Leaving the civilization behind us - Colombia Guajira Peninsula , Cabo de la Vela

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September 16th 2012
Published: October 5th 2012
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Getting off the grid even further & leaving the civilization behind us for well…not sure for how long actually, and that is very much part of any trip to the Guajira peninsula, the Wild Wild East of Colombia, you know when you go there but never when you might manage to come back!

This huge deserted area at the northern most point of South America is the land of the Wayuu tribe, fierce & proud, they are about the only people who manage to live in this remote part of the world, even the Spanish never manage to conquer this part of Colombia and this say little about just how isolated & difficult to access the place is…but as well how rewarding it is once you managed to get there… immaculate desert & its rainbow of colors, landscape that make you feel like you are in the heart of the far west, pristine beach, and sunrise that simply blow your mind.

Our first stop, Cabo de la Vela, a tiny fisherman village 180km northwest from Riohacha, how? Well, we are on our own so once more, going to do it local style !

Getting there, easier

said than done !

As usual when traveling into remote places, it starts with waiting along the road for an hypothetical bus to pass by…

9.00am, Palomino town - plenty of minibus passing by before turning around 10 meters from us and going into the opposite direction, that’s not going to help!

Around us the town is slowly waking up, army patrol are checking some of the houses for I am not too sure what, street dogs, occasional bicycle and even more occasional “taxi” (as in private cars used as taxi that are so rusted that it is nearly a miracle that these still work). Behind us a group of man is giving us a look time to time while playing with fierce laugh a domino game. A first large bus pass and stops when we wave at him, only to give an exorbitant price for the ride; back along the street & luckily enough less than 15mn later another one pull in; we are finally on our way after little more than 45mn waiting, not bad!

10.30am, somewhere along the Caribbean coast – we had initially planned to go to Riohacha where we would have to get a taxi for Uribie, but ended up following the recommendation of the driver assistant who offered for a small extra fee to drop us at “Quatro Vias”, a simple cross road on the way to Maicao, closer from Uribie, thus supposedly saving a bit of time and money. Around us, the vegetation is still quite lush although the closer we are getting from our first stop, the drier it is getting.

12.30, quatro vias – here we are after a 2 hours and half bus ride from Palomino (10’000COP), around us a few wooden stall and make shift houses, basically not much outside of the fact that this is one of the main cross road in the area with ahead of us Maicao (which is better to be avoided, not the safest place..) & Venezuela.

It seems that we were not the only one who ended up there as we met another foreign couple, perfect timing! Shortly after, we were on our way with to Uribie sharing a cab that looks in a better shape than the one we had seen in Palomino (7’000COP/pax). The one hour ride that
Beware, goats crossing !Beware, goats crossing !Beware, goats crossing !

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
followed on a straight paved road was pleasant. It basically runs alongside the train track that allows to bring the coal from the mines (some of the largest ones are located in this part of the country) to the sea side where it would be loaded into gigantic boat. Around us, the lush vegetation we were enjoying a few hours earlier has been replaced by arid steppe and the cows by donkeys & goats, the latest having an unfortunate tendency to cross the road without prior notice…

13.30, Uribe village – yet one more dusty village where one of the main activity seems to be the smuggling of gasoil from Venezuela to Colombia which is then sold in plastic jerrycan along the road, the only real gas station being closed. Cars and motorbike are spitting out dark smoke, that only says a lot about the quality of the smuggled gasoil but then with gasoil four times cheaper on the other side of the border and easy crossing for locals, no wonder this has become an important trade (some say that it is considered even more lucrative than the drug traficking...)

Mid day but already bars are
Playa del PillonPlaya del PillonPlaya del Pillon

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
getting busy with people drinking Polar (Venezuelan beer) as if it was water, and although we had found a taxi driver with a 4x4 car to bring us to Cabo for a reasonable rate (15’000COP/ pax - 1h30), it implies to wait for more passengers so we opted ourself for some Polar too. As usual being the only two foreigners seated at the terrace of a café tends to attract quite a bit of attention. Before we knew it, kids approached us for a little chat and then local man too, sharing good advices about roads and how to get to the next place after Cabo. And yes all of them, kids included, couldn’t believe that the bottle of water we had with us was actually filled with water and not the local aguardiente ("burning water" an anise-flavored liqueur derived from sugarcane), guess if we had been drinking what they thought it was, under Colombian scorching sun, we would never have made it to Cabo !

15.00, final leg of our journey to Cabo de la Vela – shopping done for the next few days, and a few beers later, our driver finally gave up on finding
Yet another stunning sunsetYet another stunning sunsetYet another stunning sunset

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
more people for Cabo.

Back to the road that runs along the train track for a little while and a turn later we were off the main road, going through an arid area where only thorny trees and cactus seem to grow, on and off a bumpy bright red dirt path. The deeper we went into this dust bowl the less vegetation we saw, until we crossed an expanse of sandy land bare of any living thing, winds was taking off and here we were driving though this unreal landscape with a mini sand storm taking off around us. Getting up close from the coast, we started to see some Wayuu, on foot in the middle of nowhere. Another turn and we were now driving on the beach, along the water, a very scenic “road” that is: the sun was starting to come down and it was literally a swarm of birds that were flying over, tirelessly swooping down the water in search for some dinner.

