We arrived soon after sun down in the small diving town of Taganga on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Having left behind some poco loco times in Cartegena and spent much of the day squeezed on a bus, we were in no rush to do anything. This all changed with the news that two Israeli girls I had met in Ecuador, Eliana and Tali, had left that morning for the fabled beaches of Tayrona. A few beers, some kip in a hammock and we set off in hope of finding them.
Tayrona National Park is 300 square kilometres of stunning nature reserve to the east of Santa Marta. It contains rainforested hills, the famous Cuidad Perdida (Lost City) and as it meets the Caribbean some of the most beautiful beaches you could imagine. And so it was that Dave, Alex, Ryan and I transitioned from taxi to bus to pick-up truck and then trekked a couple of kms through the forest to the sea. The first view made it all worthwhile. In front of us a broad golden beach, hemmed in by imposing granite boulders, lapped by the frothing turquoise ocean and cut by freshwater streams. Behind us large, leaning palms gave way to a thick rainforest flowing up into the wild hills of the sierra. Wild, isolated and inspiring.
We were heading to the small beach of El Cabo. The directions we had been given were simple. Hit the beach, turn right and keep walking. Sounds simple enough, but Dave and I took a “short-cut” around a large outcrop of rocks, climbing and scrambling over increasingly perilous terrain. With packs on our backs we should have cut our losses and tuned back, but instead soldiered on lunging, leaping and, by the end of it, swimming across the choppy waters that filled the gaps in the outcrop. Eventually we made it back on to the beach, trekked another 45 minutes through the forest and arrived at our destination somewhat cut, torn and looking forward to a chill out.
We were not disappointed. In between large boulder outcrops, a tightly curbed beach bridges the gap between sea and forest. El Cabo is nothing more than a small hut, some chairs and a number of hammocks. Paradise.
The first thing I did was to drop my pack, scramble up over one of the boulders and greet our friends Eiana, Talia and Geoffrey. After a lot of smiles, a couple of hugs and general rapid catch up of the type so common among backpackers, we climbed back over and onto the beach. Even better, there were Heiko and Ursula, the lovely German couple I spent a night chatting with in Cali. It had all come together. Great place, great people and time to enjoy it. It seemed we had reached an apex in our travels, making it to one of the most northerly points in South America to relax, swim, get a tan and take stock before the long road south to Patagonia.
After watching the sun set with gusto over the sierra we seriously kicked back. The darkness deepened and the stars came with an intensity only possible when you are nowhere near anywhere. What more can you want then sitting out under the stars with a few mates, a beer in hand and the sea gently lapping at your feet..... a double barrel shotgun shoved in your face.
Out of nowhere, with no warning, a balaclava clad man dressed in black and carrying a shotgun appeared and made some ever so slightly threatening gestures with his piece. It sounds strange, but the initial reaction was not one of fear. A context of armed men being two a penny in Colombia almost certainly played a part in this. Paramilitaries ruled the region, so perhaps it was just a routine patrol. I suppose this was my initial reasoning, but it just wasn’t right. Confusion ruled. In broken Spanish Dave muttered “un momento por favor" as he glugged down the rest of his beer.
The stream of events over the next few hours are not entirely clear to me, but I will do my best to do them justice.
We were herded by an uncertain number of armed, masked and it is fair to say rather sketchy characters into the seating area set back five meters or so from the sea. My attention was drawn to at least one AK 47, pistols and shotguns. What in the fuck was going on? Why would paramilitaries do this? Were they paramilitaries and, if not, then who the fuck were they?
My reaction was simple and instinctive. Get as close to the centre of the herd as possible and KEEP MY HEAD DOWN. What are they doing? What in the heck should I be doing? Try to regain some of my wits and just keep fucking still.....
From what I could make out through stolen glances, they spent the next few minutes securing their position, checking for any stragglers and calmly taking total control. Only then did they start to communicate. At this point my Spanish was still, shall we say, sub optimal, so most of what I recall was latterly passed on to me by others. Something along the lines of "we are not robbers… give us all mobile phones… if you still have a mobile you are dead". The word "MUERTAS" got my attention. Can’t think why.
