Author: Chris Cooke
When we say we want to go to Musichi, the locals in Manaure look at us a little strangely. They explain that if we really want to see flamingos (which, believe me, Jenny does) then they can take us all the way there, wait while we point and take photos, then bring us back for just 30,000 pesos ($15 US) each. That would be stretching our budget a little, plus it sounds a little too much like a lonely planet gringo trip for the hard-core travellers we pretend to be. A moto-ride to Musichi on the other hand is just 5,000 pesos, and from there it’s only 1 to 3 hours on foot, depending on who you ask, to see the birds.
We take the adventurous (i.e. stingey) option. We plan to camp on the beach, make a fire, pour a rum and coke and admire the delicate grace of the flamingos as the sun slowly melts into the ocean. We encounter our first problem when our moto-taxis show up. They want to know exactly where we want to go, we say take us to the beach in Musichi, they tell us there is no beach in Musichi. Ok… we tell them to take us to the village and we will walk to the beach from there. No worries.
Problem number 2 arises when we arrive in Musichi. I tell the driver to drop me off at the store so I can buy some water. „What store?“ he replies. Wait a minute… there’s no store?! I look around, actually there’s not much of anything here in Musichi, other than an assortment of chickens, a couple of cacti and some fighting donkeys. It looks like a ghost town. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a tumble weed rolled past.
Jenny soon arrives with her moto driver in a cloud of dust, she’s afraid that they‘ve brought us to the wrong place. I’m afraid that they haven‘t. Yep this is it, welcome to Musichi – a handful of huts seemingly slapped together with sticks and mud scattered in the middle of the Guajira desert. The midday sun is beating down upon us, we have no water and no way to prepare the pasta and vegetables we brought with us. No worries…?
After a while, an old Wayuu lady joins us, she‘s knitting a mochilla, a type of woollen hand bag/satchel which swings from virtually every second shoulder in Colombia. Jenny produces her own crochet needle and a half-finished hacky sack from her bag. They sit in a comfortable crocheting silence, enjoying their common bond. Jenny asks her how many people live here in the village. The old lady thinks about it for a second, then starts pointing at the mud-brick shacks around us, „Well, there’s two in that house… two there… five over there…“ Turns out there’s more chickens than people in this village.
„Is there somewhere we can camp?“ we ask.
„Sure, there’s a three storied hotel on the beach.“ A hotel? Maybe we can use the kitchen and bath room there. She points vaguely off into the distance „Just follow that road straight ahead all the way, it’s only half an hour to the beach.“ Sounds easy, right? Yea, that’s what we thought.
We thank the old lady, shoulder our packs, now 10 kg’s heavier with the water, and follow the dusty trail past the small, empty church and the over-sized sand pit they use as a football field. Not 50 metres along, we come to a T intersection. Call me stupid but how exactly do you go straight ahead at a T intersection? There’s three ladies sitting and talking in front of a house, they direct us down one of the tracks snaking away through the cactus trees and say „Just follow that road straight ahead to the beach, it’s only 45 minutes away.“ Ok. No worries.
Another 50 metres along the road, another intersection. What exactly does straight ahead mean in Colombia? We ask a local guy walking by „How do we get to the beach?“
„One hour along that road.“ says the hombre confidently. It seems the further we walk, the further away the beach gets.
We carry on, leaning into the dry desert wind and leaving the village behind. The landscape is barren and flat, no hills, water-ways or landmarks of any kind, just small thorny trees and cacti disappearing in a shimmering haze in all directions. A person could easily get lost in this environment. But not us, we simply have to follow this road for another 50 minutes or so to the… but wait, what’s this? Is this some kind of sick joke? Another intersection? Is the whole village watching us from behind the cacti, stifling their laughter?
We’re standing there, perplexed, when we hear voices approaching behind us. It’s one of the ladies from the village with three kids in tow. They’ve come to guide us to the hotel. We walk with the family through this alien desert landscape, discarding the road for a more direct route (as opposed to the so called „straight ahead down the road“ route…).
The kids look at Jenny, wide eyed and whispering – who is this blonde-haired, green-eyed girl wearing the snow white dress? Is she an angel? Has she escaped from the pages of a fairy tale? What the hell is she doing here?! Well kids, that’s a good question.
Soon a large wooden building appears on the horizon, our hotel. It is on the opposite side of a lagoon about 100m wide. I wait for us to veer off in one direction or the other to skirt around the lagoon, or perhaps find a boat, but instead we walk directly up to the waters edge. But we don’t stop there, without a word the family take their sandals off and plough straight into the water. Well… ok, when in Rome and so on. So, we follow suit and soon we are knee deep in the middle of the lagoon, hand in hand, mud squelching up between our toes. Jenny asks me if there could be crocodiles here. I laugh it off, „Of course not.“ I say, hoping she doesn’t see the flicker of fear in my eyes as they skim across the waters surface.
Once across the lagoon it’s a short walk to the „Hotel“. Ok, I realise we are in the middle of the desert, but to call this thing a hotel is a bit too much of a stretch for me. It’s a three storied platform, open on all sides, no toilet, no kitchen, no drinking water and definitely no electricity. On top of all that, no flamingos.
But there is firewood, so at least we can cook. We ask how much it will cost to pitch our tent here. „100 mil“ ($50 US) the lady replies. I look at Jenny in disbelief then back to the lady to see if she is kidding, it appears she is not. Fifty bucks? For what?! A rickety old shelter which looks as though it might collapse in the next strong breeze? Well I suppose I can’t blame her for trying, who knows maybe someone out there would be stupid (or generous) enough to pay that much. But that someone is definitely not us. After a while I manage to talk her down to 10,000 ($5). Even that is too much compared to the usual Colombian prices. I mean, I don’t really know what we’re paying for – we could just as easily put our tent beside the platform and camp for free. Nevertheless we hand over the 10,000 pesos, and the family disappears into the desert.
Finally we are left alone to put our tent up, make a fire and pour a rum and coke. I can’t help but feel a little disappointed, I know how much Jenny wants to see flamingos, and I wanted to camp on the beach, not on the second floor of some ugly wooden fort. I realise sometimes when backpacking you have to make compromises, especially when you want to get off the gringo trail and explore less visited places. Maybe I expected too much, but still, I feel like this time we’ve somehow missed out. In these moments it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, you focus on the things which you are missing, rather than the amazing experience which you are having. Ok so there are no flamingos, and there’s no beach, but there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of other birds flying across the sky, and the sunset, although not into the sea, is spectacular.
We are sitting there sipping our rum and coke, watching as the sky’s blush deepens from pink to red, when it happens.
„Flamingo!“ Jenny yells excitedly, I follow her gaze and see a long pink bird flying slowly across the sky close to our „hotel“. It’s a sight which I will never forget. Although we never got the photo of a hundred pink flamingos feeding and frolicking (or whatever it is flamingos do) in the water, which we would have got with the usual touristic approach, we had an experience I’m sure neither of us will ever forget. We chose to do it our way, and it wasn’t easy, but to see this lone flamingo’s somewhat awkward flight into the wind was a truly sweet and unforgettable moment. I feel blessed that Jenny and I were able to share it. We watch in silence as the flamingo continues his journey into the distance. Go well Mr Flamingo, I really hope you find what you are looking for.