Stranger in a Strange Land: Visiting the Desert of La Guajira

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Last week was Semana Santa, or Holy Week, here in Colombia (and across the entire region). It is, in some ways, the Latin American version of Thanksgiving weekend: airline prices skyrocket, major cities clear out and everyone tries to finagle an extra day or two of vacation. Granted, there’s less turkey and more church involved, but the analogy still stands.

Since we were able to take the whole week off, four of my friends and I headed north — as far north as one can go and still be on the continent, as a matter of fact. We went to explore the Guajira peninsula: that odd little finger of land that juts out of northern Colombia into the Caribbean. The Guajira is a strange, remote place: largely cut off from the rest of the country, it gets most of its supplies from over the Venezuelan border, yet it’s also the epicenter of Colombia’s booming natural gas and coal extractive industries. Essentially the whole peninsula is desert, with the dusty, palm-covered hills of the Cesar department and low Guajira giving way to endless plains of sun-cracked dirt broken by figures that could be either mountains or mirages. It’s one of the best places in the country for kitesurfing, and one of the worst in terms of economic opportunity. The department brings in tens of millions of dollars to Colombia through natural gas and coal imports, and most of the residents never finish high school — in reality, many children in the most remote rural parts of the region hardly go to school at all. Even in Cabo de la Vela, one of the most “developed” towns with a relatively strong tourism industry, the children of the family running the home where we stayed struggled with basic knowledge (addition, subtraction, the letters of the alphabet) that their city-educated peers learned long ago. And school is a luxury right now — the recent political upheaval in Venezuela as well as tensions along the border have cut off many of the supply routes, causing a severe hunger crisis in a place surrounded by some of the country’s most bountiful fishing areas. La Guajira is a study in contrasts, a place of startling beauty and paralyzing lack of opportunities.

left or right or straight

Don’t take a wrong turn.

I’ll have more to say about the stunning aesthetic appeal of La Guajira (because it does have it in spades) later: the jewel-tone ocean that gives the famous “Seven Colors” of San Andrés Island a run for their money, the way the desert sprawls out in all directions like an optical illusion, the silent isolation of South America’s northernmost point of Punta Gallinas, the way the stars look during an eclipse at the end (or beginning) of the continent, the absurdly enormous and delicious lobster, the handmade hammocks, the bleached Dunes of Taroa, the mind-blowing sunsets. There is a lot to say, about a lot of things, and I feel lucky to have seen them, but right now, with impressions still fresh in my mind, what I remember most is an acute sense of feeling like an intruder.

It’s not to say that people weren’t friendly and kind, or that we didn’t feel welcome there. The desert itself is inherently unwelcoming — it’s designed to defeat and turn away everything that doesn’t have the strength to survive there, and humans are certainly not high on that list. And yet, humans do survive, and thrive, there. La Guajira is home to the indigenous Wayuu community, one of Colombia’s largest and most distinctive indigenous groups, accounting for almost half of the department’s population (there is a very significant percentage of Wayuu people on the Venezuelan side of the peninsula as well, especially in the city of Maracaibo). The community has a long history of resilience in the face of both the unforgiving desert and equally deadly invading groups — they were never formally subjugated by the Spanish conquistadores, and in the modern era have won guarantees from the Colombian government that allow them to continue practicing their traditions and exercising their traditional justice system within their territory.

A house on a hill, or as close as it gets out here.

A house on a hill, or as close as it gets out here.

And it is their territory. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been to Venezuela, or don’t know the arid plains of northwestern Colombia very well, but it felt like very much a different country up there. Granted, Colombia has such cultural and geographic diversity that it does often feel like a number of small nations all crammed together around a few mountain ranges, but this was different. Being in Guajira felt like stepping into a different space entirely, and one that I wasn’t sure wanted me in it.