Believe it or not, they talked of us as hermanos (brothers). At one point a local guy stood up and confronted them. What resulted was a showdown of heated words, with one of the masked men putting a gun to the captive’s head until, eventually, he stood back down. To me this was barely real, like watching a movie play out in front of you.
The next hour and a half were the most formative of my life. As the intruders methodically shone torches from the face of one captive to another, I sat with my head down and eyes to the floor. This surreal situation created a unique atmosphere for contemplation and enforced soul searching. I do not particularly want to share the thoughts that went through my head but let's just say that a lot of questions I had been wrangling with for years were answered then and there with a clarity that could not exist without the tangible possibility of a near death. I am not saying I thought I was going to die, rather that it was a genuine and immediate possibility. Rationalising it as much as I could, the likely paths in front of me were some sort of kidnapping, robbery, or simply death. As the night wore on the odds of each scenario had its time with the shortest odds. I made my peace and was surprised by the ease of acceptance.
I was suddenly snapped out of this dreamlike contemplation by a change in the situation. A buzz of activity arose from relative silence. “Extranjeros" (foreigners) were ordered to put their hands. Anxiously, limbs started to obey and hung tentatively in the air. I figured that there was little point in violating the order as I stand out like a sore thumb in South America (pasty Celt that I am), so cautiously followed suit. The thugs made Geoffrey and Alexia stand up, come to the front, searched them thoroughly (even removing sandals) and then marched them off out of sight.
Again......shit, what in the bloody hell is going on now? In my mind, the odds had shifted markedly towards some sort of kidnapping. The thought of the backpackers kidnapped in the same national park two years before ran through and through my head and one detail stood out. Last time they had only taken the fittest 8 of the 16 potential captives, chosen to best survive the jungle trek to the kidnappers base. There were quite a few of us, so if I kept quiet it might not be me.
My thoughts took a different direction. What should I do if I heard shots? They had been marched off into the dark without even shoes - that is not right for kidnapping – were they being executed? Contingency plans darted around my head, but I was conscious that in such situations affirmative action is often the worst thing to do and the local who confronted them was nearly killed. Even so I was determined to do something if I heard shots. There is no way you can just sit there like a lame duck if they start shooting people. But what to do? Fight? Against an AK, not very rational. Run? If done en masse, there were enough of us that some should get away, but where to run to? The forest, the sea? I waited, full of tension.
Two more foreigners were ordered to stand, searched and marched off in the same professional manner. Then a finger pointing at me, and the Colombian lady in front ushered me to stand up. Bugger that. I just put my head back down and kept still. I think others stood up and went through the same routine. This happened once or twice more before eventually all “hombres” (men) were made to stand up, searched and marched off. The girls including Talia and Eliana were being left behind but what could you do - nothing.
They took my watch off my hand, and searched me from top to bottom. I was then moved on to another armed man who repeated the procedure, and then..... it was obvious where we were going. Partial relief. We were not being marched off then and there but shoved into the sole small shed-like building. There I was once again searched and led into the dark hot room already occupied by a good dozen people. The room was cramped as it was, but people kept on being pushed in, including the girls. That at least was a big relief. It did not bear thinking about what could be happening to them while we were separated. All in all I reckon circa 35 people were squeezed into a shack that consisted of two rooms in total no bigger than 4m by 3m. Legs on legs, bodies bunched together in the tropical heat. Not a pleasant situation.
The general feeling was still one of bewilderment. We were contained but for what purpose? We had no clue if it was temporary or long term and what we could expect next. I relaxed a touch when blankets were offered round by the masked ones. Why would they do that if they were going to kill us? Large breath out. Kidnapping was still high on the potential agenda. Slightly dazed in the heat and humidity, I kept thinking I heard boats. A multitude of possibilities, outcomes and actions filled my imagination. Such an odd, fucked up situation. For god’s sake there were kids locked in with us, gripping to their parents for comfort.
At the start I was sitting on the bed and Dave was just in front of me. The first words we shared since a shotgun was first shoved in our faces was a joke. A dark one. This was a common theme of our entrapment. A joke here, talk about a good pub in Brighton there and intermittent attempts at assessing the current state of affairs. Oh, and one could not forget the little game of “I spy”. “I spy with my little eye something beginning with D”… “Dark”. “B”...”Black”. I am sure you get the gist of it.
