An unexpected trip to Cerro Tokio


Looming over Cali, the capital of Valle del Cauca, is Los Farallones National Park. For decades it was a “no go” place where mist created an impenetrable cover for guerrillas. Neglected by the human footprint, Los Farallones bursts with remarkable fauna and flora. In a temperate climate, biodiversity has thrived, from mammals to reptiles to over 300 bird species.

If you are hearty enough to climb to the peaks of the craggy mountains, the rewards are stunning: views of the Pacific coastline and the northern ridge of the Colombian Andes. More than 30 rivers flow down crevices created millions of years ago by rushing water. Clouds full of rain created by winds blowing past the Pacific Ocean carry water up over the mountains and drop their liquid load down to the earth.

A few kilometers inside the park is Tokio Hill, a scar to the war in Colombia. Here, on March 12, 2001, 17 soldiers lost their lives during a prolonged combat with guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The FARC stormed Tokio Hill before dawn, blowing up a communications tower and ambushing the soldiers while they slept.

I did not plan to see Tokio Hill on this innocent, week-long trip to find birds and land for sale. It was one of those opportunities that often come my way unexpectedly since I first cast my eyes on a future in Colombia. Sometimes, it is because I am a travel writer and Colombians are eager to show me their beloved country. Other times, it is because I am a crazy woman from Texas and the locals are simply curious. Whatever the reason, I don’t miss a chance to see the real Colombia – the good along with the bad.

My two Colombian friends kindly fill my need for a driver, translator, real estate agent, bird guide and hiking protector – even catching me when I slip on muddy trails. They always seem to know the right people in the right places. On the last day of my excursion, one of them seeks out the park manager. Soon we find ourselves agreeing to meet early the next morning to view a house for sale inside the park.

Taking the old Cali-to-Buenaventura road that passes through the sleepy town of El Queremal, I look forward to the scenic drive. Today, there is no hint of the violence these mountains witnessed when guerillas ruled the area. The road is only paved for about 30 kilometers, with many water falls flowing across the dirt section, so I am glad we have a 4WD vehicle. Not far from El Queremal is the entrance to the park.

Passing countless cattle pastures, herds of sheep and a gates with “no pase” signs, we climb to a barren, muddy hill with a lone house surrounded by a dwarf forest. It is not what I am looking for. The park manager suggests we go to Tokio Hill, which can be seen from our spot, to get a better panoramic view of the area. He wants to show me the old growth forest I seek.

More signs and gates, this time protected by a caretaker who welcomes us with a I-am-so-happy-to-see-another-human-being smile while opening the rusty lock. The view is stunning. The buildings are a disaster, crumbling between persistent patches of paint except for the useless communication tower that stands tall and glistening in the sunshine. As I walk slowly down the road, the breeze whistles through bullet holes in tin roofs and windows shaped by grenade blasts. Barbed wire crawling along the top of tall, chain-link fences silently scream “keep out.” The place is sadly familiar.

Memories surface of the year I spent in Iraq during U.S. war working as a civilian on a military contract. It is amazing how structures damaged by war placed on opposite sides of the earth can look, sound, and feel the same.

Nature is slowly reclaiming the structures, hiding both the misery and the bravery that took place here. Yellow flowers reach to the barbed wire, moss covers writing on the walls, orchids hang from the rusted tin roof, and thick, tall grass hides thousands of footprints. The flies drive us mad.

Why are there so many flies? Most of the land along the road to the hill, and the land surrounding it, is now cattle pasture. Flies lay their eggs in the animal’s gooey manure that is so prevalent that the pungent smell is unavoidable when the wind blows towards us. The forest that once existed for millions of years has vanished, and along with it frogs, lizards, and birds who all eat flies. The eco-system of the park on this hill is totally out of balance.

As I look around this ghostly hill swatting flies, I realize there is something else not in balance. My normally cheerful Colombian friends have been very solemn and quiet. No one wants to talk about the time when the guerrilla once stormed a major base on this hill. But their silence also grants no recognition of the brave soldiers who fought to reconquer the summit so that Colombians, with a crazy Texan in tow, can now climb it without fear.



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