We met the migrants towards the end of our arduous hike into that vast expanse of mountainous rain forest which spans the isthmus linking Colombia to Panama and is known as the Darien Gap.
There were 17 of them – men and women, Haitians, Congolese and Togons, all hoping eventually to reach the United States but hopelessly ill-equipped for this most hazardous stage of their marathon journey.
They had no guide to lead them through a jungle so impenetrable that it forms the only break in the 19,000-mile Pan-American Highway between Alaska and Argentina. They had no protection against the intense heat, cloying mud, malarial mosquitoes, venomous snakes, wild animals and violent tropical storms. Some wore plastic household sandals, others carried bottles of water and packets of biscuits in flimsy carrier bags. They were frightened and bewildered, but had come too far to turn back.
We warned them that they would never find their way alone, that other migrants had perished along the jungle’s labyrinthine trails. Our own guide, Jairo, promised to find someone to lead them across the Panamanian border when we reached the remote village of Capurgana on the Caribbean coast. Reluctantly they agreed, though some had no money, but when we reached Capurgana an hour later the paramilitaries that control it refused to help.
What became of those desperate people I will never know. Writing this in the comfort of my London home, I feel admiration for their determination to risk so much for better lives, and shame at my inability to help them. I also feel unease that a trek which was, for them, a matter almost literally of life or death I undertook for mere adventure.
I wanted to visit Colombia because great swathes of this vast country – Amazonian rain forests, remote Andean valleys, Pacific and Caribbean coastlines – are becoming accessible for the first time in decades now that the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have provisionally agreed to end Latin America’s longest and deadliest insurgency. A fragile ceasefir hold for now despite the people’s rejection of the peace deal in a referendum two weeks ago.
Moreover, a silver lining of some such conflicts is that they prevent the commercial exploitation of areas of wilderness or natural beauty, keeping them relatively pristine. I hoped the 3,000-square-mile Darien Gap – hitherto notorious for guerillas, drug traffickers and kidnapped foreigners - would be a case in point.
A colleague and I duly flew to Bogota and were enchanted by the colourful, vibrant capital. We stayed at the Hotel de la Opera, a charming colonial-era edifice in the historic old Candelaria district. We enjoyed three of the city’s many splendid free museums - the Musee del Oro, whose thousands of stunning gold artefacts from Colombia’s pre-Hispanic era inspired the legend of El Dorado; the Police Museum where the most popular exhibits are the customised Harley Davidson of the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and a bloodstained tile from the roof on which he was shot; and the Musee Botero which contains not only the magnificent art collection of Fernando Botero, Colombia’s most famous artist, but also scores of his own trademark depictions of grotesquely voluminous figures. We also admired another of Colombia’s artistic specialities – the huge, fantastical murals that seem to cover every wall.
Later, fuelled by ground maize pancakes called arepas and succulent roasted ants bought from street vendors, we took a funicular up a hill called Cerro de Monserrate and enjoyed spectacular views across Bogota to the distant peaks of the eastern Andes.
The next morning we flew on to Medellin, the world’s cocaine capital and most dangerous city when Escobar’s fabulously wealthy cartel controlled it late last century.
Today the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ - a moniker derived from its perfect climate - is as safe as London or New York. Thickets of smart new high rises dot the floor of the steep Andean valley in which it sits. A new metro runs along that valley floor, and cable cars serve the shanty towns that tumble down its sides. The young hang out in the hip bars and restaurants of Parque Lleras.
Eager to jettison its unsavoury past, the city’s authorities discourage the unofficial Pablo Escobar tours now on offer, but we took one anyway. Carlos Palau, a former policeman who claims the cartel four times tried to kill him, showed us the fancy apartment block where Escobar lived with his family in the penthouse and tortured prisoners in the basement; La Catedral, the luxurious hilltop ‘prison’ - replete with helipad and ‘pleasure rooms’ - that Escobar built when he agreed to voluntarily incarceration to avoid extradition to the US; and the suburban house where he was shot in 1993 as he scrambled across a rear roof in a desperate attempt to avoid capture.
Palau also took us to Escobar’s grave in the Montesacro cemetery. People still lay flowers there, for Escobar cultivated a ‘Robin Hood’ image by building homes and football pitches for the poor. Palau prefers to pray. ‘Look at you, Escobar,” he intones. “You tried to kill me many times, but you didn’t. I win. Thank you, because now you’re in the ground and I’m making money in your name.”
After Medellin we left the proverbial beaten track. We flew north to Acandi, an isolated town on the Gulf of Uraba far from any road. From there a horse and cart delivered us to an open boat with a powerful outboard which sped us out of the Gulf, scattering pelicans and cormorants, to Capurgana – a fishing village some 40 minutes away that is accessible only by water.
