La Guajira: Cactus, Goats and Lots of Sand

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The morning after our farewell night out together in Santa Marta, the remaining group of Kirsty, Jay, Alex, Heather and I were up bright and early to set off on our desert adventure in La Guajira. Our morning bus to Riohacha was uneventful and we mainly dozed, only to wake up in a biosphere completely different from the one we set out from. In hot and sandy Riohacha we found a man to take us to Uribia in his car. Great- way better than a stinky crowded bus. It was nice to get in among the air conditioning… Until we noticed the headline on the newspaper on the back seat. Emblazoned on the front page was a picture of a crashed car, under a title about two dead. It was the same model of car we were in. Travelling along the same road. Fun times.

Once in Uribia we were shuffled over to another car and our driver Maikel (Michael… Don’t ask; Colombians have weird spelling rules) took us along the windy path to Cabo de la Vela. Once there we were mesmerised. Shanty huts, some small brick buildings and little tiendas lined the single road of this small coastal town. Maikel found us a place to stay, with his wife- and they offered us the small brick room they had constructed to accommodate for tourists. It had light until 9pm, 2 beds and 2 extra mattresses- and we were welcome to use the toilet out the back too (using a bucket of water to flush of course). Maria even offered to get us a pail of agua dulce (fresh water) so we could have a wash. Delightful! It wasn’t exactly luxury, but we were here for the adventure and this was a part of it.

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We went and got some lunch. Fish and rice, with salad and patacon. Standard Colombian food really. Afterwards, Maikel drove us up to El Faro (the lighthouse) to watch sunset. Kirsty and I lagged behind a bit as Jay, Alex and Heather sprinted to the top of the hill to watch the sun say goodbye. Kirsty and I got their kind of just on time. We maybe missed it a wee bit, but we still had fun and got some nice photos.

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That night we snacked on fruit salad and natural fruit juices, and got back to our bedroom to hit the hay.
The next morning we went off to the beach, and to see La Virgen with all the kids in the family and a lovely couple (a German man and his beautiful Colombian girlfriend). La Virgen was nice- a large rocky hill that was an important wayuu (indigenous peoples) site, with a statue of the Virgin Mary on top. There were great views of the coast; the rugged rocks and sandy beaches and we could see across most of the sandy and cactusy landscape of Cabo de la Vela. Down at the beach the three boys got straight in the ocean… Well two of the boys got straight in as I slowly meandered deeper into the water. These waves were bloody massive. Dozens of Colombians were laughing and screaming as they crashed through the waves, ducking and diving over and under the water. Anytime I tried it, I got a firm smash of my face into the sand, and was then dragged across the sandy bottom of the ocean. A few of the times I actually thought I might drown. Exciting stuff.

We had a little lunch. The options available were fish, fish or fish. We all plumped for fish, most of us getting the fried option but Kirsty and Jay went for something else. “It tastes like tuna doesn’t it? What type of fish is it?”. Maria had delight in telling us it was tiburon, or shark as we might call it. Wow. (Everyone knows I am bloody afraid of sharks…)

All together that afternoon we packed our stuff up onto the jeep, as our group along with the couple… And the entire family headed off to see Punta Gallina, the most northern part of Colombia and South America. Initially a bit annoyed by the whole family cramming into the jeep, we were quickly in good spirits as reggae started blasting from the radio and a mini choir (Alex and me) was formed. Colombians love listening to me sing for some reason. They even played a few Shaggy songs too- at which point Heather had her hands in the air, rapping along to every word. “I wanna show da nation my appreciation.”

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The desert was different from what I had imagined. The road was windy and long… And calling it a road is a bit of a stretch- it was a dirt trail. Most of it was heavily covered in cactus and other arid trees, until we reached large flat sandy plains, which were partly covered in salt. Apparently these plains were used by drug traffickers to land their planes and load up on all sorts of illegal stuff. We had no idea how Maikel knew the way… Everywhere looked the same. There were goats everywhere- hundreds just running about among the cactus. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many.
Across the path there were many children and even some families with ropes stretched across the road, blocking our way. They were looking money or sweets, some were trying to sell things. We must have passed about a hundred or so. That evening we arrived in pitch darkness. In the hostel we all grabbed a hammock, had a bite to eat and set off to sleep.

