From heat to more heat
After our brief stop off in tiny Palamino, great fun on the lazy river and enough UVA, B and C to last us a lifetime, we headed further east on the Caribbean coast to the department of Guajira, the region closest to/on the border with Venezuela, the most corrupt and poorest of all Colombia. Why bother going? Because it’s beautiful that’s why!
To visit Guajira takes a little time and patience if you do it on your own. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper and more fun too. Most hostels in Santa Marta and along the whole of the Caribbean coast will recommend going through a tour company. Some even say it’s almost impossible to do it alone. NOT TRUE. Do it by yourself and you’ll discover the real Guajira.
From Palomino we took a bus to the city of Riohacha, the capital of the Guajira. For once our luck was in. When we arrived at the main road a small car with 4 belgium girls was about to leave with 2 spaces still left. Finally….no waiting around off we go, direction Riohacha. For the same price as the slow, local buses stopping at every village along the way we arrived in a record time of 2 hours and dropped at our hostel.
The heat was insufferable! Worst than Cartagena. We did arrive early afternoon but you could tell the desert wasn’t far!
Stay in Riohacha rather than Uribia
We decided to stay at a great, slightly over priced hostel (HAPPINESS HOSTEL) that was advertised just outside our hostel in Palomino. We decided to spend the night in the town because we calculated it would be almost impossible to get to our final destination after the journey we had already done in the morning. We could have completed the next stage and spend the night in Uribia, the last village before the big bad desert, but we’d been advised against it from friends and the locals. For the rest of the day we chilled out at the hostel. Personally i was hot and bothered and still burnt as a crisp so not carrying a heavy bag or being out in the sun was a blessing. We watched a DVD, made a few blog notes and then went to explore the town a litte later in the afternoon.
The town in a lot of areas was like a ghost town. Empty streets, all shutters and windows closed to try to help keep the interior as cool as possible from the never ending heat and humidity outside. There really isn’t much to see but it’s fine as a stop of to the desert. After 2/3 black outs in the town delaying our dinner in the restaurant we had an early night although managing to sleep in 98% humidity was difficult.
Back on the road – well if you’d call that a road?!
The next morning we were picked up by a random guy and taken to the combi taxi rank near the bus station, avoiding a 30 minute walk with our backs on our back. Not soon after we were transfered to another car and headed for 2 hours in the direction of Uribia. The roads were straight with absolutely nothing eitherside except the occasional goat. We sped at around 130kmh in a Renault 9! We were even given a tour of the village of Uribia, dropping the two other passengers along the way. Let’s just say we were glad we stayed in Riohacha. At 7am we were ready for the next stage, a 4×4 to Cabo de la Vela. Initially we were taken to the offices of the usual taxis to Cabo. We sat in a box size room for over an hour until a vehicle came to pick us up. We were happy to get going but it wasn’t for very long. Within 15 minutes and two tours of the village we arrived at the famous cross roads on the main road. North, Cabo de la Vela, south, Venezuala and Rioacha, east, Uribia and west, who knows. It was here the 4 x 4 jeep stopped and it was here we stayed a couple of hours until a minimum of 8 people were on board. Normally this wouldn’t have been that annoying but when other tourists from the same hostel, who got up 1 to 2 hours after us start arriving and getting on the same 4 x 4, we were pretty gutted.
Abs and bums of steel
Eventually we got going and the desert opened up in front of our eyes! The first hour we travelled along a dead straight road (gravel road) at 100kmh in a banged up Toyota. The wind was smashing into our faces so much we had to put sunnies on and ear plugs in and then we paused for a little stop to change the tyre – although the flat tyre was probably more safe than the new tyre. For the last 30 minutes we turned off the main gravel road and went off road through barron desert and past tiny mud huts where families of 6 were living with no access to fresh water, electricity, or sanitiary facilities.
By now the 4 x 4 was fully laden with locals and we finally arrived at the very simple village of Cabo de la Vela lost in the north east of Colombia and located on the side of a gigantic lagoon belonging to the Caribbean sea. The wind blows continuously off the land and is a kitesurfing mecca and a small tourist hub for those wanting to explore Guajira. We wanted to do both.
Lost in the desert
For us we couldn’t imagine not staying more than a few days and not getting in the water and doing the things we both love the most. Kitesurfing. The wind increases and becomes more constant after midday which was perfect for the next day. We could explore a little of the village and surrounding desert and kitesurf all afternoon. The people living in Cabo and the desert are incredible. Living in such conditions and so isolated from anywhere and being able to adapt to cope with it all shows what tolerant people they are.
