By the time I’d learned to say it correctly I had fallen under its spell.
Miles of nothing. Then mountains the colour of Bolivia, and nothing moving save a goat or open-mouthed lizard.
Forests of spiked succulents shouting their resilience into a blue dome that gives nothing back – just looks down at the desert with dry, blue eyes.
It was a total shock to the system after the highly tropical, beach life I’d been living.
My two housemates had already made the trek up north, so I was chasing them by a day. It was incredibly fun to be hoofing it on my own. Just me and my work-in-progress Spanish!
If you ever find yourself in Cartagena, wanting to get to Colombia’s northern desert region, this is how you do it.
Catch bus to Santa Martha (4hrs).
Flag any bus heading north from Santa Martha. Your destination is Riohacha, however you could be dropped in various towns.
Get off where bus drops you (in my case Palomino).
Stand on side of road with local woman, trying to figure out what you are both waiting for.
Ask local tienda (shop) to use bathroom. Response = “Solamente para chi chi.”
Figure out new word. Wee wee = chi chi.
Get in car with woman and pay 4mil to head north to next town.
Get out and wait on road again.
Get on next bus heading north. Stare subtly at woman feeding baby green parrot on lap.
Stare subtly at shoeless, Indigenous Kogi people, clad in white-linen moo-moos. Marvel at their jet-black hair. Feel like you are in a National Geographic episode.
Ask various people where to get off. Get various responses. Practise Spanish with cheeky teenagers. Get called Mona a lot.
Get off at town called Maipaca….or something.
Buy weird chicken thing from children who told you it was vegetarian.
Ask more people. Find expensive buses and search for cheaper option.
Turn down solo male car driver who wants to drive you there for ¼ of usual price.
Stand in what seems to be bus cue. Whole cue leaves without warning.
Bus pulls up from nowhere and collects you only.
Get out at Riohacha.
Find out friends are four more hours to the north in some place called Cabo de la Vela.
Write ‘Cabo de la Vela’ on your arm and crack your second bag of peanuts.
Follow woman with two sons because you here them say a northern town’s name.
Share car-taxi with them.
Watch giant sun slide into horizon. Think of Africa. Learn the secret Spanish talk of two little brothers.
Get off at Uribia. Wind blows, people feel a little wilder. Am I in a frontier town??
Meet some university students and cram into a truck/jeep for a reasonable price.
In the jeep we sped through a darkened desert. I was so excited for morning to see what it looked like. Show me your colour, desert.
We smelled a dank odour.
“Un animal?” I asked my new pals.
“Si,” they confirmed.
It smelled like fox to me.
“Es como un pero?” (like a dog?)
There was a mysterious desert animal out there. Smelling like a fox, but not looking like one. I’d have my eyes peeled for tracks the next day. Not sure what they’d look like. Maybe it flew, and there’d be none.
I met Ayumi, a perfectly-cheekboned Japanese girl who had been travelling the world for three years. She had all her stuff in a netting bag. She had two dreadlocks and was cool in that way only Asian travellers could truly rock.
I shared my trail mix (con chocolate), remembering that Colombians were a collective society and that meant the whole jeep needed a handful. It was a hit.
I accidentally stepped on a puppy in the darkness. I spoke to two desert sisters who were on their way back home to their little desert town, Cabo de la Vela. (I was on the right track, yes!). One wore the beautiful, flowing cotton dress of their region, the other skinny jeans and a singlet top.
One of their friends was working the outside of the jeep. Hanging on the back and swinging round to unstrap huge bags of water, backpacks and supplies like onions and toilet paper as we dropped people in the middle of nowhere.
We rolled into Cabo an hour or so later.
Little town. Hot, dry, with a perfect blue sea lapping the little houses. There was a friendly feel sitting in the back of that darkened jeep, as the guy unloaded everybody with their supplies, said hello and goodbye and swung with grace back onto the jeep.
The sisters showed me their bags, hand woven in the La Guajira region by women who had passed down the method for years.
