Let me tell you about the most wonderful discovery we made while in Colombia. For some this might be old news, for all I know it’s probably on the front cover of the Lonely Planet. For us, it was like stumbling across a big black ‘X’ and being inquisitive (nosey) people, we dug.
We dug deep, and man did we find gold. The ‘X’ being the region of La Guajira. The gold being Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas.
We had heard that the most northern point of South America was in Colombia but nothing about visiting here appealed to us, at that time. We headed north to smell some fresh sea air, that was all.
First was a visit to Cartagena then onto Santa Marta, two popular destinations that so many people had recommended.
Slightly overrated springs to mind. But that’s another blog. Lucky (or maybe unlucky) for you, those blogs can be read by clicking the links above.
Slightly underwhelmed we were gunning for some adventure. So when we heard that a group of indigenous people live in the middle of the Colombian desert, a desert that sits along the Carribbean coast, our ears perked.
First of all, I had no idea there was a desert in Colombia. Secondly, even though I heard of the indingenious Wayuu tribe, I had assumed it was a town or village full of people who refuse to venture far from their roots, similarly to other indingenious tribes we’ve encountered throughout our Latin America journey.
Well, you could say I was Wayuu off!
I didn’t prepare myself for what I would witness and experience while spending one night in Cabo de la Vela and another in Punta Gallinas. I didn’t expect to meet such pysically attractive people, with teeth as white as the desert sand and a dresscode that puts the rainbow to shame. And that’s only the women.
An isolated race that live far below the poverty line, in their selfmade bamboo houses, without running water and very little electricity, if any at all.
The sea water is how they keep clean, the goats, chickens, fish (and lobster) are how they eat. They cannot even grow their own food considering it hasn’t rained in nearly four years.
So they now rely on us travellers, or better yet, adventurers! This place is so untouched and isolated, a simple visit by us can change the lives of those who live there. And if you go, it will also change yours.
So, let’s tell you more about how you can experience the world of the Wayuu. Let us tell you Wayuu should go.
How To Get To Cabo De La Vela:
Most likely, you’re in and around Santa Marta, Tayrona Park or Taganga. Unless you’re in Tayrona, the easiest way to start your adventure is to pop over to the Santa Marta bus terminal.
From Tayrona Park, ask around for the bus heading towards Maico, as the bus passes by.
From Santa Marta Terminal, you need to grab the bus heading to the Venezuelan border town called Maico.
We know one definitely leaves at 10am, and to be honest, this is the latest bus you should take as you’ve a long day ahead!
It costs 28,000 COP (€8) and you need to tell the driver that you want to get off at ‘Cuatro Vias’. Dont worry, the driver will know exactly where you mean.
Cuatro Vias (literally meaning ‘four ways’) is exactly that. A dusty cross junction, with some food stalls, vendors, an overheard train track and absolutely nothing else. You will feel as if you’re in the middle of nowhere. And you are, technically.
Here you will find a number 4×4, here is where you need to get your haggle hat on. The 4×4 trucks usually leave when there are minimum 6 passengers. It could take 5 minutes to fill up or it could take hours. In our case, it took over 2.5 hours of waiting. It’s worth it guys, have some patience.
When we researched into this journey, we were told we would need to get the 4×4 to Uribia and then transfer to another 4×4 heading for Cabo de la Vela. Thankfully, due to this route becoming increasingly popular, the 4×4’s now go straight to Cabo from Cuatro Vias.
We agreed on a price of 50,000 COP (€14) for the two of us. If you don’t want to wait on any other passengers, you can of course pay more. Just note that the drivers aren’t trying to rip anyone off here, it’s a long drive through the desert, they need to make it worth their while.
The wait at Cuatro Vias was all part of the experience. It’s an insanely entertaining crossroad. Watch the locals hitchhike, enjoy the breeze as the 4×4’s whizz by, feel the thundering of cargo trucks, coming from “the closed” Venezuelan border, and have a chat with the locals, extremely friendly people.
We found out that the 4×4 run from Cuatro Vias up until 9pm, so you won’t be isolated along this road but we wouldn’t leave it too late to leave here.
The drive itself is absolutely incredible. You will pass through Uribia, Colombia’s indingenious capital. This is where you need to stock up on as much water as possible, any snacks and cash. Don’t forget the cash! Mention this to the driver and he’ll happily pull over.
The town will turn into dirt tracks and badly paved roads. Soon, you’ll be racing the large cargo train, as you drive adjacent to the rail road tracks. The train itself is the longest train I’ve seen. Again, all adding to the experience.
