Colombia | I Always Wanted To Go To The Desert But It Turns Out The Desert Is Weird

The morning after my mammoth jungle hike, I had a big breakfast and left Journey Hostel. I was headed to the desert.

Now: before I take you into the desert with me, I must give an important detail I didn’t mention before, mostly because I forgot, because of course my brain is a gigantic beehive that somebody has sprayed with Lynx Africa and then hurled out of a moving tuktuk into a flower show.

I booked my flight home to England. I booked it while in Medellin on the 4th of January: flying home on the 5th of February in four week’s time. I was feeling very low when I booked it, tired of travel, because Christmas had been a hot belch in my face and New Year’s Eve sucked ass. I think I was probably in the cobweb of a comedown still, I don’t know. I just wanted to be home and safe and reset my life and quit smoking and get a six pack or whatever.

I regret booking it now. I wish I’d waited a little longer, let myself cheer up, and thought about it properly. I don’t have much money left, this is true, but there are a million ways of making money with a laptop, no matter where you are in the word. I met this one French guy, Yoan, who’s been travelling constantly for three years by teaching French to Chinese people online for two hours a day. But nevermind – I spunked £600 on a flight to London, and that’s that.

There’s a silver lining, however. Having a concrete end date for my trip, while terrifying after so many months of freedom, renewed my desire to do things. Before I booked it I’d been feeling lazy; I was travelling with no end date in my head and there was simply no rush to do anything. Like, imagine you knew, guaranteed, that you would live for one hundred thousand years. Would you go to the gym this week? Would you work on writing a novel? No. You would be like ‘whatever, I can just get fit in five thousand years’. An approaching end is a good motivator.

The knowledge that all of this would end soon – that in five weeks time this would all be just a memory, all the heat and the palms and the adventure would be just another chapter of my life logged away to reminisce over alongside everything else – zapped life into me. I stopped saying no every time somebody invited me to take a walk or get coffee or go out to party, and I started, desperately, to wring out every drop of adventure and fun I could. Drink it all down, soak it all up. It won’t last forever.

That’s why I went to the desert – and everything that came after.


I got a cramped bus from Journey Hostel to Palomino, a chill bamboo beach town, and from there took a collectivo taxi to Riohacha. The taxi driver was insane and I hated him. Driving on the wrong side of the road, overtaking four trucks at once on a bend, eating while driving, no hands on the wheel, turning around to speak to the other passengers. I really thought it might be curtains, and what a pointless and needless and stupid way to perish.

I arrived in Riohacha quivering and vexed. The city doesn’t seem to have much to do for tourists – I guess people only travel there for the desert tours. I checked into my hostel and ran a couple of errands, hopping on a motorcycle taxi to whiz me to a department store so I could withdraw cash from Western Union. I forgot my passport, naturally, so had to get a motorcycle back to the hostel and then another taxi back again. It was a long afternoon and my fists were balled the whole time.


The next day I got up early and bought some snacks: apples, tins of tuna, rice. The receptionist at Journey Hostel recommended I do it, as apparently in the desert many people go hungry. A jeep picked me up, and my tour group was composed of three Colombians from Bogota and a Belgian couple. The couple spoke fluent Spanish with the Colombians, which meant I never had a clue what was going on and felt a bit frustrated and bored as we drove four hours to the north.

Our ‘tour guide’, Juan, was an indigenous Colombian: one of the Wayúu people who live in the country’s far north. He wasn’t much of a tour guide though: he just drove us from A to B to C and gave passive aggressive and sarcastic answers when we tried to ask about his culture. No idea why. Surely that’s, like, 101 of being a tour guide. He wouldn’t even tell what the itinerary was. Whenever we asked him what we’d be doing over the next two days, he would frown and wave away our questions and tell us to relax.

“Why you worry? Tranquilo.”

Colombians, man.


Our first stop was at a salt farm, or something. It was a big flat area covered in shallow water, with salt everywhere. There were large white piles of it in a refinery, fenced off. I took one photo: it wasn’t very interesting and there was a lot of plastic litter on the ground.

We ate lunch and dinner in dusty, ramshackle restaurants on the side of the road. It was the same meal every time: the local favourite, which is an entire dead fish slapped on a plate beside a pile of rice and some lettuce. The fish still had eyeballs, all blackened and burst, which I found off-putting. I ate as much as I dared, unsure of which parts of a whole fish you’re meant to eat. I like to eat food that doesn’t look like a corpse, ideally, and it felt a bit too ‘biology class dissection’ for me to really enjoy it. The Colombians kept encouraging me to eat more, and when they observed me picking daintily at the busted-open cadaver on my plate, they laughed talked about me in Spanish. I understood the word for ‘England’ and ‘beef’ but not much else. This annoyed me, so when I finished eating I went outside to sit alone and smoke angrily rather than make chit-chat.

Next we drove to see some little sand dunes, and then we went to a beach. I wasn’t thrilled by the beach; I had paid £100 for the 2 day/3 night trip and was miffed to spend my afternoon simply lying on the floor. One of the Colombians, a dentist from Bogota, seemed to have realised they’d been dicks in the restaurant. He came over to where I was sitting watching the waves and offered to take my photo with the ocean. Colombians love taking photos, so this was a kind gesture from him. I declined, but said thank you.

We went to a lighthouse for sunset, and that was cute at least. I watched it with the Belgian couple, who mercifully spoke in English with me. The sun set over the ocean and it looked pretty. I took a photo.

When we got back to Juan and the jeep, we found him glugging a plastic bottle filled with rum. I exchanged concerned looks with the Belgians; the Colombians didn’t bat an eyelid.


The evening was weird. The tour itinerary we’d received by email ahead of the trip said we’d experience local culture and customs and meet indigenous people. I had pictured, like, going to a little village and being greeted by an elderly matriarch and being shown cool handmade crafts and watching ancient dances by a fire. There isn’t much local culture to see, however. The Wayúu people seem to mostly just live like every other Colombian person except with a lot less money and a lot less vegetation; they drink a lot of rum, they play music very loudly, they ride motorcycles around and sit in chairs not doing anything.

The little beach town we stayed in was made of wooden buildings, and for reasons that were never explained, each of my tour group was bundled off to a different accommodation for the evening. I was placed alone in a hotel with a surly receptionist who laughed at my attempts to speak Spanish. She told me I’d be sleeping in a hammock on the beach, which I found annoying because I could plainly see a dozen vacant beds in the dorm. The hammock wasn’t even put up when I went over. I returned and asked why, and the receptionist scowled at me and said the hammock would be put up after dinner.

I said okay, and went to sit in the dining area to wait for dinner to be served. Three hours passed and no dinner came, and I was too moody and proud to go back and ask. Instead I drank five beers that I bought from a stall outside the hostel and listened to music in my headphones. Then there was a power cut. I sat in the darkness, wondering why I was being smited by God. £100 for a surly drunk tour guide, seven hours in the back of a jeep, a lone hammock on a beach, and no dinner.

The beers helped me sleep soundly in my beach hammock. When I awoke at 6am with the sunrise, I found that an assembly of stray dogs had found me in the night. There were five of them, sleeping in a circle around me in little ditches they’d dug in the sand. I had to laugh: this was the second time in my life I’d woken up from drunken dreams to find myself surrounded by slumbering feral dogs.

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