Visiting the almost destroyed former town of Armero is a dark tourism experience like no other.
Firstly, you have to make your way out to Colombia in order to reach it. The trip isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Once you get there, all you will see are abandoned buildings surrounded by weeds. However, what you are looking at is the upper levels of a town that was once home to 30,000 people.
The ground floors are buried by the mud that suffocated the town and two-thirds of its population just 35 years ago.
The Armero Tragedy
The tragedy is remembered very little outside of Colombia today. However, Armero was once a bustling location that stood in the flatlands below the nearby Nevado del Ruiz volcano.
In the early hours of November 13, 1985, hell on earth came to the unfortunate residents of Armero as the volcano erupted.
Taking place in the middle of the night, and with a storm occurring at the same time, the locals did not know they were in grave danger. Most were sleeping soundly.
Tragically, recommendations from geological experts to evacuate the community had been ignored. When volcanic ash had started falling the previous day, local authorities informed residents that it was nothing to worry about.
This negligence would help explain the enormous loss of life.
The erupting volcano melted nearby summit glaciers and snow. This caused four giant walls of mud and debris (lahar) to hurtle toward Armero at almost 30mph.
The sleeping town had no chance as they were drowned in a 15-foot layer of thick sludge Over 23,000 people were killed.
Needless to say, government officials were blamed for the tragedy that should have been averted. It is considered Colombia’s worst natural disaster.
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Trapped to death
Those that died in the initial eruption were more fortunate than those that were trapped and could not be freed.
First, they faced an agonizing 12-hour wait before first responders could actually reach the town.
However, in many cases, the mud had encased them too tightly. It pulled at their feet like quicksand, and to fight against it, made them sink further.
The rescue efforts were slow and dangerous. Those that could not hold out any longer disappeared into the mud as the relief workers, tried and failed to save them.
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13-year-old Omayra Sánchez
One of the most well-known victims of the Armero disaster was a 13-year-old girl named Omayra Sánchez.
Imprisoned up to her neck in a mixture of the volcanic sludge and the debris of her own destroyed home, young Omayra smiled and sang as rescuers worked to free her.
While trapped, she was even interviewed by a local television station. Her spirits were high as she believed she would soon be safe.
The reality was a lot darker, however. Volunteers tried multiple times to free her but to no avail. After 60 hours of being held fast in the rubble, she died.
A photograph of her staring, helpless, into the camera, made headlines around the world at the time and became the symbol of the disaster.
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Where is the Armero Ghost Town
The ruins of Armero are a 6-hour drive west of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital via Honda and Mariquita. Aim for Highway 43 and it will take you into the vicinity.
Mariquita, just 15 miles north of the site, is the nearest town where you can expect to book accommodation and buy food. From there you will be able to take a taxi or local bus to the ruins, which are 30kms along the main road to Ibague.
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Destroyed by the mud and with most of its population horrifically killed, what was left of Armero was soon abandoned.
Shortly after the disaster, survivors created a pseudo-cemetery for the dead. Makeshift tombs were made out of the rubble, some of which can still be seen today.
The ghost town of Armero has little infrastructure for tourists, (this is not a place of snack bars or souvenir shops). That being said, the Armando Armero foundation has established a Memory Interpretation Center on the site, where the visitors that do make it, can learn more about the disaster and the city before it was buried.
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Booking a guide to Armero
You will not be able to book a tour online for Armero ghost town. In fact, you will see little advertising for organized tours even when you reach the towns close by.
However, upon arrival at the site, head to the visitor’s center and they will be able to provide you with a local guide. There’s no set fee for this but 20,000 to 50,000 peso is the going rate, depending on how much time you take.