This is part one of our journey to Punta Gallinas. You can read part two, Punta Gallinas – Where the desert meets the ocean, here.
At the bottom of this page you will find a travel summary in case you would like to make your own visit to Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas.
Finding La Guajira
We heard about the desert of La Guajira right back at the start of our adventure, when we were still in Bogota. Despite all of the other things we did in the country, this place stuck in the back of our minds. La Guajira is a department of Colombia (similar to a county or state) that has an expanse of desert that hugs the coastline right up to the northernmost tip of the South American continent.
Almost two months later, when we arrived on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, we’d made up our minds to go to this strange place, where the desert meets the ocean. Most of the travellers we met had never heard of it, if they were travelling south from the coast (we travelled northwards) they had usually visited Santa Marta, Cartagena, Tayrona… but hadn’t strayed so far north as La Guajira.
We had found a handful of accounts online talking about visiting Punta Gallinas, the name for the northernmost point of the continent. A few days before we were set to leave Santa Marta, we met a couple of people who had managed to do it just the week before. They confirmed that the journey was as long winded as it sounded, but wasn’t difficult, and worth the effort required.
The journey would take several days to complete. On the first we would travel to Cabo de la Vela, a small, sandy town from which we could organise the rest of our journey. The following morning we would wake early and push on towards the edge of the continent where we would spend the night. The third and final day we would return once again to ‘civilisation’.
Our journey to Cabo de la Vela
Boosted by the accounts of the fellow travellers we met, off we set from Santa Marta early one morning. We left our big backpacks behind at the hostel, taking just the basics that we would need.
A taxi, a coach, a walk, a collectivo (shared taxi) and seven hours later we arrived in Uribia, the youngest municipiality in La Guajira. Rather than entering the city, the collectivo pulled up at a crossroads in the desert, just outside. The roads were lined with small shacks selling everything from water and toilet paper, to meals and gasoline.
It was here that we found a 4×4 that was headed to Cabo de Vela and where our journey really began.
Heading away from Uribia, it was clear just how much the landscape had changed compared to where we had begun our journey that morning. The desert spread out as far as we could make out, and the heat from the midday sun was intense.
The potholed road carried us on a little further, but soon we were off-roading, our large vehicle pushing on through the desert. The driver knew his way, but to us, everything looked the same as we swerved around the limited vegetation and past the odd ramshackle home.
Arriving into Cabo de la Vela
Our first welcome to Cabo de la Vela, the place where we would be calling home for the evening, came from the children. Wild and wonderful, their hair streamed out behind them as they ran through the desert. Cars held the possibility of sweet treats – drivers often throw candy through the window as they drive past – and the heat of the sun, and the dust from the sand, would not slow them from their mission.
In the odd place, the cars are brought to a full stop. Savvy children have built blockades in the road, and their fee must be paid in the form of sugar. The couple we were sharing the drive with had brought a bag of candy with them and an exchange was made. Once satisfied, the children allowed us continue.
Two hours after we had left Uribia’s cross roads, we rolled into the ‘town centre’ of Cabo de la Vela which sits by the side of the ocean. The high street was a wide dirt track, lined on both sides by a mixture of wooden, metal, or simple brick huts. These buildings were homes and businesses in one. A small shop sold the very basics, water, snacks, batteries, gasoline. A handful of others were family kitchens-turned-restaurants or tour companies. Nearly all of them have hammocks strung outside, welcoming tourists for the evening in exchange for a small fee. There is no hotel here, no Hilton or Travel Lodge to be seen.
Kai y Kashi – our ‘bed’ for the night
We stayed at Kai y Kashi, a basic building ‘complex’ owned by a large Wayuu family (no advance booking required!). It was comprised of a small kitchen/restaurant/living room, two small windowless bedrooms, an outhouse that had two toilets (manually flushed with a bucket), and four wooden cubicles with no roofs. These were the ‘shower rooms’, each had a bucket which you filled and used to clean yourself. The whole thing was sat on the beach, and a small sheltered area made the sleeping quarters where hammocks swayed in the breeze. This wasn’t just for the tourists, we spent the evening surrounded by the young adults of the family for whom there was no room in the tiny bedrooms.
Cabo de la Vela is a captivating place. A small gathering of buildings, it a community hub for the Wayuu people, an indigenous population who live in the La Guajira department. This is an area of extreme poverty, where people have very little, especially in the way of the ‘comforts’ that you and I are used to. On one side, they face the desert, the other the sea. It’s on this fine line that the people of Cabo de la Vela have made their home, at the mercy of the extreme elements that surround them.
Finding transport to Punta Gallinas
After a long day of travelling, we were fatigued and just wanted to rest. There was one job that we needed to do first, however. Cabo de la Vela is a sacred place to the Wayuu people, but it’s popularity to internationals is it’s proximity to the most northern tip of the continent. We had made our way to this small town independently, but from here we needed a tour to get to our final destination.