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In the morning we set off to see the sights. First was Punta Gallina, the most northern part of Colombia and South America. There was a small brick building to mark the point, and we all got our pictures taken at the top of this crazy country and continent. We then went along to some nice beaches. I helped Maikel and Maria’s daughter collect shells. Little did I know that she was going to bury some in a grave, and release others out to sea. Interesting. We even had time to take another pyramid photo- this is becoming the staple pose of the British Council assistants group.

20130131-151356.jpgOur next stop was spectacular- the spot where the ocean meets the desert and all vegetation stops. It was like scenery from Aladdin. Pure golden sand, with pure blue sky. Not a cloud or cactus in sight. We ran about, rolled in the sand- ran in the water and took awesome jumping photographs. This was probably the most stunning part of the desert yet. A piece of earth so different to anything I’d ever been on before, and exactly like the desert I had imagined.

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We made the long journey back, stopping for lunch. To our surprise the menu had changed- and we all tucked into goat instead of fish. To my surprise it was delicious. I will certainly be eating it again. That night we once again stayed in Maria’s room. We played with the kids a bit before getting some shut eye. In the morning we made the journey backwards and in Riohacha killed some time at the beach and getting food. We failed in our quest to haggle with street vendors of souvenirs, and said our final goodbyes as we all went our separate ways at the end of a wonderful trip.

Chao
Daniel

Our guide, Maikel, told us many stories about the indigenous people of La Guajira. I have written about this here

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Ciudad Perdida / The Lost City

Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) is like the Machu Picchu of Colombia: located deep in the Sierra Nevada it is an old city built by indigenous people where their Shaymans (religious leaders) lived with their wives and families. It is still occasionally used today by the indigenous people when they hold special ceremonies and events- such as calling for good harvests, important funerals and weddings and religious festivals.

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On our first day our guide (Archie) picked us up and with 11 of us cramped into the back of a 4×4 we set off on thumpy, bumpy and definitely not comfy drive to the start of the Sierra Nevada. After a quick lunch we set off on the trail. The path was a sandy, clay-like road carved through the ground that twisted up through the mountains. There was little cover from above and the sun beat down on us strongly. It was a tough walk that seemed never ending. Halfway along Kelli spotted an orange tree, so we spent about 20 minutes throwing rocks and branches at it until we managed to procure a little snack. The oranges were super bitter and hard to suck on- but they gave us some good hydration and a bit of a boost to keep us going. We quickly got into the jungle and had our first break- at a small pool in the river where we all jumped off the rocks and swam for a while. It was here we saw some humongous spiders that ran across water. I made a hasty exit from the pool on seeing those.

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We arrived at our next break stop, Watermelon Mountain as we dubbed it, and had a good big piece of sandia, while chatting to a 4 year old girl who was hilarious and avoiding the huge pack of chickens and roosters that occupied the tiny village.
We marched on and finally got to our camp for the night- we all showered, got a great big dinner and spent the night playing cards with some Colombian kids (who I taught to say “You are boring” to the others, hahahaha) before going to sleep in our hammocks.

After night one the pace picked up and we walked for several hours each day. Some of us bitched about the ones marching on ahead to the front, others bitched about those coming up too slowly behind- and everyone bitched about bloody Mosquitos. After spending 6 months trying to dodge slow walking Colombians, we were amazed to be overtaken by a family from sasa-city Cali, and other groups of Colombian tourists. We couldn’t believe it; fast Colombians? Surely not.

The terrain ranged from the clay sandy trails, to riverside walks and treks into deep jungle. Colourful butterflies seemed to constantly encircle us, we spotted a (dead) snake, and lots of tropical birds.
After night 2 the novelty of sleeping in a hammock had disappeared, and the reality of an uncomfortable nights sleep in the cold was hard to deal with. The food was great- our chef Yorman made great meals and often surprised us with treats of chocolate bars and lollipops. Everyone’s dietary needs were taken into account as I was always given an alternative when eggs or cheese were on the menu, there was a veggie option every day and Alex was delighted that he never had to eat the soup (much to Rob’s disappointment, who thought putting soup on a food no-list was a bit silly).

