Trapped in Colombia’s Guijira Peninsula

It’s a hurricane and it’s headed right for us!

That’s the news we got from Franko, our guide. Worse, we were stranded in the tiny indigenous Wayuu village of Bahia Hondita deep in Colombia’s Guajira Peninsula (wah-HEAR-ah); a land of hot, scrub and cactus covered desert, that juts into the Caribbean Sea like a fist from the northern coast of Colombia and Venezuela. This is the northernmost point in the South American continent and it’s remote.

The Hospedaje Alexandra is an adventure traveler’s outpost at Bahia Hondita; a rambling Wayuu village with a series of open sheds to string up hammocks to sleep, a line of crude cabins, and an open-air dining hall. Half wild pigs, goats and dogs wander about while black-faced vultures feed nonchalantly on the open dump behind the kitchen. It’s over fifty miles to a road of any kind with the only way in by four-wheel drive through the open desert. Now even these unmarked tracks were impassable quagmires from the rains that had already started. And though Bahia Hondita lies along the Caribbean coast, even the few small fishing boats here couldn’t leave in the face of the incoming storm. There was no escape, we were trapped.

So how in the hell did we end up in this situation? Sonia and I had joined a guided tour with ExpoTurs out of Santa Marta, a rough port city on the tropical Caribbean coast of Colombia far to the west of the Guajira. There were seven of us packed into a 1996 Toyota Land Cruiser including us, our guide Francisco (Franko), three young Colombian guys from Popayan in southern Colombia (Hector, Juan and Carlos), and Katrina, a twentyish something Scottish woman with a perpetual smile. We had arrived at Bahia Hondita for what we thought was the last night of our three-day tour through the outback of the Guajira. When we left Santa Marta the weather forecasts reported a tropical rainstorm a couple hundred miles to the east, but no concerns of a hurricane.

Besides our group, there were twenty-one other adventure travelers from all over the world in addition to the fifty or so local Wayuu inhabitants. Most were budget backpackers, couples or singles, that had found their way to Bahia Hondita by hitchhiking or paying for rides across the desert. Sonia and I were the oldest at fifty-five and sixty-six respectively with the rest in their twenties except for a fortyish South African couple taking a round-the-world trip for their honeymoon. There were seven Colombian men and women from Bogota and another Colombian couple traveling separately, a couple American guys traveling together, a French couple, a German couple and a Colombian/Austrian couple.

Our group had packed only a change of underwear, swimming suits and toothbrushes stuffed into small day packs. Even the hitchhikers had stashed their regular travel packs in lockers or hotels back in Santa Marta in order to travel light. No one was prepared for a hurricane; all we could do is prepare to ride it out as best we could.

To make matters worse the local Wayuu people had never experienced a hurricane, in fact it rarely even rains in this harsh desert, and the flimsy buildings reflected that. Except for the kitchen building and a storage building built from concrete block the rest of the structures were clapboard sheds with plastic roof sheathing lightly wired onto rafters made from sticks collected from the surrounding scrub trees.

The Wayuu had no idea what the oncoming storm would be like, but we did. So, with the storm only hours away from hitting us, we quickly organized into groups. Sonia helped inventory drinking water and food while I fell in with the South Africans to secure the open windows of the storage building with boards and nails that we found lying around. Another group cleaned out the storage shed and kitchen as best they could to make room to string up hammocks and stockpile the water and food. This entertained the Wayuu immensely and they took photos of us scrambling around to prepare.

We finished our work in a few hours with dubious results. We had about one hundred liters of drinking water in plastic bottles with no other source of fresh water on the Guajira – it all has to be imported. We had enough food for five days, but fishing was good in the bay below the village. The storage shed and kitchen windows were secured, but there was nothing to be done about the roofs which were lightly screwed into thin sticks serving as rafters. Sanitary conditions were already deteriorating since the toilets operated on sea-mist collected on the rooftops and our large group was over-taxing the system. Electrical power at Bahia Hondita is provided by an ancient gasoline-powered generator and we had just four or five days of fuel for it. The ground was already a foul-smelling mixture of mud and animal feces. There was nothing else to do but wait.

It was the calm before the storm and as evening began to fall our small tour group took a fishing boat across the bay to watch the flamingoes wade along the mangroves while a spectacular sunset colored the sky in psychedelic yellows and reds. It was hard to believe that in just a few hours we would be hunkered down inside of the pitch-black buildings in our hammocks, packed in like sardines in a can, while gale-force winds ripped at the roofs.

The storm hit in the middle of the night. Luckily the eye of the hurricane was passing fifty miles to the north, but the winds still reached sixty seventy miles per hour. No one made a sound as the roofs danced and clattered and leaked so badly that everything on the floor inside was soaked, but they held.

Finally, the winds died down and the first light of morning started penetrating the pitch blackness inside. We crawled out of the now stinking and soaked storage shed to find the whole area under a couple inches of stinking polluted water. The Wayuu had weathered the night too with no one hurt. Now our thoughts turned to leaving and we gathered in the dining hall to receive the latest news – and it wasn’t good.

