Trails Borne Through Time
By - Austin Peterson
There are vacations, and then there are excursions that truly challenge and shape you. Throughout my life I’ve been attracted to the latter. Dirty, gritty, but indefinitely wild and beautiful. People are genuine and warmer the farther from a city you are, and there is an allure to the unexpected and unplanned. Our excursion to the Guajira desert in Colombia was just that. A small group of eight explorers set off in four Toyota 80 Series Land Cruisers to travel the remote and wild Guajira desert; not only for the journey, but to spark a passion within ourselves. For Eliot, Cody, Wils, and I it was the adrenaline filled races through the desert, technical driving terrain, and sheer beauty of the environment. Gabriela and Joshua bonded with monkeys, parrots, and other animals while Jennifer fell in love with the Wayuu and made friends with each encounter. After several pounds of Argentinian beef and a night out in the walled Colonial city of Cartagena dancing Salsa with locals atop a centuries old clock tower, we set out on our journey to find the unexpected. We were off to the deserts of Guajira.
40 miles North of Cartagena we made our first stop at “The Mud Volcano” of Totumo. Seven of us changed into our swimsuits to prepare for our immersion into what can only be described as the largest, warmest mud pit that I have ever seen. A staircase lead 20 meters up to the crest. Mikkel Thomsen, our towering Danish guide with the build of a Viking invader recounts the history of the local tribe as we climbed down into the mud bath. “The Wayuu tribe is the only group of indigenous peoples of Colombia never subjugated by the Spanish,” he explains in a gravely Nordic. A fan of history, and a longtime lover of Colombia, its culture, and people, Mikkel has a deep respect and admiration for the tribe. Throughout the trip we all pictured Mikkel, Viking sword in hand, leaping from a wooden longboat onto the sandy Caribbean coast of Colombia. We left the volcano’s healing mineral bath only to be led into the ocean and arms of Basille and her amigas, all abuelas in their later years hell-bent on hand-scrubbing all of the healing mud from our clothing, ear canals, and buttocks.
Leaving Totumo, our party drove some four hours Northeast along the Caribbean coastline to Riohacha, our last opportunity for Colombian commerce before heading into the desert of Guajira. The open-air market featured an eclectic array of non-stop construction, street vendors, motorcycle traffic, smuggled Venezuelan gasoline, and vendors offering a variety of foodstuffs, alcohol, and ice. The city also provides gainful employment for the local Wayuu. It’s typical for males to spend months at a time away from their families working for as little as three dollars per day in order to save enough to support their loved ones. Wayuu women own land and manage the households while men work the land, tend to livestock, or seek employment in nearby towns. Upon meeting them you immediately notice two things; the extreme poverty they in which they live, and the deep familial bonds they share. Every family lives in a small village or “rancheria” consisting of a half dozen adobe houses built of desert clay, straw, and sticks. They have a central gathering point, a small hut with no walls where they eat, teach their young, and enjoy time with their large extended families.
The Wayuu tribe have battled the Dutch, British, Spanish, and the environment to lay claim to their small Caribbean peninsula. As we approach every village locals come running, either excited to see our trucks and greet new faces, or expectant of treats, rice, beans, lentils, clothing and other small gifts we acquired in preparation for the trip. Territories are distinguished by each rope toll, or “peaje” manned by children soliciting candy, biscuits, or some other form of payment in exchange for safe passage through their barrier consisting of a small piece of cordage or rope across the road. A large part of the trip consists of charitable donations, meeting the Wayuu people, speaking with them and coming to understand a small part of their way of life. Despite extreme poverty these are some of the happiest, friendliest, and warmest people I have ever met. They don’t expect much, if anything, but they freely give.
About half of our group spoke proper Spanish and could converse and learn a few intimate details of the Wayuu culture, but for those of us unequipped with the native tongue a stolen glance, familiar gesture, warm smile, or solemn dignified look conveyed more than enough. We all found that at the core of a man or woman there is a common thread, survival, sustenance, and community. When laid bare we all share the same traits, desires, and want for life. We came bearing the simplest of gifts; lentils, rice, beans, or a Taylor Stitch button down dress shirt, and through this exchange found we had received much more in return. For Jennifer this was the most rewarding part of the trip. At every stop locals would be seen gathered around her as she spoke with them while passing out stickers, stuffed animals, and food.