On Day 3 we arrived at the camp outside the city, and began the long staircase of rocks up to the lost city. The steps were slim, slippery and steep and it was quite a challenge. Boy in blue shorts, a Colombian who only wore blue shorts (much to the girls’, and some boys’, delight) was putting us all to shame as he marched past us. “He’s well fitter than us” was Heather’s response… To which he confidently replied, “That’s not true”… We really should stop presuming that people don’t speak English!
20130123-163446.jpgWe finally reached the bottom of the city, and had a quick rest before heading in. Due to some bowel problems a certain member of our group (Whose dignity I will spare) had to run off to do a No.2 in the woods surrounding this UNESCO World Heritage Site- to be fair to him, he wasn’t the only person with toilet troubles, as we nearly all had some kind of poo problem along the trek (including one of us who nearly shit themselves in the shower… Again I won’t mention names!)

At the top Archie explained what each bit was, explaining to us about the Shaymans and the rituals they carried out. The site was impressive- it was easy to imagine the buildings that would have existed and the small community of leaders who lived in this mountaintop town. It had spectacular views across the mountains and we got some pretty swell photos. My red vest had been ideal for hiking in hot, sticky conditions- but unfortunately wasn’t the most flattering piece of clothing to wear in so many photos!

The walk back was a long one, but we strived on to complete it in just two days of hiking and managed to pull it off. We had a big celebratory lunch when we got back to our starting point, and then endured what was the hardest bit of the whole 5 days… The cramped, shakey jeep ride back into Santa Marta.
Our guide, Archie, told us many stories about the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada, which I have written about here.
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Beaches, Jungle, New Years and… yellow underwear!

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Up early on December 31st we headed off to the bus stop to make our way to Parque Tayrona- a wonderful national park with jungle and beaches, which I previously visited with Sarah and March. This time we were a big group of language assistants, heading to spend a unique Colombian Caribbean New Years Eve.

The walk in is beautiful- mostly boardwalk through the dense, hot jungle which makes the strong sea breeze chilly by comparison once you reach the coast.

Once on the wonderful beach we got some lovely jugos (juice) and reserved our hammocks.

We decided to get in on the special dinner arranged by the restaurant… But as poor language assistants we spoke to the chef who agreed to rustle up a special ‘vegetarian’ (I.e. cheap) meal for us. When it came to the meal we were last to be served. Several waitresses tried to attend to us, completely confused by our ‘vegetarian’ request, instead offering us the fish course. We were getting annoyed… Everyone else was eating and we were sat at a table playing mafia, a game which although popular with everyone else… Made me want to run away and hide. (No offense, Rob!)

Eventually after a lot of nagging the waitresses we finally got our meal- and it was… Ok. Afterwards we had a hilarious time playing ‘Spin the Pineapple’.

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We headed down to the beach, all dressed in our yellow underwear. (In Colombia, this tradition brings you good luck). Somehow Rob didn’t realise that you wear the boxers underneath your other clothes…

We played a few drinking games, which eventually ended up with a hilarious game that included lots of swearing. At the beginning we were all so offended by the horrendous language… But after a few rounds we were all in the spirit singing, “**** you, you dirty *****” as the game went on.

Midnight grew closer so we all got together to take a big yellow pants photo. Once the clock struck (Heather’s phone) we all cheered, sang Auld Lang Syne (none of knew the words) and ran along the beach in nothing but out yellow pants… And some of us in even less!

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We played some more games, danced some salsa and the party continued. Some of us went on to bed, Ryan and I sought out some fun people to hang with (failed… Instead met a weird Australian and a Colombian woman who was rounding up people to help her build a fire) and others (Rob) continued the party into the night.

It was a super dooper way to bring in the New Year, and one I won’t forget anytime soon! Thanks to all the guys there for making it amazing; Amy, Kelli, Heather, Rob, Ryan, Jay, Alex, Tamsin, and Lucy.

Chao
Daniel

Not a bad place to bring in the new year, eh? This wonderful photo was taken by Ryan.

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Sexy Dancing in Cartagena

Ryan and Tamsin about to start the dance
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In our hostel in Cartagena (El Viajero, which I would definitely recommend) we had a dance lesson each night. The first night we did a great routine of African dancing- it was great fun, and a great workout too! The second night we were treated to some Champeta, a dance style that originates in Cartagena. The first 45 minutes or so of the lesson were fun and tiring… But only three of us (Ryan, Tamsin and I) stayed for the last part- which was a bit more intimate.

Ryan and Tamsin paired up, as the male instructor used me to demonstrate. In the first move the girl falls into the guy, and gyrates a bit. In the second move. The girl hops up onto the guy and they gyrate a bit more. For the third move… The guy holds the girl underneath him as they gyrate. After Ryan and Tamsin did this gyrating for a bit, the whole hostel had come to watch and they got a rapturous round of applause. Then it was my turn, so Tamsin and I got going while abut 50 guests in the hostel sat around watching, cheering, hooting and shouting.

