What does it mean when your friends recommend you drive the most dangerous road in Colombia? Find some new friends? Yes, quite possibly. The Devil’s Trampoline, also known as “adios mi vida” (goodbye my life) is supposedly a ‘must do journey…if a little hairy’. No kidding there!! You could be forgiven for thinking that the Devil’s Trampoline is a wacky fairground ride…except it’s not, it’s a busy road traversed daily by lorries, buses, pick-ups, cars and motorbikes. Built in the early 30s to transport troops during the war between Colombia and Peru, the unpaved track winds some 70 kilometres through the Andean Cordillera. Rising up from the Sibundoy Valley, the route snakes round 100 hairpin bends, disappears into a cloud forest, rises over an engine-sapping pass, dodges the odd landslide, wades a few streams, and finally deposits the lucky ones in the town of Mocoa, for a glass or three of nerve-straightening aguardiente. We tackled the Devil’s Trampoline from the west, where the track begins tamely enough and oncoming vehicles pass easily. But don’t be fooled! It’s only later, on the other side of the pass, where the track narrows to a single-lane and the drop over the side is…well, here’s the positive side: the vegetation clinging to the sheer sides of the mountain is so thick you haven’t a clue how far the drop is. Ignorance is bliss, believe me, especially when you have to reverse back up the track with a charging truck on your front bumper. I guess few roads in the world rival this one’s ability to shred tyres, boil radiators, melt brakes and kill humans in rather alarming numbers. So yes, it quite possibly is Colombia’s most dangerous road.
Colombia is trying hard to shed it’s reputation as a violent country and in the last couple of years it’s come a long way. Much of the rampant banditry and kidnapping has been suppressed, and the problems with the Marxist insurgency group FARC (The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) are much improved. The Putumayo province, where the Devil’s Trampoline finally deposits the traveller, was until a few years ago a stronghold of the FARC. Whilst the guerrilla groups have sought cover in the eastern jungles of the province, as recently as January they attacked a military outpost a mere fifty kilometres from where we’re wallowing in a river beside our bivouac. We’re comforted by the locals, though, who are quick to tell us that life in the village of El Pepino is ‘…muy tranquilo…’ and they’re absolutely right about that. But one can’t dismiss the fact that the story is not over yet. On the road north from Mocoa to Pitalito every village has a military presence and their barracks impressively defended – we cross one particular bridge where four tanks and their attendant troops are clearly ready to ‘rock and roll‘. There was a time when travellers coming to this country were advised to take a course on kidnap awareness. To keep ourselves on the straight and narrow we’ve scanned the pages of our Lonely Planet guidebook where, under the section marked ‘Guerilla & Paramilitary Activity’, they advise that if you run into a bunch of troops and you’re unsure if they are Colombian military or guerillas, check their boots: the military wear proper combat boots, whilst the guerillas stomp about in rubber boots. A somewhat precarious way to avoid trouble, I know. Nevertheless, we put their advice to the test when rounding a bend and immediately encountering a heavily-armed patrol loping from the jungle. Ignoring the surly looks and machine-guns we slow to gawp at their footwear, observing that at least two of them are sporting rubber boots. So, either Lonely Planet need to sharpen up on their advice, or the military had ‘turned’ two guerrillas who were still awaiting their army-issue boots. We don’t stop to ask.