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Overland to Bogotá

Photo by Sam Gideon Anson
and Thea Boyanowsky
WE WERE 80 KILOMETERS INTO Colombia, riding up through the steep, lush valleys of the Andean Cordillera Oriental in the front seat of a '76 Dodge Dart, when we saw the first sign of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. "FARC" was spray-painted red on an adobe wall on the outskirts of Pamplona, a colonial town set amidst hillsides patchworked in yuca, potato and corn, in the Valley of the Holy Ghost. A little farther on, we passed the turnoff to Saravena, where that same afternoon three American human-rights activists were pulled from their car by Las FARC and carried off to their eventual deaths. But as the Taxi Collectivo took us over the windswept and treeless passes, we saw nothing more threatening than a gaggle of uniformed schoolchildren kicking stones along the road.

We learned of the kidnappings the next day in the pages of El Espectador, over a Santandereño breakfast of café tinto and a light potato broth on our hotel-room balcony overlooking the whitewashed pueblo of Giron. Below us, tinto sellers lugging Thermoses crisscrossed the main square, past the fedoraed older men settling into the shade of the ceiba trees for the day's round of dominoes. Street vendors, hawking everything from batteries to a fudge-and-pastry snack called obleas, called out their wares. Just over the red, dusty hills to the west, in the city of Barrancabermeja -- as we would read in the newspaper a few days and several hundred kilometers farther down the Pan-American Highway -- a paramilitarist known as "El Panadero," the Baker, was planning the daylight massacre of eight suspected guerrilla sympathizers, including several women, whose bodies he left lying in the street.

It became something of a ritual, this scanning of the morning's paper for news of violence committed along the peripheries of our route, from the Venezuelan border south through the Cordillera Oriental to Bogotá. In the almost museum-piece colonial town of Barichara, where the streets were paved with the same sunset-colored stone that stained the dirt in the valley red, the papers reported a car bombing on one of the main streets of Bucaramanga -- just a few kilometers from where we had waited for a taxi three days earlier. In Tunja, the cold, treeless provincial capital set high on the Boyacán plateau, we read that seven people, including three foreigners, had been kidnapped at a guerrilla roadblock in the neighboring province of Magdalena.

Through the pastoral landscapes of Santander and Boyacá, the winding passes and verdant farms, this oblique knowledge of violence crept into what had only days before appeared to be bucolic vistas. Was there a moment of hesitation among the group of friendly campesinos we were tipping beers with when we said we were from the United States? Was it there, over that craggy ridge, that the guerrillas were hiding? And why was it that in the over 400 kilometers from the border town of Cúcuta to the market town of San Gil we didn't see a single government soldier, not even a policeman? The people who service the tourist trade in these towns didn't like to talk of these things. The response we always got whenever we asked about safety in the region was "sana," as in sound -- as in safe and sound.

AT THE BOTTOM OF CHICAMOCHA Canyon, a field worker named Roberto told us how the village of Jordan, in whose darkening and deserted streets we were sitting, came to be abandoned. We had walked all day down from the canyon rim on a switchbacked, broken-cobbled trail that, from the days of the conquistadors until a new bridge was built for the highway 10 kilometers upriver, was the principal road linking the northern ranges of the Andes to the capital of Bogotá. In 1954, Roberto told us, the people of Jordan began killing each other. Because of politics. Families fled the fertile bottomland of the canyon with their livestock. Even the priest was forced to abandon the village, and as he left he cast a curse on it. "Jordan es un pueblo maldito," Roberto said, a damned village. "That's why there are so many toads here." Look, he said, pointing to the circle of light under the street lamp: toads.

"Roberto is crazy," Jairo told us later as he drove us in the predawn darkness up out of the canyon to San Gil. "Jordan was abandoned because in 1954 they built a new bridge for the Pan-American highway up
the river." And what about the area now?
"The guerrillas are very strong all through Santander," he said, holding up a clenched fist to demonstrate. Because of the economy, he explained, because of the corruption of government officials. Ladrones, he called them. Thieves. "And the guerrillas are like -- how do you call him? -- Robin Hood."

Jairo veered suddenly off the main highway onto a dirt road heading up into the dark hills. We glanced at each other, our stomachs knotting in fear. "There's a toll on the main road," Jairo said after a moment. "It's a little longer this way, but the toll is very expensive." As we pulled into San Gil, dawn was breaking through heavy storm clouds, lighting up the rifle barrels of the national guardsmen who huddled on the street corners, smoking and stamping their feet in the cold.