How to reach Punta Gallinas, the farthest north of South America. Don’t believe them, you CAN do it.
The fabled journey to Punta Gallinas, the most northern part of South America is not impossible without a package tour. But it’s tricky.
During our stay at Costeno Beach, a little known piece of paradise on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, we’d met a few people who’d attempted to reach Punta Gallinas, the mystical stronghold of the unconquerable Wayuu Tribe and the most remote part of the desert. Most had got as far as Cabo de la Vela and then turned back.
This is how we did it. (Scroll to the bottom for logistical details.)
It’s advisable to leave Costeno hostel at 5am. However it’s got such a relaxed vibe it’s hard to leave at all. We meant to stay for one night. 8am on day five saw us ready with our small pack laden for the adventure and two big bottles of water, our big packs kindly stowed by the Canadian brothers who set up Costeno. After 30 minutes of tramping, scattering lizards into the banana plantations lining the sandy lane, we stood at the edge of the road and flagged down a bus. (Have patience, small buses don’t go that far, the massive coaches are direct, you need something in between.) After a couple of hours we pulled up at Cuatro Vias, the crossroads beyond Riohacha lined with shanty restaurants, everything covered in dust. The air-conditioned ride had made us sleepy; suddenly we were thrust down the bus steps into a bobbing crowd of chattering faces all keen to grab our bags and take us onward. We followed one to his car and with another passenger from Bogota, we were on our way to Uribia. So far so good.
Uribia is normally a bustling desert town, but the day we arrived it was strike day. Plus we were a couple of hours late for the last transport up to Cabo de la Vela. We discovered this on our arrival, colourful shutters down tight, a few men playing dominoes in the street, stray dogs looking mournfully for their feed, their usual steady stream of discarded market food gone. But in the travelling game almost every seemingly disastrous turn of events leads to another experience or piece of luck. As we turned into the main square, a huge sandy affair of stumpy brick walls and lack lustre greenery, we were met with a vision of bare chest. Tanned bare chest – a westerner! A simple source of information. We never found out his name, but this Canadian chap gave us our passport to Punta Gallinas in one word: Daniel.
He also pointed us in the direction of a hotel for the night which had air-con! Nights tended to be rather sweaty affairs in the sheltered bay of Costeno.
The next morning we were up at five, proving that we can do early mornings though laughingly ironically, this early start was entirely unnecessary. We stumbled through the morning sunrays to the departure point, and finding a small pick up going to Cabo, we hopped in. Over the next five hours we had plenty of opportunity to observe the people of Uribia as we sat in our makeshift people carrier – see previous post.
At 11am a car pulled up from Riahacha and deposited Margot, Tom and George into our truck and our travels. Like Bronson and I, these three Brits didn’t have a clue how to make the journey. Armed with our one word, “Daniel”, we clung on to the metal grid roof and bumped the three hours to Cabo with two wizened Colombian men along for the ride and a mountain of soft drink and beer strapped to the roof.
After initial chitchat we fell silent, in went the earphones and we sped through the desolate landscapes each with our own soundtrack. The scrub gave way to ten-foot cacti sprouting from ochre dirt and then a vast space of flat empty sand. Far to the west lay a distant mountain range, to the east a strip of bright turquoise sea. There are no roads in the north of La Guajira, only tyre tracks which shift depending on the rains.
We pulled into the long, wide only street of Cabo de la Vela around three. Our man on the roof (there’s always a man on the roof) knew Daniel so us sticky five were deposited at Daniel’s doorway more than ready for some food and a cool-off swim. While our pargo fillets (red snapper) cooked, Bronson and I slipped off for a dip in the tranquil, turquoise sea. Some describe Cabo as paradise. While it’s peaceful and the beach stretches interminably, the sand is of granules rather than powder and the short alleyways joining the beach to the road can be littered. The road is lined on either side with basic huts and buildings offering hammocks, some rooms and food.
As our Canadian friend had told us, Daniel was the man to get us to Punta Gallinas. A return trip to Uribia including transport to sites of interest at Punta would be 150,000 pesos, not including food or accommodation. “Steep” we thought, and said. But for ten people, the price would plummet to 100,000 pesos. A recruitment drive was in order. After a bit of beach scouring we were up to 13. All well and good until Daniel explained that 13 would necessitate two vehicles bouncing the price up again. Hold your ground in these situations. Glamazon Margot explained to Daniel in no uncertain terms that this was simply not fair. And the price swung back down to 100.
