I had heard mixed reviews about the trip to the northernmost tip of south America, generally either five stars like at this blog or one star*, with few in between. So it was with a slight sense of defiance that our group of seven intrepid explorers set out on this journey to the end of the world, myself and Andy sharing the planning.
We caught a bus from the main road in Palomino and each paid $28.000 (around £6) to take the bus as far as Cuatro Vias (essentially a crossroads with some shops in the middle of nowhere). The journey only took about 2.5 hours and we cut out a stop in Riohacha by taking the bus from Palomino.
When we arrived at Cuatro Vias, we were taken to arrange onward transport by a man who was on the bus with us. We didn’t really want any help and it turns out the man was not actually telling us the truth… He took us over to a 4×4 and driver and told us that there were no collectivos heading North (there were).
The bumpy and dusty 4 hour drive from Cuatro Vias to Cabo de la Vela, via Uribia, cost us $30.000 (£7.75) each after I bartered with the driver.
The fact that the vehicle only had 3 wheels when we first saw it possibly should have been the biggest clue here but despite this we piled in. It didn’t really occur to any of us that it might have been worth waiting just in case another option came up! But as it happened, we all ended up in this sweltering vehicle that was falling apart and didn’t have air conditioning (like all of the other vehicles we came across!)
The journey to Uribia was partly on paved roads and partly on dirt track. We stopped in Uribia to get some cash out and buy some snacks for the journey. The cash machines didn’t all work and some had run out of money – best to bring the cash with you.
After Uribia there is a small stretch of road and then you hit the desert of the Guajira Peninsula. It is a beautiful place where tracks criss-cross like ant trails and you can go for miles without seeing another soul.
We stopped to have a look at the bizarre landscape of the Manaure Salt Flats. Nothing like the enormous Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia but marvellous nonetheless. We saw flamingoes on a tiny shallow lake and they looked as though they were a mirage.
When we neared Cabo de la Vela we caught sight of the Carribbean Sea with its beautiful aquamarine water. Our driver took us to his house on the beach and we had a nice time walking around on the sand revelling in our luck.
We agreed that we would keep our driver for our tour to Punta Gallinas and the tour of Cabo for the afternoon. We agreed to pay $150.000COP (£38) each, with 50% up front.
Then we carried on for another 15 minute drive, arriving in Cabo de la Vela ready for lunch. We ate at Mira Mar and the owner came out with a tray of fresh fish for us to choose from.
I selected the bright red snapper and then Mairead and I had a nice cuddle with a tiny puppy while we waited for food.
The wind was ever present and fierce, making this spot a world-class kite surfing location and we could see some incredible displays out in the bay. The strangest thing was an almost complete lack of waves in the bay. The wind was howling constantly from the south and the waves were tiny and almost silent.
After lunch we found some accommodation split over two properties – some of our group wanted a bed for the night, but Andy, myself and Alicia fancied hammocks.
We jumped back into our old banger vehicle and went to visit the main sites at Cabo.
First the a viewpoint over the Carribbean Sea.
Then the other side of the peninsula where the waves crash with violence and the wind sends the spray across the sand and rocks creating rainbows.
The guide caught the moment where we all got soaked by the spray but not all of us had reacted yet!
Next, we hiked up a hill to get a great view of the coastline.
And finally we walked up another hill to watch the sunset. There were really young children up at this sunset spot with a cooler full of Venezuelan beers, which they were selling for 50p, certainly smuggled over the nearby border.
We were dropped back in Cabo to find some dinner and I collected the puppy from earlier and took him with us. We discovered a fantastic juice bar and persuaded the man to open at 5am the next day so we could all get a smoothy before we left for Punta Gallinas!
I began feeling unwell so I couldn’t eat dinner but I enjoyed a nice night’s sleep in my hammock and woke feeling refreshed before dawn, ready for an early start.
Shortly after leaving Cabo, we entered an area with more defined paths and that’s when we began encountering the roadblocks which I had heard so much about in various blogs and reviews.
Essentially, the area is mainly populated with indigenous communities from minorities of the Arhuaco, Koguis, Wiwa tribes and about 8 families of the nomadic Wayuu tribe which live mainly on the Guajira Peninsula. Worryingly, the tourism to the area only brings benefits to the three Wayuu families which have cornered the market on hostels in this remote area.
