When we hear of Pakistan being tipped as a popular destination for international tourists, we tend to scoff. Of course, we still have travel advisories against us and the perception of the country is still not far from ‘the most dangerous place on earth’, but certain tourists of a particular bent have begun to see the topographical and social charm of the country.
In a similar vein, one is compelled to look out for an example where such a transformation has actually taken place and a forbidden land with well-kept secrets has opened up for tourists. It does not take much time for one to realise that Colombia, a country located in the northwest of Latin America with some of its areas touching the Caribbean Coast, is one such place.
This country has recently emerged as one of the most cherished tourist destinations in the world though hardly a couple of years ago it was a no-go destination for international tourists. And what it has to offer to the world more than anything else is its rich biodiversity comprising exotic plant species, rainforests, birds, mammals, aquatic life etc. Due to these bounties of nature, it has been declared the most biodiverse country in the world per square mile and boasts of housing the largest number of distinct bird species.
A couple of years ago, gangs of drug peddlers, kidnappers, women traffickers and coca-growers operating freely throughout the country were enough deterrents for international tourists. In addition to this, there was the fear of visitors becoming victims of the decades-long civil war in the country. This was not just a fear but a bitter reality as the number of lives lost to this conflict runs into thousands, and of those misplaced by it into millions.
It was towards the end of the year 2016 that a historic peace accord was sealed between the fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and the Colombian government, putting an end to this civil war spanning more than half a decade. With peace returning to the country, a large number of the country’s national parks that were not accessible to local and international tourists for being under rebel control have opened up for them.
Courtesy this development, the country has become a sensation for nature lovers who have been coming here in droves to witness the diverse fauna and flora of this gifted piece of land. Interestingly, the national parks were protected by none other than the guerillas over this period as they needed minimum forest cover to survive.
In the very next year following the peace accord, the coastal city of Cartagena hosted the International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) that brought around 5,000 delegates from over 140 countries to the city. Its aim was to discuss how to conserve the Earth’s biological diversity. Being a participant of this conference, I became one of the very few Pakistanis who have visited this part of the world. I realised this when I tried to find out a way to apply for the Colombian visa in the absence of their foreign mission here.
A sitting senator is Colombia’s honorary consul here appeared completely helpless in this regard. There was no travel agent here who could help me out or even guide me. So I sought support from the event organisers in Colombia. The situation at the moment is that either one has to travel to Ankara to get this visa from the Colombian consulate there or apply online which is a complex process in itself. In the latter case, the visa fee can only be paid by a person present in Turkey, or online through a credit card issued by a Colombian bank. This is enough to explain why not many Pakistanis find it easy to travel to this country.
Anyhow once you land in Colombia, you find tour operators selling the country’s biodiversity to the outer world and managing trips to Amazon regions and sites where tourists can see birds and animals in their natural habitats.
A highly popular destination here is the city of Leticia which falls near the border of Colombia, Brazil and Peru. Here tourists come to join expeditions through Amazonian jungles. They spend days in this environment and encounter animals like monkeys and snakes, dolphins, exotic birds and the plantation and water bodies they had so far only seen on tv channels like NatGeo and Animal Planet. Those who do not need visas to step into Brazil and Peru walk over to the other side of the Colombian border as well.
But this does not mean one has to necessarily join these expeditions to experience all this. Tourists with less elaborate plans and limited budgets can visit the reserves and aviaries set up near the main cities and see animals and birds in their natural habitats. Being in Cartagena, I was lucky enough to visit the Aviario Nacional de Colombia which is the best national aviary in the country and located at less than an hour’s distance from the city if you travel by a motorised vehicle.
Opened in February 2016, the aviary educates visitors about the expansive biodiversity of Colombia, provides an environment where birds feel at home, runs captive breeding programmes for endangered birds like the giant Andean Condor and so on. A large number of birds recovered from illegal traffickers by customs and border authorities are kept here so that they can recover from the trauma and be re-released into the wild. The colourful macaws are the birds mostly recovered from traffickers. Costing between USD50 to USD100, these smuggled macaws fetch prices between $2,000 to $4,000 on average in Pakistan and other Asian countries on average, depending on their colour and species.
During the stroll through the aviary built over six acres of land, tourists had the feeling of actually passing through rainforests, deserts and other landscapes that exist in Colombia.
Of special interest was the area in which the Andean Condor has been kept. It is the national animal of Colombia also known as the biggest flying bird whose wingspan can reach up to 10 feet. Other attractions include the mighty harpy eagle (Queen of Amazon) whose female can fly with monkeys in its claws, toucan, pink flamingos, cranes, emus, and peacocks brought from overseas. Interestingly, 88 new bird species have been discovered in Colombia since the peace agreement has provided access to areas that were earlier considered too dangerous for research. It is likely that samples of these species will reach the aviary soon.
It was good to find a country succeeding in improving its image to the outer world and making nature a marketable product. Even to me before I visited it, Colombia was just a country where singer and songwriter Shakira and author Gabriel García Márquez lived. Besides, I had known it as a place from where the drug lord Pablo Escobar had run the biggest cartel of drug trade in the region and flooded the US with narcotics. But what exactly this jewel of the Caribbean has to offer dawned on me during this trip.