There are times when I wonder why we promote Colombia if the country is a destination for not only the intrepid and educated but also for the plain stupid. Those of us who dabble in travel journalism and blogging are engaged in a Sisyphean labor of such futility when all we can write about are the boutique hotels in Cartagena, the Gold Museum in Bogota and then pastoral coffee haciendas in the Eje Cafetero for fear of ruffling the government’s feathers if we pen something considered to be too edgy or even – god forbid – we suggest the truth.
And yet, despite the millions of relatively sane travelers to Colombia each year there are a few suffering from an arrogance so suffocating and profound that you wish they had never come to the country in the first place. If only this were arrogance alone and not ignorance and stupidity.
Of course, I am referring to two specific cases.
The first being the Swedish tourist who set off alone up the Atrato River to cross the Darien Gap. 26 year old Jan Braunisch has not been heard from since May 15 when he announced his whereabouts on his blog as being in Riosucio, Choco and heading north to Panama.
And then, it was brought to our attentions on July 20 – Colombian Independence Day – that the FARC was holding a US soldier in captivity. Since the guerrilla group’s declarations of a show of goodwill and desire to release Kevin Scott Sutay, we have since been informed that he is an ex-soldier who saw active duty in Afghanistan.
Sutay, similar to Braunisch was embarking upon a highly dangerous solo “trek” of some 500km from El Retorno, Guaviare to the town of Puerto Inirida, Guainía on the border with Venezuela. According to the FARC he has been in captivity since June 20 and in their words, is conclusive evidence of US military involvement in the Colombian conflict in this region. Apparently he had concluded that his military service would hold him in good stead for this expedition and purchased a machete and set off despite continual warning from the Colombian police aware of his plans.
The difference between these two intrepid (reckless) risk takers is that while I feel that Sutay is an idiot (of course I reserve the right to change my opinion if indeed he was involved in some conspiratorial mercenary operation in Southern Colombia), I think that Braunisch is the bigger fool. There is no shortage of material on the Darien Gap and the dangers that a traveler will face here. Just take a read of “The Cloud Garden: A True Story of Adventure, Survival, and Extreme Horticulture”. In fact you can find information on this region dating back to the failed Scottish colony there. So, the question remains, why would you do this?
And for fear of awakening every internet troll out there who claims to have crossed the Darien Gap solo six times in a year. Well then, yes, you have the experience and the connections to do this. But would you recommend or give your contacts there out to someone else wishing to do this?
I am hardly innocent of risk-taking since I too thrived on adventures that were decidedly foolhardy in Caquetá, Guaviare and the Choco and yearn for more. But, there are conditions to these adventures and they usually include local guides with an influence in the region. I realize that I am continually crying out for the “spirit of adventure” to be returned to travel. But these guys crossed the line and by some margin.
There have always been those who wander off into the wilderness and unknown such as explorers of old. I am currently reading John Gimlette’s “Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge” and this engaging read is punctuated with the names of failed enterprises of this type in the Guyanas. Every few years another book detailing failed explorations or charting unknown routes where some explorer or another perished. And these are excellent, thought provoking and hark back to a time of naiveté.
There is no place for nescience when it comes to travel in Colombia. There are huge swathes of country out there that are lawless and enticing. But, we live in an age where the news and information is available to steer you away from such reckless pursuits. Theirs is a myopic ignorance towards the reality of Colombia and an insult to all those people who have been working hard to secure careful travel and images can increase tourism to Colombia. No, we must not hide the truth, but, we must not have headlines about disappeared or missing or kidnapped tourists, albeit due to problems of their own making.
And while I am berating Braunisch and Sutay, this is also an appeal to reason to all of those would be adventurers out there considering similar feats. Please think of your families and the consequences of any actions you take in Colombia.