Stranded in Colombia part I: Cabo de la Vela

20130606_171214I lay down on the bed in our cabana/shack carefully, barely able to move my whole body in pain from the previous day’s adrenaline-filled-five-hour-long pumpathon, which apparently was the most extreme workout I’ve ever had in my life. Bruises covered my arms and legs as well as cuts and scrapes from the ordeal; I walked like I was a fragile 95-year-old woman. Jerrad and I haven’t eaten anything in the past 24 hours but we just lay down on the bed and passed out from exhaustion.

We woke up later that day and walked along the main dirt road of the village to find food. Cabo de la Vela, which is located in the state of La Guajira on the northernmost coast of Colombia, literally means “cape of sail”.  This isolated desert village is located on a wide bay boasting  mile after mile of beach with turquoise waters. The area was special: the wind constantly blew across the flat peninsula, and the wide bay was only 10ft-deep as far as 2 miles out. Steady wind with no waves along the bay makes it a perfect spot for activities like sailing or kitesurfing –  and the kitesurfing rental/school in the village was indeed the main attraction. Besides kitesurfing20130606_174806, Cabo de la Vela also promotes ecotourism for the ultimate environmentally-friendly beach relaxation: open-sided shelters made of palm fronds and branches with hammocks to relax in while enjoying a view of the picturesque water during the day or the twinkling stars at night. Life in the village was otherwise still quite traditional: no wifi access, no running water (the cabana owner gave us buckets of water to shower), and no electricity apart from when they ran the generator (7-10PM).  It also happened to be low season when we were there and, besides a couple of kite surfers, the village was pretty dead.

All the “restaurants” were closed and no food was to be found the first day we arrived. We ended up going to the little corner store and bought cans of tuna and cereal to feed for the next couple of days. After those two days of nourishing-albeit-slightly-unappetizing meals, we walked further down the dirt road trying to find food on the other side of the village and met a fisherman named Capitan Anaya. We asked him if he knew of any place to eat. His reply came in the form of a hand gesture to come over to his house. He was making fish soup and we were invited for lunch. His house was a very simple hut piled high with fishing nets, old fenders along with bits and pieces of old outboard engines in one corner. When20130608_151220 we came, two other fishermen were sitting outside his hut mending their nets. Capitan Anaya soon came out with two bowls of the most delicious fish soup I’ve ever had. Then he told us that he had to go fishing and we should come back around 7.30PM for dinner. This went on for the next couple days: the fisherman would go out fishing, come home, cook his catch and share his meals with us.  All those days he refused any payment, saying that we were “hermanos del mar” or brothers of the sea.  We would sit around the front of his hut, enjoying a heap of white rice and grilled or fried fish. While eating, he would ask about our boat and our journey or tell stories of his life. Capitan Anaya was a captain of a big vessel in the past; unfortunately he was caught in possession of drugs, arrested and sentenced to some 30 odd years in prison.  He was very difficult to understand and our communication could be difficult from time to time, mostly because of our lack of comprehension, but it never stopped him from conversing with us. We are forever grateful to this man who welcomed us to his home and shared his humble meals with us. To repay his kindness, we gave him our solar panels and some fishing line from the boat, something that we hope would make his life a little easier.

Our 8-day stay in Cabo De La Vela was filled with running errands, salvaging items from the boat, waiting and more waiting. First the Port Captain himself came to the village to talk to us and hand us a letter for Jerrad to come to his office in Puerto Bolivar to make a statement. His office is located in a large port dedicated to the mining and international transportation of coal. It was a high security area and one could only enter if invited, hence the letter he had prepared so Jerrad could make a visit. The visit itself turned into a whole-day affair. He got a ride from one of the villagers with a motorcycle to arrive in Puerto Bolivar at 10AM; however once he got there, the Port Captain was busy and had to christen two new tugboats. Then somehow the translator ended up hurting his back and had to go home, so they couldn’t proceed with the written statement.  Another translator was called, but in the meantime the Port Captain took Jerrad to lunch. Then they waited around for the replacement translator to arrive so Jerrad finally was able to give a full statement of what happened to the boat. It was 5PM by the time he came back to the village.

