Before I even get out of the taxi at the Terminal de Transporte in Santa Marta, people are already shouting at me. “Barranquilla!” “Cartagena!” “Maicao!” I follow the “Maicao” guy and hop onto a bus that’s about to leave.
$20,000 pesos seems like a fair price for the 150-kilometer trip to Los Flamencos Fauna and Flora Sanctuary, a national park in Colombia’s driest department, La Guajira.
I sit in the back. I get lucky, and my seat only has one position: extremely tilted back, as if I’m at the dentist. “Welcome to Colombia,” a local says to me, laughing, as I try to maneuver the chair into an upright position.
After three hours, the bus leaves us in a lonely parking lot in a small community called Camarones, 20 kilometers before Riohacha, the capital of La Guajira.
Surrounded by nothing but reddish sand and thorny scrubs, I feel like I’ve left Colombia and entered Africa. Out of nowhere, two motorbikes appear ridden by friendly guajiros, Michael and Juan.
After I hop onto the back of Michael’s motorbike, he gently accelerates towards the sanctuary. Small, modest houses appear, and instead of a fence, large, thorny cacti create the division between properties.
We zoom past the propio pueblo. It’s a public holiday, so people are sitting outside playing pool and drinking tinto coffee or cervezas.
We turn a corner, leaving the dusty village behind, and an expansive lagoon opens up before me, the water glossy in the morning sunshine. The surrounding dry shrub vegetation reminds me of home — I secretly hope for an elephant to come crashing through the bush.
Unfortunately, the only animals I see are chickens and goats, nonchalantly grazing. After another 10 minutes, we arrive at the Comunidad Boca de Camarones, a pueblo smaller than a one-donkey village. There are a couple of restaurants on the beach. Thatched gazebos protect a dozen customers from the sun.
Michael offers to take us on a tour of the sanctuary. He tells us the one- to two-hour tour for two people will cost $40,000 pesos (there is no park entrance fee).
Dust becomes thick, sluggish mud as we approach the lagoon, and it feels marvelous between my toes. We step carefully into the water and climb into Michael’s cayuco, a canoe made entirely from one tree trunk.
The fallen tree is hollowed out and the hull is reinforced with fiberglass. Sitting on small wooden planks that serve as benches, Michael launches the cayuco using a long wooden pole that he drags along the shallow, muddy bottom.
The 770-square-kilometer protected area is named after the flamingos that take refuge within its four coastal marshes every year. Unfortunately, due to a severe drought that has ravaged La Guajira for the past few years, the number of returning flamingo colonies has plummeted.
An airplane crosses the sky above us. “Look!” says Michael, pointing in the distance towards birds that have suddenly taken flight. “When planes fly over, the flamingos are disturbed, making it easier for us to find them.”
Heading towards the disturbed flamingos, Michael explains that female flamingos lay only one egg per year. The eggs are thus very precious. When they are damaged, due to climate change or human interference, there can be a huge population drop.
He goes on to say that chicks aren’t born pink. Instead, they enter the world with dull-colored feathers that transform into an illustrious bright pink after five years of eating shrimp and micro algae.
We pass the boca — the mouth — of the lagoon, a frontier where the salty and freshwater mix. Several fishermen wade thigh-deep. Nearby, three children fool around, throwing their nets over each other. A great white heron swoops above.
“When Hurricane Matthew passed, there were more than 500 people here,” said Michael. “When the sea level rose, it brought lots of fish into the lagoon. People caught fish with their bare hands.”
Cruising slowly, we approach the small flamboyance of flamingos. Flamingo season is only from December to January, so there are only a couple of dozen birds here now.
Flamingos are wading birds and can spend hours standing in water, necks elegantly bent, foraging for prey.
Beyond the flamingos, isolated between the Caribbean and the lagoon is a small islet home to a tiny Wayúu community, Colombia’s largest indigenous group, and the sanctuary’s main office.
Taking advantage of the wind, Michael sets up a highly effective sail: a piece of red fabric tied to a pole that is wedged into a hole at one end of the canoe. With the help of his paddle, we silently sail across the lagoon towards the periphery where several species of mangroves grow.
The sun is now high. A few clouds pro- vide relief, and I am grateful for bottled of water and copious amounts of sunscreen. Two large pelicans glide over us and rest in a nearby tree. Fish flop out of the water, making ripples on the surface.
The sanctuary is a bird lover’s wonderland, home to several species of birds, such as herons, hummingbirds, and ducks.
Having received enough sun, Michael sets sail for the mainland. Sitting under the cool of a gazebo, ice-cold beer in hand, the white-sand beach stretches out before me, meeting the turquoise sea in a gentle slope.
My lunch arrives: fried sierra fresh from the sea, coconut rice, salad, and patacones — fried, flattened plantains resembling a small pancake. Other seafood options include pargo, mojarra, shrimp, or lobster, the local specialty.
With seagulls squawking overhead and the rhythmic sounds of the sea like a lullaby, this truly is Colombia’s undiscovered Caribbean Eden.