Tom Faulkner

Joined February 2017
  • 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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  • Day119

    Weeks 16/17: Volunteering with a twist..

    July 2, 2017 in Colombia ⋅ ⛅ 37 °C

    For 2 weeks I volunteered at a project in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta close to Tayrona national park. Hanna and Octavio, an Australian and Spanish couple had bought some incredible land on the jungle hillside with off-road access and great views over the hills. Since February they had built a large central kiosk to be their home, and had various other projects running on their land with volunteers helping every step of the way. Their dream is to create the perfect home complete with guest cabins, natural pool, yoga studio, and in the future rent out the place(s) to tourists. I was excited to be a part of it and help out.

    As it happened, I met Hanna in Santa Marta and we took a 1-hour bus to the start of a dirt road in the Sierra Nevada mountain jungle. As soon as we got off the bus, a tropical storm unleashed terential rain for the entire 30 minute walk up the steep hill, and we even had to cross a wide thigh-high river, all whilst carrying 2 backpacks and food for Hanna. The rain stopped just as we reached the house, it was getting dark, and we were drenched, but we certainly arrived in style and with a smile. I set up my home (tent) under a tree, with a view over tayrona, before my first meal where I got to know Hanna, Octavio and the other workawayers. There were 4 other volunteers when I arrived; an Argentinian, a German, and a Belgian couple, and throughout the next 2 weeks several people came and went; a Canadian, a Scot, and 2 french,  but there were constantly 5-7 volunteers.

    Normally, the day would start around 7am when all the volunteers stumble out of their tents and gather in the main lodge for breakfast. By 9am we would all be working on different projects, sometimes with a few Colombian builders. When I arrived in mid-june there was a lot going on; We needed to build a huge water-tower from bamboo, The large natural swimming pool was half finished, a shelter was needed for the new clay oven, I built a chicken nesting box, one volunteer was painting a large mural on the front of the lodge, and there was lots of other jobs like cleaning and oiling bamboo ready for the tower and other projects like future cabins and a Yoga studio. Basically, there was a lot to do, and sometimes the days were long with a lot of hard work and manual labour in the humid jungle under a hot sun. I would usually be topless and dripping with sweat, but it was great to be a part of such an awesome project, and with so many other volunteers from around rhe world. Hanna and Octavio are also amazing, and fantastic hosts for the many volunteers that they recieve (The food and hospitality here beats other workaways).

    Aside from work, we went to the nearby 'pozo-del-amor' waterfall a few times, but spent most of our spare time around the lodge relaxing, socialising, playing frisbee, and I also spent my weekend off on a trip to Minca (up in the mountains) with a couple of volunteers (Check out blog 16: Minca). In the evenings we would drink beer and play cards, but there was one particular night worth telling; at the summer equinox (June 21st) there was to be an indigenous festival/party at night, and we all wanted to go. There were 10 of us in total, this place was almost an hour drive away, and we only had a 2-seater 4x4 pickup. No problem - 7 in the back, 3 in the front. What a journey - Octavio threw the 10-person-full car down the off-road track, through the river, and out to the main road on the other side, where we drove 45 minutes in pitch black (with the wind battering our faces) to arrive at the party that was cancelled 2 days ago. Shit. However, this was all whilst drinking cans of beer and we obviously weren't going home now! We found a shop, bought a lot of beer and rum (which lasted half an hour at best) and drank out front of a random Albanian guys house, before driving to Charlie's bar on Costeño beach around midnight. Too many drinks later I remember we saw a wild cayman up close on the beach before making the same incredible journey back in the trusty Nissan pick-up but this time all pretty hammered, and lightning storm would drench us the whole way back. Strange night, but fucking awesome.