The dance was kind of like sex with clothes on- but totally allowed, as we were learning about culture. The audience loved it, we had a laugh… and learning champeta was definitely an eye opener into Colombian dancing.

A Colombian Christmas in Cartagena

This was my first Christmas away from home. Beforehand I hadn’t felt too good about this. Hours were spent googling for cheap flights; Christmas themed advertisements and TV Programmes were making me emotional (one christmas episode of Modern Family left me depressed for about 4 hours) and any mention of Colombian Christmas traditions just made me yearn for the usual fighting over tree decorations, Christmas eve mass and getting up at ridiculous o’clock to see what Santa had brought. Nonetheless it turned out to be an awesome time, and the beginning of a coastal adventure that I will remember as one of the best experiences in my life.

I arrived a few days before Christmas and had a nice catch up with the other British Council assistants. We spent days on the beach, walking around the beautiful historic centre and finding out what everyone had been up to.

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Mud Volcano

This was definitely the most unique Christmas Eves I’ve ever had. Early in the morning we got up and headed off to the Mud Volcano found between Barranquilla and Cartagena. Along the bus journey we played great games… Which some of us were better at than others (“Is it a type of winged bird?”, “Twilight?” inside jokes).

Finally we got to the volcano. We stripped off into our bathing costumes and headed up the steep, slippery steps to the top. It was quite funny watching people slide in and get their massage from the men inside. For some reason, I was the first from my group to get in (unusual as I’m not particularly fond of being touched up and rubbed by Colombian men… But hey, when in Rome!), and it was super weird.

Expecting to put my feet on the ground, I was yelling and squealing as I kind of floated in the thick liquid… A man pushed me over to the side and I got my massage as everyone else laughed at my high pitched howls. I didn’t know if I liked it or not… But after deciding it was how I would feel swimming in custard I let my hair down and started to enjoy the experience.

Moving in the mud was really hard… I tried to turn around, but my legs were pulled upwards and the force of the mud nearly took out a whole family of Colombian tourists. Instead I decided to rely on asking strangers to push me about so I could move over beside my amigos.

Once out, we made the short walk down to the river to bathe and get the mud off us. We were herded up by Colombian women who sat us down, stripped us bare and washed us and our clothes. This might sound exciting, but unfortunately these women weren’t like Shakira or Sofia Vergara- more like their grannies!

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Back to Cartagena we had a relaxing night- I went off to find a mass, failed at that and after a quick prayer was asked to leave a church because they were closing. I didn’t even know churches closed!

Christmas Day

On Christmas morning I got up and skyped my family. I talked with them through Christmas dinner and they told me all about what they’d got up to, and I told them about my mud volcano adventure. I was really glad to speak to them- as beforehand I was a bit depressed, blue and gloomy despite my beautiful Caribbean surroundings. I even introduced them to Heather- who my family were very fond of. Heather even got shown the dog. It was cool for Heather to meet them- as when I was not enjoying my time in Colombia and wanted to come home, she encouraged me to stay and stick with it- which looking back was obvs the right decision!

We headed off to the beach, lay about in the sand and played volleyball in the water. We even made a big human pyramid of the BC assistants, and planned to send our photo off to the language assistants coordinator, Katie Potts.

We returned to the hostel and began to plan our Christmas dinner. Heather, Alex and I set off to the exito (supermarket) and began our search for the ingredients. This had to be the most stressful shop of my life. We had no idea how much food to buy, budgeting was a nightmare and finding a vegetarian option for Tamsin (who also has a soya and nut allergy) was a total pickle. In the end we got way too much food, but came in under budget- shwing!!!

Finding Tamsin a veggie option was really difficult. “What do you stuff a pepper with?” was asked to a few shoppers, before we decided to phone executive chef Ryan to consult him. I can’t quite remember what the final result was, but Tamsin thought it was JAMAZING.

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Back to the hostel, Ryan was the head chef while a few helpers chipped in too. Heather, Alex and I had a well deserved rest while awaiting our spectacular Christmas dinner.

We all sat round; shared the wine, gravy and veg and a had an amazing Christmas dinner, it was delicious! Afterwards we all went round and said something nice about our time, and I was super happy to have such cool people to spend this important day with.