During the drive from Cabo de la Vela to Punta Gallinas, there are notorious “roadblocks,” where Wayuu children (or sometimes even adults) will string a rope or wire across the road in front of their homes, demanding candy or money from drivers in exchange for letting them pass. It’s easy to get frustrated with this system, especially when you hit the tenth one in half an hour, but looking around at the barren desert surrounding these houses, the few skinny goats munching on cacti in front of the one-room homes, the children living hard miles away from the closest school or clinic, it’s hard to stay frustrated. Our guide, a native of the region, convinced most of the children to drop their obstacles without giving them anything, but as time went on we started to feel worse about it. Sure, it’s a system that perpetuates handouts, and I’m sure it would cause an aneurysm among libertarians and those who espouse that “pulling up by the bootstraps” bullshit, but there’s no doubt that those families can use those 1,000 pesos far more than we can. When there are no other opportunities, you make do with what you have. Besides, we’re technically the ones driving SUVs through their front yards. They’re the people who have survived out there for their entire lives — we’re the ones who need A/C and liters of water just to make it through a day in the desert. They’ve taken on the desert, and they’ve won.

ouch

A cactus fence is as effective a way of keeping people out as I’ve ever seen.

My friends laughed at me when I described the stops as tollbooths, but in some ways I don’t think the description is so wrong. You pay a toll to provide for the general upkeep of the roads and infrastructure you use — why shouldn’t we pay a toll for invading someone else’s land? Just because the Spanish (or English, or Portuguese, or your own personal favorite colonizers) never bothered doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If the government can’t find a way to reinvest some of the exorbitant amounts of money it pulls out of the Guajira, what’s so wrong with the people asking visitors and tourists to help invest in the upkeep of the region? It’s the same as any tourism-based economic exchange — it’s just a hell of a lot more direct. Maybe the idea of paying people directly for the privilege of being on their land makes some folks more uncomfortable than paying people to provide food or transport services, but I kind of fail to see exactly what’s so bad about it.

pay up, gringo

One of the “tollbooths,” seen through the window of our car.

La Guajira is not a popular tourist destination for a reason (several reasons, in fact). It’s brutally hot, intensely dry, requires a serious commitment to waking up before 5 a.m. on a consistent basis, offers few choices in terms of meal options, has more hammocks than beds and doesn’t have anything remotely close to a five-star hotel. If you try to drive through the desert without a guide, you’ll be lost in minutes — or worse, kidnapped by someone along the way, something that happens with a borderline alarming frequency. It is also brutally beautiful, geographically fascinating, quiet in a way that most places will never achieve and home to a unique culture that has found a way to make peace with its unforgiving surroundings.

I’m deeply appreciative that I was lucky enough to see this part of the country and the world, but I’m also not sure how I feel about it as a tourist destination, and part of me is glad that it is still so underdeveloped in terms of tourism. Maybe it’s not so wrong to let the land belong to the people it actually belongs to, and to respect the idea that, just because something is there, doesn’t mean we need to take a photo of it. Sometimes it’s enough just knowing that it’s there, and that it doesn’t need us in order to continue as it has been. If a cactus falls in the desert, nobody there cares what I think about it, and that’s probably the way it should be.

 

camera settings are hard

Staring into the sun at Cabo de la Vela.

zooming clouds

This is actually exactly what it looks like. The clouds are unreal.

pilon de viento

You can’t tell from this pretty photo how insanely windy it is up here.

soooo winddyyyy

The Pilón de Azucar – or, Wind Tunnel Mountain, as I know it.

sugar sunset

Sunset at the Pilón de Azucar – our first Guajira sunset.

so lost

Where do the roads go? Good thing nobody is asking me.

bleach trees

Everything is sunbleached and washed out up here.

chicken boat

Waiting for high tide at Punta Gallinas.

chicken fence

Sunset at the top of the continent.

no photoshop necessary

It’s so pretty up here I don’t even have to retouch my photos.

tornado sky

Night comes down over South America.

Quien lo Vive…

So as I may or may not have mentioned, I made up for my (lazy, broke, bad-at-planning, unmotivated) omission of last year and made sure I spent the second weekend of this past February in Barranquilla for Carnaval. Obviously a big part of this was the fact that Brighid lives there now, so it was a great excuse to go visit her, but it’s also one of those things that you just have to do when you live in Colombia. Or, judging from the number of gringos in attendance, even when you don’t.