    All in all, i loved the place so much i stayed for 2 weeks, but I could have stayed longer. It was great to work hard alongside other volunteers, especially in such a beautiful environment, with great hosts and amazing food! Now, thanks to the reccomendation of Hanna and Octavio, I am heading for the desert in La Guajira. But, I'll be back. Mark my words... (Actually I'll be back anyway as I kept half of my stuff there...)
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  • Day113

    Week 16: Minca Weekend Trip

    June 26, 2017 in Colombia ⋅ ⛅ 29 °C

    In between my 2 weeks volunteering at Hanna/Octavio's place, we had the weekend off, so me, Tomas and Paul (friends from France) made the most of it...

    Early Saturday Morning the 3 of us jumped in the back of Octavio's 4x4 and crossed the river (by driving through it) to the main road. Octavio headed the opposite way for supplies, while we hitched a ride in the back of a large empty lorry. We had to sit deep inside so police wouldn't see, but the lorry was empty so we had a good view out of the back. After about an hour, we arrived at a random truck-stop outside of Santa Marta, and had to hitchike again (this time in a car), to get into the city. There we bought supplies and took a shared van to Minca. The journey to Minca was an hour of awesome traversing road getting higher and higher into the mountains, until we came to the town. We wanted to visit a popular place higher up in the mountains so had to hike uphill for 2 hours, but the weather was perfect and the views were amazing.

    We arrived at the place in the afternoon; 'Mundo Nuevo', a nature hostel and sustainability project high on a mountainside overlooking Santa Marta and the Carribean Sea. This place had it all; Dorms or Hammocks for sleeping, Unbeatable views, large gardens, freshly cooked food, pool table, beer, and enough tourists to feel like I was in Europe (The last part I didn't like so much, but it was the weekend...). However, with only 1 night here we wanted to explore the area, so we dropped our bags in empty hammocks and went straight out on a 4-hour-round hike to the famous 'pozo de azul' waterfall in glorious sunshine, through mountain-jungle with views the whole way. We stopped at a Coffee and Cacao farm ('La Candelaria') on route to chat with the owners, see a bit of the farm, and of course drink fresh coffee.

    We arrived at the waterfall at the perfect time; the sun was getting low, but it beamed through the jungle canopy illuminating the place with colour. Most of the visitors had left, and the large natural pool was crystal clear and invititing. We bathed in the (refreshingly) cold water, and the sounds of the powerful cascades and singing birds dominating the jungle. What a place. I also saw Martin, a Danish friend who I met in Rodadero a month ago. It was complete luck and a suprise to see eachother in such a remote place, but it turns out the same would happen tomorrow and I would end up staying with him for the night.

    Anyway, we (me, Tomas and Paul) left the waterfall and didn't arrive back at the hostel until dark. The walk back with sunset views over the distant city was incredible, but the transition of day to night was fast, and we were exhausted on return. We had just enough energy to join the Saturday night party for a few hours, but it was a long day; 6 hours hiking + 4 beers + 1 hammock = a good night sleep!

    On Sunday morning, we hiked up to an incredible viewpoint with 2 french girls from the hostel (so I was now with 4 French travellers). We missed the sunrise by a long way, but the plentiful views, fauna, butterflies and birds make early mornings here very peaceful, and we took it all in from the top of our hill, bathing in the rising sun over the mountains, as large clouds rolled into the valley from below. I knew then that I would come back to Minca one day on my own to discover more about this incredible area.

    We had incredible luck with the weather 8n Minca so far, but that changed when in the space of an hour, a dreamy morning turned into a tropical thunderstorm. We arrived back at the hostel just before the torrential downpour, and had to wait for a couple of hours for it to pass. We had to get back to our workaway (a very long journey away), so we left the hostel in the afternoon and made the long hike down to Minca, stopping at a few farms and places on the way. It was now 5pm and starting to get darker, we were close to minca, but still hours from our workaway. I was debating on staying the night in the town, but Tomas and Paul were determined to make it back. Then, right near the bottom of the path, guess who flies past on the back of a moto-taxi... Martin! We shouted something quickly like 'meet at the bridge', so we did. Because it was late, the problem now was a lack of (public) transport out of Minca. The only way seemed to be on the back of a motorbike and it was about to rain. Anyway, this is what Paul and Tomas did, while me and Martin got lucky in finding a cheap shared taxi, and ended up going to a building site (a hostel in progress) in the city where he was volunteering! I may have arrived at the wrong workaway, but I was dry and relaxed, and had the perfect barbecue and beers with Martin and other random people. A perfect end to a great trip...

