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  • Day126

    Week 18: To the deserts of La Guajira...

    July 9, 2017 in Colombia ⋅ ☀️ 22 °C

    After volunteering for 2 weeks in the Sierra Nevada, I headed the the far north-east of the country, out of the mountains and jungle humidity, straight into the dry flat deserts of la Guajira.

    First, I stayed a night in Palomino, a small touristic town on the north coast. There I found the owner of a small Posada (guesthouse) called German. After talking for a while and explaining my plans for the desert, he let me stay for really cheap and even gave me a free ride to Riohacha - a large city about 100km East of Palomino. From there I had to take a 'colectivo' (shared taxi) another 100km to Uribia - the indigenous capital of Colombia. Here, there is a major crossroad busy with trucks, vans and 4x4s offering rides to several different places along the various off-road tracks. I found a pickup truck for 'Cabo de la vela' (my destination) easily, but had to wait until there were 4 other people to fill the seats. A colombian couple came, but then we had to wait an hour for the last person, which turned out to be a family of 5. No problem, I gave up my seat and lay in the back with a couple of kids, whilst the other 6 crammed into the cabin.

    The place we were headed (nickname Cabo) was a small indigenous community on the carribean coast that turned into a popular backpacker destination about 5 years ago (like a lot of places in Colombia), and I can understand why. There is a large bay with a long golden beach (over 10km long!), a constant breeze to keep you cool, and the sea is so shallow, calm and warm that Cabo is one of the best places for Kite/Wind-surfing in the world. The town itself is small and very basic; mainly hand-built wooden structures spread along the west-facing carribean beach with nothing but flat arid desert for hundreds of kilometers. Cabo is certainly a unique town in Colombia, and also a base for long off-road tours into the desert and to Puntas Gallinas, (the highest point in South America) so it's safe to say I was excited.

    The journey there (from Uribia) was another bumpy 2 hours on poor tracks through the hot desert, and i was awkwardly sat in the back with my bags and loads of supplies. However, we arrived at Cabo in time to walk down the long beach, where I watched loads of kite-surfers speeding around the shallow waters with the awesome sunset behind. As it was getting dark, I met a couple of drunk Colombian girls and we went for some beers before I took an early night in a hammock on the beach.

    The next morning, I woke up before 5am to catch the sunrise and hike to 'Pilon de Azucar', a strange pyramid hill over the peninsula. The morning was so clear and the desert so flat that you could see the sun rise over the silhoutte of enormous stormclouds over 100km away. The route to the hill was beautiful, it passed through open desert, cactus fields, a salt plain, and a few indigenous settlements all bathed in colour from the orange rising sun. The hill itself was pathetic, and took 10 minutes to climb, but the early morning views over the desert, sea, salt plains and distant mountains was incredible.

    Instead of heading directly back to Cabo, I followed the bizare coastline round the entire peninsula, where there were more hills and viewpoints. This turned into an 8-hour hike (classic) in the strange coastal desert difficult to describe. The whole way the sun was beaming and I never saw a single person, bliss. Before I finally made it back to Cabo, I found a kite-surfing place down the beach far from town, and after talking with the owners for a while I decided to move my things there. They had Kite and wind surfing instruction, a tiki-style bar, hammocks for sleeping, and a great view out over the bay where there were many kite-surfers whizzing around from other schools. I relaxed in the afternoon by the bar with some new friends; Joel (Colombian kite-surfer), Minnie (Dutch backpacker), and Luiz (Tourist from Medellín). The 4 of us walked down the long beach at night into Cabo to find beers and food, but first, I took an hour wind-surf lesson with Arturo at sunset. (More on this later).

    I was up again at 5am the next morning, but this time for the famous 'Punta Gallinas' desert tour with Luiz, and another Colombian (from Bogota) also named Luiz! With our driver Raynaldo and his 4x4 jeep, the 4 of us set out on what was an incredible couple of days.

    We drove all day north through the deserts, and had to pass through at least 50 'roadblocks'. In places, the route was just a dirt track winding through fields of cactus and rock. On these tracks, local 'Wayuu' indigenous women and children would pull a rope accross the road, forcing the driver to stop. The idea was to beg for anything they could get their hands on, but our driver was prepared. Raynaldo had small packs of biscuits to give, but not enough for every stop, so usually he'd drive up fast and rev the engine, shouting something in wayuunaki  (indigenous language). We'd then drive straight past the desperate child or woman as they threw the rope on the floor. We saw children as young as 5 doing this, and all in the middle of nowhere! It's very sad to see and I don't know how they survive...

    Anyway, we visited a few places on the way; a small wayuu community for breakfast, a few viewpoints, an eerie flat desert plain where you could see for miles in every direction, and my personal favourite; the dunes of Taroa. These enormous sand dunes, a few kilometers wide, could be seen from far away in the desert. We had to park at the base and climb up to the top, where we could see nothing but desert to the south, and sea to the north. We (me and the 2 Luiz's) slid down the other side and into the sea. The waves were towering and incredibly strong, which would turn out to be a lot of fun trying to swim and jump them... We then continued to 'Punto Gallinas', the northern-most point of South America, and then arrived at the nearby 'Hospedaje Alexandra' mid-afternoon. After an incredible sunset at the nearby beach, we ate fresh fish and socialised with other desert tourists before a cold night in the hammocks.

    The next morning we drove to some different (but equally impressive) dunes for sunrise, before heading back to Cabo, stopping at more viewpoints and indigenous settlements on the way. Raynaldo was an expert driver, he threw the old Toyota 4x4 around the desert at speed; at one point we thought we were going to flip! Back in Cabo, I slept in the hammock all afternoon, before taking my second windsurfing lesson with Arthur...

    My first lesson was a success, and this one even better! Like last time, we were surfing during the colourful desert sunset, so skies were alight with streaks of orange and pink and the calm water perfect for practice. The wind was still strong, but this time I tried a bigger sail, so i managed to pick up some speed! That night i would throw up from drinking to mich with Minnie and Joel... However, the next morning I fought through the hangover to rent wind-surfing equipment, so i could freely practice. The wind was stronger, and I took a 'challenge yourself' approach and stupidly took a smaller (faster) board, as well as an enormous sail. Let's just say it was a terrible and dangerous 3 hours...

    After being rescued twice and spending the entire morning in the hot sun falling in the water, I fell asleep in the shared taxi to my next destination. Me and Luiz took a 4x4 to Uribia, where we parted ways. I arrived in coastal desert town 'Manaure' in the late afternoon, just to stay for the night and see the place. I got lucky in meeting Camilo, a young colombian rapper from Baranquilla with a motorbike. I wanted to see the famous 'salinas'  (salt plains), so I hopped on his bike and he took me all the way through the plains playing his rap music the whole way. We stopped at one of the large salt fields, which he said his dad owns, and we walked around during an incredible purple/pink sunset  reflected by the shimmering salt flats with the beach and sea just meters away.

    Back in Manaure town Camilo took us to a bar where we drank Venezuelan beer and talked spanish for a few hours, before eating street food and saying goodbye. He's the same age as me, but i found out he had a wife and kid at home...

    The next morning I returned to Palomino, and to the jungle-green Colombia, but first I visited Camarones (another desert town) where I took a boat-tour around the Flamingo nature sanctuary. The old wooden boat was powered and steared by a local wayuunaki man and his indeginous sail, and we saw many locals fishing for shrimp this way. In reality, the area wasn't particularly beautiful, but we got up and close to some majestic wild flamingos, a highlight of anyone's day. From Camarones I hitchiked in the back of a wagon from Venezuela along with 10 other schoolchildren, 3 live goats (tied at the legs) and many tanks of Venezuelan gasoline. At a later military checkpoint, several of the illegal (and poorly hidden) petrol tanks would be seized...

    Anyway, after 3 straight weeks in hammocks/tents, I arrived at hostel 'La Natura' in Palomino, where I would have a shower and a bed.... Luxury!
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