Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Deserted

Since the moment I first watched the music video which ran concurrently with Colombia's tourism campaign "Colombia es Pasion" almost four years ago I have wanted to visit the desertscape where it was filmed.  

Visiting the La Guajira region of Colombia takes some added time and effort however, as it is located in the northeastern-most part of the country, wedged between the Caribbean Sea and Venezuela.  La Guajira is also a gigantic desert and, possibly because of this fact, has little in the form of tourist infrastructure.  Better put: with poor roads and no mass transit system to speak of, it becomes exponentially more difficult to get around without your own vehicle.  Also, being situated in literally the opposite corner of the country from Cali, an extended vacation period is necessary to properly explore the area.
Los flamencos al Santuario
This Semana Santa (Holy Week/Spring Break) I decided to finally put a check mark in this travel box and spend a week in the desert.  Along with my friends Sam and Mandi we split our time between touring the unique features, cultures, and industry the land has to offer with a pre-arranged tour guide, and relaxing on the beautiful turquoise-watered beaches.

Our cabaña
Our tour began with a visit and overnight slay at El Santuario Flora y Fauna Los Flamencos, a nature reserve for thousands of flamingos, as well as a sea turtle rehabilitation center.  We stayed in a tiny cabin on an equally tiny island, complete with bats nesting in the eaves.  While they didn't enter the room, there was considerable chirping and rustling all night long and much guano on the porch come morning.  In this protected area, as is common in many protected wilderness areas of North America, are found one of the oldest native peoples in this region, the Wayuu (say "why-JEW").

All throughout the week we often heard people speaking Wayuunaiki and, aside from fishing and raising goats, the Wayuu people depend of the tourism industry to sell their one-of-a-kind brightly colored mochillas (shoulder bags) and woven bracelets.  While visiting one particular plan, or settlement, we were shown how they build their houses, discussed what the traditional family structure is like and how it has changed over the years, as well tasted some of their canela-fermented alcohol.  The girls were also given the opportunity to dress in one of the scarlet red fabric-filled ceremonial dresses used at many Wayuu festivals - difficult to put on in the ever-present desert wind.
A Wayuu girl displaying the ceremonial red dress.

Attempting amusement at the
coal mine. (Despite the safety
presumption, there was absolutely
no need for the hats and glasses
whatsoever.  None.)
The next day we toured north, past the largest city in the region, Riohacha, to visit a major source of employment and economy - the Cerrejón coal mine.  While the tour was militantly organized and moderately interesting, I'm not sure it was worth the two hours in entailed to essentially look at am impressively large hole in the ground and listen to a lot of propaganda about how environmentally friendly this coal mine is, regardless of its veracity.  

After a brief lunch stop in Uribia, the "indigenous capital of Colombia," we passed through the municipality of Manaure to see the salt flats which are used in the production of much of Colombia's salt business.  Essentially pumping sea water into these flat basins and allowing the water to then evaporate, leaving behind only rocks of salt crystals, the mineral is somehow "washed" numerous times and ends up in what, from a distance, look like the towering heaps of snow found at the end of a Target store's parking lot after the plows have cleared it following a blizzard.

Continuing northward, driving down what amounted to a dirt highway which ran parallel to the railroad tracks built solely to connect the aforementioned coal mine to the La Guajira's only port, Puerto Bolívar, we suddenly cut left down a small trail through a cactus grove composed of nothing more than deep tire grooves.  Shortly thereafter we emerged in the flattest expanse of non-water I've ever seen.  This "seasonal desert" was dry, cracked, a flat as a ruler.  During the winter months it floods from the sea and is impassable, but now, much like arctic truckers crossing the ice and snow on spontaneous roads, so was this short-cut.

Since we didn't have to take the highway the long way around we reached the poster city of Cabo de la Vela, a remote picturesque fishing community, with daylight to spare.  Set in a bay of sorts, the immediate area is perfect for kite-surfing and not far away is gorgeous beach, tucked down between the rocky desert cliffs that meet the Caribbean.  This is obviously where we spent a considerable amount of time the next day.  This is also where I got a considerable sunburn on my stomach and shoulder blade areas, as well as my shins and tops of my feet; a former beach life guard should know better.

The classic Cabo de la Vela shot - Spanish for "Cape of the Sail."
Back in Riohacha we enjoyed the fact that our hotel was the essentially the best lodging option in the entire city, though is would barely be able to compete with a roadside Motel 8 in Florida as far as construction and amenities go.  We were, however, given complimentary tented shade on the beach in front, as well as served lunch under said tent complete with wooden table, table cloth, and bow-tied smiling waiter.  Shrimp rice, grilled goat, and sangria never tasted so good!

Plaza in Riohacha
In the evenings we would usually walk along the malecón, or boardwalk, between the beach and the Avenida del Mar, sifting through and admiring the plethora of Wayuu-crafted mochillas littering the sidewalk.  Some are patterned, most are colorful, but they are all unique and different.  Together we purchased six bags, as well as a few other local handicrafts.  (After four years of living here and traveling throughout Latin America, you start to see many of the same artisanal wares, but these were unique and different, making coming to La Guajira a great shopping destination as well.)

Our final full day of vacation we headed to a beach about half an hour's taxi ride north of Riohacha called Mayapo, which we found out about from a friendly cab driver who offered to shuttle us there and back for USD $30.  Mayapo turned out to be the place to be, filled with families and tourists alike, all enjoying the start to the long holiday weekend, the white sand beach, the steady ever-present breeze, and multi-hued blue of the sea.  
Mandi and me amidst the sea of Wayuu-made mochillas.
Going to La Guajira was like traveling to another world apart from Colobmia.  Between the arid landscape, the abundance of sea food, lack of many of the fresh fruits we have become spoiled by, wandering goats, and slow drivers who actually stop for and yield to pedestrians, La Guajira full-filled my every expectation.  Visually stunning in its own way, peaceful and understated, I hope to be able to return one day and discover more of its desert's secrets.
Heladeros (ice cream vendors) on the beach.

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