On Friends and Far-Flung Places

We get asked a lot about what we miss most, or what advice we wished we gotten before we left and for me (Maggie) the answer to those two questions is linked.

I miss friends. I wish I'd known before we left that overlanding can be really lonesome. 

This is not to say we haven't made friends, nor is it to say that the conversations we've struck up with other overlanders haven't been some of our best times on the trip. Both of those things are true. But it is to say that if you, like most people, find strength in community, in knowing that there are people in the world you can lean on, in building and maintaining an infrastructure then the hardest part of the lifestyle we have isn't the bugs, or the nigh indiscernible bureaucracy, or even getting stuck in the mud at 16K feet overnight. 

It's isolation.

We speak Spanish at this point. Certainly well enough to get around, well enough to have friendly if unsubstantial conversations. But we don't speak it well enough to be subtle, or to be witty, and we certainly don't speak it well enough to impart or share our philosophical point of view or existential angst. And it is difficult to build a community 1.) at all  2.) on the road, and 3.) without the proper vocabulary with which to share values. So, making long-lasting friendships throughout South America has more than certainly been hobbled by our own linguistic limitations. 

Additionally, we joke a lot on our podcast about "meat-bagging," or prepackaged tours, which both Adam and I abhor. But the one downside of being as single-mindedly off-the-beaten-path as we both demand, is that we experience these wonderful places alone. The trade off is that we sacrifice our chance to socialize in order to protect our independence. On the occasions that we HAVE been forced to meat-bag (in the Galapagos and Torres del Paine) we've made friends with higher frequency, simply because we were forced into social situations by sharing the same meat-bag.

Even though we are not, in fact traveling alone-- this is a "we," as I've said-- one person does not a community make. Adam and I love each other's company. That's why we got married. But we have disparate social needs (as any two humans do) that cannot be sated by each other and each other alone. Thinking it would work that way would put an awful lot of pressure on each other, and it would also likely breed resentment. Adam can't be my everything just as I can't be his. Knowing this means that, blessedly, we can be frank about our own loneliness. But it does not solve the problem of being lonely. 

Worth noting as well is a hurdle I have that Adam doesn't, which is depression. I had heard before I left-- of course-- that one cannot outrun depression, and I believed it as vaguely good but irrelevant advice. However, it's been exactly true. And without my normal support structure of friends and family around, I was even more keenly aware of it than I am at home.




Fortunately, we have had friends and family come and visit on us on the road. Each of these times-- with Jon in Colombia, my father and his girlfriend in Peru, my mother and stepdad in Chile and most recently, Nick and Rebecca in Argentina-- has served to bolster my spirits more than I can accurately express. Each time has afforded an opportunity to have more complex and substantial conversations, and each has rounded off the sharp edges that loneliness has carved in my heart. 

Though, in this sentiment, "fortunately" is likely the most apt word. All those who came to visit were able to afford to do so. So while I'd love to say the best way to combat loneliness is to help your friends and family plan trips to see you and share in your adventure, it'd be a suggestion shrouded in so much privilege as to render it almost entirely useless. 

The more accurate advice would probably be this: 

Overlanding can be lonely. Before you leave, you should as yourself: are you willing to pursue a life with a more-than-average amount of isolation for the prize of an adventure?

Mud: You're Gross and I Hate You

Listen: when you decide to outfit your car for adventure and hit the road, you have to expect some things to go wrong. I knew that, Adam knew that. But what we didn't expect (and maybe should have) was getting stuck in the mud at 16,200+ feet, in the snow. Overnight. What follows is an account of what happened.

What we'd both love to know is what we might have done better.


First mistake: Leaving the road.
Now, it's hard to know for sure that we wouldn't have gotten stuck if we'd just stayed on the road. We drove off the road to avoid the lake, pictured below, that blocked our way. We'd already been getting increasingly worried about the terrible road conditions as the day progressed and had, only a couple hundred feet earlier, nearly gotten stuck in the mud ON the road. Off to the left of the road, there were a lot of big, mossy patches and rocks, which offered more stable ground. Our hope was to use that terrain to get us to safety. So the decision was clearly--in retrospect-- a mistake, but at the time not an easy or a clear choice. 


