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El Chocó Conflict Zone Tourism, Survival of the Fittest

El Chocó Conflict Zone Tourism, Survival of the Fittest

El Choco, Travel

El Choco Conflict Zone Tourism could be a real thing. The biggest irony of the civil war, is that it happens in bubbles all over Colombia. Now that peace has been “declared” the situation is actually a bit crazier because the war isn’t technically over. There are still plenty of other paramilitary and guerrilla groups all over Colombia fighting for money, drugs, fame and recognition.

Yes, it is exactly what you think it is...
Yes, it is exactly what you think it is…for herbal use only.

I am here to show you a very special tourism route which has been designed to help visitors connect with the last of her turbulent past and the untouched savage paradise, before the thin veneer of civilization begins to dilute the beauty. This is a very brief and unique opportunity to bring visitors on carefully escorted tours. You will be guided by local guides, who have enough knowledge and connections with the local area, to ensure a modicum of safety not found in most conflict zone areas.

El Choco Conflict Zone Tourism

El Choco Conflict Zone Tourism
Time to button-up – we are in mosquito land. Also known as The Jungle.

The tour package which I am offering – together with my husband, is a guided experience which is coordinated together with the mayor and local military leadership to ensure your safety. We have a carefully established route and zone which we are able to move about in safely. Don’t worry, you won’t be bored or short on space! But you need to know that you can’t and shouldn’t show up without a plan. Because this IS the conflict zone and safety is key.

Getting There

The only way in (for now), is by Chiva Bus. These were truck chassis and busses which were rebuilt using wood, steel bands and sheet metal. They are built on large heavy duty axles which can endure the unpredictable off-road conditions of the final stretch of road to the pueblo. Be sure to bring a light jacket or overshirt because as you move up and down in elevation and pass through micro-climates, it can get quite chilly!

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Did we mention that most of it is completely unpaved, full of potholes and made treacherous by landslides? Yeah, bring your walking shoes.

Another sign that the war is finally winding down is fresh construction projects like the one underway currently to pave this road. Previously the trip was 4-5 hours. Currently it is averaging 3-4 hours and when the road is finished the time will be shortened even more. Post-war development has begun, and it is being funded by money from the United Nations, the USA et. al.

Arrival and Transfer to Farm Accommodations

El Choco Conflict Zone Tourism
Finca Bella Lucia is about halfway up the mountain. From here we hike, traverse, look for wild orchids or just relax in a hammock and get some downtime.

For obvious reasons, this isn’t something we would invite the general public to do without some sort of plan and a certain level of physical fitness. Currently there are two options for lodging in San Jose del Palmar. One newly renovated hotel in the pueblo, or farm accommodations. Which one you need, will depend on what type of visit you are planning.

Once you arrive in the pueblo, we will either go to the river and then head to the farm. Or, rest the first night in the pueblo and set out early in the morning. It will depend on length, physical fitness level, timing and planned activities. I will tell you about travel options in just a minute!

El Choco Conflict Zone Tourism
The presidential suite of the only hotel in San Jose del Palmar will run visitors about 35,000 COP per night. It comes with a fireplace, a big bed, and…a separate shower from the toilet. 

Note: We cannot guarantee the safety of unescorted visitors because the local culture of these pueblos is not welcome to the uninvited. Even worse, it can attract negative attention which can end in problems both with law enforcement and the local guerrilla groups. We cannot stress enough the importance of careful preparation and local contacts if you are planning to enter this region.

El Choco Itinerary Options

Each visitor is very unique in their motives for visiting Choco. We (my husband and I), try to personalize the trip itinerary according to visitor needs and desires. Here is a quick overview of the different types of tours which we can offer visitors. Each itinerary is carefully modified and tuned to the needs of our visitors.

We keep the groups limited to a minimum of 2 people and maximum of 5. Everything that comes with us, leaves with us. We are very careful not to litter, or hack away at the jungle without need or motivation. Preserving the natural environment is very important to us, and the farms which depend on a healthy intact eco-system free of needless damage or pollution.

Creek Stomping ~ Waterfall Hikes

El Choco Conflict Zone Tourism
When I came here 4 years ago – I was a bit fluffier! Colombia is the best fat camp ever…

If you want to splash around in nature and drink in the spectacular beauty of this region, then you can’t go wrong by opting for the Waterfall Hike. We have two options:

OPTION 1: Low to Mid Level of Fitness

Spend a night in the Pueblo and set out early in jeep to a nearby waterfall which is only 20 minutes by car, and 20 minutes by foot away. The entire trip can take most of a morning if traveled at a leisurely pace. Picnic and relax in the jungle by this natural wonder then return to the pueblo to rest and eat lunch. Afternoons tend to have rain, doing things before lunch will usually work in your favor.