8am saw us piled into two jeeps with locals, a baby and a black lab cross pup called Sasha. Back on the rutted road and into the land of the candy bandits. Little children stood like sentries guarding metal cords fixed across the road. Until they’ve been paid off with coins or sweets the metal barrier stays put. Some tried to sell us prawns from 5-gallon plastic tubs, sweating in the heat. Needless to say, we didn’t buy.
“Bronson, wake up!” On all sides of us lay milky aqua water, so serene and unexpected in the sandy desert. We stopped at the edge of the inlet, the jeeps disgorged us and we stomped through the shallows to a rickety boat. Five minutes later we were across and three metres above ground standing around the edges of a massive flatbed truck. This was to be our Punta Gallinas transport for the next 24 hours. Clinging to the rail, we whipped through the desert on our way to our fabled destination.
We arrived in the compound mid morning, decided on normal or Wayuu hammocks and settled in. Wayuu hammocks are beautiful, but the point is they’re made for the cooler nights. Large shawl like flaps hang down either side and at night, you wrap them around you so you’re cosily cocooned. It was the best night’s hammock sleep I ever had.
“It’s not the destination, it’s the getting there,” right? Wrong. Though the journey was a memorable and spectacular eye-opener, it’s difficult to put into words the awe-filling emotion and childlike joy of Taroa Beach. Our cattle truck parked at the base of an enormous sand dune. At the hint of a beach I get excited anyway, so I was the first to kick off my flip flops and run up the slope. At the top I just stopped and gazed. The vista before me was otherworldly. The coastline curved away on either side to touch the horizon with desert rock formations, but straight ahead, I couldn’t see the beach. The sand dune fell away so steeply to the sea, that the bottom was hidden. What was visible was simply a line dividing sand dune and ocean that moved as I took the first step forward. And then we ran, just hoping the slope didn’t drop into a cliff. Over the steepest section we plummeted down, rolling and pummelling the sand with our feet, nearly cartwheeling into the Caribbean sea beneath.
After leaping in the waves with our new friends – Margot, Tom and George plus two lovely Aussie girls, we stepped out for a walk along the beach and after a few more dips we climbed back up to the ridge: the sun was going down. Deserts are well known for having mind-blowing sunsets, but this one was off the scale. The swathes of colour swatched across the western sky are hard to describe. Bright pinks and oranges rose up to mauves and then a brilliant deep royal blue. The edges of this vision were mint green along the horizon and behind us lay heavy billows of violet and slate blue with touches of pink echoed at cloud lines. But the best part was when we thought it was all over. It got darker and duller when suddenly the sky transformed to a deep orange. This colour permeated everything. It made the air almost tangible the colour of luminous marmalade. The sand took on a dark orange/pink hue. The sea turned purple. We took a hundred photographs, we held hands, we watched and felt very lucky to be standing at the tip of this amazing continent in a magical moment.
Supper of goat or fish, ordered at lunchtime was ready for us when we arrived back an hour later. Early the next morning we set off for Costeno again, managing the entire reverse journey in one day.
Local bus from Santa Marta to Costeno – 5,000 pesos
Local bus from Costeno to Cuatro Vias – 19,000
Taxi from Cuatro Vias to Uribia – 6,000
Pick up truck from Uribia to Cabo de la Vela – 12-15,000
Transport (jeep, boat and large stand up cattle truck) from Cabo de la Vela to Punta Gallinas return to Cabo or Uribia – 100,000 or 150,000 depending on whether you can muster a group of ten at Cabo.
Costeno Surf Hostel: Hammock – 15,000, Dorm bed – 30,000, Private room (no a/c or fan, en suite) – 80,000. Book in advance or risk being turned away. They are almost always full.
Uribia: Hotel Juyasirain: Private room (with a/c, en suite) – 60,000
Cabo de la Vela: Daniel’s place: Hammock – 5,000, Private room (with en suite of sorts) – 10,000 per person
Punta Gallinas: Normal hammock – 12-15,000, Wayuu hammock (recommended because it involves blanket flaps) – 18-20,000. Prices depend on how nice you are to the matriarch who runs the compound. We were quoted the higher prices, but billed the lower.
Buy a 2 litre water bottle in Santa Marta to fill up as you go. Unless you stay in Riohacha, nowhere sells big bottles and most of the time you can only get plastic bags of water.
Use a lot of insect repellent at Costeno.
The lights in Daniel’s cabins are two wires. Bend them to touch and the light is on, pull them apart to turn off.
Learn Spanish before you attempt this journey or find someone who speaks it!