What comes to your mind when you think of driving through the jungles of Colombia? If you’re from the US you probably think of cocaine fields and armed rebel groups and wonder at the sanity of a family of four with two small children who dare to undertake a drive through the “zona roja” of Putumayo – an area deemed under control of the FARC.
The route in question is a 60-mile stretch of sometimes one-lane dirt road between Pasto and Mocoa that winds precariously along muddy steep mountains with drops of 3,000 feet straight down. The narrowest parts are also the most windy, so rounding a curve must be done very slowly, using your horn, as trucks and buses who frequent the route come barreling around the corner with no warning, causing – at the very least – heart attacks in those coming from the other direction; at the worst, well, your mind can only invent the very worst scenarios as you pass the numerous crosses erected along the route to mark the final resting ground of the less-fortunate souls who attempted to take this road. It’s no wonder that it has been nicknamed “The death road” by locals. But we knew nothing about this when we carefully planned our Colombia route as we prepared to leave Ecuador.
Before you start thinking we could win either the Darwin awards or the Worst Parent of the Year award for our decision to take the route, you have to first understand that we’ve been traveling throughout South America for the past eight months and have learned to take it with a grain of salt when people warn us about a particular area. In Paraguay they warned us about Bolivia; in Bolivia they warned us about Peru, and so on. It even holds true for locals warning us of the next town over. At first it really put us on edge until we learned that each place seemed more or less as safe (or dangerous) as the last place we had been, and we began to see a pattern develop of people being afraid of anything outside their known spheres.
So when a fellow guest at our hotel in Pasto looked at the route map we drew up in the lobby and told us we must absolutely not take the road to Mocoa because it was guerrilla territory, we decided to investigate further. Had he taken the road recently? No. Okay, so we began quizzing everyone we could to find someone who had taken the road. The group of policemen having coffee at the café down the street said we did not have to worry about FARC on the route. Countless numbers of Facebook friends from Colombia warned us against the road; had they been on the road in the last couple of years? No. But it is “known as” a dangerous road they say. Okay, noted. The truck driver we talked to who drives the road every day said there is nothing to worry about, that they are fixing the road and it’s really nice now. Internet research pulled up dread-inspiring maps of the most dangerous areas of Colombia, with all of the south of the country labeled as the region of the highest concentration of active, armed rebel groups. I will admit, that scared me.
But we were torn because the route was supposed to be the beginning of our drive on the 45 through the interior section of Colombia, which is supposed to be the most beautiful. If we decided to head north instead we would be missing some amazing areas including the jungles of Mocoa and the pre-Colombian ruins of San Agustin. So we took the calculated risk to continue with our original route plan through the jungles and mountains of Putumayo to our destination in Mocoa.
The first section of the road was in perfect condition – two smoothly asphalted lanes with fresh paint and reflectors winding gently through the mountains and a couple of small towns. My heart raced a bit as I looked for signs of “armed rebel groups” but we saw only normal-looking people around. At the last town on the map before the no-man’s land we came to an intense military checkpoint where guys with big guns asked us for our documents. They were very nice but surprised us by opening Coco’s door without asking and started interacting with our kids. Were they just being nice or checking us out? And were they surprised that Eva and Coco were a bit shy as they joked around with them? I mean, those are some big guns. Either way, we left the checkpoint with mixed feelings as one of the soldiers assured us that there were plenty of police on the road and that our only worry should be if we saw any obstructions in the road. “Stop and turn around” he said – “and wait a little bit, then keep going.” Oh, okay, thanks. Hopefully we’ll have time and room enough to turn around if some robbers want to throw something in our path. “Ah, they do that all the time in Argentina” says Tomas. Greeeaaat…
As we drove past the last village and further into the mountainous jungle, my fears began to subside. There were plenty of other vehicles on the road, the road conditions were fine, and sweeping vistas of Lago Cocha lightened our mood. Even when the asphalt ended we were still able to keep up a good pace as the road was well-maintained and wide enough for two cars for most of the way. Still no signs of rebel groups, just the occasional roadwork sign and workers in yellow rain gear and hard-hats. So far so good…
Then we got to the clouds and things got a bit hairy I will admit. Visibility was very low, the road narrowed to one lane, and got very curvy. I tried to follow a bus but it was going so fast I didn’t feel safe trying to keep up. The lack of visibility, though not ideal, masked the view of the bottomless cliff awaiting us just one tire-length away.
Then there were the rivers to cross, which splashed across the road at varying depths from cascading waterfalls that swept down the cliffside below. Nothing our Ford Ranger 4×4 couldn’t handle!
But the last thirty or so kilometers of the route, though the scariest, were also the most beautiful. The jungle was a symphony of green dotted by colorful flowering trees, dripping with water, and shrouded in a cloudy mist. Yes, if I were an “armed rebel group” I would definitely pick this place to hide. But that was the furthest thing from our minds as we scanned the upcoming road carefully – not for roadblocks, but for oncoming cars so we could find the nearest pullout to let them pass. Arriving in Mocoa was a relief to say the least, and we were happy to be bombarded by motorcycle traffic and shift our focus to navigating a new area.
Would we recommend the road between Pasto and Mocoa? Well, let’s just say I’m glad we did it, but I’m also glad we don’t have to do it again!