OPTION 2: Mid to High Level of Fitness

Arrive in the pueblo and then transfer to a cute little farm called Bella Lucia with simple but clean amenities. We will run you to the river via motorcycle, or jeep. Then we travel for 2 hours by horse, or on foot with or without a pack animal. We will eat a hearty dinner, and get some sleep because early tomorrow you are going to see the crown jewels of El Choco.

The next morning, you will have time to wake up, watch a beautiful sunrise, and then set out on a 5-6 hour hike to some wild waterfalls surrounded by virgin jungle. Arrival takes 2 hours of hiking up hill, then another hour sloshing up a creek, in your skivvies. But, you won’t regret it. Not only is the water potable and clean, but it seems to invigorate all who drink it with its taste and purity.

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Due to the ruggedness of the terrain, we advise visitors to walk and do cardio on a regular basis for at least a month ahead of time. You will have more options available, you run a lower risk of injury, and when it is all said and done, you will feel pretty good when you return. Lower fitness levels will require smaller shorter hikes with more focus on botany, butterflies and the local jungle farm ecosystem.

If you are extremely overweight or suffering a health condition – this is not for you. Much of the terrain we cover is extremely rugged and dangerous due to loose rocks, steep inclines, poisonous snakes and a plethora of things which can go wrong. Don’t make it worse by coming here with pre-existing conditions, which can be precipitated by intense physical activity.

Jungle Hikes ~ Bird Watching ~ Botany

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If you are strong enough the entire journey will be accomplished on foot from start to finish. Test the limits of your endurance through a series of jungle hikes, which are designed to push you while also showing off the spectacular scenery of this region.

Option 1: Mid to High Level of Fitness

Due to the nature of these hikes, the distances covered and the ruggedness of this terrain we cannot emphasize enough the importance of having to have a solid intermediate to advanced level of fitness. Medical services can be delayed by distance, inclement weather and rugged terrain resulting in higher emergency medical costs, and small injuries becoming serious quickly. If you have allergies, health issues or any hesitations – talk to us so we can help you determine whether this is for you.

If you are ready to throw down the gauntlet, keep reading…

 

Option 2: Camping out, extended distance hikes. High level of fitness and endurance necessary.

Especially if you have special interests like birding, night hikes and photography, we can also arrange to camp out in the jungle. For the camping out we can go farther and even visit areas where we can pick up beautiful crystals off the ground. Experience areas that even many of the locals have never been to as we go into virgin jungle areas above the farms. Swing on vines, learn the basics of machete handling, or simply soak up the healing effects of a high oxygen environment.

Horse Tours ~ Equestrian Vacations

Especially if you suffer from a low level of physical fitness, or issues that impair your mobility, we can arrange tours on horses. While you can still see much of the beauty of this region via horse, it has its own dangers and will limit which areas we are able to go up into. Your safety is paramount to us. This tour has an extra fee for the horse rentals, but they are good quality sturdy mountain raised horses which are sure-footed and sound.

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Cost and Scheduling

If you understand all my warnings about how Choco will kick your ass, and you still want to go – then this is the part on how to get in touch with us. First of all, we need minimum two weeks up to one months notice. The upfront non refundable deposit to book your reservation is 100,000 COP/person, which is automatically sent to our hosts for provisioning.

The remaining 200,000 is to be paid when we meet at the terminal in either Pereira or Cartago, and it covers travel + guide fees. This cost includes transport from the bus terminal in Pereira to the farm (including horse rental). Additional fees will be incurred if you opt to explore via horseback instead of going on foot. 

Total Cost / Per Person: 300,000 COP or ~ $100 USD per person for 3 Days and 2 Nights. This includes one full day of hiking and exploring.
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This is a BETA cost structure which we will eventually raise the price as we establish the route, and details. To be clear, this trip has already been tested privately with friends, and is now being tested commercially – less to make a profit, more to establish costs and future opportunities. Minimum of 2 people with 1 local guide, maximum of 5 with 2 guides who are experienced in the region and familiar with the area and travel connections. We meet you in Pereira and escort you all the way to the destination.

Note: This route is patrolled by the military and there are always searches of equipment, pat-downs and bomb/drug sniffing dogs. Be careful what you decide to bring with you, know the legal limits and your rights. We do not assume any responsibility for you, and your gear aside from helping you get to and from the final destination as safely as possible. We have never had a single injury or issue, and we hope to keep it that way.

This is only the arrival to get to the farm...the rest we do on foot!

Food

Of course, when you are doing this level of physical activity, your diet must be high in fuel that will burn slowly. During your stay you will be fed locally grown and raised food. Everything you eat is cooked over “leña,” or an open wood fire which is fed by small pieces of wood. Meats include fish, chicken and beef which were raised onsite or in the area. This is a very special part of the experience because here you will find the heart and soul of typical Colombian cooking where many ancestral recipes are still used today.

