Touring La Guajira: Punta Gallinas & Cabo de la Vela
This guest post is written by Harmony Difo, a Dreamer volunteer and Lonely Planet journalist. It is one article of a three piece series detailing first-person perspectives on activities in our region. We hope you enjoy!
Day 1: Riohacha, Uribia, A Desert Drive and a Starry Night in Cabo De La Vela
“Asi Asi Asi.” A popular song blares from the radio of The Dreamer shuttle van as it rumbles down the two-lane highway from Palomino to Riohacha. I am on the first day of a three day two night exploration of La Guajira, the mysterious, infrequently-visited desert located in the northernmost part of Colombia on the Caribbean Sea. I hear very little about this region of Colombia and am fully prepared to experience something completely new, different and extreme. Riohacha, the capital of La Guajira, is the most convenient hub from which to explore the wonders of this expansive desert and I feel a sense of excitement wash over me as we cross over into the city’s center.
Riohacha is a vibrant, well-built coastal city and I thoroughly enjoy the slow drive we take through its colorful streets, taking in every sight and sound. The driver pulls up to the front of the tour agency where I meet my official tour guide, Victor, pay the fee, and meet my other two fellow travelers -- a friendly couple from the Netherlands with a sunny disposition. We left the Dreamer at 6AM and drove directly to Riohacha without stopping so I haven’t had any breakfast and I wonder when I will have the chance to have some coffee.
The tour guide, Victor is supremely charming and funny. He has always has a new joke to share, a smile on his face, and a strange eagerness to give enthusiastic high-fives at random intervals. Knowing we haven’t had breakfast he leads us to an empanada stand less than a block away where I order one chicken and mushroom empanada and one chicken and chorizo empanada. It may sound like an exaggeration, but they are easily the most delicious empanadas I have ever encountered. The senora who owns the shop makes her empanadas with a light white sauce on the inside, almost like a latin version of a bechamel sauce, I will never forget them.
After our empanada breakfast we embark on our two-hour journey to Cabo De La Vela, stopping briefly in Uribia, the indigenous capital of Colombia. In Uribia we buy snacks and water to hand out to the local children of the Wayuu tribe -- the indigenous community that calls La Guajira home. I ask the guide why we are handing out water -- something that seems like a basic need to so many people -- and he gives us a rather disturbing reply. A series of brutal droughts have plagued the already bone-dry region with rain falling sometimes as little as twice in an entire year. It has created a water crisis of sorts with members of the Wayuu community sometimes having to walk over two hours to obtain water from government tankers. Otherwise, sadly, they are forced to drink oft-contaminated water from local wells that sometimes only deliver salty water from over-salinated pools. We bring water as a small gift for the children we see along the way, but also out of pure necessity. One container of water may be the difference between death and survival.
The drive from Uribia to Cabo De La Vela is absolutely magnificent. The desert landscape between the two locations brings a surge of extreme colors and visual stimulation. The sky is a deep dark blue in sharp contrast to the red clay, yellow sand, dark brown rocky cliffs, and sage-green brush and low trees. The roads through the desert are only lightly defined and I am grateful that our tour guide knows the paths well. The ground is so dry that the dust billows up behind us in plumes. We journey through two different sandstorms that create at times created a complete white-out and very low visibility. In the distance the sands move gracefully across the horizon like belly dancers. I am hypnotized.
We stop for a quick lunch at a small restaurant along the dusty road and find ourselves in Cabo De La Vela a short 45 minutes later -- a town unlike anywhere I will ever see again in my life. In Cabo, after checking into our lodging for the evening we cross the street to the turquoise water that lies less than 100 steps away. Everything in the small town is located directly on the edge of the water. The colors are exquisite, tawny tans and red clays of the earth are in perfect balance with the turquoise water of the bay. The color contrasts are magnificent.
Cabo De La Vela is known for its beauty, but also for its incredibly powerful gusts of desert wind, unencumbered by any trees or buildings for miles. It is, as a result, a mecca for kitesurfers and today I learn that some of the best in the world travel incredible distances to surf here. I look out into the bay, and see a few of them in the distance, kites bulging with the wind as they pull their surfers along the waves. Sometimes, in a dazzling display of talent, the surfers make tremendous flips into the sky on their boards, the wind keeping them upright and stable as they catapult through the sky. The wind here is as strong and confident as the surfers who ride it. This same wind is also a necessity because it feeds the windmills and turbines that power large swaths of La Guajira. For example, Cabo De La Vela is run entirely on generator. In our hostel electricity is limited and Wi-Fi is non-existent. Our host informs us that evening that electricity is only available from 6pm-10am everyday in accordance with the sun’s rhythms.
