Beauty and the blast

The competition is explosive when Matthew Thompson ventures into the wilderness between the two Americas.

A monkey stares at the shirtless policeman and me from a branch and then resumes chewing its hand. The cop, Herrero, is several paces ahead on the climb up the ridge and now he, too, stares down at me. I'm bent forwards, hands on knees, gazing dimly at the slither of roots tangling thick and crazy along rock faces and around tree trunks.

We're ascending a ridge in the Darien, a narrow band of unconquerable wilderness dividing the two Americas. It is the only gap in the Pan-American Highway, a network of connecting roads stretching from Alaska to the southern tip of Chile.

Panama is only a couple of kilometres away. I crossed into it yesterday from the Colombian border town of Zapzurro, and swam at a little beach village called La Miel. No visa is necessary between the two outposts and I ended up drinking beer with Panamanian border guards, who dismissed the fearful messages I have been getting from my Colombian contacts since they heard I pushed on - "solo!" - to the sometimes dicey port town of Turbo and then up the Gulf of Uraba to Zapzurro and its slightly bigger sister, Capurgana.

"You couldn't be in a safer place," says Blackie, the Panamanian police commander, cracking another can.

"So it's fine to go for a walk up there?" I ask, pointing to a ridge to the side of the well-worn route between La Miel and Zapzurro.

"No," Blackie says.

"Mines," says one of his subordinates.

"Landmines? I thought you said it was safe around here."

"Yes, very safe. But no." Blackie picks up my map, points to where we are on the eastern coast of the isthmus, slides his finger about 100 kilometres to the south-west, and taps. "This is where they kidnapped the Italian the other day, and there is a town around here - it's not on your map - which the FARC attacked about two weeks ago." He's referring to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, rebels who began fighting with great communist zeal more than 40 years ago but have morphed into outlaw narco-capitalists.

"The FARC crosses the border?"

"This is a wild area. The gulf," he says, pointing out to sea, "is a smuggling route. Cocaine goes up in fast boats every night, heading for Mexico and the US, and guns come back." He jerks his thumb towards the interior. "It's war in there and everyone is in it," he says, reeling off a list of armed groups. "But right here - it's an oasis."

Today, Herrero tells me he hasn't seen any rebels in the jungle but once glimpsed a jaguar. "More than two metres long," he says. "I couldn't move. My heart, it stopped." He plucks an old Gatorade bottle from among the vines, thereby becoming the first Colombian I've seen to care about litter. He stares at it and throws it back into the foliage.

"What's this?" I ask, pointing to logs piled together and packed with soil and rocks.

"Gun position," he says.

Who knows if he is enjoying the hike. He is here because another Capurgana policeman panicked this morning when he spotted me at the edge of town, strolling towards the foothills. The cop marched me back to the police station, saying this is a safe area but someone might be tempted to kidnap a foreigner. He shook his head about jungle-walking for pleasure but eventually pulled Herrero from a mess hall where police were watching Terminator II and drafted him into guiding.

Herrero selects a much steeper section for the descent and at times we balance using vines, leaping from one reasonably flat patch to the next, dodging spiders in the centres of elaborate webs, pursued by a fog of mosquitoes. Twice I hear distant explosions.

"Bombs?" I ask.

"No. I show you. It's tejo."

Tejo is Spanish for "discus" and is also the name of a sport I've read about. Apparently, drunken men hurl metal lumps at explosive charges. Colombia has national championships.

The slopes ease into farmland and then flatten into the town's outskirts where we cross paths with donkeys pulling carts laden with timber and bananas.

Herrero walks me to the last bar in a row of them and says he must return to duty at the station. A short, heavy-set, shirtless barman looks out from the window, underneath which is printed "Cancha de Tejo", or Court of Tejo.

Running alongside the bar is a dirt-and-gravel strip with a box of mud at each end. A group of men call me over. "Gringo, want to play?" asks an amiable drunk.

"This is how," says another, hurling half a shot put onto a triangle of pink paper pressed into the mud.

Now I'm about two metres back, ears ringing from the blast and burning from everyone laughing at me. But the joker must have startled a few others, too, because he cops a kick in the pants and a handful of gravel.

"You need a beer," the first guy says.

One of the men places another pink triangle on what I now see is a horseshoe pressed into the mud. Each target has two triangles of gunpowder, one resting on the top of the horseshoe and one on the bottom. The goal is to crunch the charge between the metal of the shoe and the shot.

The five of us take turns lobbing the shot put and drinking, watched by half a dozen spectators. Two are so plastered their heads lift from the bench only when there's a hit. God, it's loud.

"Gringo, you like tejo?" asks the triumphant tosser, a guy who says he is the regional champion and has competed in Medellin.

The champ never stops correcting my throw, telling me to lob it off a flat palm so it will sit still in the air and descend with its broad, flat side facing down. Unfortunately, my accuracy goes out the window when I try this and a pair of spectators have to avoid one of my flat-palmed lobs. So I revert to letting it spin end over end and before long - blam! - the shot is propelled 11/2 metres in the air, and I'm equal with the champ. No one else has scored, and a creepy guy with a shaved head is swinging his arm back and forth, vowing this is it, when the Latin music ubiquitous enough to be an atmospheric condition switches to Snoop Dogg and everyone stops to dance. Even people riding by on donkeys and bicycles park and join in. They're not doing salsa steps, either; these drunks and labourers and trunk-armed farmhands are rolling into loose-hipped, pimp-gliding, hip-hop exhibitions cooler than any pro-crews on MTV.

"What does El Snoop sing about?" asks the champ when it's over.

I lift my hands. "No idea."

He laughs. "Of course. You're white."

When the shadows lengthen and attention wanders to a food cart in front of the bar, the game is declared a tie. I settle my bill - and the champ's and a few others' - and stumble through the streets to my waterfront hotel.

The tide laps at the wharf. This remote little world between the jungle war and the contested seas is a graceful place. I'm the only diner at the Light of the East tonight, and I take my time over a plate of fish and rice at an outside table, and gaze at the ocean's numberless crests and curves, each mirroring in different hues the pastel pinks of low-floating clouds, the fading light-blue sky and the deep inky-grey gathering in the folds of everything I see. Capurgana is the perfect place to vanish.

Edited extract from My Colombian Death, by Matthew Thompson (Picador, $32.99).


Getting there

Lan Airlines flies to Bogota from Sydney for $2394 and from Melbourne for $2494. Lan flies from Sydney to Santiago via Auckland (the Sydney-Auckland leg is with Qantas) and, after a night in Santiago at the passenger’s expense, non-stop to Bogota. (Fares are low-season return, not including tax.) In high season it is cheaper to buy a round-the-world fare. I travelled to Capurgana on a small launch from Turbo (about four hours, $20 each way). Charter flights are also available from Medellin and Bogota.

More information

The Department of Foreign Affairs advises travellers "to exercise a high degree of caution in Colombia because of the high threat of terrorism and criminal activity". See

There is a range of small, old-fashioned hotels in Capurgana with rooms costing about $10 a night. Or there’s the luxurious Hotel Almar, which offers package deals including charter flights to and from Medellin. See