Barranquilla, normally your typical mid-sized industrial port city, goes all-out for its Carnaval, which they never hesitate to tell you is the second-largest in the world (after only Rio, which, if you’re going to be second to something when it comes to Carnaval festivities, is really the only option). The city essentially shuts down for a whole week, during which time everything is covered in decorations, paint, banners, and anything red-green-and-yellow, the Carnaval colors. The people undergo a similar transformation — everyone is dressed in outrageous, neon, sparkly, bedazzled, insane festive clothing or costumes and covered in wigs, face paint, more sparkles, hats and other peculiar hair accessories. As if this weren’t enough, the two major spectator pastimes of Carnaval are drinking and throwing maizena (flour) and espuma (foam) at both friends and strangers until everyone in attendance looks as white as an Indiana frat boy on his first trip out of the country.

The days are filled with parades, dancing, music and celebration, and the nights — are pretty much exactly the same. We spent 2 hours one night just wandering from one block party to the next, weaving between neighbors dancing together and changing songs as we passed from one set of blaring speakers stacked higher than the surrounding houses to the next. People always talk about how joy is contagious, and this is one of the best places to see that in action — sure, we’re all sweaty and dirty and covered in flour and glitter and our feet hurt from standing and dancing, but we are all having one hell of a good time. Barranquilleros were, without fail, warm and welcoming and delightful people, and I couldn’t think of a better group to serve as my festival guides. For four nights straight, Brighid and I rolled into bed past 2 a.m., filthy and exhausted and probably dehydrated — and then the next morning, we got up and did it again. Because that’s what you do when it’s what everyone else is doing. We were just following the motto of Carnaval, after all:

Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza (S/he who lives it, enjoys it)

And enjoy it I did. Who’s up for 2014?

[full disclosure: I did not bring my fancy camera to Barranquilla, because beer + intense sunlight + flying foam + copious opportunities for robbery = disaster, as far as I’m concerned. So I’m sorry these photos don’t look so nice, but it’s the price we pay for caution. And it’s worth it]

Food Friday: And Micheladas, As Much As Anything Else, Led to My Drinking Problem

Before….

So I’ve spent enough time and digital space this week singing the praises of micheladas that I feel you’re all due a more detailed explanation. The short version is: They are the best way to drink beer when it’s hot out, and I don’t understand why I have not experienced them before in my life (this guy over at the NYT apparently feels my pain). I plan on keeping a supply of lime juice near me at all times from now on, for emergencies. And/or thirst.

Here’s the long version, for you detail-oriented folks: As with many tasty treats, the cerveza michelada originally hails from Mexico (which makes sense, considering they have that whole lime-and-Corona thing going on, too). According to the all-knowing information lords over at Wikipedia, there’s a bit of a debateabout how it originally gained its name, so we’re not going to dwell on that. The important thing is that, regardless of heritage, it’s created a strong foothold here in Colombia — one could order a michelada at pretty much every restaurant we visited on the coast, even if it wasn’t on the drink menu. I haven’t seen them here in Bogotá, which I suspect has a lot to do with the less favorable weather, but my impression is that you can probably get them in many places around here, too.

…and after!

To create instant beer-based happiness, here’s what you need:

  • a lighter beer like Aguila or Club Colombia. You don’t want anything too strong or heavy, since you’re not really going to be tasting the beer anyways
  • lime juice, preferably from an actual lime
  • salt, the coarser the better
  • some kind of sauce. Apparently there are versions of micheladas using all kinds of sauce, from Worcestershire to Tabasco, or even mixes of several sauces. However, being the hot sauce zealot I am, I refuse to acknowledge the possibility of using anything else — ideally the Amazon hot sauce with the macaw on the label. So hot sauce it is.

If you’re at a restaurant, your michelada will arrive at the table like a fun little multi-part puzzle, self-assembly required. You will have a glass with salt around the rim (salt distribution varies, so choose servers wisely) and a shot of lime juice at the bottom. Sometimes they even give you a lime slice, for that extra limey flavor! You will also, of course, have your beer, which must be poured into the glass with minimal salt disturbance so as not to ruin how pretty it looks.

If you have a savvy server, he or she has hopefully brought the hot sauce out with the drinks (or if you’re at the good kind of restaurant, it’s already on the table). If not, you should absolutely request it, since it’s an important part of the whole experience. Once you’ve acquired the hot sauce, add as much as you like, although be warned that just a few drops of the really spicy macaw concoction should suffice (I may or may not have learned this the hard, painful way). Be sure to stir it before drinking, because hot sauce, beer and lime juice shockingly don’t mix well naturally, and an uneven distribution will really throw off your enjoyment of the whole experience.

