Following our rainforest trip, we parted with Adambailey for his return to Europe and dropped back into Santa Marta for another transit night before again rising early to catch our lift to Riohacha to begin a second tour. Along the way we picked up four Swiss uni students who, both luckily and embarrassingly for us, spoke English, French, German, Spanish and Italian between them. This was important as it transpired at the Expotur office in Riohacha that our driver for the next three days spoke no English whatsoever. This was a bit of a trend for our trip; our lack of Spanish made for a restrictive but fun element to the whole two weeks and our encounters with so many other nationalities all speaking several languages served to highlight the laziness of much of the English-speaking world in only needing to learn this most widely-spoken of vocabularies. More fool us. Not to worry for now, we had our Swiss translators in exchange for a few beers along the way.
We had booked on to a 4×4 trip through the desert, making our way to the most Northerly point of mainland South America (Punta Gallinas) and staying in a few settlements along the way. This was meant to be a way for us to relax for a few days at the end of our rainforest trip and see a bit more of Colombia, but it turned out to be far more enlightening than that. Day one took us out through a desert track to the salt mines of Manaure, where our “guided tour” turned out to be more a ‘get out the car and go for a wander’. It was here where our encounters with the local children began and a brief chat with the friendly policeman in his oddly-remote posting assured us that giving in to the begging was not encouraged from their point of view – they preferred the children to go to school instead of beg or steal from tourists. Let the moral dilemma begin.
We then crossed through the desert to reach Cabo de la Vela, a remote coastal village. A few beach trips later and we were settling in to our chinchorros – the huge local hammocks with flaps down the side to wrap around you. Comfy even for the tallest of gringos.
This first day was definitely a case of “it’s not the destination but the journey that matters”. We’d been told/warned that there would people, particularly children, begging along the route. Sure enough, when we stopped to switch cars with another group returning home, the car was swamped with local children begging. The remoteness of their location could have had us feeling hopeless for their fate, but we’d discussed our position on this and the policeman at Manaure had reaffirmed it. It is a difficult moral quagmire to be in – on the one hand, the human reaction is to respond to the begging children in front of you and give something. On the other, the community has existed for a long time and the long term impact of children starting to rely on begging from tourists is massively damaging.
We had hoped that, in some small way, we might not add to the number of children skipping school/not learning traditionally useful skills and it was clear that this was becoming the norm. ‘Unsustainable’ aid can be hugely damaging for societies such as this and children relying on begging harms the long-term future of their community. I still don’t know what the right thing to do is/was, but the next stage of our journey provided evidence of the harm that this can do. All along the route, sometimes in bizarrely desolate areas, children and adults had posted themselves to set up plastic or metal wire road blocks and were attempting to stop all vehicles passing to extract some form of toll from them. Many of these were just metres apart and we soon lost count of the number of them. Our driver, being local, had little patience for this illegal practice but did stop randomly at some to offer some small biscuits as a toll. This was evidently NOT what the adult metal road blocks had envisioned as there was clearly some disgruntled discussion about the lack of beer or money. The giant Toyota Land Cruiser would have made short work of their roadblocks, however, so there wasn’t much leverage to be had from them. We’d hoped that the numbers of these children would decrease on school days (we did see schools built in the villages we passed) but sadly the opposite was true. You can draw your own conclusions about whether tourists giving things to these children is a good idea or not.
Day two saw us driving for several hours through the desert. We stopped at the Tarao dunes, which stretch for some 5km along the coast and make an fascinating contrast between the desert and the sea, before continuing on to our destination; Punta Gallinas – South America’s most Northerly point. Quite the change from Falklands residents so used to beginning sentences with ‘the most Southerly…’. Even though we were given ample time at the Taroa dunes and Punta Gallinas, there was little sunbathing and lazing around as the heat was pretty unbearable. Luckily, the sea was gorgeous and several swims later we were at a pretty content temperature.
Whilst there, we had the opportunity to take a boat trip out and find out what that odd pink blob in the distance was; wild flamingos in all their splendour. Excellent to see and a nice change from the huge numbers of pelicans we came across on every stretch of coastline (not that there was anything wrong with them, but they look awfully like the pterodactyl shots from Jurassic Park when they fly).
Our final day largely involved crossing back through the desert, the increasing number of road blocking children and the odd ‘toll booth’ actually selling food – either cactus fruit (an odd tasting and odder consistency) or goat carcass hanging from a tree. To Han’s relief, our driver concluded that the carcass he was bartering over wasn’t suitable for our drive home as they couldn’t wrap it in anything.
Following yet another transit night in Santa Marta, we got a bus to our next destination: Cartagena. A UNESCO World Heritage city, Cartagena was the Spanish (slave) trading centre of South America and therefore much in demand by the French and British. As a result, the whole city is guarded by a castle (yey) and circled by medieval walls. This has the effect of making for an extremely historic but utterly breeze-less city break. The city is quite simply stunning, not an ugly road seems to exist in the place, the clearly ancient wooden doors and balconies grace most buildings, showing off the traditional door-knockers that denote the occupant’s trade. Our time there was made even better by meeting up with Brian and Kat, two new friends from the Lost City ‘outbreak’. We toured the city well, spending time in the plazas, minding out for the horses and carriages that pass so frequently and took a rather dodgy boat trip out to an island off the coast to spend the day on the beach (coincidentally called Punta Arenas, the same name as the Chilean airport link to Mount Pleasant). Highlights included watching the sun set from the city walls with a beer, Han experiencing her first ever roof-top bar, hiring a hammock on the beach then failing to cool off in the body-temperature sea, Han being called ‘blanco blanco’ repeatedly along with concerned looks and eating good Colombian food for the first time since Bogota (fish, plain rice and fried plantain is OK the first time, but 7 times in a row is a bit much).
As our time in Cartagena drew to a close, Han and I eagerly watched the flight status knowing full well that we were having to return a week early to the Falklands for a day of meetings at the school and a few hours’ delay on our connection would leave the travel insurance to cover our time in South America until the next flight home: at least a week. Sadly, the delay that did hit us was only to last one hour and we made our connecting flight at Bogota, returning to the Islands’ 2C temperatures in our holiday attire. Meeting our friend Louisa in Santiago before she returned home to the UK was an unexpected bonus, but even she wasn’t able to help us solve the riddle as to why the Holiday Inn had decided to wire a phone in next to the toilet.
All in all, food poisoning, constantly being taken for mugs on pricing, begging children and excessive heat aside, Colombia turned out to be an amazing country with a great deal to offer. The pound goes far there, there was no sign of cocaine, plenty of history and culture and a lot more to experience. We returned to the Islands, after indulging in the novelty of fast food for the first time in a year, unlikely to leave again for quite a while but having missed the worst of the snow. Spring is starting and I’m not sad to return (even if Han is a little). Now it’s back to Falkland Islands life.