Blink and you’re soon in the middle of nowhere. This is when the road becomes a little bumpy, as your bum cheeks clench the wooden bench and your knuckles turn white holding on. Along with our backpacks, we were all crammed in the back, which helped us to stay somewhat static throughout the crazy ride.
The desert surroundings and dusty roads, are not the most comfortable, but you won’t complain, not for a second. Distracted by the nothingness around you, there are moments where tiny specs in the distance soon become handmade shacks where locals hang out in hammocks.
Families stroll hand in hand on the road that never seems to end, dressed in Wayuu attire. We pass other 4x4s that sway due to the overloaded cargo ontop, held together by the passengers, also ontop.
I’ve never been to Australia, but Luke compared it to the Australian outback. For me, it was like the old wild, wild west of Colombia.
Walkers wave, cars shoot pass; creating massive clouds of dust that make the person next to you invisible. As you near Cabo, the road is suddenly lined with giant cacti that hang lazily over the dirt road.
Accommodation in Cabo De La Vela:
Thanks to a scheme the government introduced, which waivers certain laws that many hostels, hotels etc. have to follow, the Wayuu can open their homes to visitors, meaning there are plenty of places to stay while here.
We went with Mason Nuevo Mundo, purely down to the gentleman and owner named Edglin.
His home sits no more than 50 feet from the Caribbean sea, and with cabin and hammock options on the beach, it was perfect. It was heaven.
At a really reasonable price of 10,000 COP (€3), face the stars and nod off in a hammock on the beach. Your bags are safely locked in the cabin that holds two beds. You could sleep in the cabin for 25,000 COP (€7) per person, but where’s the fun in that?
Edglin offered us the hammocks for free, if we booked the tour to Punta Gallinas with him. Like I said, visiting the most northern point of South America wasn’t of interest, until we arrived to Cabo that is.
We took Edglin up on his offer and he then bumped the one night free stay to two nights. Probably the best bargain we’ve bagged since leaving Dublin in February 2017.
Also, the food. Dear Jesus the food! Go for the economic plate that includes freshly caught fish, coconut rice, plantain and salad. The economic plate costs 10,000 COP (€3) but look at the size of the fish!
Onward To Punta Gallinas:
Before arriving to Cabo, we priced onward travel to Punta Gallinas, to find fixed fees of 150,000 COP (€42) per person. Way out of our budget.
However, Edglin negotiated like a champ, and we compromised at 100,000 COP (€28) per person. The same cost as a takeaway at home.
This included two nights accomodation at Edglin’s home, transport (4×4 and lancha) to Punta Gallinas, with a number of stops to visit local wonders such as El Faro Lighthouse, Ojo de Agua and Pilón de Azucar.
What it didn’t include was the nights accomodation in Punta Gallinas but again, with hammocks available for are 10,000 COP (€3) who’s complaining?
There is only one accomodation option in Punta Gallinas, so you have no real choice in the matter. But that’s OK, you won’t be disappointed.
Just be sure to bring cash and water, lots and lots of water.
We left Edglin’s beachside at 5am in a 4×4, to once again travel across the dusty roads and smoky desert, as the sun rose and life began to move around us.
We passed through smaller neighbourhoods, which is nothing more than a few bamboo huts next to large windmills, they seemed so misplaced here.
Our driver Piraña told us they are used to generate electricity, electricity that the locals rarely use themselves. Strange.
As we approached the beginning of the train tracks, the ones we had seen the previous day, enthusiastic to share their “way of life” Piraña shared with us that there is a large coal mine sitting at the top of the tracks.
Here, locals work, load the train and off it goes; all the way to the docks. Would you believe us if we told you that the coal you use in your home most likely comes from this region!
The ship takes over three months to reach Europe where it is distributed, re-branded and resold. Isn’t it rather crazy to think these people export this fossil fuel, only to never use nor benefit from it themselves.
Onward the journey, until our 4×4 broke down that is. Thankfully not too far lost in the desert, grateful it was near a house, which doubled as the local school.
We spent an hour here, drinking tinto, eating cheese sticks and making small talk with the kids, the ones who actually show up to school that is. Attendance isnt compulsory.
While Piraña fixed the leaky engine using a bar of soap (yup, magic!) we happily chatted to the kids, ages from 6 and up, like well, kids yet here they replied like adults.
Back on the road, miraculously, we followed the sandy tire tracks. Every 200 meters or so we’d see a small barracade across the road.
Two tree trunks, sometimes weak tree branches would stick out if the ground, connected with a knotted piece of a rope. This is where the ‘non-school-attending’ local kids become genious entrepreneurs.