Then drink it! And then consider ordering another one, because that first one was so tasty!

Homebrew, complete with Amazonian spices.

And if you’re at home, then just do it yourself, you lazy bum. Speaking from experience, it’s pretty fun to play with limes and salt and generally make a bit of a mess in the interest of drinking. Plus, in the privacy of your own kitchen, you can add as many weird condiment combinations as your heart desires, without risking judgment from any of your fellow diners. After all, there’s nothing that pairs worse with a tasty cold beer than the piercing hot glances of opinionated people. Save the burn for the hot sauce, folks.

Oh, and if you’re struggling with the reference in the title, please go watch all of this movie immediately, and report back when you can tell me how you like your coffee. You’ll surely laugh.

Costeño Photo Safari, Part One

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This gallery contains 30 photos.

Three things I learned during my visit to the Colombian coast: 1. It can be so humid that your camera lens steams up and makes it look like you took all your photos while standing in a sauna. Which actually … Continue reading

Coastal Adventures in Cartagena & Santa Marta; or, Why I Want a Hammock for My Birthday

Happy post-vacation Tuesday, y’all! Yeah, I know most of you had to work last week, but that’s just another of the perks of living in these southern regions.

On the other hand, I spent basically all day yesterday sitting in the teachers’ room at school, doing nothing — not because I’m a huge slacker, but because upon my return to Bogotá this weekend, my body immediately decided to express its displeasure with the departure from warmer, sunnier climes by becoming quite indignantly sick (at least it seems indignant to me. And it’s my body, so who is anyone to tell me otherwise?). It’s not anything severely terrible, just a rather emphatic cold, but between the constant sniffles and the fact that my voice is operating at about zero decibels with the occasional squeak to provide contrast, I’m afraid I won’t be much use at all as a teacher this week.

walls and lamps

Cartagena: Exhibit A in "how to create successful mood lighting."

The immune system devastation was absolutely worth it, though, for last week’s festivities. Here in Colombia, as in most Latin American countries, the week before Easter is Holy Week, or Semana Santa. For most working people, only the Thursday and Friday of that week are holidays, but lucky us in the school system — we get a whole week off! It is one of the biggest travel holidays of the year, though, kind of like our Thanksgiving week, so you have to plan ahead if you don’t want to be paying your entire year’s volunteer stipend just to leave the city. Luckily, I’m friends with some savvy people, and we figured way back in January that by April we’d probably need a break from the Bogotá rain, so we got ourselves some flights to Cartagena ASAP before the prices went through the roof. And holy arepas con huevos, am I glad we did.

Our weeklong journey took us to the beaches of Cartagena, around the walled city and up the ramparts of an old castle, through a highway that winds along the Caribbean coast past the port city of Barranquilla, up to the smaller town of Santa Marta and the gorgeous beaches near Tayrona National Park, then back to Cartagena for one more day of socializing and eating ice cream before we crashed back into the rainy reality of Bogotá. But let’s go back to the warm, happy place for a few minutes, shall we?

oh hey, pretty sky

Like this one!

Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast (think I can squeeze any more alliteration into this sentence?), is built around the preserved remnants of an old walled port, dating back almost 500 years and now an UNESCO World Heritage site — in the company of such illustrious locations as the Sydney Opera House, the Great Wall of China and the Acropolis. I’ve visited a few World Heritage sites over the course of my travels (Argentina’s Iguazú National Park, the historic center of Bruges, Masada and the Baha’i gardens in Israel, Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island, and Colonia in Uruguay), and I’d definitely say that Cartagena deserves its place on that list. It is outrageously beautiful, the kind of pretty that makes you take pictures of random porches and windows because you’re just trying so hard to capture whatever the essence is hiding in the walls that makes the city so bewitching. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I sure do have a lot of photos to show for it.