Second mistake: Getting cold.
So we scouted a seemingly safe route, drove off the road, and promptly got stuck in about 1.5/2 feet of mud around the front wheels. This was about 5pm, and so we knew we had about an hour of sunlight left. In order to make the most of our limited light, we got to work immediately, before checking to make sure we had enough clothes on. Which we didn't. And once you GET cold, it's very difficult to get warm, when there's no real warm place to go. We did our best to jack the back of the car up with our 4Runner's bottle jack (we are now looking into buying a Hi-Lift jack, a piece of equipment we decided to skip due to space and weight concerns), and to get large, flat rocks underneath the back wheels so that we could back out over them, with the tires aired down from 45 PSI to 30 PSI. When that failed, we stacked large, flat rocks beneath the bumper so the car would not sink MORE over night. 


First good choice: Going to bed.
It became clear that we were not going to get the car out that night. So, we decided to call it a night around 7:30pm. This allowed us to get some sleep, get warm, and to collect our thoughts. This was the first, demonstrably and undeniably good choice we made. 

Third Mistake? Taking off the back right wheel.
We still don't know if this was a good idea or not. But what became abundantly clear, and quickly, was that we could not move with the back right wheel lodged thoroughly in the mud as it was. The back left wheel was basically free, and both of the front wheels were almost entirely submerged. So our hope was pinned to the back right wheel. However, it was so caked with mud--which had frozen solid in the night-- that it could not move, it was about 20-30lbs heavier than usual, and nigh un-maneuverable. The car was very precarious jacked on muddy ground, on a large flat rock, and was by no means stable. If the jack had failed we would have been properly fucked. But this decision DID allow us to clear the mud that blocked the inside of the wheel, and get some flat rocks under it.

Fourth mistake: Ignoring self-care. 
In our urgency to get to work, we did not eat, we did not put on sunscreen, we did not make coca tea or coffee (both of which would have helped with altitude sickness and decision making). We got sunburnt like mad. We were both woozy and cloudy-headed. Who knows what a little self-care could have done to keep us safer, happier, and would have put us more quickly back onto the road.

Fifth mistake? Excessive digging.
Water began to fill in under the back right wheel. The ice from the night before was melting and it was unclear if our digging was helping our hindering our efforts. Adam's feet got very wet in this process, putting his health at risk, and no matter how much he dug out, more water seemed to come in. It was like a well. 

First stroke of luck: Menau and Lario.
This was an incredibly desolate road, with the nearest city more than 5 hours away. We had not seen anyone since the other stranded couple we'd come upon--who'd run out of gas, and who we provided with gas-- earlier that day. So when I saw a pickup truck winding its way toward us, I bolted for them. We were far enough off the road that they might not have seen us if I had not run at them, screaming and arms flapping. Without their help and generosity, who knows what it would have taken to get us out.

Second good choice: Placing flat rocks beneath the wheels.
Menau and Lario immediately set to work doing exactly what we had been doing before, which was jacking up the car so that flat rocks could be placed beneath the tires. Their focus helped us regain ours, and it was also heartening to have help, and to see that our method was not insane, but rather their chosen method as well. Menau used his larger jack to get the car higher which allowed us to get larger rocks in the right places. While this method did push the front wheels lower into the mud, it also helped us get better traction on that integral back right wheel.

Tough break: Towing didn't help. At all.
Once a lot of flat rocks had been placed beneath that back right wheel, we attached Shadow to Menau's big pick up truck (also a Toyota) by a recovery strap and D-rings. While prepping this, we revved our engine in neutral for about 10 seconds. He pulled just enough to get tension, and then (in 4WD low) we reversed as hard as we could as he pulled. This very nearly got his truck stuck in the mud, so we quickly stopped. Shadow hadn't budged an inch. 

