Between the desert and the deep blue sea

Travel Writer: Lisa Mullee takes a journey at breakneck speed across La Guajira Peninsual in Colombia

Desert. Not a landscape I had foreseen in the many daydreams I’d enjoyed in anticipation of exploring Colombia. Yet there I was, hurtling along at alarming speed in a rusty jeep that bore evident scars of a cavalier driver. Wizened shrubs and stoic cacti peppered the otherwise parched sands of the Guajira Peninsula, the most northerly region of the South American continent. A depressing number of stray plastic bags fluttered from surrounding branches like ugly bunting. As more unfamiliar scenery flashed by, I glimpsed black vultures swooping overhead, their ominous presence reinforcing the hostility of our surroundings.

Shouting over the inevitable pulse of salsa from the sound system, Miguel explained the reasoning behind the breakneck speed. Storm season in the nearby Caribbean was in full force. While the unpredictable rainfall was much needed for growth, it would render the trails to the northern extreme of Punta Gallinas impassable. We needed to beat the rain.

As increasingly rough terrain demanded more considered navigation, the battered jeep was expertly coaxed over desiccated riverbeds and gnarled roots, gradually instilling confidence in its cargo of gringos. A taut steel wire across our path served as a reminder that we were now deep into territory of the Wayuu, an indomitable indigenous tribe who prevail in this barren land. The weathered brown faces of the local men were further creased into satisfied and friendly smiles as Miguel grudgingly handed over the toll required to access the trail north.

Having observed the monetary success of their elders, shrewd Wayuu children had adopted this toll system in pursuit of dulces (sweets). Upon encountering our first wire checkpoint flanked by expectant faces, it became apparent that Miguel was not inclined to indulge this dulce mafia. Instead, he revved the engine and sped through the hastily dropped wire. A small boy gazed at me as we passed, a look of acute disappointment crumpling his face and wrenching my heart. Insufficiently informed notions of social responsibility, guilt, and creating damaging dependency battled in my conscience. Guilt won. As the jeep drew level with subsequent checkpoints, we resorted to launching packets of biscuits, like sugary grenades, from the windows.


Back on open plains, we accelerated hard, back wheels fishtailing wildly across patches of mud as we careered towards the coast. A curiously green strip appeared on the horizon, bouncing in and out of view from the confines of the jeep. Harsh light from the midday sun intensified the colours, casting doubt over whether such a shade could really be the sea. The strip gradually lengthened until, in a flurry of dust, we reached an ocean of opaque green that abruptly halted the rolling dunes of ochre sands. A hot wind whipped up frothy white horses that crashed at our feet, as though a boundary of chalk had been drawn between land and sea. The end of the earth? In that moment it seemed entirely plausible.

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