Prison in Paradise

Mark Viales

The remaining guests at the hostel, only a handful and practically all of whom were young white Europeans, have their thoughts clouded with apprehension. None of them want to be deported, but their uncertainty, coupled with the minimal information divulged by the hostel workers, who haphazardly decided that hiding guests from the police at the bottom of the hill would ease their administrative burden, certainly escalated tensions.

Amidst the bemused looks exchanged between guests and workers alike, one of the tall Nordic travellers takes the lead and marches down the hill. One by one the rest of the guests follow his descent, all the while recoiling at the repugnant thought of being incarcerated in a Colombian prison.


The small group of tourists huddle together at the foot of the hill and continue discussing their potential fate should the police discover their whereabouts, “If the police find us, we should be honest and tell them that the guys from the hostel forced us to hide,” says another guest, also a solo female traveller, from the Swiss Alps. “Not for us,” retorts an Argentinean woman with European features, as her boyfriend nodded furiously. “If the police find us, then we are screwed.” The couple had touched down in Colombia for the first time just a couple of days ago. This was well beyond the cut-off point issued by the government, a directive that sought to prevent new visitors and deport those who exceeded the timescale.

The Gibraltarian backpacker had landed in Colombia from Panamá on March the first, three days prior to the directive, but she nevertheless sympathises with the Argentineans. There were only two cases in the whole country up until then, but Colombia had now banned incoming flights. This morning’s announcement saw a spike of over double the amount of cases in the space of a day, the number now stands at 52 cases but thankfully no deaths, yet. President Iván Duque Márquez, taking the stance of a war General during press conferences, had delivered stark warnings to anyone failing to abide to the rules. A Colombian citizen was already imprisoned for almost five years for taking a national flight, despite having being diagnosed, and this had sparked a different tone in the daily bulletins. The evidence was mounting that Colombia would soon take the next step in implementing draconian measures in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus, a thought that restlessly stirs in concealed crevices of the traveller’s consciousness.

The backpacker once again withdraws from the pessimism that is rapidly gaining ground and steps down towards the lake, followed by two playful dogs from the hostel. She wonders to herself if she made the right decision to stay and whether it was now too late to change her mind. Slightly absentminded, she tentatively picks up a stick and throws it into the lake, sparking a feisty duel between the dogs as to which one will retrieve it first. However, the sound of an old motocross bike clearly lacking an exhaust pipe jerks her attention back to the group, who signal for her return, “The police know you are here,” said the man on the bike, the same stocky, drill sergeant receptionist. “Don’t worry. They just want to take your passport numbers.”


Most of the guests are happy to discuss the situation with the police, save the Argentinean couple, who nonchalantly make as if they are returning with the group, but then divert sharply down another road in order to escape questioning. The other foreigners show little concern on the couple’s attempts to evade the law, for better or for worse, and continue lumbering up the steep hill towards the hostel. The Gibraltarian backpacker leads the way and is first to spot the single policeman accompanied by a couple of medical officials, all bearing masks and gloves, with the latter clad in white scrubs. The image of the scrubs together with mask and gloves, strikes her in particular. She remembers how unconvinced she felt when watching old movies on global pandemics that had been feverishly exaggerated by exuberant filmmakers. Yet a few things were consistent back then and are certainly present now, the masks, gloves and white scrubs.


Regardless of the policeman’s attire and intimidating facemask, his eyes express a sense of consideration and compassion, “Passports in hand please,” he said authoritatively but with an air of patience. “We just want to register your details and then we will go.” The police check to see if any guests demonstrate any symptoms or had arrived in Colombia after the cut-off date. As all guests, those that were present anyway, fall within the specifications, the authorities make their way to the exit, but not before the policeman turns and says sternly to the affronted receptionist, “Do not let anyone else in or out without my permission. Or else we will have problems.” The backpacker shares a disturbed looks with the other Spanish-speaking guests who all seem to acknowledge their new makeshift prison on the hills surrounding the Rock of Guatapé.