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Semana Santa 2016: Rioha-cha-cha

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Beautiful Riohacha… palm trees, sand and sea

Semana Santa is a magical time in Colombia when many people break from their busy lives to travel, relax at home or attend multiple church services throughout the seven days appropriately called Holy Week. Plans for my third Semana Santa in Colombia had originally been to go south into new territory including Monteria, Cordobá and two towns in Chocó: Sapzurro and Capurgana. Inspiration from colorful blogs about similar travel routes soon turned to meek disappointment from completely full hostels, and bus ticket prices that were nearly doubled during the week-long hiatus.

Let the Staycation begin!

Let the Staycation begin!

Foregoing the southern passage until a less busier time of the year, the first alternative was a Staycation in Cartagena de Indias, which proved to be a great idea, as it meant time to relax, sleep late and catch up on tournament games of UNO. Add to this a visit two young travelers from Couchsurfing who had inquired about visiting Colombia from the US back in October 2015, and Staycation was off to a good start. Janika and Alison arrived and together we headed to Papaya Hostel in Getsemani to secure their room for the busy week ahead.

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Janika, Alison and our photo in the mirror at Papaya Hostel. Photo by Janika ©2016

After a traditional Colombian lunch of fried fish, patacón, salad and rice, Janika and Alison boarded a bus for Santa Marta, on their way to visit Ciudad Perdida. Though our time was brief, these two mochilleras were inspiring, with their genuine sense of adventure and enlightening curiosity for Colombia.

Staycation continued and, in true Cartagena style, two festivals happened simultaneously the first weekend of Semana Santa: the first ExpoMujer, and the annual Festival del Dulce (sponsored by IPCC), in Plaza de los Coches beneath the historic clock tower.

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The people are as sweet at the treats at Festival del Dulce

Staycation havoc: playing UNO with Luis

For ExpoMujer, several places opened their doors to the public, including the impressive la Institución Universitaria Bellas Artes y Ciencias, located on beautiful plaza Santo Domingo, which set the backdrop for an excellent game of UNO.

Near the Festival del Dulce, a small stage featured live music from Albeiro Jose Aguilar Martinez, the mighty El Condor, a young accordionist from Valledupar, Cesár.

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El Condor tearing up the stage

Two days into Staycation 2016, a call from Barranquilla roused the travelista within, and a new adventure began with a plan to visit Riohacha, capital city of La Guajira. After a night in Barranquilla, began the five hour trip along the winding, ocean-hugging Caribbean Transverse past Santa Marta, Parque Tayrona and Palomino. Following a swift $5000 COP cab ride from the Terminal de Transporte, Bona Vida hostel was a welcome sight with its cheerful bright aqua and orange facade.

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Bona Vida hostel: lovely little oasis of aqua an orange

Hostel owners Katty and Johannes offered a warm, Colombian-Austrian welcome of delicious coffee and a tour of their tiny, neat hospedaje. Next came a brisk walk to Plaza José Prudencio Padilla, anchored by the lovely Cathedral Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. This church, as its namesake indicates, is dedicated to the legendary statue of small miracles, and Riohacha celebrates these miracles with a festival each year.

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As the sun set over the ocean, a walk along the Avendia Primera malecon revealed one of Riohacha’s most famous offerings: handmade arts from the indigenous Wayuu, a tribe from the larger Arawak group who make intricate, multicolored woven crafts with methods handed down by centuries of generations.

Naa wayuukana jemeishi süpüla taashi süma wanawa sülu’u nakua’ipa, aka müin yaa epijainjana sünain anajiranawaa a’in nama napüshi.

Translation: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

These crafts are offered by the dozen along the malecon and, while your biggest challenge may be deciding what to buy, it often isn’t difficult to decide from whom. One inquisitive young boy asked many questions in English, which sounded a bit rehearsed, but his enthusiasm smile and salesmanship appeared to be putting him ahead of the other vendors.

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“What’s your favorite color? My aunt makes beautiful bags. Buy from us!”

Beyond the vendors, but still on the malecon, the yellow mariposa sculpture dedicated to author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who mentions Riohacha in his novels One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and the brilliant, spacious Capilla shimmered equally and elegantly below a near-full moon.

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La Capilla y la misma luna

An early morning rise at Bona Vida hostel brought a few hours of writing, fueled by strong Colombian coffee and bright sun. Creative inspiration flowed from a bright Caribbean palette and the amazing arts of the people in the areas surrounding Riohacha.

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Artist and designer Kerry Davies from Sipsi Maria Bwtic, who lives in Bogotá and sells her beautiful jewelry online, credits the arts of the Caribbean coast of Colombia, including Riohacha, as her influence; with less than 24 hours here, it’s easy to see why.

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Handmade goodness from Sipsi Maria Bwtic

After a full day of enjoying sandy shell-laden beaches, drinking coconut water fresh from the tree, and taking another walk along the malecon, the evening brought more interest in the unique crafts, resulting in several satisfying purchases.

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The crazy caterpillar car in Riohacha

Perhaps the best craft among woven bags, bracelets, and straw hats was the artwork of Luis Martinez del Toro, whose original pieces are enhanced by his sense of humor and charm. A wonderful small painting, with a brilliant bull-gazelle animal in bright colors, declaring across it “Macondo”, a fictional town described in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was definitely worth purchasing.

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Enjoying a night of art with Luis Martinez del Toro

The third morning in La Guajira meant departure, and a little sadness of leaving so soon this small town with potential as a major Colombian travel destination. If the tourism board can stay on course with its plan to clean up and attract more visit, Riohacha could become as popular as other coastal areas, such as Playa Rodadero.

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gorgeous offerings from Riohacha, including Macondo painting!

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Morning futbol match between mosaic pillars

In the past year, three hostels have opened in the area. The plazas have added more police patrols and the malecon is making great strides to open reputable businesses. Along with the city’s annual celebration of contemporary Vallenato music, Festival Francisco El Hombre, more interest in Riohacha could reduce or even eliminate negative writing and posts about this pretty city along the sea.

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Sweet kitty at Bona Vida Hostel

To end this fantastic to Riohacha: a generous surprise, right-time-right-place offer from Katty’s parents as a passenger for the return drive to Barranquilla, on the same day the Colombian futbol team was playing Bolivia. The five-hour car ride provided an excellent opportunity for reflection, gratitude and inventory from this trip: all the laughter shared, all the delicious treats consumed and, especially, all the amazing crafts purchased in a short but satisfying visit to the beloved Caribbean coast of Colombia.

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Author: Kate Dana

Teacher, traveler and writer living on the Caribbean coast of South America.

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