Some people had cell phones and after charging them up from the clattering generator we contacted our tour operators and local authorities. We found that the desert tracks would be impassable for at least the next few days and no boats were allowed to leave any ports. Oh well, we had four or five days of water and food. Hell, there was even some beer and cigarettes left in the tiny store in the kitchen. So we settled down to wait it out, taking hikes across the desert, lounging in the dining hall talking and playing cards, and hanging our soaked clothes out to dry.

But one day dragged into another and our water and food dwindled. The overtaxed bathrooms were now stinking latrines and we took to the surrounding desert to do our business. No one had bathed in days and we started worrying about typhoid or dysentery; some were already getting sick.

We kept in contact with the outside world and by the second day found that we wouldn’t be able to drive out overland for at least a week or more. All emergency services including the Colombian military were swamped with response to the storm along the Caribbean coast. To top it off Colombia was voting on an agreement between the government and the FARC guerilla group to end the fifty-year old civil war between them and law enforcement agencies were occupied guarding that potentially explosive event. That meant we couldn’t get out and no supplies could get in. That’s when we started to realize we were in real trouble.

One day turned into two, then three, then four. We rationed our water to one liter per person with plans for halving that ration if need be and put Antonio, the Wayuu manager of the kitchen store, in charge of distributing it. Careneli, a young Wayuu woman, was the manager of the compound in charge of all the cooking and maintenance of the camp but her helpers had quit to go back to their households so Sonia and some of the Colombian women picked up their work. Food ran short, but we had rice and local fishermen were able to provide some fish from the bay. We started running the generator for just enough time to charge cell phones and maintain communications. Still, supplies were running low and we knew it was just a matter of days before they ran out completely.

We called our various embassies but only the American Embassy in Bogota responded and promised to pressure the Colombian government to evacuate us, but they never did. Finally we made a video of us stranded in filthy conditions and sent it to Colombia’s national television channel in Bogota. They aired it and interviewed the governor of the Guajira Peninsula, but he said we were just a bunch of adventurers that knew a hurricane was coming and went in anyway so he had no responsibility to get us out. We knew then that we were on our own; that we would have to get ourselves out.

The hurricane had passed a couple days ago by now, but the seas were still rough and no commercial boats were allowed to leave port. But our guide Franko was in contact with our tour company on the mainland and they had received emergency permission from port authorities for us to land at Puerto Bolivar, a commercial coal shipping port a few hours across the Caribbean from Bahia Hondita with a road link to the outside world. All we needed now was a boat to get there and we eyed the handful of open fishing boats tied up to the tiny dock below us. As luck would have it the owner of the tour company also owned the fishing boats and gave permission for the local fishing skippers to transport us to Puerto Bolivar.

Everyone had maintained high spirits, but as the days wore on morale began to sink. So, at dinner time when Franko announced we were leaving the following morning everyone cheered and we ran off to our hammocks and sheds to pack. We were leaving at first light in the morning.

We woke early the next morning to a spectacular sunrise over the bay. The flamingoes out in the bay gathered into huge pink islands in the distance and everyone was excited. But we could hear the surf pounding the coastline over three kilometers away and knew this wasn’t going to be easy.

Careneli made us a breakfast of arepas and coffee and escorted us to the dock where we packed into two, twenty-foot open launches with outboard motors. The whole Wayuu community stood by watching as we motored out into the bay. The land slipped further behind as we reached the surf combing in over the shallow mouth of the bay in fifteen-foot high breakers.

In the midst of the heavy surf our boat’s motor sputtered and stalled, it never did run well on the bootleg Venezuelan gasoline used on the Guajira. We broached sideways as a large white-capped comber washed over us, half filling the launch and nearly capsizing the boat while the skipper frantically pulled on the starter cord of the motor. He managed to re-start it just in time to turn the bow into the oncoming surf and we finally broke through into the open Caribbean.

The sea was still rough from the hurricane, but we made it to Puerto Bolivar in just over two hours across the open sea. We were soaked, tired and dirty but happy to be free as we slogged across the stinking mud flats to the vans waiting for us on top of a small hill. When we finally reached our hotel back in Santa Marta we just threw away most of our stinking, mud-caked clothes rather than wash them. We were happy to have escaped, but strangely, we felt happy to have survived a great adventure too.

We think back on it all now and we’re glad we went to the Guajira. It’s a hauntingly beautiful place, but a place of extremes. There are magnificent sand dunes over beautiful, lonely Caribbean beaches but it’s surrounded by the extreme poverty of the Wayuu people scattered across the desert in stick and mud shacks. The bays are full of fish, flamingoes, and crocodiles but above that is a barren wasteland of horribly over-grazed scrub and cactus where nothing but half-wild goats and vultures can survive. It’s a rough land full of tough people, but I think we might go back someday – maybe. But we’ll take a lot more water with us if we do.

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