My Colombian Honeymoon Disaster
We wanted an adventure, and we got one -- but more of one than we bargained for.
This past September, for our honeymoon, my wife and I spent two weeks in Colombia, traveling along the Caribbean coast. We’d visited some sleepy beach towns where there was little to do except lie in the sun and drink Aguila. But for the end of our trip, we wanted to do something exciting.
So we decided to go to the Guajira Peninsula, a 9,700 square-mile desert in Colombia’s far northeast. The Guajira, which is the northernmost point in all of South America, is one of the poorest parts of the country. For thousands of miles there is virtually no infrastructure -- just clusters of stick houses and ribcage-thin goats wandering through the desert bush. It is hot and barren and the locals carry guns. There are no paved roads, and in some places no roads at all -- many places are only accessible by boat, and then, only when the rough seas allow it.
But the Guajira’s remoteness is what makes it beautiful. Adele (my now-wife) and I had read stories in online travel forums about unspoiled Caribbean beaches that made our mouths water.
To go all the way to the tip of the peninsula, which is the most beautiful part, it’s best to hire a tour company: Travelers who recently attempted the trip on their own have been kidnapped and held for ransom. So we found a small tour company called Kai Ecotravel that said they would take us on the three-day trip for $200 each.
In retrospect, a price tag that low should have made me think twice. But we were too excited to think too hard about it.
Above, a map of the Guajira Peninsula, where my wife and I went at the end of our honeymoon in Colombia. We barely made it back.
(Image via geology.com)
The day before our trip, Adele and I take a bus to Riohacha, a dusty, working class city on the edge of the desert in northern Colombia, where the locals stare at you and being a pedestrian is a death-defying experience. Riohacha is where our tour will leave from.
We check in to a small $30-a-night hostel on a side street near downtown Riohacha. The owner of Kai Ecotravel, the tour company we’d hired to take us to the Guajira, visits us at the hostel that night. His name is Francisco. He’s a lightly-bearded Colombian -- a former anthropology professor, I learn by Googling him -- who’s about 45-years-old.
“Your driver will pick you up here at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning,” Francisco says. “The trip will be eight hours driving to Punta Gallinas, where you will sleep in hammocks. The next day you will drive to the fishing village of Cabo de la Vela, where sleeping accommodations will also be hammocks.”
Sure enough, the next morning at 6:00 a.m. sharp there’s a 50-something-year-old man in a baseball hat and glasses smoking a Pielroja cigarette in front of a navy Toyota 4-Runner.
He shouts “Punta Gallinas?” and when we nod affirmatively he opens the trunk and gestures impatiently for us to load in our luggage.
Once in the car, the man introduces himself as Mauro, which I think he says is short for Mauricio. I can’t totally understand him because he speaks Spanish with a syrupy accent that is nearly impenetrable.
“De-don so?” he shouts.
“Somos Americanos,” I reply.
“Ah!” he grins. “Enemigo de Chavez, eh?!”
Neither Adele or I quite knows how to respond to this.
Mauro is a colorful character. As he drives us through the Riohacha’s lawless streets, he slaloms around tiny cars overloaded with people. He throws garbage right out the window and onto the road. At one point he drives around a military checkpoint, going off the road and actually bribing a young man to let us pass through his backyard. We are astonished, yet too shy to say anything. We never learn why he didn’t want to pass through the checkpoint like all the other cars.
Soon we merge on to a wide highway. Mauro picks up speed. We have left the city behind us. I pull some jelly pastries out of my rucksack and give one to Adele and one to Mauro, who devours it.
We drive for another two hours. We pass a long freight train carrying a shipment of goods into Colombia from the Venezuelan border, and more military checkpoints. But these aren’t unique to this area -- everywhere you go in Colombia, you see young guys slouching by the side of the road with long semi-automatic rifles slung across their chests. They peer into your car and ask you a few questions, and once they’re satisfied sure you’re not A) a guerrilla, or B) a cocaine trafficker, they let you pass.
Soon the concrete highway ends, and we are at an intersection of unmarked dirt roads. I’m suddenly glad to have Mauro, because if I was driving, I would have no idea which way to go.
Leaving civilization: The road to Colombia’s Guajira desert is only paved for the first few dozen miles. After that, it’s anyone’s game. (Photo courtesy of Sam Kniesz)
Mauro chooses one of the dirt roads and we continue, but at a much slower pace. The road is too rocky to go any faster without risking a flat tire. It is desolate here. Sheep, horses, donkeys and skinny brown cows dot the landscape. We see a few small stick houses along the road. Many are surrounded by fences made out of cactus, which Adele and I agree is really cool.
An hour or so later, we arrive at a small collection of stucco buildings, lined up along an immaculate white sand beach. This is the small, barebones hostel known as Cabo Playa.
