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Despite kidnappings, Colombia urges travel

Tourism is up as much as 90 percent due to Colombia's 'democratic security' strategy.

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Less than a month after eight foreign tourists were kidnapped in the Sierra Nevadas, a bus full of eager adventurers set out at the crack of dawn for the same site.

Guided by the two men who had been held at gunpoint while the leftist guerrillas kidnapped part of their tour group, the bus departed again earlier this month for Ciudad Perdida, or the Lost City, a 2,500 year-old Indian ruin deep in the Colombian jungle.

"We have to move forward," says Edwin Rey, a guide who had been tied to a bed while the National Liberation Army (ELN) abducted the foreigners, including two Britons (one of whom later escaped), a Spaniard, a German, and four Israelis. "The beauty of Santa Marta can't be erased by a kidnapping."

Indeed, the seaside city of Santa Marta, the capital of the province of Magdalena, is home to the stunning Parque Tayrona and the Lost City. Bordered by the world's tallest coastal range, the national park is a 37,000-acre ecotourism paradise that includes beaches, reefs, mangroves, 200 bird species, and ruins of the Tayrona Indian tribe.

Getting tourists to return to Santa Marta and other destinations is a small but significant piece of President Alvaro Uribe's tough "democratic security" strategy. The government says that restoring unimpeded travel marks an important step in retaking the country from Marxist rebels and paramilitaries who have been waging war here for nearly four decades. So far, the initiative has been working.

In a program known as "Live Colombia, Travel for Her," the government has launched a series of tourist caravans on holiday weekends to allow Colombians to use once-abandoned highways with confidence. The caravans set off early in the morning from major cities, protected by police and Army forces.

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