KATY CLARK: The Columbian government has something else on its plate. It's trying to promote tourism. And it's having some success. In recent years improved security there has helped turn the colonial city of Cartagena into a popular port for cruise ships. Yet some of Columbia's most spectacular sites are located in former civil war zones. And as John Otis reports these places are still struggling to attract visitors.
TV COMMERCIAL: A place that challenges the imagination every single day. A place called Columbia.
JOHN OTIS: This TV spot highlights Columbia's Andean Mountains, lush coffee farms, and Amazon jungle. According to the government-sponsored ad Columbia's an undiscovered paradise. Vacationers seem to agree. International tourist arrivals are up by eight percent this year. But it's not just good PR turning things around. An army offensive has driven back Marxist gorillas, kidnappings are down, and the country's drug lords have adopted a lower, less violent, profile. But travelers remain careful. Most stick to Columbian cities like Bogota and Cartagena and they don't know what they're missing.
This is Cano Cristales, or the crystal stream. The pristine water cascades over boulders covered with red and purple algae giving it a brilliant crimson hue. Some call it the most beautiful river in the world. Yet hardly anyone comes here. Cano Cristales National Park is in what was once gorilla territory. The rebels have largely been driven out yet foreign tourists and most Columbians for that matter still avoid Cano Cristales.
STUDENT: [SPEAKING SPANISH]
OTIS: To improve the region's image and promote Cano Cristales a group of local high school students is learning how to be park guides. One of their instructors, Luceida Amaya, says people who visit Cano Cristales get hooked.
LUCEIDA AMAYA: [SPEAKING SPANISH]
TRANSLATOR: Tourists are amazed. They become enchanted by the beauty of the region. They praise the friendliness and hospitality of the people who live here. The students are becoming experts on the park's unique flora. But they don't know much about chaperoning international travelers. One of them tells me that I'm the first foreigner she's ever met. And none of the teenagers speaks more than a few words of English. To get some practice four of the guides agree to take me to Cano Cristales but it's not easy.
First we board a leaky, wooden boat that motors us down the Guayabero River. We're dropped off on a river bank but there's no sign of the jeep that's supposed to pick us up. We start hiking along a dirt road built by the gorillas.
GUIDE: [SPEAKING SPANISH]
OTIS: My teenage guides tell me the rock formations are more than a billion years old. At the entrance to Cano Cristales a loan army sentry registers our names.
SOLDIER: [SPEAKING SPANISH]
OTIS: There's never been a problem for tourists here the soldier says. It's totally safe. You can even stay overnight.
Finally we reached the river. The water beckons and the guides can't resist. They strip to their underwear and jump in.
[SPLASHES OF WATER]
So will Cano Cristales ever become a tourist draw? There are some problems lie spotty transportation and the lack of anything more than hammocks for overnight visitors. Still Cano Cristales is breathtaking and there were no bad guys in sight. Perhaps those slick commercials have it right when they claim the only risk in visiting Columbia is wanting to stay. For The World I'm John Otis, Cano Cristales, Columbia.
CLARK: The World is a lot more than just a radio program. Just check out our website, The World dot org, and see for yourself. You can find the stories you might have missed on the radio. Not to mention a dozen different podcasts covering everything from science to language. We also a variety of slideshows and short videos to take your eyes to the places your ears have already gone. It's all just a click away. Again that's The World dot org.
News headlines are next on PRI ï¿½ Public Radio International.