colombia rafting pato river RESTRICTED
CNN  — 

The water is cold and shouting echoes across the river. As the boat approaches the rapids, a roar goes up to hold still, before a shout of “PADDLE” and the six rafters dig into the tumbling waters in an impressively synchronized display.

As they are released by the rapids with barely a splash in the hull, you would never guess that some of these men and women are more accustomed to bearing arms than oars.

The River Pato in the Caquetá department in southeast Colombia was once one of the main battlegrounds between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (known by the Spanish acronym FARC-EP) and the Colombian government.

A divisive group viewed alternately as Marxist vigilantes fighting for rural rights or a dangerous criminal organization, they surrendered their weapons in 2016 following a landmark peace accord. FARC leaders were given non-voting representation in Congress and the rank and file the opportunity to return to civilian life.

Frellin "Pato" Noreña is a 33-year-old ex-combatant who guides river expeditions.

Thousands of men and women poured out of jungle camps and, with the support of the governmental Agency for Reincorporation and Standardization (ARN), moved into ready-made communities built to reintegrate former guerrillas back into society.

Clinging to a cliff edge above the rumbling foam of the Pato River, Miravalle is one of them.

Home to fewer than 50 people, this row of one-story concrete buildings with flimsy corrugated metal roofs feels peaceful but full of life. Fathers push children down the village’s only street in prams, while members of the army, who have a base nearby, stop to chat idly with locals sharing a cup of coffee outside their homes.

Compared with the other 25 communities across Colombia that house a mixture of former combatants and civilians, Miravalle is unique. Here, the community is using rafting to broker peace.

Miravalle is perched above the Pato River.

Recovering from a 52-year conflict

The downing of arms by the FARC marked the end of a 52-year conflict played out in primarily rural Colombia. The bloodshed took over 220,000 mostly civilian lives and displaced more than seven million Colombians.

Miravalle and the Pato River sit within the El Caguán river basin, an area roughly the size of Switzerland. It has a fraught history. It served as the unofficial capital of the FARC’s activities, becoming a demilitarized zone under FARC control for three years in the early 2000s, after the army withdrew as part of peace negotiations. When these failed, the region returned to violent power struggles.

Museo Local de Memoria Histórica looks at remnants of the 52-year conflict.

It’s easy to understand how the terrain provided perfect cover for the guerrillas to maintain a strategic hold on the region for so long. These remote and ferociously inhospitable highlands are heavily forested, sitting at the transition point between the Amazon jungle and the foothills of the Andes Mountains.

Undulating hills perpetually capped with mist are blanketed by tropical forests, while serpentine rivers dissect the land, carrying away some of the highest rainfalls in the Amazonian region.

Now this nine-kilometer stretch of Class III to IV rapids is showing how tourism can help heal deep wounds. Visitors can learn about the conflict from the mouths of the former guerrillas themselves and their civilian teammates who lived through it on the other side.

A cartoon compares the past and present as residents take up oars.

A new form of tourism

On a clear but characteristically damp day in April, conditions are ideal for tackling the foaming rapids of the Pato River, a body of water considered among the best in Colombia, if not South America for rafting.

Gentler paddling along the Class I and IIs of Fisherman’s Canyon is also on the cards. It’s an afternoon spent drifting through this narrow canyon, whose steep walls have been whittled into bulbous shapes by millennia of rainfall and drip with vegetation. High above, macaws – one of over 460 bird species residing in the region – roost in fissures in the rock.

The calmer waters of Fisherman's Canyon provide some gentler paddling.