We woke from our hammocks to the sound of peacocks and parrots and to witness a gorgeous sunrise. The entire trip was blessed by cotton candy pink and blue sunrises and sunsets, and nights full of blood red moons. We went on to explore the ruins of Nazareth, a Spanish settlement that was annihilated during a cannon strike from the bay. Driving anywhere in this area is technical, and can be extremely dangerous without a local guide. Paths change seasonally and are dependent on weather and tides. A road traveled hours before can become impassable due to rain, wind, or tidal fluctuation. “A Frenchman rolled his truck a week ago and died 10 miles from here,” our guide recounts in Spanish flavored by Wayuunaiki, the local Wayuu dialect. Our eyes lit up and my knuckles turned white as I grasped the wheel, it was nice of him to mention this as we were clocking 90 KPH through a desert sandstorm. The silhouette of the lead truck was barely discernible 60 meters ahead. We stopped for a quick break on the summit of a large hill overlooking the barren desert stretching out before us. It seemed we were either the first or possibly the last people ever here. Eliot dashed from his green 80 series Land Cruiser with a look of excitement I can only compare to a kid on Christmas day, “OH MY GOD that is the craziest driving I have ever done, where the hell are we?” he exclaimed.
Colombia offers a huge range of biodiversity. There is much to be learned from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Caribbean ocean, deserts, active volcanoes, and lush jungles as well as the people that inhabit them. Like many of nature's wonders the raw, untouched areas are extremely difficult to access by any means other than 4x4. In these parts of the world the Land Cruiser is king and is literally worth its weight in gold. Our Wayuu guides were extremely proficient at operating, maintaining, and performing bush-craft field repairs on them. Each 80 series had its own small quirks, but no major issues despite the daily thrashing they received. My personal favorite, the red 92, would tend to stall at low RPM, possibly an issue with the air/fuel mixture? I looked over at our guide and his response was “con fuerza,” or “with force”. Basically, keep the RPMs up and she’ll be fine. The guides do not own these vehicles, but each drives and maintains a specific truck. Each vehicle’s quirks matched the attributes of their respective guide. Jose’s truck had loose suspension and braking. After watching him tear through deserts and rocky terrain, I began to understand why. The guide of the red 92 seemed a bit more reserved. He instructed us on the intricacies of the vehicle and seemed to care for it more. This showed in the vehicle’s handling and performance.
After conquering desert sandstorms, swimming in a crystal-clear blue desert oasis, hiking through dunes that seem to be on the face of some distant planet and traversing rocky, mountainous terrain we made our way to Punta Gallinas, the northernmost tip of South America. Miles of loose sand stretched out before us. We had traversed areas similar to this before and were stuck briefly once, but at this point our guides insisted that we allow them to take over and drive. They explained that the area can be a bit dangerous at times. We later discovered they were simply excited to see their families which live at the hotel we stayed in that night. Along the way we stopped at an old lighthouse sitting along the coast. The desert wind blew strongly here, and the once blue Caribbean was a choppy lime green with nothing around for miles except desert, ocean, intense driving, and beautiful scenery.
Fresh water in the region is delivered from a central aquifer by truck. Rooms have showers, but they were shut off to conserve water. Instead each room had a large water basin and bucket. Dumping a bucket of water on my head each morning became a rather interesting and refreshing ritual; to my surprise most of the others found it to be as well. It became known as the Guajira Bucket Challenge and I expect was a significant part of everyone’s “growth” on this excursion. Wils, a 26-year-old explorer, didn’t once complain about the Bucket Challenge, though I’m not sure he was aware of it’s being a challenge to the rest of us. True to his rugged character, Wils changed clothes three or four times during the entire ten days.
Exiting terrain and a quick pace maintained by the lead truck made hundreds of miles per day pass quickly. Cabo de la Vela, a beachside town with quite an interesting pastime, was our last stop in the Guajira desert. The steady winds of the peninsula make for world-renowned kite-surfing conditions. Locals, and even a small Jack-Russell Terrier, are all experts. We found ourselves on the beach for hours watching in disbelief as ten-year-olds ripped through the ocean two feet from shore flying 30 feet into the air up and over a boat. The terrier ran for hours up and down the beach chasing and barking at his owner until the boy came onto shore and gently placed him on his board. This can’t be happening. A kite-surfing Jack-Russell? We were slack-jawed as the dog soared 20 feet into the sky while his owner skillfully piloted the board.
We all grew and appreciated this journey in different ways. Everyone came to find something, and discovered it in many forms. After bonding over a thousand miles behind the wheel we enjoyed the final hours of an amazing journey over dinner in Cartagena by recounting fresh lobster dinners caught on the coast, jungle roads and beaches, barren desert landscapes, and a lush oasis. Colombia is a wonder to behold, and there is no better way to experience its beauty than traveling off-road. The trails we navigated were borne through people, trucks, and time, but the beauty of the Colombian desert is its ability to forget. A road traveled hours before can be wiped clean, with no sign of man remaining; no memory of what had passed. The marks left on our minds and hearts however, will remain forever.