After one last michelada in historic Cartagena, I bid Kevin and Rachel farewell. They kicked off an 18-hour Monday morning commute straight to their respective offices in LA, and I left for Santa Marta to meet up with three French girls I barely knew, for a four day desert tour I knew almost nothing about.
The next morning, I woke up at 4:00 am and piled into a van fit for children, with 12 other adults. Our “Jeep Tour” seemed to be missing one thing: a Jeep. This proved problematic. Twice on the first day we got stuck in the mud and sand, first stranding us in the middle of the scorching desert, later leaving us with a long, cold and dark walk to town from a remote beach.
From the start, the tour was plagued by bad luck and mismanagement. The transportation problems continued, we’d paid for a private tour but joined a large group, and our experience with the locals was a mixed bag. At fault, generally, was our guide Bruno, a hotheaded former narco-trafficker, who’d done time in New Jersey for transporting cocaine to Miami. His four year sentence had been extended by 12 months for suggesting to the judge that his punishment was too severe, pointing out that he’d only wanted to “make Americans happy.”
La Guajira is an arid peninsula with a webbed network of dirt roads, and sporadic indigenous outposts. The Wayuu have maintained the same basic way of life for centuries, and haven’t yet learned how to capitalize on the influx of tourists. They do seem fond of extortion, however. Families hang ropes and chains across the road, and loiter in rickety shade structures waiting to trade passage for candy and money. They often accepted our offerings with a scowl, like entitled toll collectors on some ancestral road. It was fascinating, but a bit unwelcoming.
Despite it all, I actually had a great time. The group was more of a blessing than a burden, mostly because the French girls, though sweet, were too quick to revert to their native tongue. Our guide was fun and friendly, as long as he wasn’t challenged. The Landscapes were unusual and beautiful. And I took satisfaction at dipping my toes in the northernmost waters of South America. So, when the girls managed to negotiate for a full refund, I refused half of it, deciding that a reduced price was more fair than a free ride.