As time wore on the tension went down half a notch and consequently the noise level in the hut rose as people began to talk. A loud bang and shout of "Do you want to be dead?" put pay to that. Everyone went dead silent and back on edge.
Then the bed collapsed on Heiko's leg. Not surprising with all the people scrunched together sitting on it. He screamed in pain and writhed, triggering knock-on movement all around. I had a chat to some of the others to see how people were doing and then moved to the other room, getting as far away from the door as possible. This little box room was even smaller. Pressing heat and the sweet smell of sweat and piss. Legs cramped up and bodies rubbing against each other. Behind me were a few crates of soft drink cans which I decided to spread around. Oh for a beer, but no such luck.
After being in the smaller room for a good hour or so without any noticeable noise from outside the hut, the general thinking was that they were either gone or at least settled down for the night - one possibility was that they were an armed group looking for shelter for the night. This relative calm was shattered by a large bang on the wooden shutter of the room I was in. It was opened and again I put my head down and avoided any possible eye contact. Alexis, who was at the far side of the room, later explained that there was a guy with a gun looking straight at her and barking orders. He demanded drinks and they were given. Eventually the shutter closed and left us in silence.
No one dared speak. With nerves strained, quiet suspense reigned. Very gradually the tension lowered and we waited and waited. As the night passed I slipped into a subdued contemplative state.
BANG BANG BANG
FUCK. Gun shots rudely forced me back to reality. Possibilities fire across the synapses and fill the head like a charged balloon. Wide eyed glances flicker around the dim room.
Then silence... silence... silence. Exhausted, one by one the captives crashed out on the hard floor. I could not sleep. For what seemed and certainly was hours, I stared out the window at the opposite side of the shack. Waiting for the next bang, I listened to the sea lap the coast. At last, I too succumbed to slumber amongst the entanglement of bodies.
Awake. Faint light outside and bustling impatience in the room. Dripping with sweat, I stretched off the aches of the night. A quiet, yet intense discussion was dominating attention. What to do? We had heard nothing from our captors since the gun shots. Some said we should break out, others cautioned that we should stay. Eventually the desire to keep our heads down was trumped by the lure of freedom. We decided to bust out of our dank, cramped shack. We bashed against the wooden shutter. No reaction from outside. A few more knocks and it flung open. Cool, fresh air surged into our temporary prison. Indescribably refreshing.
One by one we scrambled out. Scanning the scene, I could see no sign of the intruders. Hell to paradise in an instant. Unbridled elation.
A sunrise I thought I may never see lit up the most beautiful of beaches. I was filled with pure joy to be alive. A sensation I will never and must never forget. I inhaled the intense beauty of our world with gluttonous relief.
A snap back to reality. Our captors were gone, but so where two of the locals who had never made it into the shack. All over the camp stuff was ripped open and strewn about. They had gone through every pocket, corner, nook and cranny. They stole cash, cameras, sunglasses, knives, money, torches, mp3 players, CD players, speakers... Helpfully, they did not take passports or credit cards, perhaps because they are traceable.
An odd, chilled out morning followed before we headed back to civilisation. We washed the stink off in the sea, intermittently rummaged around trying to find our stuff, sat and reflected. Thankfully, the two hostages returned with the news that the robbers - only at this point could we call them this with certainty - had taken two donkeys to carry the loot, ridden through the forest to the nearest road and jumped onto a public bus.
The events of the next couple of days will not be repeated, safe to say that Heiko, Ursula, Ryan, Geoffrey, Eliana, Talia, Dave and I spent a very confused and, to be frank, screwed up period of time trying to sort our heads out. A lot of us acted quite out of character.
Amongst all the conflicting thoughts and emotions, one thing was crystal clear. I was enthused to be alive and did not give a damn about the stuff I had lost. Life is not about such things, despite what society tells us. Unfortunately the robbers had not learned this lesson. We have good reason to believe that they were caught and shot by the paramilitaries.
Colombia does not deserve the bad impression that these recollections inevitably give. This was a freak incident and is not representative of what is a relatively safe country that has come so far from the dark days of the 1990’s. It is a beautiful place filled with warm, welcoming people and I highly recommend a visit. Indeed, I can’t wait to return.