“Ciao Lisa,” they called, getting off with their puppy.
“Bienvenidos para café por la mañana.” (Welcome for coffee in the morning.)
Their mama came out and made sure all supplies were in order at the drop off. Not getting your water in the jeep run was a big deal in this part of the country.
Eventually we arrived at Glamar, the hostel/restaurant my friends were at.
It had been a long day, and I fell into my hammock with thanks. There were three strung in a row for us, with the sea at our feet.
I slept; a desert baby in my bright cocoon.
In the morning we woke to the sounds of Gladis (the owner) and her family having breakfast, a few metres from our hammocks.
I had noticed something in this region: the women were calling the shots. Not in an overbearing way, just calmly and with great competency. It was a matriarchal society, and the hisses and catcalls of the southern coast were blissfully missing here! Yahoo.
I watched Galdis juggle a family, a busy restaurant kitchen, diffuse a drunken men’s argument and make us girls feel welcome all at once. It was impressive.
We spent a fabulously lazy day. The region was strange on the eye, the red sand a total juxtaposition against jade seas.
We hired motorbike drivers for the day and jetted into the blinkless face of the desert. My driver was a young hot-shot who sped up to everything, skidded us through the sand and never listened when I asked him to chill out. He reminded me of me at seventeen.
A sign of my age perhaps, that the kind of driving I’d once broken my collarbone with was now making me anxious.
The drivers would pull up and us girls would explore up hills of cacti. Millions of spikes in brittle grey and khaki-brown pushing themselves up on straightened elbows from the red dust.
Against an endless cliff wind we’d push uphill until our breaths were stolen clean away by the stunning view thrown out below us.
Was there anything so strange and beautiful as a desert meeting the ocean?
That night we paid 5mil for a bucket of water and crowded into the small toilet stall to wash. Three white bums, three sets of white boobies – the rest a jumble of brown limbs covered in red dust. A life lived in bikinis for two months!
We walked around as the evening chill set in, a welcome visitor in this terrain. We bargained gently with the La Guajira weavers, seeing the work in each of their mochilas, and each bought a stunning bag to remember the trip and the people by.
That evening the feel of the place changed. All Colombians were now on holiday and those bent of partying flooded into tranquil Cabo.
Gladis had her hands full. A fat, drunk man insulted guests at our little ‘hostel’, made jokes about us sharing a hammock with him (blurgh), blared champeta music all night and all morning, and the next morning (to my delight) crashed his car into his other car while drunkenly trying to reverse it at 5am.
I told him in the best version of my bad Spanish it was lucky he’d hit his own car not one of the little kids who were staying with the families on holiday here.
“You’re not from this land,” he said.
“You’re not from Cabo de la Vela,” I said.
After that frustrating dispute, where he still refused to turn the music off (it was now 5am) we decided to walk into the desert and watch the sunrise.
Sometimes you just have to walk away.
It was truly stunning. It refreshed us, washed the memory of a sleepless night away, and reminded me what beauty there is in the world.
I found dog tracks, the tracks of a baby donkey walking beside its mother and, sadly, no trace of the mysterious animal that smelled but not looked like a fox.
We caught the next ride we could find out of there, keen to get away from the dank partygoers, and preserve the tranquil memory of the place that had wormed its way into our hearts.
Women floating by in their cotton, flowered dresses, wrapped headscarfs and an easy way of being.
Landscape that looked like the moon. Or Bolivia. Or a Bolivian moon.
Pastels and greys and burnt orange, with hills streaked in purple standing silent in the distance.
The shock of red against blue. Cacti forests and prickly pears that stretched on forever.
And one sight, which often rises unbidden to my eyelids when I lie in bed after a day’s teaching: the pink petals of a cacti flower, curled outward to reveal the yellow wad of its centre. Adorned with black ants and fresh as linen in that first light of a sweltering desert day.
You are magical life. Whenever I die, may it be in nature.