We got off the 4×4 on the main track in Cabo before the road disappeared into the desert. The village was made up of a mass of wooden huts and cabanas: kite schools, restaurants, hostels, family run hostels and small shops. We decided to go check out a hostel run by the friend of the the lovely lady who ran the hostel in Riohacha: the girl was lovely and warmly welcomed us, however some other guests who were leaving that day to another hostel complained there was constant music and partying. Not what we needed when sleeping in hammocks and tents! For us we wanted quietness and peace when living in the desert not partying and drunk locals. There was also a mouse infestation in the village. Very normal apparently, but it meant everything needed to be boxed up and nothing could be left around. It just sounded a little chaotic.
We were recommened by the german couple leaving the hostel to try out another down the road. It’s in the middle of nowhere but still on the water front. It’s peaceful and there are cats keeping the mice away! We left politely and walked about 15/20 minutes round the lagoon until we came to a set of small huts run by a german guy and his wife. No one was staying there. It was in a lot better state than those along the main street and the rental and accommodation was cheaper because we had a tent – of course being in the middle of the desert there was wifi too!
So other than kiting we also wanted to visit the northern most point of South America, Punta Gallinas, situated at the tip of Guajira and another 3-4 hours into the desert. Initially we wanted to stay overnight in the north but we decided to try the 1 day trip. It was cheaper and we would still do the same tour as anyone staying the night – We knew it would be an uncomfortable and marathon of a day. So once that was organised, and it definitely needs to be organised from somewhere in the village, we got settled in for a few days.
Desert exploration 1
The next morning after 0 sleep due to the humidity and lack of air in the tent, we got up early before the sun and headed out into the desert to le Pilon de Azucar or the sugar loaf in english, a beautiful view point sticking out into the ocean with a spectacular beach next to it. Normally you would get a moto taxi but being that much further out of the village already we chose to walk and reach it before the sun was high in the sky. We had gps and it was visible to see from miles aways. Obviously we were in the desert and we know deserts are hot places but others we had met had walked later in the morning so us leaving before the sun came up would be even better. We just made sure we were completely covered up and had sufficient water before we set out for the 8km one way walk. Immediately we couldn’t find the track we wanted, standard JM and Soph technique, but we aimed in the right direction. We just wanted to get on the right path asap so we didn’t waste time and cooler conditions walking around unnecessarily. We passed no one except a few goats and a few motorbikes. We arrived to one of the most beautiful beaches and coastline i have seen in Central and South America. We were all alone and appreciated every second.
We could have easily got a a moto taxi back but we enjoyed the stunning walk to the Sugar Loaf so took the same route back. It was exactly the same route and distance but it just felt a hell of a lot longer as the temperatures slowly increased. We made it though and were ready for some kitesurfing action.
We need water!!!!
Unfortunately high expectations ruined my experience in Cabo. We took to the water like ducks but were pretty surprised at how irregular and gusty the wind was. The kite gear was average but when you have the chance to kite who cares, however, being pulled around like a ragdoll and then having to work hard because the wind just dies on you made for a very frustrating and disappointing day. The spot is absolutely phenomenal, one of the best we have ever seen but that wind very inconsistant. Apparently some months are better than others! We were both in the water at the same time so unfortunately no action shots! Anyone wanting to learn = do it in Cabo. It’s paradise for beginners.
Desert exploration 2
To end the day and to take advantage of every second we wanted to see the romantic sunset from another view point along the coast. Again being the exercise freaks we are….NOT, we decided to walk it and by pass the tourist moto taxis and 4×4 waiting in the village to take anyone and everyone there. We took the scenic route. Half along the beach and half in the hills. 2 hours later, 30 knots of wind in the face and a cold beer in hand we watched a rather average sunset from the top of the cliff and admiring a lightening storm in the other direction. The moment was still magical.
The marathon or all days!
The next morning at 5am after another night of 0 sleep we began a marathon day trip for the tool trip team. 10 hours off-road in a 4×4 in the middle of a desert where everything looked the same. We came across the poorest most heart breaking scenes of poverty in our entire round the world trip but we also saw some of the most spectacular scenery.
The programme of the day: early morning drive to Hondita, the end of the road and the end of northern Colombia. We take a small boat across a small water inlet to another where we have breakfast before changing 4×4 and exploring the peninsula and 3 main spots of Northern Guajira: Le phare de Punta Gallinas, a panoramic 360 degree view point and the dune of Taroa which drops into the ocean. We then return to Hondita after lunch and take the 4×4 back to Cabo for 18:00. All of that with full power AC, a rally driver chauffeur and 1 CD of local music played over and over again for 8 hours! = A torture method.
