Thursday, December 21, 2017

Voyage to a Desert by the Sea

Norbert and I were excited about visiting La Guajira before we even moved to Colombia. A remote desert near the border of Venezuela, the region is known for its sweeping sand dunes that meet the ocean and its indigenous inhabitants, the Wayuu people. Last week, we were finally able to make the arduous voyage to the desert and witness the magic of La Guajira.

I know that route talk is one of The Seven Things You're Not Supposed to Talk About, but in this case, the voyage was as much a part of the adventure as being there.

We started our journey with an 8-hour bus ride from Cartagena to Valledupar, a city in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and the capital of vallenato music. This was the least exciting leg of our journey, although we did find ourselves like Mary and Joseph when we arrived at midnight—no vacancy at the inn. At last, we found a bed and crashed. The next day, one of my students, Harold, was our personal tour guide of Valledupar. 

We visited several of the roundabouts which are artistic homages to the city’s rich musical history. Norbert and I quickly learned about Diomedes Diaz, everyone’s favorite vallenato singer songwriter, and were implored by nearly everyone we met—taxi drivers, waiters, strangers—to visit his birth home and the various homages to the legend all over the region.


We enjoyed our time getting to know Colombia’s greenest city, which was busy with Sunday festivities. We hiked to the top of a big hill, walked alongside the Rio Guatapurí and learned about the legend of the mermaid.

In the afternoon, we took a trip to the countryside and visited a mountain village, La Mina, where we swam in a lovely river with the most gorgeous rocks to jump off!

On the way, we got a firsthand experience with contraband gasoline coming from nearby Venezuela. We learned that gasoline is practically free over there and it’s being brought into Colombia in Coke bottles and such to be sold on the side of the road by little kids who hide the bottles in the bushes so the authorities don’t find them. Then, when a car pulls over to buy gasoline, they scramble into the bushes and emerge with a plastic bottle full of yellow liquid and a funnel. Life in Colombia is never boring!

We came across this fellow on the side of the road, looking down at a river below.
View of the Sierra Nevada in the distance
Back in the city, we visited the Christmas fair and tried a signature ice cream, the cholada. We’re so grateful for our fantastic guide and we hope to be back in Valledupar for the annual vallenato festival in April. For more pictures of Valledupar, please go HERE!

The next day, we continued our journey towards the desert. Now is when the voyage became more exiting, especially when we piled into a beat-up Land Cruiser in Uribia, the last outpost before the desert. We followed railroad tracks for a while, and even saw the train pass us full of coal headed from the mine to Puerto Bolivar for export. Even that part of the trip was bumpy, but it wasn’t anything compared to what happened when we turned off the “road”. This was La Guajira that we’d heard so much about—a roadless, lawless territory. Norbert said a silent prayer for his kite surfing equipment that was strapped to the top of the car and we plunged into the desert.

The way from Uribia to Cabo de la Vela, a small beachside Wayuu village, was closed during the rainy months and only accessible by boat. But the ground had dried out recently, making the desert trails passable once again. We journeyed as a caravan of Land Cruisers across mud, sand, rocks, and cacti. Every once in a while, we’d see a group of kids up ahead holding a rope across the road, hoping to make cars slow down long enough to give them some pesos or a piece of candy.

Unfortunately, the men driving us across the desert weren’t at all sympathetic to the cause, barely slowing down when they saw the little kids waving by the side of the road. The Wayuu people of La Guajira are one of the most disadvantaged groups in Colombia, and it was conflicting to be benefiting from their land without really giving back to them. This feeling remained during the rest of our time in La Guajira, and it led to many discussions with our travel companions. At Cabo de la Vela, Wayuu children roamed the streets, selling handmaid woven bracelets. Our guilty conscious made us buy a dozen or more, although I’m more than aware that my purchases will do little to change their overall circumstances.

Once settled in our hammocks at a hostel in Cabo, we recovered from the arduous journey by swinging over the sea and sipping on our Venezuelan beer, Polarcita. Then we were off again on a motorcycle tour of the surroundings. We hiked to a monument with great views of the region, visited a beach where a rainbow appears whenever the surf splashes over the rocks and a freshwater spring in a small canyon beside the ocean, and watched the sunset at a lighthouse. Dinner was fresh lobster and then we collapsed into our hammocks for sleep, only to be awoken many times throughout the night by intense waves crashing against the shore right beside us. I never thought I’d be annoyed by the sounds of the sea!