Third good choice? Side-jacking the front left wheel.
We've heard that this can grievously damage your wheel. BUT. Menau side jacked the front wheel using a large, flat rock, and managed to get us about 3 more inches of space. While Menau had to go, he promised he'd come back within two hours. In the meantime though, he bade us to keep working, and lent us his pickaxe so that we could more efficiently. We shoveled out beneath the wheel, and placed as many flat rocks as we could. This was what ultimately enabled us to pull Shadow free. 


Fourth good choice: Rocking the car.
We revved the car in neutral, and readied it to reverse again. Immediately, it was clear that a tiny bit of traction had been found, and so Adam used a rock to stabilize himself, and pushed with his chest against the front bumper in pulses, creating a rocking-action with the truck's momentum. The result was that, like starting a swing, each time the car rocked a little bit more. And finally, blessedly, and to our great relief, the truck became free. 

What we want to know is: what could we have done differently? What could we have done better? What do we do to make sure this doesn't happen again?

For the interested: we talk about this incident in greater detail on the latest episode of our podcast, 31: Stranded at 16,200 ft.

There's No There, There

There are many options for touring Alta Guajira, the northernmost part of Colombia (and of South America), but overlanding in your own vehicle is definitely choice. The only rub is that many of the roads aren't really roads so much as they are just the tracks of the last vehicle that passed through, and not necessarily in the direction you're headed. So, navigation is tricky for a local, and nigh impossible for a visitor.


The various paths that lead to Punta Gallina are unpaved, rocky, and cut through a desert with infamously muddy patches that cars can be stuck in for up to a week. And driving through it during rainy season, as we did, can be especially treacherous. 


We had a bit of "luck" on our side, if you can call it that. Unfortunately, the Guajira region has been subject to a five year long drought, making the difficult life of the Wayuu people who live there even more difficult. The UN and the Red Cross have both stepped in to try and alleviate the starvation and the lack of water, but providing aid has not been easy. So when we say "lucky," we mean only for the road quality, since we encountered little of the mud we'd been warned so vehemently about, and made it out with very little trauma to our 4Runner.

The other bit of luck we had was accidentally stumbling on a tourism agency that specializes in trips to Punta Gallina, while actually searching for different agency all together. That connection ended up being essential to the success of our trip, even though we did not ultimately utilize their services as guides.

Most tourists who visit this remote and sparsely populated region go either in a car driven by a local and guided by an English speaker. Or, they are driven to one of the only cities (here, the term is used generously, by city we mean perhaps more than 10 families live in a single area, with a few stores, and likely a kite surfing school or two) and are taken in a boat to other areas with more difficult overlanding logistics. This is a fine option. But you are shuttled from place to place, with little agency for things like choices in food and where to sleep. Likewise, you are sheltered from any kind of responsibility in the area, which was a fascinating, if often upsetting experience. 


So when we told the first tour agency about our desire to drive ourselves out there, they were a little doubtful. 

"You could," Paola said. But her confirmation of the possibility came with many caveats. About the lack of gas. About navigating the Wayuu rules of the road-- namely stopping at many self-appointed toll spots, where children swarm the car, and do not let you pass until you have given them cookies, or water, or sweets. About the roads, or lack there of, and about the difficulty of navigation.

But we were set on going, and so Paola gave us the perfect recommendation: Drive up to El Cabo De La Vela on our own, find the largest hotel in town (a ten room joint, with bucket showers and an adjoining outdoor restaurant) and ask around to see if there were any tours headed to Punta Gallina that we could follow. And so we did. 


The road to Cabo De La Vela is 50% super easy-- paved, or when not paved, at least well trodden. And 50% difficult navigation through roads that make little to no sense, with a seemingly innumerable number of Wayuu toll stops. Our rations for the tolls-- treats, mostly, purchased from a grocery store in Riohacha-- dwindled much more quickly that we'd anticipated. And in a couple cases, we were very uncertain that we had headed in the correct direction. But we found the city, which is peaceful, and set against a still and tranquil coastline ideal for kite surfing. 

