Colombia | A Mystery In The Sand

A hungover-looking Juan picked me up in the jeep after a shower and breakfast (rice, arepas, plantain) and we drove deeper into the desert. The first day of the tour was, to be sincere, a load of old dicks. The second day was much better. Well, better might not be the word. Mystifying is more like it.

We left the roads behind and drove several hours along a dusty track lined by tall cactuses. Beyond the cactuses the desert was desolate. No animals, no birds, no flowers, no water. Sand and spiny green plants and nothing else.

One hour into this drive, we reached an impasse: a bike chain pulled taut across the track, tied to two cactuses. As we slowed to a halt, a young boy in ragged clothing stepped out from beneath a tarpaulin propped up on sticks. He came to the window of our jeep and held out his palm.

Now, the morning before, before we went into the desert, Juan had told us we’d need to buy a lot of sweets and water in individual plastic capsules. Juan being Juan – that is, a lazy pisshead bellpiece – he waved away our queries as to what this was for.

Coming to a half before the bike-chain barrier, Juan wound down the window and handed a sweet to the little boy. The boy nodded sternly, and unfastened the chain. We drove on.

Two minutes later, another blockade: this time a rope. A little girl emerged from the sands and held out her hand. Juan handed her a capsule of water, and she hopped away happily to untie the rope and let us pass. This continued for the next four hours: hundreds of road blocks, all the way through the desert. Thin, dusty people in faded clothes stepping out of the undergrowth and requesting food. Juan dished out the sweets and the water capsules we handed him, but when we handed him the apples I’d brought, he refused to give them out.

“Why won’t you give the fruit?” asked the Belgian couple.

The driver mumbled something in Spanish. I asked the couple what he’d said.

“He said the kids don’t want fruit. They are used to candy and cookies.”

This blew my mind. We tried to ask Juan exactly why these children were here – why they needed to beg in this way. From what I could see, they stood in the sun all day beside their self-constructed road blocks, waiting for tourist jeeps to pass so they could sequester whatever they had aboard.

We pulled over at a dried-up lake, ground cracked as far as the eye could see, nothing but beige and hazy blue sky, and I asked the Belgian guy what he thought was going on.

“I’ve no idea,” he said. “But I don’t feel good about it.”

I theorised that, since the tour was operated by an indigenous company, perhaps showing us a good time wasn’t their imperative. This would explain the surly locals, Juan’s irritation at telling us anything about what we were seeing, his constant drinking. Perhaps the tours were simply a method of funneling resources to a place in dire need, under the guise of ‘adventure tourism for foreigners!’ But how had this situation come about?

Whatever the reason, it made us uneasy. If the people in the desert were going hungry, why not give them proper food? Why not apples? Why only lollipops and sweets and water in plastic bags they were unable to recycle – plastic bags that would spend the next thousand years either floating through the desert or pinned to the spines of stoic cacti? None of it made sense.

We drove on – more sand, more cracked plains, more children with dusty faces and upturned palms. We began to run out of sweets, and Juan reluctantly gave out my apples and rice. I felt guilty about the tinned tuna: imagine trudging through a desert, parched, craving a drop of water, and some blonde European hoons past in a Land Rover and chucks you a tin of briny, salty tuna to chow down on. With a wince I realised I’d chosen probably the single most annoying and unhelpful desert snack I could possibly have brought.

When our sweets got low, Juan stopped slowing down for many of the barriers. He still stopped for the bike chains – they would have wrecked the car – but many of the kids and their parents were simply holding ropes in their palms. He accelerated towards them and they dropped the ropes at the last second, looking annoyed and disappointed.


We stopped at a couple more places. There was another beach, which I walked along with the Belgian couple and collected seashells and skimmed stones. Then we came to a giant sand dune, which you could hike up and then surf down on a wooden board, all the way into the sea. I tried it a couple of times but only made it to the bottom once. The other time I went over a bump halfway and went flying. I cut my leg where the board smacked me and I got a mouthful of hot sand. I wouldn’t have minded, but nobody even cheered or laughed. After my crash I was just sprawled face down in silence, the wind gently tussling my hair and dusting me with a fine coating of sand.

The side of the dune that faced inland was covered, for some reason, with thousands upon thousands of bugs. I don’t know what you’d call them – some gigantic grasshopper-locust hybrid, bright green and as big as sparrows. Most of them were dead, and the ones that weren’t were clumsy and useless; every few seconds one of them would hop up and attempt to fly, only to be sent soaring backwards by the breeze, clattering into the ground upside down, legs flailing. Maybe it was some sort of migration gone wrong – foiled by the wind. No idea. Weird.


