Swap clouds for clear skies, noise for silence and streets for sand at the northernmost point of South America
Pull out a map of the world, find South America, put a finger on the northernmost tip of Colombia – this is the Guajira Peninsula. At the very end, surrounded by the Caribbean Sea, lays Punta Gallinas (Cape Chicken) – dry, hot and seemingly barren – inhabited only by lobsters, spiky succulents, the tough indigenous Wayuu people and their goats. Punta Gallinas doesn’t resemble its home country or its neighbor Venezuela. It is a place where the desert meets the sea. Miles of arid plains and an unforgiving rainy season makes the already unkept roads impassable part of the year. Regardless of what month, this is not an easy place to reach and these days, only the most intrepid of travelers make it here.
The Lonely Planet Colombia guidebook paints the area out to be a traveler’s ‘holy land’: “Punta Gallinas is the kind of mystical place you read about in books…or see in movies…Those that make the effort will be rewarded with one of the most dazzling landscapes in South America, a sanctuary of solitude that equals travel Nirvana.”
While traveling in the area, it was an easy decision to join a few newly met friends from my hostel who were also heading to this isolated part of the world. A light daypack replaces my heavy bag, which, along with my valuables, I’ve left safely at my hotel in Santa Marta. Based on the advice of those who went before, we scribble a rough plan on notebook paper. This provides breadcrumbs to guide us on our way.
We catch a bus to the rugged city of Riohacha, mentioning to the driver we’re heading for Cabo de la Vela. He drops us at a hectic intersection just outside city limits. Here, men working at the bus stop usher us into a covered pickup truck filled with barrels of water, bottles of oil, sacks of onions, Wayuu women and children, and a couple of other backpackers.
The overfilled truck bobs and squeaks as it speeds over roads in various states of disrepair. At this point, the scenery begins its dramatic transformation. Any amount of tropical vegetation once visible, morphs into brown and orange soil spotted with cacti and livestock. Dry and dusty desert air replaces the suffocating humidity of the Caribbean. We’ve now entered an eco region referred to as xeric shrublands, characterized by prickly, leafless trees and succulents. Though this landscape seems harsh and unforgiving, it is home to surprisingly abundant flora and fauna.
Nearly an hour’s ride from Riohacha is Uribia, a hectic little town resembling a wild frontier outpost. According to travelers and locals, this is the last stop in “civilization,” the last chance to use an ATM and to buy water and supplies for a reasonable price. According to legend on the Guajira, beer is cheaper than water. Those venturing any further must stock up and catch a 4×4 truck to the remote fishing village of Cabo de la Vela. The next ride is significantly longer and bumpier than the last. Passengers are crammed into the back of another pickup loaded with supplies. And finally after four hours, we arrive.
Spanish explorers first set foot on this cape in 1499, making it, along with coastal Venezuela, the first place on South American mainland ever seen by European eyes. Gazing across Cabo de la Vela’s wide empty dirt roads, treeless red earth and rows of tiny houses made of sticks, lining a wide-open coast, the area appears untouched by time. In this part of the world, with limited internet and a budding tourism infrastructure, there’s little choice for accommodation. Most visitors opt for a USD5 shared room featuring rustic dirt floors, hammocks and a communal bathroom. People don’t visit these parts for luxury. In addition to adventure opportunities, miles of breezy, desolate beaches make Cabo a haven for kiteboarding fanatics. For those heading to the edge of the peninsula, this is merely a halfway point.
Now the real adventure begins – finding a way to Punta Gallinas. Two main options currently exist: catch a direct boat or hire a driver with an all-wheel drive vehicle. We quickly learn boats do not operate this time of year because of the dry season, so we’re left with the task of locating a truck and driver. It’s best to follow basic human instincts in these unconnected parts of the world, which can be tough after years of smartphones, Google Maps and high speed internet. We seek ‘Guajira water,’ and head to a local tienda (shop) for a few cold dollar beers. Here, we meet a friendly English- speaking Colombian man who offers his assistance. This begins an old-fashioned wild goose chase starting with “Paco, the juice man,” and ending with the bar owner on the edge of town, who offers to take us for a fair rate. Knowing he will earn far more chauffeuring a group of foreigners, our driver closes shop for a few days and picks us up early the next morning.
