13 April 2012

Holy Week in Colombia

Typical La Guajira dwelling with burros out front
Holy smokes, what have I been up to? I know, you've probably all been wondering...it's been so long since my last post! Well, will try to catch you up on the key happenings bit by bit, but for now will tell you about my Holy Week, "Semana Santa", or Easter week, in Colombia. We were originally to work on the Monday & Tuesday that week, but about 10 days prior my school decided to close for the week, as apparently often people travel. We will make up the missed days by adding a few minutes to each class that remains for the 4 week cycle. I decided to take advantage of a last minute full week off.

Desert "toll station"!
I ended up traveling with a few women first to a remote region of northeastern Colombia called La Guajira (gwa-heer-a) on a 3-day organized tour, and then to Mompós, a "town that time forgot" inland from Cartagena, which is famous for its Easter celebration. See this map of our week's route; it's not exact but close enough. As you can see we logged about 1900 km or 1200 miles, and Google Maps calculates it out to be 2.5 days of travel time. You may think that sounds like an error, but with many dirt roads via van, bus & 4WD; a lot of driving through the desert in a 4WD; and a couple of ferry crossings, it may be about right! But it was an experience.

Wayuu gas station, Uribia
La Guajira is largely unvisited and uninhabited but known for its beautiful desert landscape and indigenous people, the largest group being the Wayuu. We spent two nights at a rustic "homestead" like facility with spaces for tents, open-air hammocks (which my traveling partners stayed in; it's a popular sleeping option in Colombia), and small rooms with beds (which I had; guess I'm getting old). A Wayuu family owned the facilities but it was run by an ecotour group, who seemed less keen on expanding the facilities and hosting more people than the Wayuu, for obvious reasons! (But I think the owners won out!) We had fabulous meals of goat, lobster, fish, and chicken, all raised or caught right within feet of the dining area.

Making friends :)
I love the desert and have in recent years been to amazing desert areas in Utah, Arizona, Death Valley, etc., and have had my jaw drop in each place. This was another such area, different, yet beautiful, and having a desert along the coast was breathtakingly gorgeous. The Wayuu live in mud and stick houses, raise goats (which are running all over the place seemingly wild, yet somehow each Wayuu family knows which goat is theirs vs their "neighbor's" and the goats automatically go "home" to their correct corral), fish, some work with tourists such as at our facility, among other things. I don't quite understand how it all works but somehow I think they also have almost a monopoly on dispensing gas in the region, as for cars/trucks. They have "gas stations", really areas with lots of ~20 gallon gas cans, funnels & hoses. In some areas that's the only place you can get gas; there are no conventional gas stations.

At the northernmost point of South America
In driving through the desert, some Wayuu kids also set up "toll" stations; they'd string a rope or chain across a couple of cacti, blocking the road and would also put up blocks so a car couldn't drive around the toll area. You'd have to give them change (about 25c) before they'd drop the rope & let you pass. Amusing in some ways for those of us tourists although it likely gets old for the tour guides driving through the region all the time.

Besides the ever-present goats as well as random donkeys roaming the region, we also saw fabulous birds (including a huge flock of flamingos from a distance), iguanas, and the biggest darn grasshoppers I've ever seen. They were amazingly colorful and the size of a small bird; here's a photo from another's person's blog of one.

Anyway we did a bit of walking, beaching, sand dune running, body surfing, and learning about another region and people of Colombia. It was a quick but great trip!

Sunset, Taroa Sand Dune
From there, I headed with two others to Mompós. Traveling between places when going by land is not always easy, but that is part of the adventure also. Our La Guajira tour was to leave us in Riohacha, the main city of the region, and we planned to overnight in a city between Riohacha and Mompós. However, the last bus to Valledupar, our overnighting point, left Riohacha prior to our return, and so we had planned to get a "colectivo" for the 3 hour trip from Riohacha to Valledupar. A "colectivo" is essentially a shared taxi from one point to another--there's a set price for the full trip and it's divided by 4. If only 3 of you show up and you want to chip in the amount for the 4th (non-existent) person, you can, or you can wait & hope a 4th person shows up. "Colectivos" are normal forms of commuting transport within Cartagena; I was learning they were also normal forms of transportation between oft-traveled cities or towns. We were waiting in the appointed area for a colectivo to Valledupar, when a "real" bus stopped in front of us; someone got out, said he was going to Valledupar & did we want a ride. We agreed on a price and hopped in to the empty bus. He stopped at a few other points along the way and collected more passengers but we had a nice air conditioned bus almost to ourselves and arrived in Valledupar in style & for less than anticipated.
Just behind where I stayed

Contrasting this trip was our van ride the next day from Valledupar to Mompós. I blew this one, but to make a long story short we ended up paying more for a substandard trip--too many people packed in to a van with no AC, a chicken in a box, lots of dust blowing in, the van assistant traveling with our luggage on top of the van, and we, the gringas, paid more than anyone else for the trip. We crossed on a ferry that was really just a few planks hammered together on top of some old boats; we the gringas climbed out of the van while on the short but seemingly perilous crossing while the Colombians still packed in the van wondered why we'd gotten out. Ah well, we made it to Mompós with stories to tell!

Our dubious ferry ride while traveling by van to Mompos
Mompós is a beautiful little town that's worth the (no matter how you do it, as you have to travel dirt roads & take a shady looking ferry) less-than-comfortable trip there. It's very walkable, has beautiful architecture, at night everyone sits outside in their Momposian rocking chairs, and it's also been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had a great meal sitting by the Magdalena River, which is the principal river of Colombia. Mompós used to be an important commercial port on the Magdalena, but then a hundred years ago this branch of the river silted up and transport shifted. Mompós hasn't changed since that shift, keeping its early 20th century feel.

Lunch in Mompos with our new friend Santiago and my student Nubia
That evening we saw our first of the famous Mompós Holy Week processions, which have been going on for over 400 years. They start at 6 pm and end sometime in the wee hours of the morning, having traveled a grand total of what can't be more than a half mile up one street & back another. But they march very slowly, taking one step backwards for every two small steps forward, carrying platforms with statues of various saints, etc., which have been around since colonial times. The Holy Thursday procession features the 12 stations of the cross. The "carriers" are honored by being chosen, but they are also dressed in several layers, all packed together, working hard carrying the heavy platforms; they are well deserving of that honor. The Good Friday procession was similar, with the main platform containing Jesus in an elaborate coffin. There's a 16 second video from that procession here.

Good Friday procession
Our slightly less dubious return ferry on a real bus
While in Mompós, we also took a boat trip along the river to see the birdlife, more iguanas than you can count, and a lone monkey napping in a tree. It's a beautiful little town which deserves another visit; I no longer recall the 8 hour bumpy return bus ride to Cartagena and so may just do it! :)

This weekend the Summit of the Americas is in Cartagena--perhaps I'll run into my friend Barack! Hasta luego!

More photos of La Guajira here; more photos of Mompós here.


Unknown said...

Barb - you are seeing some pretty far-out places! SO great to read what you've been doing.

Total non sequitur: There's an organization called Children International that sponsors poor children across the world. I decided to participate, and when asked which country I wanted to help out, I of course said Colombia! So evidently some little girl named Lidia in Cartagena is (hopefully) getting my money. Can you check on that for me? kthxbye.


Stay safe!

IronMo said...

Well Cartenega is sure on the map NOW. (aside from the scandal, I did love seeing pics of HRC out at a bar, having a blast.)

Love reading your adventures!