16.30, we finally made it to Cabo de la Vela! “Only” seven hours from Palomino, and the best part is that this was supposed to be the “easy” one to
Camping style on the beachCamping style on the beachCamping style on the beach

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
get to, the next one (upcoming blog) was to be even more challenging!

Settling in, camping by the beach style

Cabo de la Vela is not much more than a fisherman village along a sandy road, with on one side the caribean sea and on the other the desert. No running water and very little electricity so basically the next 24 hours was going to be bucket and torch light style.

Open cabanas (basically a simple dried palm make shift roof) are lined up along the beach, you can then either rent an hammock or camp if you have your own tent; we opted for the latest option and pick a place further down the village. The owner allowed us to use his kitchen and the bathroom bucket style, very basic but exactly what we needed.

Here again, seems that a puppy had elected his residence by our tent, well decided to guard the place, sweet!

The village in itself is not pretty as such, nor is the beach, both are quite basic and if you wish to swim well you might have to walk for quite a while in the water…

So what brought us there? Two things mostly, first Cabo is the “entry point” to reach Punta Gallinas, know as the northern most point of South America, and second it does have stunning sites if you are willing to walk a little or arrange for a car to take you there.

So after yet one more beautiful sundowner on the beach, it was time to make some arrangements for the coming days.

A cultural "introduction" to the Guajira – arranging for our trip to Punta Gallinas

A trip to Punta Gallinas isn’t cheap, and as it involves a private 4x4 car ride across the desert and then a three hours boat ride, the chances are that with two people only they wont go…

What else? Well, after lengthy discussions here and there, there seemed to be simply no alternatives, either you go through one local middle man who will arrange all transportation for you or you forget about it.

Keeping this in mind, we thought that our best bet was to try to find other foreign tourists willing to go too, so we headed to the main place where foreigners are staying while in
On the way to the PillonOn the way to the PillonOn the way to the Pillon

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
Cabo and before we knew it we were a group of seven persons ready to go the next day.

Not bad, especially knowing that there was only 11 foreigners in the entire town, two of them leaving first thing the next morning…

Thinking that based on the size of the group, we might secure a better rate, the next few hours were spent liaising with two different middle men, patience was by then becoming an art … between the mobile phone network which was down, one of the middle man (the one who had offered the best rate) who disappeared and the village that was quicker and quicker falling asleep although it was still early, we were all wondering whether we would finally make it or not…

After a while, I decided to walk back to the tent to get some dinner ready and although I was carrying a lamp, it was so dark that I managed not to spot our tent (everything looks alike at night…) and walked much further. If it hadn’t been for the street dogs rooming freely, guess it would have been just fine but as I turn around and start
Whiptail lizardWhiptail lizardWhiptail lizard

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
to walk back, some of them became really aggressive. Got quite a fright although I am normally not afraid of dogs, and when I finally reached our tent, I realized that the house (and its kitchen) was locked. 9PM and everyone was already sleeping…

Well, guess we would have a really large breakfast the next day! (bags were locked inside the house…).

As I made my way back to the bar where everyone was, I run into our second middle man (the one who had disappeared) and although I had never met him, the description I had of him seemed to match so I tried my luck and indeed it was him!

Our relief when he finally came to join us didn’t last long…The usual bargaining technique don’t seem to apply in the land of Wayuu as the minute he heard we had been speaking with another Wayuu whom he knew, he simply cut short the discussion and said that he could no longer provide his services and then left quite abruptly.

Guess, we had then no choice but to go through the first middle man, who had accepted to slightly reduce his fee
Crossing the desert to the PillonCrossing the desert to the PillonCrossing the desert to the Pillon

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
to 130’000 COP per person (instead of 150’000 COP)

Departure time was scheduled for 8.00am the next morning and as for us, we had decided to go for an early morning walk to the “Pillon of Azucar” where the rest of the group would join by car.

Not so bad after all…

Cabo might not have been great but the Pillon of Azucar…that was something!

Early morning wake up, breakfast on the beach and camping gears back in the bag, Cabo under the morning day light seems already a bit nicer than the day before.

Ahead of us, a one hour walk to the Pillon across the desert, that should be quite straightforward!

Left everything in the house of the owner and back on foot we were. From where we were, we could see the Pillon, a 100 meters hill pyramid shape located along the most famous beach of the area.

“Simply follow the road” well, easier said than done, as the dust path across the desert the owner was referring to, had so many junctions that we quickly gave up and just followed whichever path with tracks (didn’t want to
Virgen de FatimaVirgen de FatimaVirgen de Fatima

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
end up in a quick sand…) that seemed to go in the right direction.

Walking through this arid landscape was quite an experience in itself, alone in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by cactus and the occasional goats, it is hard not to enjoy the harshness of the land, its inimitable silence only broken by lizard quickly crossing the path or the change of colors as the sun was getting higher in the sky.

The closer we were actually getting to the Pillon, the more sandy the path was becoming, until the dusty soil was fully replaced by sand.