The ride to Punta Gallinas is a wild adventure, a living example of every cliché ever written and spoken claiming the “journey is the destination.” The roads on the peninsula are nearly indistinguishable from the barren land. We see nothing but the flat land surrounding us. A herd of horses run alongside our truck, a man on a motorbike trails behind. We see Wayuu people riding their bike across an endless horizon, seemingly coming from nowhere, pedaling to nowhere. The Wayuu people are descents of the Arawaks, a tough ethnic minority group who successfully drove away conquistadors during the Spanish Conquest, allowing their continued inhabitation. Today, the Wayuu are known for their matriarchal social structures and for their skillful weaving, evident in their high-quality handmade bags and hammocks.
Our driver stops for a quick stretch at the base of a large saline lagoon surrounded by mudflats. He points to wild American flamingos in the distance, balancing on stick legs and feeding on brine shrimp snatched up from the soupy mud.
Traveling farther into the Guajira, we arrive at a roadblock – a chain running from two cacti on both sides of the road. Traditionally in Colombia, roadblocks such as these are reason to fear – visions of drug cartels and armed thieves fill our heads. The driver slows to a stop while the passengers cautiously survey the surroundings as a gang of small Wayuu children appear from behind a patch of prickly trees. Candy Bandits! Luckily, we were warned of these young mobsters and had picked up some cookies in Uribia. A particularly scruffy boy approaches the passenger side window and our driver hands over a few treats. The boy looks satisfied and scurries away. A little girl removes the chain and the truck passes. We drive until the first major stop – La Duna. Here, mountains of golden yellow, silky sand cascade dramatically into the wild turquoise sea. We run and climb over the dunes and into the sea, rinsing our dusty bodies, basking in relief from the relentless heat.
All the traveling made us hungry. In Punta Gallinas, menu items are limited to lobster or the local catch of the day, and most opt for lobster. The novelty of an overflowing plate of minutes’ fresh lobster for around USD5 is too tempting to resist.
We spend the night in a Wayuu rancheria, or settlement, situated on the edge of the crumbly yellow coastline on a calm, green bay. These settlements, typical to the area and the Wayuu people, are made up of five or six structures for eating, sleeping, cooking and bathing. To better control their goat herds and prevent unwanted mixing, rancherias remain very isolated from the other communities in the area. The natives do not sleep on beds in the Guajira, so neither do we. Instead, carefully woven and vibrantly colored hammocks, called chinchorros, hang from simple, open-air, corrugated metal roof dwellings. The luxuriously soft and warm chinchorros make surprisingly cozy beds.
We sit on the cliffside near our accommodation and watch as the sun sets into the sea. No sounds but the wind, no distractions from modern technology. The only entertainment for the night is our lively conversation. After 11pm, the generators abruptly switch off and darkness falls on camp, leaving little choice but to sleep. We doze off to the lulling soundtrack of the blowing wind, under the bright, clear constellations above.
Because the dwellings have no true walls, the most pleasant alarm clock awakens us – the morning sky illuminated by a vibrant sunrise. Now we may choose to pay our driver another wad of cash and spend another day exploring isolation, or embark on the long ride back to the city. Running out of money, and far from the nearest ATM, we choose the latter. We leave with a feeling of gratitude that, in an increasingly connected world, these pockets of adventure and solitude still exist, and return to our big bags in Santa Marta.
If you’d like to visit Punta Gallinas, fly to northern Colombia and seek out the advice of fellow travelers in the know or friendly locals – telling you anymore would ruin the adventure. Emerson once wisely wrote: “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
BIO: A perpetual traveler, Lindsay Jubeck is constantly seeking out adventures in new corners of the world. Follow along on her blog www.lindsayleaps.com