Paola had called ahead to let her contact in Cabo De La Vela know we were coming. We were easily identifiable, as the only visitors to arrive in a car with California plates. And when Sergei, her contact, found us, he helped us find another tour guide with a group of five that were planning on leaving for Punta Gallina the next day.


That night, we camped on the beach, alongside many other visitors, who opted for the hammocks hung in palapas, the favored cheap lodging choice of the area. We purchased more toll fare from a local tienda. And, the next morning, we struck out for Punta Gallina.

We trailed a Land Cruiser VX from the Alta Guajira tour company, driven by a congenial man named Tobias. If you've prepped for overlanding, you're likely prepared for this journey. He lead us first to Punta Gallina's famous beach, which rests on the opposite side of a towering sand dune. The water is cool, and the sand is soft. It seems cast in unreality. We'd heard a dubious claim that the sand blew in from sandstorms in the Sahara, which just seems impossible. But it does have a completely different color and texture to the sand at all the other beaches in the region, and makes for a lovely sunning surface between bouts in the cool, blue water. 


Then, he lead us to a tiny town, which is more a collection of houses surrounding one hotel-restaurant. It sits atop of a cliff overlooking a turquoise lagoon, replete with small collections of mangrove trees, a small dock, and an area in which they rear baby sea turtles for release into the wild. The town itself has more goats than people, no pavement, or even well trodden paths, and a preponderance of chickens. A few parrots live on the property of the hotel, and make the sounds of crying children, laughing adults, and a few wolf-whistles. 


Tobias then lead us to a few choice scenic outlooks, two of which provided views of an enormous flock of flamingoes not too far away. And then, he lead us to El Faro Punta Gallina, the lighthouse that marks the northernmost point of South America. There, people have created an array of stone stacks on the beach to mark the spot, and we watched the sun set over them, casting weird and beautiful shadows across the sand.


As we headed back to the town, Tobias pulled to a halt, and pointed out a detonation crater. It was fifteen years old, he told us, and a relic of the government's war with Pablo Escobar. Escobar's illegal air strip had been just next to El Faro  Punta Gallina, and the crater was created when the government bombed the area. It looked about three feet deep, and maybe ten feet across.


While the group that arrived officially with the Alta Guajira tours stayed in the hotel (which, they reported, was hot and stuffy, and not super comfortable) we camped below the cliffs just by the docks. It was serene, and silent save for the quiet sound of water lapping against the shore. A cool breeze blew gently all night. We slept like dead people.


The next morning, Alta Guajira tours had arranged for their guests to go on a quick boat tour to go look at flamingoes. The boat would drop them off at a farther location, that marked our point of exit from the area. So Adam followed Tobias in the cars, and I joined the boat tour, which led to a flock of about a thousand flamingoes. While I stared at the strange and improbable birds, Adam discussed logistics for getting to Valledupar with Tobias. 

Of all the driving we've done so far, this has been the most satisfying. The route through the area cuts through salt flats, craggy desert, tiny Wayuu settlements, deep sand patches, cacti and shallow water. However experienced you are as a driver, we absolutely recommend tailing a tour group. The price for this service is tiny compared to the potential for the huge inconvenience of being stranded, lost, or stuck in the mud. Deep mud can often appear to be dry sand, and tricks even those familiar with the landscape. And driving in Wayuu country without a familiar face past 5pm is apparently not a great idea, for reasons no one made clear to us.

If you are planning a trip to the area, we also recommend the Alta Guajira tour company. Their services were excellent, Tobias's knowledge of the area was expansive, and also, he was just a nice dude. Bring along gas cans, filled in Riohacha, the last stop with true gas stations. Bring more cookies than you think you'll need, or better yet, bring bags of water. In retrospect, we wished we had brought water, which we hadn't realized was an option until too late. It is a more useful thing to give out in an area beset with difficult survival, drought and poverty, 

If you are not planning a trip to the area, we highly recommend that you do.