Juan drove us to our penultimate stop: Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point in all of South America. The end of a continent. And it really looks like the end of a continent. Desolate, craggy rocks, sand on the breeze, silent except for the sound of waves crashing endlessly against the shore. I stood there as the sun set, away from my friends for a little peace and pondering. I thought about all the life on this incredible and enormous continent: every friend I’d made, every salsa bar, every market square alive with laughter and music, every colourful mural splashed against every wall, sizzling food in crowded restaurants, the buzz of every city – of Cali, of Rio, of Buenos Aires, ancient ruins and chirping jungle, all of it alive, vibrant and humming with energy – and it all comes to a stop here. Just wind and waves, and open ocean on and on forever. I munched on a chocolate bar as I thought about it, and felt a little sad.

I decided I wanted to be the most northern person in the entire continent, so I got the Belgian guy to show me on Google maps which specific point was furthest north. I found it – a little outcrop of rock and coral leading precariously into the waves. I teetered out there and stood for a minute, the single most northern human out of a half-billion, and I felt very special in a completely arbitrary way.


That night we stayed in a lodge out in the desert. It was very rocky, red dust everywhere, and there was a hopping indigenous dance circle around a fire. It wasn’t for our benefit – of course not, our own tour was far too threadbare and shit; it was a show arranged for a different tour group. But we got to watch too, so whatever. The lodge had hot water in the showers and there was a blue and yellow parrot sitting asleep in a tree, and the stars were very pretty and our hammocks were huge enough to cradle a gorilla comfortably.

I slept well. I like sleeping in hammocks now. Made a mental note to purchase one when I’m home. They’re good for daydreaming.


The next day we had a team breakfast and drove six or seven hours back across the desert, donating sweets to children at one hundred successive rope barriers. The last kid got all we had left to offer: a gigantic 3 litre bottle of water. He looked like he’d won the lottery.

The desert is severe and strange, hallucinatory in its oddness. The Wayuu people out there don’t seem to have any culture left to speak of: they just stand all day in the shade of cacti, or else under tarps hauled over little palisade structures, and they take the offerings from tourists that enable them to survive one more night.

At this point in the tour, we still had no idea why; Juan told us nothing. It didn’t make sense to me. Only a six hour drive to the south – what, two days walk? – there is lush jungle and green fields and shops and people and life. Why do these people stay here, to subsist, to suffer? Were we helping them, or making their problems worse? Did they know how to survive without charity? If they’d been there a thousand years, how did they live before truckfuls of tourists arrived to throw tins ot tuna out of the window? Had they forgotten?


On the way back we stopped off for an hour in Uribia, the indigenous capital. Juan dropped us there and told us to go get coffee or cake for an hour; he was going to see his family. We didn’t understand why he couldn’t simply see his family in two hour’s time when he’d dropped us back in Riohacha, but whatever.

Uribia is dangerous, apparently. I mean, almost everywhere in Latin America is potentially dangerous, but Uribia especially so; Juan told us to keep our valuables close and to avoid using our phones in the street. We found a cafe and I ate a weird cake, and when the others went off to go shopping in a nearby market, I stayed put and googled a couple of articles about the desert.

Juan, the dick end, knew exactly what was going on out there. Why he chose to lie to us and dodge our questions, I will never know.

There used to be a huge river that flowed through the area. This gave life to the desert, and allowed the Wayuu people there to live and eat and drink. However, a mining company moved into the region less than a decade ago, and dammed the river to make way for their project. Government corruption has meant that local people’s pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Child mortality is sky-high. Add to this the fact that global warming has meant that entire years often go by without a drop of rain, and suddenly everything made sense: the rope barriers, the bike chains, the wooden huts beneath the scorching sun. I suppose the people there would rather suffer than give up: it’s their ancestral homeland, and they live in hope that one day the waters will return.


Hours later, we arrived back in Riohacha. It had been an intense three days.

We said goodbye to Juan, and I didn’t feel particularly sorry to say goodbye to our drunken, sarcastic ‘guide’. With the Belgians I caught a taxi back to Palomino, had a coffee together there, and set off once more to Santa Marta. I said goodbye to the Belgians, spent the night in a hostel, and in the morning I high-tailed it out of there: away from the strange desolation of the desert and on to Cartagena.

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