    *Morning Alarm*. Monday morning, 6am. A volunteering day, and i was 2 hours away. After a long bus and an uphill hike, I still arrived before 8am, just in time for breakfast and another week of jungle volunteer life...
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  • Day103

    Weeks 14/15: To Santa Marta & beyond...

    June 16, 2017 in Colombia ⋅ ⛅ 30 °C

    Within an hour of arriving in Colombia, me and Maycon were sat in a bar in Cucuta watching the epic champions league final. We drank colombian beer and ate home cooked food, but paid in pesos at over 5 times Venezuelan price, something I would have to get used to. I also used an ATM for the first time in months and we went to the bus terminal to by tickets for the night-bus to Santa Marta (North Colombia). I was suprised to find out that the journey cost so much; 80,000 pesos (around $30), when in Venezuela the same journey would cost over 10 times less (around $2). However, I was further suprised to find out the bus had reclining sears, air conditioning, wifi, and a toilet, which was lucky for me as I spent the next 16 hours on and off the bumpy toilet with diarrhoea.

    After an unpleasant ride and not much sleep, we arrived in Santa Marta on Sunday morning. Maycon headed to nearby Minca, a town up in the mountains, and I stayed in a hostel in the city to explore and organise Spanish lessons. The sunset over the carribean viewed from Santa Marta is incredible, and it's also great to see so many people out after dark; another thing I'm not used to from Venezuela. However, this place is also PACKED with tourists and backpackers, which is different, but not necessarily a bad thing. The central squares and the seaside liven up at night, there are many restaurants, bars, even casinos, and plenty of tourists to go around...

    On Tuesday I had my first Spanish Lesson with Elsa, a lovely woman and qualified spanish teacher. We had an intensive 3-hour private lesson with all the conversation in Spanish, but it went really well and we organised to do one every morning for a week. At the same time, I'd found a great workaway in a fancy hostel in Rodadero (the touristic beach town south of Santa Marta), where I would volunteer for a week and stay for free. My daily routine would be to leave the hostel at 8am to catch the 'around the hills' bus to Santa Marta, for my 3 hour spanish class at 9. Then I would return to the hostel by 1 to 'volunteer' working as handyman, painter and repairs. After around 5 hours work I would go to the beach for the incredible sunset and steet-food, before returning to the hostel to study spanish 'homework' for the next days class. This would usually take 3 hours, before falling asleep and waking up early to do it all again.

    I make it sound like hard work but really I had a great time and met so many different people around the hostel, and I was learning and speaking spanish FAST. The work in the hostel was easy, and the location ideal for everything I needed. On a day off I climbed up to the top of the hills separating Rodadero and Santa Marta, and I arrived at the peak just after sunrise at 5.30. The views were incredible; The sky was perfectly clear and colourful. I could see out over the two coastal cities, with the beaches all around the bright blue carribean sea, and the tallest coastal mountains in the world as the backdrop.  It was one of the best sunrises I've ever seen.

    I stayed in Rodadero a little longer than planned; I took a few extra spanish lessons, worked in the hostel a couple extra days, and then stayed at the managers house while I figured out my next workaway. I also took a trip to Taganga (a fishing village) and playa grande for walking and sea-kayaking, before I finally headed to Santa Marta to meet Hanna, and toik a bus to the incredible place I would live and volunteer for the next 2 weeks. My welcome was to walk shoeless through a river before an uphill walk in the pouring rain in dense humid jungle, and I loved it...
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