At 4:30AM on the 12th of September 2003, men carrying guns and wearing military uniforms walked into a tourist hut at La Ciudad Perdida. They woke up the tourists sleeping inside by pushing guns into their chests. They told them that two people had been killed further up the track. The men said that they would get the tourists out of the area and to safety via another route. The men rounded up another group of tourists in a different hut then divided the whole group into those they thought were fit and those who weren’t. The men said that they were right wing paramilitaries. It made sense to the tourists because they had heard that part of their payment for the tour went to these people as protection money.
One of the guides who had been tied up in a room managed to escape. He walked through the jungle for three days before arriving in the coastal city of Santa Marta. He told the police what had happened and they were suspicious about how he had escaped. The guide found out that the other guide on the trip and five out of the 13 other tourists had been released because they were deemed politically unimportant.
Back up in the dense jungles of the Sierra Nevada the remaining eight hostages were being marched further and further away. The guerrillas made the group walk for 15 hours straight, deep into the jungle. They were told the next morning that they were being held hostage. One hostage in the group managed to jump off a steep incline into the jungle and made it back to civilization after surviving for twelve days by himself.
For the other seven, the days turned into months and every day was a day where they were unsure if they would see their families again. They were marched even deeper into the jungle and had to walk for 18 hours at a time. They lived under sheets of plastic and ate rice, blocks of cane sugar, yucca and scraps of meat.
The men responsible for the kidnapping eventually told their hostages that they belonged to the National Liberation Army (ELN). The group had been at war with the Colombian government for over 40 years at the time.
The ELN believed that government-backed right-wing paramilitaries were attacking peasants living in the mountains. The group said that they wanted to draw outside attention to the situation. They wanted an international delegation to investigate the crimes.
The rebel group negotiated for an international team to investigate the reports of the human rights violations in the area in exchange for the release of the hostages.
After more than 100 days in captivity, the rest of the hostages were freed. Mentally shaken but well fed and physically unharmed, a military chopper flew them out of the Sierra Nevada so they could return home.
There is some debate even today over who’s protecting who. Some of the tour price is said to go to the guerillas as protection money. The safety of the walk can only be judged on the fact that there hasn’t been a kidnapping incident since 2003.