"Don’t go! You’ll get lost! The road is horrible! There are bad people! ”For a few seconds the words of the hotel owner's wife made me a little concerned and then… they made me want to go even more.
I was planning a trip to the most northern point of Colombia – La Punta Gallinas. The point is located in La Guajira – Colombia’s roughest region and home to the indigenous Wayuu people. I heard about this area a few years back and the idea of a desert, a sea full of fish and lobster, and a fascinating culture sounded incredibly appealing.
What I didn’t know was that fairly recently La Guajira experienced an 8 year drought. Thousands died. The region is forgotten by the government and not much help ever arrives. Corruption, from the stories of the locals is rife. The Wayuu are an incredibly tough people. They’ve survived in an unforgiving environment and I suppose they never complained or knew any other way, but now, they see the SUVs coming through their land from afar. They’ve seen and understood that some people live in a much more prosperous world. Some clearly want a part of that world.
Perhaps there was some banditry, perhaps it’s just that the rich are so scared of the possibility of what the poor can do to them. Today La Guajira does not have a good reputation. Everywhere I’ve been so far people speak of it as a lawless region, dangerous, remote, rough, but... spectacular.
I realised long ago that it’s useless listening to most negative talk about any places or people. Instead I listened closely to the words of Pastor, the owner of the hotel where I was staying. Pastor (yes, that’s his name) is a La Guajira local and it seemed that his only real concern was that I’d get lost. I told him I had a GPS app and had downloaded the route. “Go with a guide” were his parting words.
My first stop was Cabo De La Vela. This is already desert-like land by the sea, except that the road was very easy and it's fairly developed. I hung around for a couple of days and pondered on what I would do (for the camera). The evening before setting off for my remote destination I met a few travellers who were crazy enough to want to try the journey to La Punta Gallinas on their own, or rather to try it together – all of us. And so, we went.
No gasoline stations for a couple of hundred kilometres, only pinpinas/gasoline containers all the way. You have to feel sympathy for the folks who fill the gas tanks. They make the gasoline flow from the larger barrels to the containers by sucking the hose. One kid couldn’t manage to get it going and I’d say that he accidentally swallowed at least half a glass of gasoline.
There aren't many settlements along the way. Generally, the only people you see are those who set up road tolls (more on that later) and those who herd their animals. When I saw these kids I thought it was a good opportunity to show the types of characters I encountered. The girl spoke surprisingly good Spanish, not all Wayuu speak Spanish. Along with her little brother they were taking the family’s donkeys to their parents.
Besides children demanding money at improvisational road tolls, there are many others who stand with their hand stretched out along the road begging. These kids didn’t beg, but after I finished making photos the girl said “My brother asks if you have a cookie or a chocolate.” I absolutely hate giving things to kids who beg, but, this wasn’t quite begging. I guess the little boy heard from other kids about the visitors in SUVs giving them sweets and I perfectly fit the profile. I didn’t have anything except for a lemonade.
The idea of giving the little boy a bit of joy outweighed the thought and the possibility that he would now beg along the road like other kids, because of my action. “Thank you very much!” said the girl as I handed her the lemonade bottle.
Parts of La Guajira are made up of dusty desert plains. While in this particular area it seemed like passing by cars were racing each other over the cracked earth, sometimes this soil is deadly. It might be very dry on the surface, but the next layer below may very well be mud and not just any mud – the clay-type mud. Once you get clay on your tires, you’re stuck, wheels spin and spin and spin. I know, I got stuck a few times this way.
And now… about the improvised road tolls. The dreadful, annoying, pathetic invention of La Guajira. I have no issue in contributing to a community by paying a tax or a toll as I pass through it, but my westernised mind goes mad when things are so inconsistent, so poorly thought out and when the demand is for biscuits or chocolates.
The way that the thing usually works is like this – bored kids or teenagers decide to stretch a rope from one tree or one cactus to another (similar to above), then they expect cars to stop in front of the rope, then comes the demand for money, biscuits, chocolates or water. Once the price is paid, the rope is lowered. The really annoying part is that there are sometimes three consecutive tolls within 20 meters, then 1km later – the same thing.
I found out half way through the trip that these kinds of tolls are not mandatory. You don’t have to slow down and stop – I’ve seen a local driver go right through a rope, snapping it. Alternatively, you can beep, make some funny faces and indicate that you are not planning to stop, the kids then lower the rope it and you keep going. The latter was my preference.
Of course, as anywhere in the world, among the Wayuu there are those who are more entrepreneurial and more opportunistic. I soon discovered that the tolls set up by the elderly village women are a little more thought out than the rest. The rope is generally not a rope, but a chain, with a lock! If you want to go through you pay the toll or battle the village grandmother. I am not one to battle or even argue much with grandmothers, so when this lady demanded the toll money I obliged.
The journey to La Punta Gallinas took about 5 hours. We did get kind of lost a couple of times along the way, but for most part, we were able to follow the Google maps route, which was more or less accurate. Then there was a river crossing which wasn’t quite crossable, so we found an alternative and then Google maps suggested that we go somewhere that probably didn’t exist, so, we used my GPS app, which safely took us all the way to the destination.
NOTE: Some of you might be curious about what GPS app I use. I have an Android phone, which I find to be better for GPS apps and I use Osmand Maps. Great, great tool, more so for remote places and off-road driving, I prefer Google Maps or Waze for cities. The best thing about Osmand is that you can download routes (and record them) for places where there are no roads. Wikiloc is a very decent source of routes and sometimes travel bloggers or adventurers upload them on their websites. I navigated through much of the Mauritanian Sahara using routes uploaded by some very intrepid French travellers.
That’s it from me. If you enjoyed the blog, please share! :)