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Typical fruits for juices include guava, limes and borojo. Depending on the farm cycle, guests will drink fresh milk for breakfast and eat farm cheese with either breakfast, lunch or as a snack. Discover the best sancocho you never knew existed, or hearty beans prepared with green plantain, green onion, tomato and red beans. The arepas are made daily over a wood fire. You will find no equal to the unique tastes of el Choco.

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Don’t worry, you will eat well, and frequently, in order to ensure you have enough energy for the exertion required to leave the farm-yard. If you need to replace rice with quinoa, or eat vegetarian please advise us ahead of time, there may be an extra cost – but we will work with you to ensure you get high protein meals.

Conclusion

This place is incredible. After 4 years I am still left with this sense of awe and wonder each time I enter into this zone. Yes, it is dangerous – but only if you don’t know what you are doing or where you are going. I’m not trying to talk you out of it, so much as stress that it is impossible to really know what to expect. And, if we get a sudden shot of “invierno,” or winter, then things can get messy as trails become boggy and cumbersome.

For those brave enough to take a chance, break expectations and see something amazing – the savage paradise awaits you.

El Choco Conflict Zone Tourism is a very unique and interesting opportunity for adventure travelers. Enter at your own risk!

Email for more information (the most reliable form of contact for scheduling and information): openmindedtravel@gmail.com

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About the author

English Teacher, Freelancer, Chocolate Entrepreneur and Traveler!!

6 Comments

  1. brighidtc
    August 4, 2017 at 8:58 pm
    Reply

    The term and concept of “conflict zone tourism” strikes me as disrespectful and exploitative. It appears that you’re working with local community members and businesses to create a sustainable, conscious business, so I’ll assume you have good intentions. The marketing, however, makes it seem like you’re looking for seekers of poverty porn who can brag to their less-worldly friends back home about traversing war zones and coca plants.
    I lived in Colombia for five years. There is so, so much more to this country than that legacy, and it seems to me that there are much more positive, productive messages to send with your tour marketing.

    • openmindedtraveler
      August 5, 2017 at 11:45 am

      Interesting perspective. A word of advice, if you don’t kick the bucket over, no one is ever going to care that it was there. If I came up with a super-PC name for my issue-sensitive travels to El Choco, I think both myself and my readers would die of boredom. When I am out there – I actually am traversing war-zones and coca plants. But that is part of what makes the entire conflict so deceptive, is that on the surface it doesn’t seem to even exist. Yet when you put boots on the ground, you begin to realize that at some point, the place you are traveling – probably was a war zone. And it still is when you see the military presence.
      We are here for a variety of tourists. Bird-watchers, botanists, hikers and yes, even the adrenaline junky who wants a safe “crazy” experience. We can even do that too. It all comes down to perspective…

    • hittheroad
      August 17, 2017 at 8:06 pm

      Actually that “conflict zone tourism” bothered me as well.I am glad someone said it, I was thinking if I am the only one disturbed by this…Plus, writing the word declared in quotation marks…Yes, it is declared and signed. I don’t think there is a need for quotation marks unless you are one of those who are against the peace agreement. And of course yes there are still some other guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and drug related conflicts. When you put it as conflict zone tourism, the first impression it gives like making profit out of a brutal and long conflict and all that pain people suffered or as brighidtc said poverty porn.I don’t think “boredom of your readers” argument justifies it.

    • openmindedtraveler
      August 18, 2017 at 11:29 am

      I am all for peace. But, the conflict isn’t over just because the government signed peace. I am a huge supporter of peace and non-violence, but we have to realize that while we have peace with ONE guerilla/paramilitary group, there are still 3-4 – plus a FARC splinter group who are waging their war. So it is peace, but one which is extremely convoluted. I am not going to bullshit my readers into thinking that this is a walk in the park, there are still issues, and this is still a conflict zone. If calling an apple an apple offends you, then this blog is not for you. If anything, tourism to this area is going to help give the local government the initiative they need to start cleaning house. And, any outside money that these people make – is obviously going to give them alternative sources of income. So if bringing in outsiders to see what has happened, and experience it can be called “making profit from a brutal and long conflict,” then you might be correct because the people of this pueblo are going to have a little bit of time to show outsiders all the realities which exist here. The day before I arrived, a mine exploded and killed two soldiers….this-is-a-conflict-zone.

  2. jclementine
    August 8, 2017 at 9:52 am
    Reply

    I would love to take this tour – not because of its title and the conflict zone but because of the legacy of the conflict it is an area of Colombia little explored and deep jungle. I adored Colombia and I hope to return – and if I do, I will certainly check this out with you

    • openmindedtraveler
      August 9, 2017 at 10:14 am

      Yeah, the title is marketing more than anything. I really don’t mean offense by it. On the other hand, anyone who goes in here needs to realize that it is a conflict zone if things happen for some reason. Like I was saying in the article, nothing has ever happened. But there ARE road-bandits, guerrilla paths and strange unexplainable things too. I would rather keep the reality in the awareness of anyone who takes the tour, so that they know exactly what they are going into.

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