Capurgana, flanked by sea and forested mountains, is not for the high-end traveller, but it does have character and an edgy sort of charm. On the dock our names were entered into a ledger by hand. Our hotel sent a man with a wheelbarrow to fetch our luggage, for there areno cars. A few brightly-painted bars and hostels serve those adventurous backpackers who reach the place. The locals – mostly Afro-Colombians – seem to spend their days playingcards or dominoes in the debilitating heat, or slumbering in hammocks.
Torpor prevails except, one suspects, for the odd spot of drug or human trafficking by boatinto Panama, a few miles further west. A large hotel owned by an extradited drug trafficker stands abandoned beside the sandy beach. Young paramilitary-types lurk watchfully in the background.
We swam. We walked along a rocky coastal path to a driftwood hut where a Rastafarian named Rimberto served us cold lemonade in coconut shells and fish nibbled our feet in a natural pool. We hiked to Sapzurro, a neighbouring village where we cooled off beneath a waterfall, and from there into Panama via an official border crossing for lunch in the tiny beach resort of La Miel. At night we ate delicious seafood at Josefina’s, a beach hut with plastic tables and chairs lit by a single light bulb hanging from a tree. Offshore, a distant electrical storm provided us with a Caribbean son-et-lumiere.
At 7.00am on the third day we entered the rain forest, intending to cover the eight miles to a remote ‘finca’ - farmstead - by noon. We failed spectacularly.
This is no Disney jungle. It does not feature in Lonely Planet. There are no paved paths for tourists. For hours we squelched along narrow tracks ankle-deep in thick red mud. We laboured up steep ridges, slithered down the other side and forded rivers. We were hemmed in by dense tangles of vines and creepers, roots and vines, palms and giant bamboo. Hundred-foot trees towered above us, obscuring the sun and sky. Sweat streamed down our faces and soaked our clothes.
There were compensations. We saw any number of exotic birds – primary-coloured toucans, crimson crested woodpeckers, king vultures, white hawks, iridescent humming birds, manakins, parakeets, flycatchers and caracaras (Colombia boasts a world-record 1,900 species of bird). Eye-catching butterflies, some with six-inch wing spans, fluttered past as if jerked by invisible strings. A group of capuchin monkeys crashed through the foliage above. Howler monkeys cried in the distance.
We brushed past spider webs as strong as cotton. Underfoot, columns of inch-long ants transported impossibly large scraps of vegetation. A poisonous frog of luminous green hopped into the undergrowth. Bright red flowers flamed in the undergrowth. At streams with deep clear pools we flopped gratefully into the cool water.
But the jungle was scarcely pristine. In places the trail was littered with empty water bottles, food wrappers, broken shoes, discarded clothes, even a used nappy. This had clearly become a major route for migrants heading to Panama. At one point we encountered two unsmiling young men, one carrying a revolver. They were ‘coyotes’ - migrant smugglers - returning from the border.
After eight exhausting hours we came over a hill and there was the finca – a cluster of well-kept cabins spread out like a mirage in a clearing below us. We were welcomed by Eider and Andres, the two young men who run the place, and given sweet lemongrass tea to revive us. Soon we were bathing our weary bodies in the adjacent river.
Over supper that night we learned more about the finca. Named La Paloma, it is owned by Jorge Henao and his wife, Maria Elena - Capurgana bar owners who wanted a bolt hole because they fear civilisation will collapse. They bought it nine years ago when FARC still controlled the jungle, but the guerillas let them stay so they could take some of its produce. Today they keep chickens, turkeys, pigs and ducks. They grow rice, yucca, plantains, beans, pineapple, guava and much besides. Eider said hundreds of migrants now pass through the jungle each month, and some die of snake bites, heart attacks or childbirth, but they avoid the finca.
After dark we hunted for giant croaking frogs with flashlights. We fished for langoustine in the river – catching them in our torch beams then slicing their heads off with machetes. Later we fell deeply asleep on camp beds as a ferocious tropical deluge hammered on the cabin roofs.
I would like to have stayed longer at the finca. Eider said there were panthers and jaguars to be seen, ten-foot boa constrictors and other snakes near the river, and magical swimming pools. We could have hiked deeper into the jungle. But we had schedules to keep and planes to catch so returned to Capurgana the following day - finding our 17 migrants en route.
We met Henao and his wife in their bar – the Luz de Oriente - that evening. They said they wanted more tourists to visit the finca in order to enlist their support. They fear that with FARC gone the great virgin rainforest of the Darien Gap will soon be destroyed by loggers and miners. “Peace is a mixed blessing,” Henao said. “Before, people were scared to go in there because of the guerillas. The conflict was what kept it pure and unspoiled.”