The scenery was extreme, wild and something we have never seen before. The sunrise itself was stunning driving through an isolated desert. Unfortunately the lack of interest in stopping the car for us tourist to enjoy every second of the day didn’t allow us to take many photos of the surrounding beauty. It will stay in our heads for a very long time though. The road itself was non existant, it was just the knowledge of our driver that we drove over dunes, river beds, salt plains, etc. We couldn’t believe the driver never got lost, we’d never experienced anything like that before. We followed some tracks from the previous few cars and scooters but many had been washed away by the unsual, every 10 year downpour that they experience the day before our arrival. When we arrived in Hondita it was another spectacular landscape, turquoise waters, green mangroves, an enormous flock of flamingoes far off in the distant, and the most beautiful red coloured sand of the peninsula. Phenomenal.
If it wasnt for the horrible atmosphere and mafia style set up in the hostel where we were made to have breakfast and lunch the place and day would have been perfect. The owner of the hostel where nearly everyone is forced to stay, even though there are others was not the friendliest and customer service and food quality was the worst we had experienced. They definitely weren’t out of pocket or authority to order supplies. They knew exactly what they were doing and we were actually glad not to be giving them any more of our money by stay the night like everyone else did. Initially we worried we would be missing out interacting with the locals. The only locals that would have been fun to interact with would have been the goats and flamingoes nearby.
The rest of the visit was great. We had a lovely friendly driver and spent 3 hours discovering the northern most points. In a 4×4 with 3 miliion odd kilometers clocked we stopped at Punta Gallinas, the north most spot in South America. Extreme, windy and no one. My favourite type of spots. Just like we experienced in the south island of New Zealand. Nature at it’s best. As always there was a small panel with the latitude and longitude, perfect for our tourist photo!
After blowing the cobwebs away in the wind, we arrived to a spectacular view point, the perfect spot for an HDR photo and a view that we will never forget. It went on and on, desert, ocean, bays, plains, dunes, everything. It had a real wow factor. If only the wind quietened down and the sun wasn’t so strong i could have stayed there all day!
Taking some time to reflect
Our last stop of the day was the dune of Taroa where we could chill out and swim for an hour and a half. Enough time for the old driver to have a nap. To be honest we were a little disappointed by the size of the dune. It wasn’t that much bigger than the sugar loaf. We were expecting a Namibia style monster of a dune. The conditions in the area were again hostile. The waves washing up onshore were violent but once in the water much safer. We spent most of the time in the water because the sand was burning hot and we had just recovered from the Palomino sun burn we didn’t want it to happen again. This was potentially very likely considering there was not one bit of shade anywhere! Us along with 6 other felt totally isolated. We were 6 hours from any civilisation and 12 hours from the nearest town, we were standing in a desert and looking out to the Caribbean Sea. Times like these we can both close our eyes, wind in the hair and reminise on what has been the most incredible year of our lives. We feel like the luckiest people in the world!
Putting things into perspective
Ending our tour and returning to Cabo we did everything in reverse.We noticed more on the way back than heading out to Punta Gallinas the poverty in the region. It was actually quite a shock to us but we had been warned so we took water and some sweets to give out for the journey. On the way back to Cabo we gave away all of it and could have done it 20 fold. Families would block certain areas of the lost roads so cars would stop. They would either try to sell products or beg for money. In some cases the families maintain the roads and the driver almost always gave money to them as we passed. This would happen in the middle of nowhere. No water, no decent land to grow crops, hours from the ocean, hours from any civilsation, adults but mainly children would pop out from behind the bushes. No homes in sight. It really was a shock and eye opener and we were hugely embarassed to be chauffeured around in a big 4×4 when all they wanted was some water or food. What shocked us aswell was how heartless our driver was who at times was agressive and almost drove over the blockade made by a 5 year old little boy. I guess he sees it on a daily basis and knows what to do. Or may be he is just not a nice person which is what i’m going with. Times and experiences like this put our lives into perspective. Nothing that has made us upset or challenged us during our travels is as bad as how these local Colombians live and what they face everyday. What also shocks me is the difference between the rich and poor in Colombia. How much money is being pumped into the cities and tourist hot spots but not to their own people who actually need it. That would be politics of a developing country which we do not need to be going into right at this moment in time!
We would recommend to anyone to come to Guajira. It is an incredible experience and expedition one could say. Leaving the area however is not too difficult after a few days in the desert. Although it is out of this world it is extreme and exhausting and we were perfectly happy to move on. But definitely not in a bad way.
You must visit Guajira but you don’t need to stay too long.
We don’t have much time left in Colombia so we attempted to get back to Riohacha and jump on a night bus via Santa Martha all in one day. We took the regular 4×4 taxi pick up all the way back to Uribia, where we found another taxi at the cross roads which took us to the next cross roads where we picked up another combi taxi back to Riohacha. Taxi, taxi, taxi! Once in the town we walked to the bus stop, jumped on a bus to Santa Marta before taking a night bus to San Gil in the Santander region. The extreme sports capital of Colombia where the climate is cooler and where we are looking forward to maybe wearing a jumper for once!
BIG NOTE: Make sure you take lots of water, enough to cover your entire stay in the desert.