Having spent a while at a higher altitude, it was time to drop back down again. The road from Murillo drops from 10,000ft to nearly sea level and was a process in brake management. Having made it down to the bottom successfully, we were now not far from the former town of Armero.

This town is the reason that the volcano Nevado del Ruiz has earned the title of being one of the most deadly volcanos in the world. Back in 1985, a large eruption caused the glaciers surrounding the volcano to melt. This in turn caused a monumental landslide that flowed down through the valley and completely destroyed the town of Armero, including its 24,000+ inhabitants nearly 100km away.
The Colombian government, while warned of the potential situation by scientists, did not order an evacuation, instead telling residents to stay inside. This, coupled with a storm that night meant that the townspeople sheltered inside their houses, oblivious to the enormous landslide coming their way, that would not only obliterate their homes, but cost them their lives.

Now Armero is left as a shrine to those that lived there, you can drive through its ruined streets and walked around the remains of the houses. We stopped off to have a look for ourselves. Parking up in the previous town square the first thing we saw was how little remained of the previous church. Compared to Gramalote, another town that had suffered from mudslides, the destruction here was already far greater.

Now back down at sea level it was hot. We left the van in the shade and wandered around. We found the ruins of the town bank, on the wall a small plaque dedicated it to those who had died and worked there.

It seemed that due to the devastation here, a lot of people were never recovered. Naturally as they had been told to stay inside, the landslide had killed entire families, buried alive in their homes. Now as you walk around Armero, the remains of the houses are marked as graves for the families who lived there. It seems it hasn’t taken too long for nature to reclaim the fallen stones and start to pull at the gravestones.

In some cases where there is no gravestone, people have spray painted the name of the family who lived there on the walls of the ruined buildings. It really is an incredibly sad place.

It’s not only the huge, and unnecessary, loss of life that make Armero tragic and famous. The tale of Omayra is one that is known around the world. This 13 year old girl was trapped up to her neck in the mud and floodwaters in the wreckage of her own house. As the waters continued to rise over the next three days, she remained trapped. Her would-be rescuers did not have time to bring a pump to remove the water from the nearest city or the medical supplies required to amputate her legs and free her. The photographer on scene who captured this icon photo, noted that she faced her impending death with courage and dignity. After being filmed by media crew worldwide, Omayra died after three days from a heart attack. Her grave is now a covered in plaques, candles, and other memorabilia. A tribute not only to her life, but to the change that she evoked in the future government response to national disasters.

Walking through here nearly 40 years later, it’s hard to imagine the destruction. Omayra’s grave sits in a lovely green meadow full of grazing cattle and the surrounding woodlands are full of birdsong and wildlife. As you wander along its an idyllic country scene and then crooked gravestones through the trees remind you of what was.

We walked to the portion of the town where more of the buildings remain standing. With a little care, you can pick you way inside amongst the tree roots and rubble until you stand in someones former kitchen. You can tell by the broken sink hanging from the wall. The scale of the destruction is huge and reminds us that we sat camped merrily only a kilometre away from this killer volcano just two nights ago.

There weren’t many people here and we walked the abandoned streets by ourselves, with the occasional person on a bike trying to halfheartedly sell us a tour. After a while we came back full circuit to the camper and some happy cats enjoying the warm afternoon. It was time to move on. As easy as it would have been to camp up here for the night, something about that didn’t feel right.

We drove on, through the next town after finding some gas to cook on, and out to Cataratas del Rio Medina. This river spot has a decent sized car park and we were the only ones in it. It was pretty cheap camping and for $6 we got to stay the night as well as access to the waterfalls the next day. Now down a low altitude, it was hot. Suddenly we needed mosquito repellent and a completely different set of clothes. Swimming in a non-thermal river was now quite appealing. We settled down for what would have been a peaceful night if we weren’t caught in the midst of a huge lightning storm. So much for letting the clothes wash I’d done that afternoon dry out.

The next day we took our time, as we had paid to stay until 5pm. We walked into the park itself to check out the waterfalls. It was a lovely location and I realised how I’d missed the vegetation and wildlife of places like this. Parrots flew overhead and the noises of the jungle were all around us. I continued to walk on up the river to see the other waterfalls and dip my feet in too cool off while dreaming of owning a little piece of a river like this one day.

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