A Visit to Colombia’s La Guajira Peninsula
As things like these seem to, it started with a late night conversation.
It was a Friday night, my last weekend in Santa Marta. I had been saying goodbye as everyone does–late nights in Taganga dancing at Mirador that end on the La Brisa rooftop, swaying in the hammock, talking as the warm breeze blows. Two Dutch guys were discussing their plans–to leave for Punta Gallinas early the next morning.
Punta Gallinas was one of those places I’d toyed with the idea of visiting, though never realistically believed I’d visit. I expressed interest, they invited me to join.
The Guajira Peninsula makes up the most northern part of Colombia–and of South America. At the very end of this peninsula is Punta Gallinas. A remote, so-called “no mans land.” A place that is dry, hot and barren; inhabited only by lobsters, the tough Waynu people and their goats. A place unlike Colombia and Venezuela directly next door… a place where the desert meets the sea.
Lonely Planet makes it seem like Traveller Holyland ……….
Punta Gallinas is the kind of mystical place you read about in books…or see in movies…but rarely stumble upon in real life. Reaching this stunning wildscape, South America’s northernmost tip, isn’t exactly a skip down to the corner store, either. But those that make he effort will be rewarded with one of the most dazzling landscapes in South America, a sanctuary of solitude that equals travel Nirvana.
Miles of dusty desert, few roads, and a wet season that makes those roads uncrossable part of the year–this is not an easy place to reach. And I suppose there lies the appeal of visiting.
So around 3 AM, I agreed to join my new Dutch friends, if they could agree to wait an extra day to leave.
6 AM Sunday, after too few hours of sleep, I awoke in my normal pool of sweat, for the last time, early morning sun streaming through the tiny hole in the wall window in my employee loft. I was finally leaving, after 5 weeks in Santa Marta. I gathered my things and organized them in my pack, before heading downstairs to find the boys.
With nothing but a rough plan, our daypacks, and a desire for adventure, we grabbed a cab to the bus station. From there we hopped on a bus to Riohacha, but asked to get dropped off at the hectic, trash filled intersection at Quatro Vias. I used the three hour ride to Quatro Vias as a welcome opportunity to nap in the glorious airconditioning–my first in over 5 weeks. When we arrive in Quatro, we are immediately ushered into a covered pickup truck filled with barrels of water, bottles of oil, sacks of onions, Waynu women and children, and a couple Polish backpacker girls.
At this point, I notice the dramatic change in scenery–brown and orange soil spotted with cacti and livestock. The air–much drier and dustier.
We ride for nearly an hour until we reach a hectic little town called Uribia. This is to be our last stop in “civilization”–our last chance to use an ATM, and to buy water and supplies for a reasonable price. According to legend–which turns out to be true– beer is cheaper than water on the Guajira. We grab a large $2 lunch at a literal hole in the wall, pick up some water and snacks at a tienda, before catching the last 4X4 truck to Cabo de la Vela.
This ride is significantly longer, and bumpier than the last. We are crammed into the back of another pickup loaded with supplies. We are joined by the Polish girls, and two very drunk Colombian men drinking Venezuelan beer–one of whom keeps inappropriately staring at the women on the truck and the other looks like he may vomit on us at any moment.
After 4 very uncomfortable hours we reach Cabo de la Vela–a remote, treeless Waynu fishing village made up of tiny houses which appear to be made of sticks, along a windy, wide open beach. We book the night at a guesthouse; $5 for a spot in a rustic room with dirt floors, hammocks, a communal bathroom with a sink and shower that produces water only sometimes. It’s perfect.
Next we must find a way to get to Punta Gallinas. We know of two options–we can get a boat to take us there directly or hire a driver with a 4X4 vehicle to take us on a tour of the area along the way.
First we cool off with a dip in the ocean, and take in the scenery. We watch as a local pro jumps, flips and plays on a surf board pulled by a kite–the dramatic wind makes Cabo an ideal spot for kitesurfing.
Next we grab a few Venezuelan beers at a small tienda. It’s here that we meet a friendly Colombian–who happens to speak perfect English. Our new friend offers to help us find a driver. He directs us to Paco the juice man. We meet Paco, but Paco directs us to the man who owns the bar at the edge of town. We head to his bar, which is actually just a fridge, some empty crates and a long bench. This man offers to take us for $400,000 pesos (around US $200) a day. This seems pretty inline with the going rate. We agree, though we know we must talk the Polish girls and at least one other to join us in order to split the cost reasonably.
We head back to our guesthouse for a dinner of fish and coconut rice. It’s here we talk the Polish girls, along with a British girl, into joining us bright and early the following morning. We celebrate our success by drinking beer under the stars, before heading to our hammocks for a few hours of sleep.
Early the next morning after a breakfast of eggs, arepas and rice we are picked up by our driver. The six of us crowd into an SUV and settle in for another 3+ hour ride, even bumpier than the last…
As we make our way down nearly non-existant roads, every now and then we see random a Waynu man on a bike, who comes from nowhere and appears to be heading to nowhere. As we travel farther into the Guajira, we arrive at a road block–a chain running from a cactus on one side to one on the other. Traditionally in Colombia, road blocks such as these are reason to sweat. We slow to a stop as a gang of children appears. We were warned of these candy bandits–luckily we picked up some cookies in Uribia. A particularly scruffy little boy approaches the passenger side window. We hand over a few mini packs of cookies. The boy looks satisfied and scurries away. A little girl removes the chain and we pass.
This is adorable the first time. The third and forth time–not so much.
We drive until we reach our first major stop–which at first appears to be just sand dunes. As we climb we see the dunes drop into the wild shoreline. We run over the dunes and into the sea, rinsing our dirty, dusty bodies; finding relief from the heat.
We reach Punta Gallinas in time for a lunch of lobster or fish, sweet coconut rice and mashed plantains; we wash it down with Venezuelan beer.
Our driver takes us to one more beach before we watch the sunset by the open-air, corrugated metal roof dwellings that house the hammocks in which we will sleep. We dine on more lobster and fish, and more Venezuelan beer, and chat and laugh until the generators turn off around 11 pm and we are left in total darkness. Several days exhaustion weighing heavily on me, I head to my comfy hand woven hammock and fall asleep to the sound of the blowing wind, no light but from the stars.
I awaken minutes after sunrise. I find my companions lined up on the dusty ground, watching the sky. They claim they’ve seen one of the best sunrises of their trip–and I’ve missed this by seconds.
Unfortunately after waking we only have a few hours to enjoy Punta Gallinas as the ride back to “civilization” is over 6 hours of rough roads long. Some of us wander around, snapping pictures or sitting on the bench overlooking the sea; others lounge in the hammocks. When the time comes, we load back into the SUV and make our way to Riohacha where we must catch buses back to Santa Marta or Cartagena.
Looking back on Lonely Planet’s claims regarding the end of the Guajira Peninsula, I have mixed feelings. I’m definitely happy I made the trip. Punta Gallinas has a special feel to it–so removed from the rest of Colombia, and the rest of the world. I feel lucky to have experienced a place so little people travel to. However– and I could have been jaded after 4 months of spectacular South American scenery–I was left with a slightly anticlimactic aftertaste. With such a long journey, I suppose I needed to stay and soak up the peaceful isolation a bit longer. Or maybe it was that sunset I missed …