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Ask the World's Most Dangerous Traveler
Going somewhere you probably shouldn't? Get advice from World's Most Dangerous Places author Robert Young Pelton. We may print the answer in a future issue of Adventure.
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Grabbed in the Gap

Robert Young Pelton wrote the book on traveling in dangerous places. Good thing: All that hard-won experience came in handy when he was abducted while hiking Panama's Darién Gap.

by Nicole Davis

In January, while on assignment for Adventure, Contributing Editor Robert Young Pelton and two hiking companions were kidnapped by right-wing Colombian paramilitaries in the Darién Gap—a lawless jungle along the Panama-Colombia border. After ten nervous days, the trio was released unharmed. We spoke with the author of Come Back Alive after he'd done just that.

NGA: Weren't you just begging for trouble
by hiking in this no-man's-land?
 

Robert Young Pelton: The Darién Gap used to be sort of an Everest of backpacking—one of the world's last wild places. But in the last five years it's become a no-go zone: Rebels, criminals, thorns, wasps, snakes—you name it, everything that's bad for you is in there. Which, of course, is what attracted me.

 
What kind of precautions did you take?
 

Before I left home I sent e-mails to the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, left-wing guerrillas] and the AUC [United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, right-wing paramilitaries] to tell them that I was going to be walking through the area, that I'd like to meet them, and that I'd like to know whether it was safe. Neither group responded.

 
Guerrillas and militias with Hotmail?
 

They've got Web sites, e-mail, sat phones. FARC told me they have an 800 number.

   
How did you arrange the hike?
 

In the city of Panamá, I hooked up with a couple of 22-year-old backpackers—Megan Smaker, a Bay Area firefighter, and Mark Wedeven, a student from Washington State. We took a boat from the end of the Pan-American Highway to Capetí and hired a guide there named Victor who said he'd hiked the Gap.

   
How did you get captured?
 

We were a day out of a Cuna Indian village named Paya, and as we were eating along the trail, three Cuna passed us. Thirty minutes later we heard automatic gunfire about half a mile away. I told Megan and Mark, "Let's just wait here. Maybe one of the Cuna will come back, and we can get some intel." About 20 minutes later, a Cuna whipped back down the trail. He was terrified. He said they'd killed his friend. I tried to gather as much information as I could, but he took off. Then, five minutes later, another Cuna ran past, just as hysterical as the first one.

 
Did it occur to you to run for your life, too?
 

No—people tend to shoot things that move. We stayed together, talking loudly in English so the gunmen would know we were foreigners, and walked in the direction of the gunfire. We talked about the weather.

 
Who were your kidnappers?
 

There were five men, roughly ages 16 to 25, who were so amped up on adrenaline after the ambush that it took them about half an hour to calm down. I could tell they were AUC by the way they were dressed and armed. We found out later that we had stumbled into the middle of a 150-man search-and-destroy mission aimed at FARC rebels supposedly hiding out in Panama. They killed four Cuna they thought were FARC sympathizers, and probably the third Cuna we'd seen on the trail.

 
What did they do to you?
 

They took Victor back to Paya, and when it got dark, they marched us farther along the trail, then told us to lie down. They put up a tarp and stood over us with guns. The next day we were moved to another location, where we sat around for two days. Then we were passed on to different groups. After about seven days, they brought us out of the jungle to an abandoned cattle ranch near Unguía, in Colombia, where we were kept for three more days.

 
What was captivity like?
 

Every hour is a new hour when you're held at gunpoint. At times, the mood was relaxed, but overall, it was very stressful. We didn't know whether we were going to be killed or released, whether our captors would be attacked. And they went through various moods; sometimes they were friendly, sometimes abrupt.

 
Did they feed you?
 

Up to five times a day. They'd send people into town to buy us box lunches, yogurt, Gatorade. They didn't quite know what Americans ate.

 
Did any advice from your books apply?
 

I tell readers that if they're kidnapped, they should try to win the respect of their captors so they will drop their guard—tell jokes, ask questions about their families. And, should the moment arrive, be ready to escape. So I followed the strategy.

 
How did it end?
 

A Catholic priest arrived to escort us into Unguía. The next morning we were piled into a speedboat and taken to Turbo. From there, the U.S. embassy flew us to Bogotá. It turned out we had been a political football. The AUC was in talks with the Colombian government, which would have broken off negotiations if they found out paramilitaries had kidnapped Americans. So the AUC claimed we were being held for our own safety.

 
Would you go back?
 

The AUC tells me that if any Americans want to hike the Darién Gap, they should just e-mail them. I wouldn't advise it.


Pelton's in-depth account of his harrowing trek will appear in the June issue of Adventure.



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April 2003



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