In the morning, we were up early again for another exciting motorcycle ride through the desert with our trusty guides, Pablo and Benito. We rode by several Wayuu establishments, including a playground where the children were running around in their beautiful, colorful dresses. They brought us to some cliffs where we checked out a cave, hiked down to a secluded beach, and hung out with some gorgeous reptiles. The surf was wicked but we managed to stay afloat—and make friends! Two Colombians from Bogota joined us at the beach, and it turned out they were also staying at our hostel. We ended up journeying with them to Punta Gallinas the next day, as well. On the beach back at the hostel, we came across a fisherman hawking his fresh catch of the day and we chose our dinner, a red snapper that was still flopping around. 

Later that afternoon, Norbert went kitesurfing and I walked around the town, checking out the gorgeous wares sold by the Wayuu women. They specialize in woven bags made from strong, colorful fiber, but more than their bags, I admired their beautiful dresses! Alas, no one in town was selling any, but I made sure to stop at a market in Riohacha, the capital of La Guajira, in search of the traditional dresses. It was very cool to listen to the locals speak to one another in their native language, Wayuunaiki. Luckily, the Wayuu seem to still be passing on their language to their little ones. 

The next morning, we were out of the hostel before daybreak and on our way further into the desert, to a tiny outpost called Punta Gallinas. This trip was a solid four hours of bouncing madly across all kinds of crazy terrain, with many more makeshift “toll booths” set up along the way. Although we were exhausted from another sleepless night, sleep was not an option on this drive, which felt more like an extended rollercoaster than anything else. For the last leg of the journey, we had to cross a little isthmus in a boat. Thankfully, we (and the kitesurfing gear) made it all in one piece.

At Punta Gallinas, we were herded like sheep from the boat to breakfast and then into Jeeps to begin our tour of the region. The people in Punta have this tourist thing down to a science. The first stop was the northernmost point of South America! Then we were headed to the iconic oceanside dunes that everyone associates with La Guajira—the real reason why all of us made the journey out here. Unfortunately, we got word that the “road” to the dunes was closed. We soon understood this to be a euphemism for: the indigenous people are not letting the white people on the dunes. Totally understandable, in my opinion. Our guides brought us to different dunes instead, and it was while we were frolicking around on top that a sharply dressed Wayuu woman came marching up the side of the dune and demanding that we leave immediately. We complied, heading back down the dune with our tail between our legs.

For more pictures of La Guajira, please view the entire album HERE.

The experience led to many heated discussions between us our international group of traveling companions about indigenous rights, globalism, capitalism, colonialism, and all the other -isms. In my opinion, this is their land; I would think that anybody leading a tour to a sacred place like the dunes would get consent from the Wayuu first before bringing paying tourists to enjoy the scenery. Indigenous people have different notions about personal property than we do, and shouldn’t we respect the fact that we are visitors here? One of the people in our group was a clothing designer from Bogota that had just spent over a month living with the Wayuu and helping them organize their artisanal crafts to be more profitable, efficiently produced, and globally exported. She’s worked with indigenous people all over Colombia and it was fascinating to get her perspective.

My favorite part of La Guajira was the night sky. Being so far from everything meant that there was zero light pollution. The sky was inky black and, unbeknownst to us, our trip was timed perfectly with a meteor shower.  We hadn’t planned it, but we were gifted with an amazing show of shooting stars lighting up the pitch-black night. It was amazing to wake up in the middle of the night to shift in my hammock and see a shooting star streak overhead.

Getting back from La Guajira to Cartagena was just as much of an adventure, and it took forever! We basically spent 2 full days traveling each way, but it was worth it. We stopped at a few "toll booths" on the way back and watched the women scoop enormous handfuls of shrimp into buckets for sale. We bought a bag of "guaraya," cactus fruit, and while they were delicious, we suspect they might have been to blame for a sleepless night Norbert spent vomiting.

Our experience in La Guajira was complicated, exciting, frustrating, beautiful, isolated, lonesome, crowded—a surprise at every turn. It would be fantastic to visit again, but the super long journey might prohibit us from returning. Either way, we feel very lucky that we got the opportunity to experience the magic of this strange and faraway place.