The beach at the Cabo Playa campground on Colombia’s Guajira Peninsula. (Photo courtesy of Sam Kniesz)
Francisco, the tour company owner, had told us this is where we’d be spending the following night. For now, we’re only stopping here to pick up two other travelers who are going to ride with us the rest of the way to Punta Gallinas.
Two men emerge from the main building. They are both blonde. One is tall, in his late 20s, wearing a floppy wide-brimmed hat. He bounces up to us and puts out his hand.
“I’m Sam, nice to meet you.” He has an accent, which sounds German.
The next man is about 25. He has beach blonde hair, styled just so, and a short, scruffy blonde beard. He is confident but soft spoken.
“Micha,” he says and extends a hand. “We are from a small town near Darmstadt.”
Sam and Micha climb into the SUV with us and steadfast Mauro drives on. Sam immediately starts chatting with Mauro in Spanish. He appears to be fluent.
“I grew up in Medellin,” he explains. “My parents were missionaries.” Thank God, we think. He can translate Mauro for us.
We drive on. Soon we hit a stretch of road that’s wet from a recent rain and the car loses traction and begins to fishtail back and forth. Mauro is jerking the steering wheel left and right in a fruitless attempt to straighten out the car. Adele grabs my hand and squeezes it hard. Almost immediately, the car loses control and goes into a long, wide tailspin. My stomach feels like it drops ten feet. For a moment I think we might flip, and I brace for impact. Luckily we remain upright, coming to a stop about 50 yards down the road -- facing backwards.
Mauro demands that we get out and push while he stays in the car. Not wanting to get my only pair of shoes soaked in mud on the first day of a three day trip, I take them off before getting out of the car and lowering myself into the squishy mud. Sam and Micha follow. Adele stays in the car.
I quickly see that we’re stuck in only about three inches of mud -- really not much, considering we’re in a Toyota 4-Runner, a vehicle whose manufacturer boasts is built to handle “unforgiving terrain” and is “ready for adventure.”
Sam, Micha and I walk behind the car and start pushing. The metal is hot to the touch. We push as hard as we can. Mauro presses down on the accelerator, hard. The car starts spinning in a circle. We scramble out of the way and are splattered with mud from the spinning wheels. The car promptly becomes stuck again.
Sam yells to Mauro in Spanish and Mauro yells back. They are arguing about something, which we later learn was Sam trying to tell Mauro to give it just a little bit of gas, rather than flooring it, which is what Mauro is doing. Mauro seems unwilling to take any driving advice from Sam.
When it’s clear our efforts to push the car out of the mud are failing, we try a new tack: ripping plants out of the ground and shoving them in bunches under the wheels, to give it traction. While tearing plants out of the desert, I step on the stalk of a plant and cut my foot open. It hurts, but the cool mud soothes the pain.
Our efforts are futile anyways -- the car is able to move another twenty yards down the road but soon gets stuck again.
We repeat this process again and again for the next hour, pausing to take breaks and drink water. The sun is hot and we are covered in sweat. It’s about 11 in the morning; we’ve already driven for over four hours. We still have another four to five hours more to drive along these muddy roads, something that is starting to seem more and more unlikely.
Micha (right) and me (left) trying to push our tour group’s car out of the mud on the road to Punta Gallinas. (Photo by Sam Kniesz)
Meanwhile, Mauro exits the car and starts pacing through the mud, shouting into his cell phone the whole time. He sounds angry. “He is arranging for a boat to pick us up, not far from here,” Sam translates.
I don’t want to take the boat to Punta Gallinas. I’ve read harrowing accounts about this exact boat trip on the online travel forum TripAdvisor, where other tourists describe it as “a near death experience.” But with the roads like this, it seems to be a better option for getting us to our destination.
Eventually we manage to get the car out of the mud, no thanks to Mauro but to Sam, who convinces Mauro to let him try driving, and -- with a little patience -- gets us out of the mud in a matter of minutes.
About twenty minutes later, we reach a small marina crowded with fishing boats. Sam and Mauro exchange some words about a “barco.” “He says the boat trip will last three hours,” Sam tells us.
We climb out of the car and grab our bags from the trunk. There’s a small boat in the water loaded with people. It seems to be a mix of locals and tourists. A young Colombian man in a balaclava (some Colombians wear face masks outdoors to keep their skin light) motions for us to throw our bags into the middle of the boat, and we comply. The masked man then covers our luggage with a tarp, which he lashes down with bungee cords. We climb in. Adele and I take our seats next to a coulpe of young tourists who are wearing fedoras and purring to each other in Italian.