All of the locals seem to sell trips to Punta Gallinas. Overwhelmed by the language barrier, and after a lot of confusion, we decided to go with the family that we were spending the evening with. They told us that we would be picked up by jeep the next morning at 5am, and after a drive, would arrive at a boat that would take us the rest of the way. Through our online research we had heard the journey was much more comfortable to do entirely by road, but this wasn’t an option for the day we were there. We were told the price was 150,000 COP (around £40) each, this included all of the transport to Punta Gallinas and back, but we couldn’t understand if this included the tour that we had read about online. Tired, we decided to just wait and see what would happen. In addition to this price, we would need to pay for accommodation at the only place to stay in Punta Gallinas and any food and drink that we had there.
Settling in for the night
That settled, we sat in our hammocks and watched the sun set on the ocean. The sun was clothed in cloud, so the display wasn’t the fire that we’d witnessed earlier in our trip (such as in Cartagena or Minca). Instead, the tranquil waters changed slowly to meet the darkening shades of the sky, and as their colours mixed it became difficult to distinguish where one started and the other ended. It was a scene unlike anything either of us had ever witnessed, my words don’t do it justice. There we sat, in the remotest place we had ever been, surrounded by the quiet, just watching this subtle exchange of colour, until, without realising quite when it had happened, nightfall had descended.
The only break in this tranquility came from the family that we stayed with. Just as the sun began it’s descent, a number of them walked into the ocean, all fully clothed. Despite what to us may seem like a difficult way of life, family is everything here. From elders, to teenagers and babies, the family spent a short time in the waters of the sea, cooling themselves from the heat and the hardships of the day. It was a heartwarming scene to see, as they splashed and quietly laughed amongst themselves.
In search of food, we walked along the quiet, darkened road of the town. We found a building where there seemed to be a very small congregation of locals and a couple of foreigners eating. Here we found seafood for Phil, and even a vegetarian option for me (everything Phil had…without the fish!).
With an early start ahead of us, we made our way to our hammocks and fell asleep to the sounds of the ocean.
Read part two of our journey, Punta Gallinas – Where the desert meets the ocean
Summary of travel directions from Santa Marta to Cabo de la Vela (heading to Punta Gallinas)
It is possible to book a fully organised tour all the way from Santa Marta to Punta Gallinas, but I honestly think that would spoil the experience! We would definitely suggest making your own way to Cabo de la Vela and then booking with one of the local drivers for the rest of the way.
The following directions might seem a little long winded, but they are fairly easy to follow, and for us the time went by quite quickly because the view from the vehicle was constantly changing.
Getting to Santa Marta’s Terminal de Transport As we knew we had a long way to travel, we decided to start our journey early in the morning. We ordered a taxi through our hostel to take us to Terminal de Transporte at 6.15am. The journey took around 15 minutes and cost us 6,000 COP. Be aware that our hostel was a little way out of central Santa Marta, and closer to the station, so it might take longer and cost slightly more for you.
Santa Marta to Riohacha (25,000 COP, 3hrs) Several bus companies go to Riohacha. We travelled with Expreso Brasilia for 25,000 COP each. We aren’t sure what the scheduled departure was, as we arrived we were taken straight to a bus and it left straight away at 6.55am. It took us three hours to get to Riohacha Terminal de Transporte.
Riohacha to Uribia (15,000 COP, 1.05 hrs) From the Terminal de Transport it’s about a 10 minute way to Cootraunidos, a small company who run collectivos (shared taxis) to Uribia. You can find them at Cl. 15 5-39, Riohacha. When we were there, the taxis were all private cars that could fit 4 passengers. There were already two people waiting, so we left as soon as we got in the car. This part of the journey cost us 15,000 COP each and took 1.05 hours.
Uribia to Cabo de la Vela (20,000 COP, 1.45 hrs) This is the most insane part of the journey, where you really feel as though you have entered the desert. It was a hot and bumpy journey that took 1.45 hours and cost us 20,000 per person. It took us a little longer than usual because our driver stopped for ten minutes to help a coach who had got stuck in the sand. Life lesson learnt – don’t take a coach into the desert. It’s annoying for everyone involved.
Cabo de la Vela to Punta Gallinas Once you arrive into Cabo de la Vela it’s really easy to organise a tour for the next day to Punta Gallinas. It seems like all the locals know how to organise this, and it should cost around 150,000 per person. This includes all of the transport to Punta Gallinas (sometimes it’s just car, sometimes it’s a mixture of car and boat – take waterproof bags for your electrical items!), and the return journey the following day. They will take you to the only place with accommodation (hammocks) in Punta Gallinas and after you arrive you will be taken on a tour including the most morthern point of the South American continent. Your 150,000 does not include your hammock, food and drink in Punta Gallinas so take some cash with you.
Return to Santa Marta After our stay in Punta Gallinas, we returned by boat to meet our driver in the same place. He took us all the way to Uribia for no extra cost (included in 150,000 COP). From here he helped us to get a collectivo to Riohacha, and from here the journey was the same as before, just in reverse.
Top tips for the journey
- Take lots of water and snacks. You are able to pick more up at the point of change in Uribia, if you run out.
- Take a range of notes so that you can pay with the right money. It just makes it all that little bit easier.
- If you haven’t already booked somewhere in Cabo de la Vela, don’t worry. The driver will drop you off somewhere with free hammocks (there is always something free). We were taken to Kai y Kashi.
- Take sweets for the children!
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