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Bike Race Symbolizes Colombia's Transition From War To Peace


Just a few months ago, Colombia negotiated an end to a long war. Now towns that used to be off-limits because of the fighting are trying to lure visitors. John Otis reports on a bicycle race that's become a symbol of Colombia's transition from war to peace.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Cyclists pump up their tires in Calamar, a town in the southern Colombian state of Guaviare. They're getting ready for the Guaviare Summer Classic, a mountain bike race that used to scare away most riders. That's because the race winds across jungles and plains that were fought over by the Colombian army and the Marxist rebel group known as the FARC. Calamar, a farm town and the race's starting point, was once firmly under guerilla control.

OSCAR CIPRIAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: As he shows me around, Calamar native Oscar Ciprian points to an almond tree. To this tree, he says, the FARC used to tie the bodies of thieves and others they had executed as a way to intimidate the townsfolk.

CIPRIAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "As a student," Ciprian adds, "we sometimes studied on the classroom floor because the bullets would hit the walls."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: To provide a break from the violence, the Guaviare Summer Classic was launched in 1998. Pablo Chica was one of just two dozen cyclists to take part in that first race.

PABLO CHICA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He recalls that the rifle-toting guerrillas controlled the roads, but that they cheered on the cyclists and sometimes gave them water. Guaviare began shedding its image as a no man's land when the Colombian government and the FARC sat down for peace talks in 2012. Under a peace treaty signed last year, the guerrillas are disarming and ending their half-century-old insurgency. Now Colombians and the occasional foreign tourist are starting to discover this region.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Guaviare is located in the Amazon region. San Jose is the capital of Guaviare.

OTIS: At the Guaviare airport, visitors are greeted by bilingual guides. Meanwhile, the bike race is getting more popular. About 200 cyclists have registered for this year's race.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: Calamar residents are so pleased to have the bikers here that they threw a welcome party with music and dance troupes. Then the race is on.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Cyclists followed by support vehicles will spend the next three days pedaling 127 miles through lush rainforest, across rivers and past massive rock formations. Some, like Bogota lawyer Jorge Castano are thrilled to be here.

JORGE CASTANO: We really want to ride bikes around here because the view is beautiful, and also because I think it's a way to support, to integrate this region into the country again.

OTIS: To convince others to visit the region, cyclist Oscar Gasca is taking to social media.

OSCAR GASCA: We're showing the rest of the people through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter that you can go there and nothing happen. That's peaceful.

OTIS: Guaviare still has problems like entrenched poverty and drug trafficking.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At least now the bike race runs through peaceful terrain. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Calamar, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORAKRIT'S "THE OCTOPUS PROJECT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.