Sam begins talking to a fat, middle-aged Wayuu man in Spanish. (The Wayuu are the indigenous people who live in this part of Colombia. They’re unlike regular Colombians -- they have their own language, customs, religion and legal system.)
“This man lives in Punta Gallinas,” Sam tells us. “He says the ocean here can be very rough. Sometimes, ten foot swells, he says!” We tighten the straps of our life-jackets.
As we pull out of the harbor, the seas are thankfully calm. We drive at about 15 mph for the next three hours. I’m not sure why the boat can’t seem to drive faster than I could run, but I’m too tired to bother asking. Adele and I haven’t eaten since 6:30 a.m. and it’s now almost 3:00 in the afternoon. We’re packed into the boat so tightly that I can’t move my legs, which quickly fall asleep. It’s blazing hot and there is no protection from the sun here on the open ocean. Adele and I swig bottled water, trying not to drink too much -- we’re already halfway through the five liters we’d brought, and there are still two more days of the trip.
Still, my exhaustion and hunger can’t keep me from appreciating the landscape. I admire the copper-colored bluffs that tower over the neon-blue ocean. A flock of wild flamingos passes overhead.
Eventually we enter a small harbor and arrive at a tiny marina at the base of a cliff. The boat docks, and we grab our bags and hike up a steep wooden staircase to the “hostel.” I put “hostel” in quotes here, mainly because of the lack of walls. To me, a hostel has walls. This place does not. The dining area and the sleeping area have roofs overhead to protect against rain, but are otherwise open to the elements.
The first thing I do upon arriving is to make sure my foot isn’t infected, as there are pebbles stuck in the wound. Luckily for me, helpful Adele thought to bring a First Aid kit. Using scissors (there are no tweezers), she removes the pebbles from the wound. The pain is searing, and I suck down an Aguila to distract myself from it.
Adele disinfects my foot while half the village of Punta Gallinas looks on. (photo by Sam Kniesz)
We spend the remaining hours of the day touring the area and then get ready for bed. By 9 p.m. we are exhausted.
Despite being covered in mud and dried sweat and in need of a refreshing shower, there’s no shampoo, soap, towels or toilet paper. I am livid that our tour group didn’t tell us to bring these essential items. Luckily, Sam and Micha let us share their soap and towels and toilet paper. (Sam and Micha, if you are reading this: God bless you and your generous German souls.)
We climb into our hammocks and attempt to go to sleep. The sky is black in almost every direction. In the yard nearby, a generator blares until midnight, and when it finally turns off I attempt to sleep but keep getting woken up by stray dogs fighting nearby.
Our sleeping arrangements in Punta Gallinas.
We get up at dawn the next morning. The boat is leaving at 6:00 a.m. to make the trip back to the marina where we will transfer to cursed Mauro and our not-very-rugged SUV. From the marina we will drive to The Cabo Playa Hostel where we’ll spend the night. If the boat leaves later than 6:00, we’re told, the seas could be too rough to make the trip.
We scarf down a breakfast of scrambled eggs and fried plantains and then carry our bags to the boat. Two young Wayuu men meet us. Each is about 20 years old. They, too, are wearing face masks, and they don’t speak a single word for the duration of the three-hour boat ride.
When we arrive back at the marina, we climb out of the boat and head for the 4Runner. But the man in the car isn’t Mauro. He is a chubby, short Wayuu man, about 50-years-old, who similarly speaks not a word of English. Like Mauro, he speaks Spanish in a thick regional dialect that we barely understand. He drives us back to the hostel at Cabo Playa, where we’d picked up Sam and Micha the day before.
We’re told that a car will be leaving in ten minutes to go on a local sightseeing tour. Adele opts to go see the sights while Sam, Micha and I remain at the beach to swim and play cards. It is the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. Shallow, bright blue water laps against blindingly white sand. In the distance, a group of indigenous fishermen in wooden boats cast nets hopefully into the sea.
I soon learn that the Cabo Playa hostel is just as rustic as where’d we stayed the previous night in Punta Gallinas. There is no electricity and no running water. “A pipe burst recently and has not yet been fixed,” one of the hostel staff informs us. There is, however, a barrel full of water with a bucket in it. This is the “shower,” and to use it, you simply dump a bucket of water over your head.
I try to find some soap to wash my hands with, but a staff member tells me the hostel doesn’t provide soap or towels, or even toilet paper.
I decide I’ve had enough. It’s time to face the facts: I’m no longer the rugged traveler I once was. Ten years ago, I didn’t need bodily pleasures like a warm shower to be happy. In my late teens and early twenties, I hitchhiked through Central America and went on solo camping trips in Eastern Europe. A lack of basic amenities had never deterred me from traveling to faraway backwaters. On the contrary, I considered the absence of creature comforts an asset, proof that I was having the kind of “authentic” experience that travelers often yearn for.