Not even 8am and we had the site for ourselves, and what a sight ! The pillon in itself is not impressive but the view you get from it is…

The coast is lined with steep sandy cliffs that take different shades of light yellow and rust orange before plunging into the sea. The land is so dry that these layers of rocks and sand are crumbling a little as if a giant earthquake had suddenly taken away part of it.

The moon shaped immaculate Pillon beach takes on an even
Flora is quickly summarized...Flora is quickly summarized...Flora is quickly summarized...

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
more intense shade of rust orange which makes it quite spectacular.

Behind this quite dramatic coast line, the desert is king, with yet more shades of colors from the green of the thorn trees belt to the white of its driest part made of salt and sand. Far way on the other side of the desert, the Carpintero Mountain range offers the perfect background for such a picturesque site.

The climb in itself on a very rocky path doesn’t take more than 15mn and at the top of the Pillon, a small statue of the Fatima Virgin, the patron saint of Cabo de la Vella, offers yet another colorful contrast.

Mirage or not mirage, that is the question...

8.30am already and still no sight of the car supposed to come pick us up with our new five travel companions so we waited for another hour. A few local tourists started to arrive to spend the day at the beach, as well as a hawker and another tourist who decided just like us to come on foot but still no sight of the car… Waited for a little while more and finally reluctantly we decided to walk
View over the desert from the PillonView over the desert from the PillonView over the desert from the Pillon

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
back to Cabo, not knowing what had happened, but quite certain that we wont make it to Punta Gallinas that day…

As we walk back, sticking to the path this time as we didn’t want to miss the group in case they would have taken a late start, the sun which was already high up was literally frying us.

No shadow whatsoever and although by then we both look like we had been coming straight from a Laurence of Arabia movie (as in we had covered our head as best as we could & were expecting to start having hallucinations anytime soon), I could feel that the sunstroke wasn’t far away. And that is when we heard the noise of a car engine… Never been so glad to see a car coming, especially when the hands waiving at us happened to be the one of our travel companions!

Forget about scheduling and sweat it out, these should have been the two best advices that anyone could have given us prior to our trip to the Guajira.

For more than two hours, the group had simply been waiting for the driver to show up, not knowing what was happening or whether he might show up at all; no excuses or explanations were given but by then no one really cared, the car was there and it was the most important!

So we continued to walk to the village while the group went for a quick glimpse at the Pillon, and half an hour later, we were finally on our way to Punta Gallinas, wondering whether Cabo de la Vela was an exception or the actual introduction to the Guajira…quickly found out that it was only an introduction, simply forget about planning and enjoy the ride!

More to come soon…

Travel Tips

Main one: patience, patience and in case of doubts more patience…

Transportation: Having returned via Riohacha (and thus tried the two ways to get to/from Uribe), it seems that the fastest route is to stop in Riohacha (most bus would stop first in Riohacha before heading to Quatro Vias and then Maicao) and then take a taxi to Uribe from there. Might cost a few euros more but it is faster which would leave you more time to find transportation to Cabo once in Uribe (make sure to get there before 1pm to secure it)

• Bus from Santa Marta from 3H30 to 5H approx as it depends of the bus company 15’000 COP (or Tayrona/ Palomino – from Palomino 7’000 COP)
• Taxi to Uribe 1H 13’000 COP/ pax
• 4x4 car to Cabo 1H30 15’000 COP/pax or cattle truck 12’000 COP (not worth the price difference but if no other options then it is still better than having to stay in Uribe)

Keep in mind that taxi and car, would most likely only leave once they are full so you might have to wait.

Accommodation: while in Cabo, hammocks (from 7’000 COP to 15’000 COP per night per pax), “camping ground” for a tent (5’000 COP to 7’000 COP per night per tent), private rooms are supposed to be available too in some Posada.

Food: best advice if you are ready to cook, bring some food with you, at least for the breakfast/ snacks as every single meal in Cabo can quickly become costly (a simple breakfast would cost around 6’000 COP / lunch & dinner starts at 15’000 COP and up) and would take

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
ages to get ready, and little is available in Cabo tiny grocery shops. Uribe is a good place to do the shopping as it has small tiendas with all basic items.

Must see: the playa del Pillon and the Pillon, definitely worth the walk (1H one way) or car ride (10’000 COP return)

Additional photos below
Photos: 27, Displayed: 27


Getting closer to the PillonGetting closer to the Pillon
Getting closer to the Pillon

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
Local fauna as we cross the desertLocal fauna as we cross the desert
Local fauna as we cross the desert

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
Playa del PillonPlaya del Pillon
Playa del Pillon

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
Enjoying the view from the PillonEnjoying the view from the Pillon
Enjoying the view from the Pillon

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia

8th October 2012

It's impressive how you can find travel destinations. Well written blog, nice pictures! Thanks for sharing.
8th October 2012

Thanks !
Thanks for your comment! And actually before coming to Colombia I had absolutely no idea about Guajira peninsula, nor was I planning to go and explore this part of Colombia... Until I met Edouard who kept talking about it with lots of enthusiasm and here we were ! Best trips are often the one that come out of the blue :-)
19th October 2012

Impressive post. thanks for sharing. if you need taxi in waverley contact us.

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