So we had two days in Cartagena, with our friends Mayis and Dany serving as official hosts and unofficial tour guides (this is why it’s always smart to go on vacation with someone who’s actually from the place you’re visiting). Though we didn’t realize it before, we ended up visiting the city the week before the sixth Summit of the Americas, which is drawing presidents from all across the region, including Obama and the ever-unpredictable Chávez. Needless to say, the city was positive crawling with cops — we legitimately could not walk two blocks without running into at least half a dozen cops. When people mention shows of force, I think Cartagena the week before the Summit is exactly what they’re talking about.

i'm on a boat!

BOAT CEVICHE. With bbq sauce. Winning.

Still, we didn’t let the omnipresent fluorescent green jackets and large signs proclaiming “Somos seguridad” (“We are security”) put a damper on our vacation. We did all the regular touristy things: walked along the wall, took pictures of doors and horse-drawn carriages, drank piña coladas on the beach, watched sex workers plying their trade on said beach, spotted a few local celebrities, drank micheladas, applied a lot of sunscreen and ate our weight in ice cream. Being the crew of Bourdain groupies that we are, we also made a point to eat at La Cevichería, a cozy ceviche restaurant that was featured during his Colombia “No Reservations” episode. Chalk up another point for the supremacy of Bourdain — the ceviche there was mind-blowingly good, and incredibly creative. Mine came in a dish shaped like a boat! Covered in barbecue sauce! AMERICA!

that kid totally stole my thing

The Santa Marta waterfront. For once, I'm not the one doing the victory pose.

you know, hawaii isn't the only place with pineapples

Tasty fresh mango/papaya/pineapple juice at Lulo in Santa Marta. Breakfast drink of champions!

I could (and probably eventually will) write an entire essay about how much I loved Cartagena, but I’d be remiss and a terrible travel cataloger if I didn’t talk about Santa Marta — and the beach. When I told people here that I was headed to Cartagena, almost everyone informed me that I “had” to go to Santa Marta. I’ve never been one to turn down travel recs, and it turned out that what seemed like half of WorldTeach was also headed to Santa Marta around that same time, so we decided to take two days and head up the coast to see what was so special about it. Santa Marta is about a four-hour easy drive up from Cartagena, along a pretty, mostly waterfront highway. The town itself is pretty small and not necessarily anything to write home about — it kind of looks like a mini-Cartagena that nobody has bothered to wash yet. Its definitely a bit grungier than Cartagena (which may be the key to some of its backpacker appeal), with more than a few iffy-looking neighborhoods, but it has a cute waterfront filled with vendors and some damn good restaurants. I think we might’ve eaten better in Santa Marta than I have anywhere else so far in Colombia — everything from Mediterranean to Italian to breakfast sandwiches and fresh juice.

seeing how your bag gets made

The aforementioned bags, happily-colored and direct from the source!

But you don’t go to Santa Marta just for the food, or to buy cheap bags (though both of those turned out to be excellent perks). You go for Tayrona. Tayrona is one of Colombia’s most famous national parks — and in a country with as many beautiful outdoor spaces as this one, that’s saying something. We actually didn’t visit the park itself, since we only had one day and the entrance fee is a bit pricey for a day visit (most people stay for a few days, hiking and sleeping on the beach). Instead, on the recommendation of several random people we’d met the day before (in my experience, always a good strategy for useful advice), seven of us headed to a beach called Los Angeles, right next to the park. Instead of paying $35,000 pesos and walking for two hours to reach the beach, we were at the waterfront 10 minutes and $3,000 pesos after climbing off the bus.

they do sunsets right, here

This is at least as good as someone reading me a bedtime story.

And you guys, this BEACH. The whole place looks like Jurassic Park — all primeval forests and looming mist-shrouded mountains and crashing waves and mirror-clear water. There were other people at the beach, mostly couples in hammocks or families in tents, but they mostly kept to themselves and there were no vendors in our faces like on the beaches in Cartagena. It felt like we’d discovered this place all by ourselves, like the sky and boulders and soft sand were there just for us, that day. The day at Los Angeles with six of my fellow WorldTeach ladies was probably one of my favorite days I’ve spent in Colombia so far, and my new goal for the year is to make it back there, this time for long enough to spend a few nights in one of those comfy-looking hammocks, waking up to sunlight and sand and waves stretching out in front of me all the way to that prehistoric horizon.

[Stay the digital equivalent of tuned! Many, many more photos to come this week!]