getting there is part of the adventure

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A young Wayuu girl runs through the landscape of La Guarija, near Cabo de la Vela.

In the northernmost part of Colombia, the Guajira Peninsula is a remote, inhospitable area where the rules are different.  Getting there takes commitment.  During a brief bout of frustration while trying to find a tour company to travel there with, I thought, “I go lots of places on my own…why not do this on my own too?”  It was a fleeting thought and one that I am thankful I did not pursue.  Taxis only go to Uribia, where the pavement ends. From there, people travel either on motorcycles or piled in the backs of trucks, for two more hours before reaching our destination, Cabo de la Vela. Yes, I was very thankful for the 4Runner we were in, with windows that kept the dust at bay and the handles over the door that kept my head from hitting the ceiling, as our guide drove down the dirt roads way too fast.

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It is a long road to Cabo de la Vela. People and goods are transported down dirt roads piled in the back of large trucks.

La Guajira operates under a different kind of law.  The vehicle we were in had Venezuelan plates, as many of the cars there do.  We were north of the Colombia-Venezuela border, and not far from it.  One striking feature is the lack of gas stations in the region, but lots of people selling gas at roadside tiendas and shacks.  Gasoline comes in all kinds of containers, many of which are recycled 2 liter plastic soda bottles.  When drivers pull up to one of these and let the vendor know how much gas they want, a funnel is inserted into the gas tank and any number of bottles of gas are poured in.  And then you’re off again.  This gas, like the vehicle we were in, also comes from Venezuela.  It is smuggled across, because according to our guide, it is as much as $40 cheaper per tank of gas this way.  Is it legal? Of course not, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone around here.  It’s just the way things are done.

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Our vehicle is refueled at a roadside gas vendor in Uribia.

You may be asking why I would want to come to a place like this.  It is an area of extremes.  Extreme desolation. Extreme poverty. Extreme beauty. And it is the beauty that I came for.  The secluded beaches are stunning and are what draw visitors here.  Our group stayed at a rancheria about 15 minutes outside the town of Cabo de la Vela.  We didn’t have running water, but the food was good and the serenity was worth every minute of the nail-biting drive to get there. The beach was all ours.  A thatched roof covered the row of hammocks where we slept, drifting off to the sound of Caribbean waters kissing the sand just a few feet away.

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The beaches near Cabo de la Vela are secluded and serene.

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A peaceful start to the morning, as the sun rises over a rancheria in La Guajira.

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The beach at Cabo de la Vela.

The Wayuu people inhabit this area.  They are an independent tribe that successfully resisted Spanish control.  They live in earthen houses spread through the landscape, called rancherias, and travel between places mostly via bicycle.  Goats are plentiful in the area and are a sign of wealth.  They are used for food and are paid as a dowry when daughters are given in marriage.  The women are known for the beautifully vibrant bags and bracelets they create.  The men are fishermen, leaving early each morning in small boats to bring in fish and lobster.  The Wayuu that we encountered were quiet and kind with firm boundaries in their interactions with those of us visiting their homeland.

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A Wayuu woman displays vibrant bracelets she created (left). Wayuu woman traditionally paint their faces, either with spirals, or all black (right).

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Two Wayuu sisters, Solymar (12) and Kelly (9),near Cabo de la Vela.

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Goats roam freely through the desert and are an important food source for the Wayuu.

I feel fortunate to have seen this slice of paradise when I did, after it has opened up to tourism a bit and is considered safe, and before it is overrun by the changes that tourism inevitably brings.  Hopefully its rugged remoteness will control the speed of that transition.

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Wayuu fishermen depart at dawn to bring in a harvest of fish and lobster from the Caribbean Sea.

taking in the sights…and the flavors of colombia

Fruit and fish, plantains and potatoes, corn and coconut…these are some of the treasures of Colombian cuisine.  I thoroughly enjoyed eating my way through the country and seeing different takes on staple foods in each region I visited.

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A food vendor serves grilled meats at the beach in Santa Marta.

It is clear that people here are connected to and through their food.  Street vendors selling fruit, ice cream, meats and arepas were ubiquitous in every town I visited.  In the evenings, as the people congregated in plazas and parques, the air was filled with the melding of aromas from the various vendors.  During the day, fruit vendors sold multiple types of mangoes as well as other fruits, an array of juices, and coconuts.  There’s no excuse to go hungry here….fresh food is at every turn.

Away from the cities, it was not uncommon to see people working the land and livestock to provide food for those in town.  During a hike, I crossed paths with a man bringing milk into town in large stainless steel containers mounted on donkeys.  This was the first of many similar scenes I saw, particularly in the Cafetera area, where many of the coffee farms and dairies are located.  While visiting a small cafe near Villa de Leyva, some friends and I encountered a woman skinning a pig.  It was such a beautiful scene, as light filtered into the room and she methodically processed this animal that would provide nourishment for many.

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A man makes the journey from his finca with milk to sale in town, near Salento.

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A woman processes a pig near Villa de Leyva (left). Mangoes for sale are a common sight on the streets of Cartagena (right).

Fresh fish was plentiful in the coastal towns of Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Cabo de la Vela.  In Cartagena, La Cevicheria served some incredible ceviche with shrimp, fish, conch, and octopus. Even though it was one of the higher priced meals during my time in Colombia, I could not help but return to eat there again my last night in town.  Fried fish served with arroz con coco (coconut rice) and patacones (fried plantains) is a typical meal in coastal areas.  In the Guajira area, we had several of these meals, where the only thing that varied was the type of fish. It was all incredibly tasty.

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Fried fish with arroz con coco near Cabo del la Vela is a meal typical of the area (left). Mixed ceviche in Cartagena was a special treat at La Cevicheria (right).

Arepas and patacones are two foods present throughout the country.  Patacones are fried thinly flattened plantain patties.  While in the coast they are small and served as an accompaniment to a meal, in La Cafetera, they are the size of a large plate and served as vehicles for any number of combinations of meats, cheeses and salsas.  Corn based arepas vary greatly between regions.  In La Cafetera, they resemble thick grilled corn tortillas, covered with meats, cheese, vegetables, or just butter.  On the coast and in the regions around Bogotá, instead of piling food on top of the arepas, they are stuffed with meats, cheeses, eggs, or sweet creamy cheese.  Many of these are grilled as well, but others are deep-fried.  I made it my personal mission to try as many combinations as I could…within reason, of course!

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Arepas near Manizales in La Cafetera are served with butter alongside eggs for breakfast (left). In Santa Marta, a street food vender sells grilled arepas filled with chicken or eggs to hungry beach goers (right).

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Patacones with chicken, cheese, and salsa serves as a filling dinner at the cafe-lined plaza in Salento.

a colorful life

Like much of Latin America, Colombia is a place bursting with color.  From the vibrant green hillsides, to the crystal blue waters, to the multicolored murals, the colors of Colombia are a feast for the eyes.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131228-01The green landscape of the coffee region from my plane window as it descends into Armenia.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131221-01Buildings in Ráquira are accented with murals depicting the culture and history of the area.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131227-07A woman walks by a colorful mural in Cartagena’s historic Getsemani neighborhood.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131221-08A shopkeeper in Ráquira sweeps the street before she opens for business.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131223-02Daily life in the quiet but vibrant village of Manaure, in La Guajira.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131220-03The country is not all bright pinks and blues.  The colonial village of Villa de Leyva, with its cobblestone streets and whitewashed walls, takes one to another time.

JDavidson-Colombia-Color131224-04A statue of the Virgin Mary looks over the Caribbean Sea, near Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira.