Kidnapped at the Ciudad Perdida, as told by our guide Manuel Carabali.
18.04.2009 30 °C
In 2003 Manuel headed out to the Ciudad Perdida with a group of eager trekkers, all foreign. His group of 7 would later grow to 8 as he was unknowingly watched by the hidden guerrilla forces of the ELN (the smaller of the 2 guerrilla groups in Colombia, the 2nd being the FARC. This group was always smaller and less cruel and is now considered more or less defunct). After 3 routine days of hiking with nothing out of the ordinary, the group arrived in Ciudad Perdida and settled in for the night.
Early in the morning Manuel was woken up by a light tapping on his knee. An calm and seemingly undisturbed voice told him he needed to come outside and when Manuel said he would wake up the rest of the group so they could all hear whatever important announcement this person had, Manuel was told it wasn't necessary. Thinking the man's reluctance to awake the rest of the hikers a little strange Manuel went with the man outside. The visitor started to ask Manuel questions with obvious answers, stirring Manuel's discomfort with his presence even more. At that point some of the tourists had woken up and had made their way down from their sleeping platform to see what was going on. As Manuel was peppered with questions, he noticed a few more visitors entering the camp who started going through the trekkers backpacks and demanding that the hikers put on their shoes. Manuel was certain at this point, from both the questions and quickness with which the guerrillas worked, they had been watched during their ascent to the Ciudad Perdida. As Manuel tells us, of his 8 group members 5 were taken as hostages (the others left behind because they were uncooperative or didn't have good shoes to be marched off). Manuel and his guide buddy were tied up and told that if they untied themselves they would be killed when the guerrillas returned later in the afternoon.
The guerrillas then left with their 5 foreign hostages and Manuel and his buddy left alone. They eventually freed themselves and having noticed that the indigenous who usually visited in the morning had not come, went off to their camp to see what had happened. He found all of the indigenous tied up inside one hut, one man strapped to explosives which thankfully never exploded. After untying the indigenous, learning that they had been tied up first so they could not run to warn Manuel and his group Manual set out to look for the other guide and group who had also been at the Ciudad Perdida in a different camp. Later he would learn the guides had run up into the hills at the first signs of trouble and 3 of the other group members had been kidnapped as well. After sending the indigenous off to their nearby friends and relatives, he evacuated the Ciudad Perdida with the shaken and terrified remaining hikers. They headed back down the mountain as fast as they could, some without shoes which had been stolen by the guerrillas to prevent a quick escape. Two days later they all reached Santa Marta, Manuel hadn't slept or eaten and reported everything to the police. After hours of questioning and interrogation the police and military had enough information to start their search.
The combined efforts between the military and paramilitary (historically uncooperative but the military didn't want to risk a run-in with paramilitary groups during their search so decided to solicit their help) to encircle and rescue the hostages was unsuccessful. It wasn't until 5 months later that the hostages had all been released in what as being called a politically motivated kidnapping. Manual learned later that while some were released relatively early for their cooperation with the guerrillas (willingness to teach English to the soldiers for example) others were held for longer becuase of their refusal to speak in Spanish or English.
In the meantime Manuel encountered a fair share of criticism. Everything from accusations of being in cohorts with the guerrillas to aid in the kidnapping to giving incorrect information about the events that occurred and even questioned by the president as to whether there should even be foreigners at the lost city (apparently the president didn't understand what the Ciudad Perdida was or he would never have called that into question). While being interviewed on national television, he was told his facts were wrong- the network had received bad information- and Manuel threatened to stop the interview unless they were willing to report unbiasedly and accurately.
Marty and I had done our research before going on the trek and were well aware of the kidnapping. While hearing it first hand makes you realize your vulnerability in a place like the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, it was not a deterrent. Since the kidnappings, military has been placed all along the path to the Ciudad Perdida and there has not been an incident since. We were in the hands of incredibly knowledgeable and experienced guides and had done our research ahead of time to soothe any fears we had. And when in doubt, its only nature to get a little spooked here and there along a 6 day hike in the middle of a jungle filled with everything from pythons to plantains to panthers, we dutifully recited our motto for our time here in Colombia, "Be smart but not paranoid". Its gotten us this far...