombia to overcome the horrors that have occurred for more than 50 years, it is important to build bridges of dialogue and reconciliation. Tourism is one way to achieve this.”
Tourism officials believe talks about the conflict help heal wounds.
Talking about rural life and the history of the conflict is of the utmost importance to the guides. “It is our duty to tell these stories because they are at the origin of what really happened,” says Frellin “Pato” Noreña, a 33-year-old ex-combatant who joined the FARC when he was old. 16 years old.
Wherever you go in Miravalle, there is a palpable sense of pride for what rafting has achieved. Once the border and battleground between the FARC and government forces, the Pato River is today a neutral place where civilians, ex-FARC and sometimes even the army, row together.
“The river used to be dark and you didn’t know what was on the other side,” says Noreña, looking across the Pato River. He looks visibly relieved when he says, “Now we see over it and we see tourism. It’s like we’ve entered a new world.”