They block the road until we give them something, anything. Water, sweets, pesos and a big smile. Piraña said he always carries a bag of lollipops in the car, just in case, these kids mean business. Other times it’s just kids selling things, mostly food. They use the blockage to entice buyers. Genius.
We arrive to a small lancha. Unaware, at the time, that we had to even take a boat! After 10 minutes of salt water spray, we docked at a small village and our home for the night.
Alexander’s Hostel is as basic as you can get. Small wooden cabins surround the sandy perimeter, a Wayuu home transformed into the adventure backpackers dream. Colourful hammocks and chinchilas (bigger hammocks with a built in cover, specific to this area) flap in the wind, the smell of fresh fish and lobster fills the air. Dogs roam in the heat, and the large family working. Always working.
We drop our bags and jump in yet another 4×4. It’s only 10am. We head to the most northern point in South America. We can’t quite put our finger on why, but this was magical. There’s nothing to do, very little to see, and not even the best photo opp location. But it’s special. It’s the first time I’ve stood on a coast staring at the blue angry wrath of the Caribbean sea and thought, ‘I’m on the edge of the world’.
We then head to the beach. Delighted to finally take a dip, since it was too dark to swim in Cabo. Driving towards a large sand dune, it took me a minute to realise what was going on. ‘Where’s the sea?’ I thought scanning the desert that shared it’s space with nothing but the piercing blue sky.
Following Luke, Bert, Pedro and Maria ( French, German and Italian backpackers, and now dear friends that we met at Cuatro Vias) we trekked up the never ending dune to be welcomed by the salt air. At the foot of the dune was the most beautiful beach, in serious need of some human activity.
Spending two hours here. Splitting our time between swimming, sunbathing and acting five again; racing and rolling down the sandy hills, we got creative with the camera (or at least tried to) and just had some good aul plain fun.
Leaving what felt like our secret beach paradise we headed home, salty, sandy, hot and hungry.
After this, there’s another (optional) tour to take a boat up the river and visit the pool of balancing flamingos. We didn’t go for it as we knew we’d have the opportunity to visit in Bolivia. Pedro went on his lonesome, and said it was cool but to hold out for a better opportunity, one where you might get closer. He said the tour then brought them to a beach to watch the sunset, this is where he fell asleep, completely missing the dusk to night transition, providing a funny story for us at dinner.
At Hostel Alexandra they don’t let you use the kitchen, unless you can convince them otherwise. Thankfully we had lunch with us (we tend to carry snacks around) and later, we splashed a whopping 10,000 (€3) on a goat dish.
Now, I’m a full blown carnivore, which does conflict with my love for animals. Hypocritical or not, I also like to try as much new food as I can. And even though I sat guiltily across from a herd of goats grazing the grasslands desert; it was delicious! Sorry veggie friends but I’ve no regrets.
We had one big sleepover, that saw us sucking the ceiling from 8pm. All exhausted after the days adventures, to wake the following morning at 7am, for the long journey home.
En route to Cuatro Vias, we stopped to visit the local attractions as Edglin promised. Beautiful sights to help us wake up and ease into the day, But slightly underwhelming after the previous days fun. But hey, it’s included in the price, so enjoy it.
We were dropped off at Cuatro Vias, our favourite crossroads where we guzzled on water, ate cheese arepas and jumped a bus back to Santa Marta.
Honestly, we had never planned to come here. It was way out of our daily budget and we were still debating a trip to Tyrona Park.
We chased the Cabo de la Vela experience because when and where else do you get to fly through the desert in a 4×4, to sleep in a hammock on the beach alongside an indigenous tribe.
Not to mention our money was going to the local community who rely so much on foreign visits. We threw our money at them. Such little spend to us, means so much to them.
At the time we said no to Punta Gallinas, knowing that we both wanted to go but content that we just won’t get to see and do it all.
Now, the very idea of not visiting this place is in itself a nightmare. Imagine missing out on a dream with the sandman.
Saying goodbye to the idea of Tayrona Park in favour of this was the best decision we’ve made to date. Still to this moment, we are extremely happy with our risk and decision to ‘splash out’.
If you’re in doubt about whether Punta Gallinas is worth the money, it is. It really, really is.
You’ll hear stories and you’ll see pictures, but there’s nothing quite like experiencing life here. It’s a “money CAN buy” dealy, yes, but like I said, there is something magical about being a spec in the Colombia desert.
A desert we had no idea even existed at one stage. It’s like a whole different country itself and although the way of life is far from luxury, it’ll have you scraping your chin from the floor.
Please, don’t even think about. In fact, as you read this we hope you’re decision has been made and we confirm it will be justified.
Now, stop reading and just go.