We also had to make a trip to town to get more Colombian pesos, go to an internet café to contact our families, buy a suitcase for the salvageable items from the boat, a dog kennel for Gidget, and a pair of shoes for Jerrad (whose shoes and sandals went missing after the boat incident). To do this, we had to get on one of the trucks that transport supplies as well as passengers to and from the village.  The truck left at 4AM and the driver said we would be back around one in the afternoon. Off we went in this truck, going through the desert, sometimes on dirt roads, sometimes on no road, picking up villagers who seemed to just show up out of the bushes in the middle of nowhere. We finally arrived in a town called Maicao around 7AM. The driver stopped in a market district loading area and told us, while pointing ahead, that everything we need/want we could find somewhere down the street. So we started walking around, Jerrad with bare feet, looking for an ATM first. Once we had some cash, we then headed to the first shoe store/stall we could find. It is important to note here that Jerrad, being 6-ft tall, has the shoe size practically unheard of in a town where the population’s height mostly is around 5 feet 3 inches. He needed size 46 shoes and for the next 35-40 minutes or so the shoe store owner along with his wife rummaged through their whole entire supply of shoes and sandals to no avail. The shoe store owner, while searching his store, kept mumbling to himself, “pie grande… pie grande” (which means “big foot”) and he kept handing Jerrad everything sized 42 and up (none were above size 44 however), including a pair of hideous black and pink Crocs that would probably fit but, before the shopkeeper could even ask, Jerrad flat-out refused. It’s not that he’s vain but he would rather walk barefoot than spend money on the giant rubber clown shoes he had been offered. Finally the shoe store owner left and came back (from another shoe store/stall) with a pair of shoes that would fit as long as Jerrad wasn’t wearing socks. And they were decent-looking sneakers. Good enough.

The rest of that day was spent finding a dog kennel for Gidget (big enough for her to get in, but too small for a proper travel kennel), a suitcase and some food. We rushed back to the meeting area around 10.30 because that’s the time the driver told us to come back, only to wait around for an hour for everybody else to return – time that we could have spent in an internet café to get in contact with our families. We eventually got on the back of the pick-up truck with about 10 other villagers and supplies such as ice, soda, beer, goats and gasoline. We left Maicao around 11.45, stopped in another town for lunch, stopped again later because we had a flat tire, and finally arrived back in Cabo De La Vela at 4PM! We were both pretty exhausted after this much-longer-than-anticipated trip to town.

20130610_124813Having to wait for the official inspection of our boat, we spent the next few days semi-cleaning the boat and taking items we could salvage, hanging out with the local village kids as well as the kite surfers who were in town for a competition. The Port Captain told us the inspector will arrive on Friday morning, but nobody came until after lunch. The Port Captain’s assistant, “Freddy”, came to the village with a Customs official as well as the inspector. We went on board and told our story once again. Our guests were shocked by the state of the boat and amazed we were able to safely make it back to land unaided. With the obvious damage the boat was deemed unsafe and any attempt to move it would put our lives in extreme and unnecessary danger.

Any attempt to repair Vento Dea would be nearly impossible, since there was significant damage below the waterline and it would have to be taken out of the water to even attempt this kind of repair. This is not practical seeing as the closest haul-out facility was more than 100 miles away from this isolated area. The cost and energy that we would have to spend to try to repair the boat was not worth the end result, so the boat was turned over to Colombian Customs. This was the only way we could leave the boat there without having to import it and pay the expensive import tax (it is illegal to leave a foreign boat unattended in Colombia).

Whatever happened to Vento Dea? We probably will never know for sure; we left it anchored right off the village where the Customs was supposed to either move it, destroy it or strip it. Because of the harsh seas and isolation in this area we have a feeling that no officials from Customs would bother to come back to that area to do any of those things. What I am sure has already happened is that the local fishermen have stripped Vento Dea taking whatever they could salvage and the vessel itself would have sunk by now. It was very sad to lose our first boat (and first home) like this, but every time we came back after the incident she looked more and more like a dumpster and not the boat we cared for; the boat that calloused our hands and required as much hard work and sweat as she did wind but in return for our struggles she showed us the untold beauties of the sea, provided safe passage for thousands of miles, taught us about ourselves and showed us what freedom really is. The more we saw the damage and destruction the more she became unrecognizable to us; it just wasn’t the same boat anymore. I suppose this made it easier to say goodbye.

We then asked Freddy about our immigration status: the fact is we had officially exited the country, passports stamped and everything but there we were, back in Colombia. Of course there was no immigration office anywhere near Cabo De La Vela.

“You mean you’re illegal in my country?” Freddy asked humorously.

Both Freddy and the Customs official seemed amused at our worrying of our immigration status. “Relax, this is Colombia,” they told us. Freddy jokingly added, “no es Alabama.” It was simple: just go to the Immigration office in Cartagena and they will fix it. Phew, as long as it was easy enough to fix – apparently neither of us remembered that we would be dealing with a government agency running on third-world bureaucracy and efficiency. In other words, “easy” and “simple” became tedious and complicated, another story in itself.

After 8 full days in Cabo de la Vela, we finished all our official business with the Port Captain and Customs and were allowed to leave. We planned on going back to Cartagena and from there fly back to the States. While the prospect o20130608_182222f going somewhere with easy wifi access to call our families was rather exciting, we knew we would miss this place. If only the circumstances were different, I think I would’ve enjoyed my stay in Cabo de la Vela much, much more. It was truly a beautiful, serene place.

More pictures of Cabo De La Vela here.

2 thoughts on “Stranded in Colombia part I: Cabo de la Vela

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