Bellying Up with Eric Hansen

We sit down for a candid conversation with Outside contributor Eric Hansen about his most recent assignment, a quest to find the world's most extreme bar, Colombia's El Mirador, for the September feature story, "It's Thriller Time."

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How far would you go for a beer? For the September Outside feature story "It's Thriller Time," that's exactly the brave and daunting question correspondent Eric Hansen had the gumption to ask. For three months, our intrepid 31-year-old wordsmith toiled in front of a computer screen searching for the world's most remote watering hole until, finally, he bulls-eyed Colombia's El Mirador, a ramshackle outpost of warm brew, salsa dancing, and surf, just south of the Panamanian border. But the adventure of getting there was more than a quest for a buzz—it was a voyage through the deepest corners of Colombia, where Hansen would encounter mudslides, guerillas, and more. Were the months of research and chaotic Colombian travel worth it? H.Thayer Walker found out.

Outside: For this story you went over landslides and through rebel territory, you rode various forms of rattletrap transportation, all with a guide you didn't seem to particularly like, just for a drink. Were you just thirsty or what?
Hansen: [Laughs] I've never thought of it that way. It doesn't sound like much fun the way you describe it. [More laughter] But yes, I was really thirsty. I was dying for a drink. The funny thing is, I was worried that everything would go perfectly, which of course didn't happen. Mid-way through the landslides I was thinking "Ohhh, beer would taste great." Then we got to the end of them, the worst slide, the only one we could actually see that had decimated a village—there were aid workers and body bags—and it was a doozie. It threw me in a tailspin, and from then on I didn't even want a drink. I was thrown off kilter. I wanted to keep my wits about me.

It sounds like a sobering experience on a quest for a beer.
It was a sobering experience.

So how much did you know about Colombia before you got down there?
As usual, close to nothing. I had a general sense of the situation, but I basically went in blind.

Is that a method you employ often? Blissful ignorance?
You could call it a method. I do like going into a country wide-eyed and unsuspecting. The big cities surprised me. All you hear about is people getting kidnapped and carjacked, and that drugs are being smuggled. It makes the city sounds like hell, but once I got to Medellín and Cali—they are amazing cities. In Cali we went to the Picasso, Dali, Miro exhibit and we walked home through this wonderful park right by the river, past a café with all these sort of intellectual types, sipping coffee and talking about shit I didn't understand. And there's fantastic nightlife and salsa dancing. They take their salsa seriously.

You mention that we in the U.S. perceive Colombia as a dangerous place, is it safe?
Since Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002, he's drastically reduced the number of kidnappings—last year only one American was taken. He's lowered the homicide rate by 35 percent. That's better than before, but it's still eight times the homicide rate in the U.S. So it's not that good. Traveler's wisdom says that if you stay in the big cities you're fine, and I agree with that.

But you decided not to stay in the big cities.
Well, I had a story to write. But it's true, if you leave the Gringo Trail and head out to the countryside, you don't know what the hell is going to happen. You could end up in the middle of the civil war or the war on drugs or the terrorist situation or whatever you want to call Colombia's ongoing conflict. When the guerillas attacked the road after the landslide and we had to get into the military convoy, that was pretty intense.

What was going through you mind when that happened?
I was thinking, screw the beer, give me a flak-jacket.

You've written stories about skiing down Mount Kilimanjaro, and paddling and drinking your way across Walden Pond for Outside—what is it that attracts you to these off-kilter epics?
Each story in its way is a trip that I've dreamt of doing anyway. I don't think I've ever done a story that I wouldn't have saved up for a couple of years and done myself. They are all pretty wacky, but they are also sincere.

So how did this assignment come about?
Well, Alex [Heard, Outside's Editorial Director] called me one day in December and said "Hey, do you want to go to the world's most beautiful, far flung bar?" And I said "Hell yeah." Of course, you have to take advantage of that initial enthusiasm, because Megan [Michelson, Outside's Assistant Managing Editor] and I spent a solid three months looking for bars. Between the two of us, we probably talked to and emailed 200 people. Outfitters, backpackers, people in chat rooms, study abroad coordinators. Finally, we narrowed it down from 70 to 20 to a dozen to one.

What were some of the other candidates?
There's one in Nepal, the Bob Marley Rasta Restaurant, that I love, but we could never confirm the rumor that initially attracted me to it.

What's that?
Well, apparently it's run by a Nepalese transvestite who swears that Bob Marley himself has been there. Another one is on the NepalTibet border in a town called Nyalam, lord knows how high, on the Tibetan Plateau. All the mountaineers stop there—if you're climbing Everest from the north side, you go via this one road into Tibet, and on the way back you and your Sherpas all stop in Nyalam. The mountaineers get shit-faced on Pabst Blue Ribbon. Don't ask me how PBR got up there, but it's there and they drink so much, and there's nothing really to do with them, so they've built little shacks out of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans.

So why did you choose El Mirador?
It is on the ocean, the women are incredibly hot, and it's in Colombia, which everyone says is a bad place to go.

Naturally it was the place you wanted to be.
Yeah.

Did they only serve beer at El Mirador, or were there other drinks too?
No, just one brand of beer, Poker, 82 cents a bottle. And I can't even tell you exactly what it tastes like because it was so damn warm it just tasted like syrup.

You mention locals partying there in the story, were there any other international travelers?
As far as I could tell, it was all locals. We tracked down the owner of the bar, the 80-something year-old guy and asked him if it was popular with travelers, and he said "Oh yes, it's very popular. All the travelers that come here stop at my bar." So I asked him, "How many gringo travelers have you had here in the last five months?" And he's proudly holding up two fingers and says, "Dos."

Was there any part of the trip that didn't make it into the story that you would have liked to see in print?
We were staying in these little cabanas near the bar and the owner convinced us to go on this eco-jungle trek into the rainforest. It wasn't much of a trek, it lasted about a half-an-hour, and our guide was this 17-year-old kid whose Spanish was so weird that even the two Colombians we were with didn't understand him.

So we're walking through this amazing rainforest, there's no one around, and its drippy and green and hot, and a half-hour later we come to this river. Out of nowhere these three Colombian Indians come around the bend in this dugout canoe. They don't speak Spanish and our guide doesn't speak their language. They land their canoe where we are standing, jump out, hack down this perfectly straight tree, throw it in the canoe, and pole off. It was wild.

And then, our jungle trek continues and our guide tells us to jump in the water and swim back.

No way. There are crocs in those rivers, aren't there? Or caiman?
Yeah, well that's what I thought. It was a little odd. So we swim down the river in this rainforest for 45-friggin-minutes. All of a sudden this trek went from some cute little walk in the rain forest to this exhausting death swim. At one point the river seems to be getting wider, and I end up thinking "ok we must be close to the cabanas," but no, this is just another channel, and we have to swim up river for another 15 minutes. After that I wanted a drink.

Ok, well, I have an idea for your next story, I thought I'd run it by you.
Lay it on me.

What about drinking in space? "You could call it "The Space Bar." Tequila shots at zero gravity."
[Laughing] But there aren't any chicks in space. Well, maybe some Russian cosmonauts. That could be fun.

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