Described by Lonely Planet as ‘an immaculate collision of desert and sea that is the Caribbean coast’s most remarkable setting’, Punta Gallinas has been high up on my travel list for some time. If you have already visited the nearby cities of Cartagena and Santa Marta and are seeking something a bit more off the beaten track (excuse the cliché), the continent’s northernmost point is the perfect choice.
Located in the La Guajira region (northeast of Barranquilla, on the border with Venezuela), this area holds both an important historical and spiritual significance in the country. Throughout the colonial period it was inhabited by the indigenous Wayuu people who were never subjugated by the Spanish but, in fact, continually fought them off to successfully preserve their cultural heritage. ‘A region where you will see the sky painted colours you never imagined […] A mysterious land where the locals still live in harmony with the environment’ (Expotour) – time seems to stand still in this enchanting destination, disconnected from the hustle and bustle of modern city life.
We took a bus from Barranquilla to Riohacha (see below for journey times and price details) – a (comparatively) small city some 5 hours away, capital of La Guajira. The beaches here actually looked very inviting, free from the overzealous sellers you might find on Rodadero in Santa Marta. But as we were short on time, we continued straight to Uribia in a colectivo shared taxi before taking a 4×4 jeep to Cabo de la Vela.
The town of Uribia, dubbed ‘La capital indígena de Colombia’ on billboards as you approach it, has a buzzing food market. The (very) fresh animal carcasses lining the road were quite distracting as we tried to quickly negotiate the best price for our onward 4×4 journey, concerned my vegetarian friend was about to vomit from the smell. It seems to be in the middle of complete desert, this region being one of the poorest in the country with serious drought problems, which is why seeing so much meat available from freshly slaughtered livestock seemed rather odd. However, we quickly decided on a covered jeep with more space to escape the stifling heat, and headed onwards over the dirt tracks that led us to Cabo de la Vela.
While Cabo de la Vela is increasing in popularity with backpackers, it certainly has a long way to go before it’s overrun with tourists. There is a transcending sense of calm in this place and, save for a few kitesurfers (this is an excellent place to do it), we felt that we had the beaches completely to ourselves. The views really are spectacular and there are some nice walks (we went to the lighthouse), but the infrastructure is rather lacking. Obviously this is partly what gives the place its charm, having just a handful of hostels and shacks every few hundred metres, but after an hour of walking we were infinitely relieved to find a man with a cooler box who could give us a drink!
If you want to buy an authentic mochila bag or hammock, this is the place to do it. Wayuu women can be seen making a beautiful range of quality goods on the side of the road, at much better prices than those you may find in the big cities. Whilst there isn’t much in the way of tour guides, friendly stray dogs will happily accompany you to all of the best places. But beware of staying in hammocks on the beach – we were certainly grateful for the breeze, but the dogs barked aggressively all night long and we hardly slept. It really is pitch black here – when my friend and I got up to try and valiantly chase them away we couldn’t see them at all, which was quite disconcerting!
However, we were up early at 5am the next day to travel to Punta Gallinas. Due to some unexpected rainfall, we had to take a small boat for part of the journey (the choppy sea made the boat seem even smaller than it was!), which I can only describe as a journey not suitable for the faint-hearted. But you can usually take a jeep all the way which is faster, more comfortable and cheaper.
Arriving at Punta Gallinas, however, made it all worthwhile. As I stepped off the boat shivering with a numb backside and eyes stinging from the salt water, cursing under my breath about the 150,000 pesos we’d paid (“for this sh*t”), something strange happened – the sun came out to reveal a stunning, unique landscape that resembled a practically uncharted paradise. Once we managed to convince ourselves that we hadn’t died on the boat and that this was actually real, we slowly made our way up to the hostel to change into a dry set of clothes.
Asked if we were ready to start the ‘tour’, we were herded onto the back of a cattle truck. Still disorientated by the rather traumatising boat ride, it did cross my mind that this had all been a cover-up plan to take us back to the market in Uribia as the freshest new delivery of ‘livestock’.
The land is very bare in this area with little sign of life save for cacti and the occasional strikingly green bush – and a man riding a bicycle who, it appeared, only had one leg (a fact made very clear when our guide insisted on pointing it out every time he passed). But where the land meets the sea is spectacular. The highlight for me was definitely Playa Taroa – there is no feeling more liberating than running down sand dunes into the dazzling emerald ocean on what is widely regarded as Colombia’s #1 beach. I don’t think I’d ever seen such a brilliantly blue sky before which, contrasted with the almost tea-stained colour of the sand (excuse my shameless Britishness) and deep green sea, certainly isn’t done justice by my photos.
That night I slept like a log – with no stray dogs in sight and bright stars illuminating one of the clearest night skies I have ever seen. Before this trip I thought Parque Tayrona made me feel cut off from the rest of the world, but Punta Gallinas takes it to a whole new level. It truly does feel like you have arrived at the tip of an undiscovered continent.
Take a bus from Barranquilla to Riohacha (about 5 hours, Brasilia 30,000 pesos from Bolívar terminal).
Colectivo from Riohacha to Uribia (1h 30mins, 32,000 pesos between 4 people).
4×4 jeep from Uribia to Cabo de la Vela (1 hour 30 mins, 15,000 pesos p/p).
Tour from Cabo to Punta Gallinas (includes return travel by jeep then boat, 1 hour 30 mins and 2 hours, 150,000 pesos p/p).
These journeys may seem horrendous, but the beautiful landscapes make the time pass quickly!
I would recommend staying in Palomino for a night on the way back, to break up the journey.