Now, times have changed. Seven years of living in Brooklyn has made me soft. I’ve become a city slicker, long accustomed to having anything I want available through a couple taps on my iPhone. What’s more, I have a full time job now, that offers a scant three weeks vacation a year. When I’m using those 21 precious days, I like to be comfortable.
So when Sam tells me that he and Micha are being driven back to Riohacha this afternoon, and that there are two more seats in their car, I resolve to go with them.
Around noon, when Adele and a couple other tourists return from their sightseeing excursion, I persuade her that we should cut the trip short by a day, and return to Riohacha tonight. She doesn’t need much convincing. This is a honeymoon after all, and it’s almost over. We both want to spend the last few days in comfort.
But it wasn’t going to happen easily. The first thing that goes wrong is that the chef is too hungover to cook lunch, and another chef must be sent for from a village an hour away. This delays our lunch for a crucial hour, during which time dark storm clouds gather overhead.
Our driver says something about needing to eat quickly so we can beat the rain. Remembering all too vividly how a little mud had derailed us for an hour the day before, I quickly become apprehensive at the prospect of driving through the desert in a thunderstorm. I scarf down my lunch and begin pacing anxiously back and forth. I tell Adele, Sam and Micha to hurry up and eat so we can leave. Even once they’re finished and everything is packed in the car, we wait another twenty minutes for two spectacularly unconcerned Colombian tourists to finish pecking at their fried fish.
By the time they’re finally done eating, the first drops of rain -- as big as marbles -- have begun pelting the ground. I am furious at the Colombian tourists for delaying us. “Let’s go!” I shout at them, and they look at me like I’m crazy. At last I manage to corral them into the car. Sam, Micha and the driver are already inside. Adele and I magnanimously volunteer to sit in the trunk, where there are two small jump seats designed for children.
As we pull onto the road, the rain increases. Hitting the car roof, it sounds like someone madly pounding the keys of a typewriter. Within minutes the rain becomes a downpour. The road is no longer visible. We’re driving fast, which I think is smart, because if we go too slowly we could get stuck in the mud. But it quickly turns out that going fast is also risky. As we emerge onto a large plain -- I have no idea whether we are even still on the road at this point -- our driver loses control of the car. Just like the day before, the vehicle starts swerving side to side like a pendulum. Our driver valiantly holds the course, managing to straighten us out, and we drive on, entering a small desert valley a moment later.
But we aren’t even close to being on solid ground yet. The puddles in the desert formed by the rain are becoming larger at an alarmingly pace, and soon we find that we’re driving through six inches, and then a foot, of water. The terrain here is rockier, and our driver slows to about 10 mph to avoid getting a flat tire. The water level keeps rising. Soon we’re driving through two feet, then three feet, of rushing, milky water -- essentially, we are driving through a small river, a full-on flash flood.
The water is lapping against the car doors. Adele can’t bear to watch and buries her face in my shoulder. She is moaning with fear.
“Go! Go!” I chant words of encouragement to the driver. If he slows down too much we’d be stuck. Being stranded in a flash flood in the middle of the Colombian desert -- with no cell phone reception -- is not my idea of a good time, and certainly not my idea of how to spend my honeymoon.
This is what happens to the roads in the Guajira when it rains. (photo by Sam Kniesz)
But our driver is not perturbed, his expression is calm as he navigates us through the rushing river. A minute later we see a dark shape ahead of us; as we get closer, we see that it’s a large pickup truck stranded in the middle of the river. We see a person standing next to the car, the water almost up to his waist. They’re blocking our path.
To get around the stranded vehicle, our driver motors up onto an embankment. We’re now driving at an almost 45-degree angle. I suddenly worry the car will flip. If that happened, and the car filled with water, how would we get out? We’re sitting in the trunk, where neither the doors or windows open. Claustrophobia overwhelms me. My heart is thumping under my ribs.
Our driver accelerates up the embankment and eventually the car levels out again. But the terrain is rugged. The car keeps hitting ruts and driving over big rocks. My head smashes into the ceiling more than once.
Thankfully the rain starts to let up and the water level drops a foot, and then two feet. Soon we are back to driving on a packed dirt road.
We accelerate through the downpour, which soon slows to a drizzle. From here on, it’s nothing but highway. We will make it back to civilization tonight. I’m going to find us the fanciest hotel in all of Riohacha. I’m not even going to barter over the price. We’re going to order takeout -- or room service, if they have it -- and watch trashy TV all night and, hell, all day tomorrow, too, if we feel like it.
And the best part? We fly back to New York next week, where we’ll start a boring, wonderful life together.
Adele, Sam and Micha climb a six-story sand dune near Punta Gallinas, Guajira. (Photo credit: me)