In response, the children in particular, erect roadblocks to demand sweets from the passing cars. The roadblocks look reasonably substantial so it was nerve-wracking for me in the front seat when, on some occasions, the driver decided to throw the sweets out of the window and keep driving towards the barrier before it was lowered.
Most of the roadblocks are made from fairly study branches staked upright with a bike chain or cable strung between them. In general there is a child standing next to the road block with his or her hand out expectantly, ready to lower the barrier as soon as the occupants cough up some candy.
There were perhaps 30-40 roadblocks in operation the day that we passed through, though there were more unattended ones. They tended to be clustered together. Some of the later ones had a group of people nearby and they were selling cactus fruit or seafood mostly (in the baking heat of the desert, I’m not sure buying prawns is sensible…)
I struggle morally with the way things are. The local need support from the tourist industry in the area, agreed. But holding the passing cars to “ransom” for a piece of candy is just not the right way to go about it. It feels awful knowing that their diet could be utterly terrible and that we are directly contributing to health issues down the line in a poor community which can scarcely cope.
It’s not a cheap trip anyway by Colombian standards but it would be nice to see some way of sharing the wealth a bit more fairly.
We arrived in a tiny carpark next to a river and our driver explained that we had a little boat ride across the river to reach our accommodation, Hospedaje Alexandra. So we loaded our stuff and ourselves into the little boat and motored down the river for a few minutes until we could see some buildings atop a steep cliffs and some stairs leading steeply up towards them. Our boat navigated through some mangroves and then we moored up and ascended the stairs.
It was around breakfast time when we arrived and decided where we would sleep. Again, Andy, Alicia and I opted for hammocks, this time there were about 20 all strung up under an open-sided shelter.
We pre-ordered our lunch and dinner. I had read about having lobster here so I asked about it and they said they could get me lobster for $40.000 (£10) which I felt was enormously expensive compared to what I expected but I wanted the lobster! Everybody else ordered chicken pasta for $15.000.
We went out on a jeep excursion after breakfast to visit the major attractions of the area.
First stop was El Faro, the lighthouse which marks the northernmost point of South America where we all took turns to walk out over the wobbly sharp rocks to get as far north as possible. It was a dramatic place.
Then we visited a viewpoint high above a desert plain where the sea flows inland to create a calm lake but the air is baking hot and the wind heats you up more than the sun.
Our final stop before lunch was the piece de resistance. The place where the sand dunes meet the sea. It is incredible. The dunes tower up steeply and we had to climb up and over before we could glimpse the waves.
We spent about an hour and a half there in the waves and sitting on the sand trying to take in this bizarre landscape.
Then we went back to the hostel for lunch where Alicia was served the strangest fish I have ever seen. The teeth looked almost human! I just googled it now and perhaps it was a Pacu, which are found in South America, related to the piranha and known to have strangely human-like teeth. Well thank goodness for that as I thought we were going mad.
I sat in a hammock to read and siesta after lunch and then went for a walk at sunset to watch the fishermen bring in the days catch, where I met the fisherman’s daughter.
Dinner was served after dark and my plate turned heads!!! My dinner arrived with not one but two deliciously fresh lobster cooked to perfection and served with some light salad, rice and plantain. Spot on and worth every penny. The chicken pasta was absolutely horrendous because the chicken was bony and tough. So I’m so glad I ordered the lobster and it was definitely worth enquiring after as they didn’t list it as an option.
We were up at dawn to begin the journey back to civilization and it was beautiful and still.
It was my turn in the back being jolted around and hitting the ceiling.
Everything went off without a hitch until we reached Uribia and Andy tried to take cash out of an ATM. Three out of four machines were either empty or wouldn’t accept a foreign card so we were there for a WHILE. Like all the articles and blogs about this place say – take all the cash you need with you!
Juliette and I went back to Santa Marta as our bags were stored at Dreamer Hostel. A few of the others went to Palomino and then on to El Rio or Costeño as they had skipped that on the way. So that was the end of our journey to the end of the world.
Next and final stop in South America, for this trip, Cartagena!
*Note: interestingly the Trip Advisor reviews for trips to Cabo de la Vela in English tend to rate the trip lower and there are more positive Spanish reviews.