Our group spends the evening talking under Cabo De La Vela’s canopy of brilliant stars. The hostel is owned by a local Wayuu family and feels very much like home. There is no denying that the presence and traditions of the Wayuu infuse this entire area of the country with an unspoken, silent magic. We sleep in traditional “chinchorros,” special hammocks made by the Wayuu nation with a special yarn which is much thicker than that of a traditional hammock. It is much softer, wider and takes the artisans at least one month to complete each piece. They are both works of art and the perfect, cozy bed for sleeping outdoors under the stars. I fall asleep peaceful, content. I away the next day’s adventure to the shining jewel in the crown of La Guajira, Puntas Gallinas -- the magical place where the regions tallest sand dunes meet the sea.
Day 2: Punta Gallinas, The Final Frontier and a Wayuu Prayer
As we drive the two hours towards the furthest points of the Colombian desert to find Punta Gallinas, I feel as though I am reaching the final frontier, crossing into another dimension. After an hour’s drive from Cabo De La Vela, we stop for lunch in a small bay called Bahia Honda about 40 miles from the Venezuelan border. I hear a hollow howling from outside of the windows of the jeep, and when I open the window I encounter wind speeds I have never experienced on all of my travels. We are warned not to bring our hats outside the jeep because it is almost a guarantee that they will be ripped away by the wind and instantly cast into the sea.
The water of this bay is a unique sea-foam green color with turquoise notes and the water is calm, warm and swimmable. The restaurant is located in two small houses made out of a special kind of wood that I have never seen before. In Cabo De La Vela, our tour guide explains to us why we have not seen any cactus for miles around before reaching town. To my surprise, I discover that inside of a cactus there is a thick trunk of wood and the Wayuu use this wood to build their homes and fences. All of the surrounding cactus has been chopped down to build homes, schools and restaurants. I love hearing the haunting wild wind surrounding me in Bahia Honda. There are times that the wind blows so hard it forces me down the beach. I am in awe of its power, like two massive hands pushing me down the shore. I try to take a picture of myself on the beach. Looking at my image in the reverse camera I see a Medusa, my hair full of the wind standing on end, flying in every direction.
After lunch in Bahia Honda we drive to Pilon de Azucar (Sugar Loaf) a mountain that also serves as a sacred pilgrimage for the Wayuu. At just the point on the horizon where the jagged cliffs of the desert crash into the ocean, this small mountain rises up out of the landscape. It is a twenty minute hike to the top of the mountain and on my perilous ascent I send my best wishes and thanks to the Wayuu for generously sharing their beautiful home with me. It is so windy that I feel that I am only moments away from being picked up by a gust of wind and carelessly dropped hundreds of feet into the Caribbean below. At the top of the mountain is one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. The view is 100% panoramic and I can see for hundreds miles in every single direction. I am very far above the beach but can still see the clarity of the turquoise water below as it attacks the shore.
At the top of the Pilon is a small shrine built by the Wayuu and painted turquoise blue -- the same color as the churning water below me. I stand in front of it and pause. I do not know any Wayuu prayers, but I remember that our tour guide mentioned to us that the Wayuu do not speak in precise sentences like the romance languages. Rather, they speak in nuance and metaphor. For example, rather than saying to a beautiful woman, “You are beautiful...” they would say something more touching and metaphorical like, “The curves of your face look like the night sky...” So, as I stood at the shrine, unsuccessfully searching my brain for a prayer, a whispered quietly the best prayer I could think of in the moment and said three times, as slow as I could... “La Guajira, when I think of heaven -- it looks like you.”
Victor drives another 20 minutes through the desert where he encourages us to take a few pictures at a lighthouse and lookout point facing the sea. I am a bit confused as to why he has chosen this particular lighthouse for a visit until he mentions that we have reached the final frontier. He waves dramatically at the crashing waves. We have officially reached the northernmost point of South America. The entire tour cheers and after two days of pure visual overwhelm, we cheer -- we made it.
A short drive later, less than thirty minutes, Victor stops the car again and tells us with a twinkle in his eye, “We have now reached the Dunes of Taroa. We will spend two hours here, you can swim, relax, just be sure return to the car in two hours.” I look at him very confused as I neither saw, nor heard any water. Everything within my line of vision is completely dry, a sand genie moves slowly in the distance -- that is all. He then looks at me, points silently into the distance and says, “Over that hill.” I took off running. What is over the hill? All I see is sand and brush. As I begin to run faster and faster, my feet begin to sink into the sand more and more. The further up the hill I climb the softer the sand becomes until I reach the top and stop dead in my tracks. I almost fall to my knees. I feel my eyes water with sheer overwhelm.
The dunes are high as mountains with sand and heat weaving across their surfaces like snakes, the water crashes into dunes so forcefully and dramatically I think the earth should shake with their power, it is beautiful, almost more than my human eyes can bear. I began to run again, down the steep dune, feet sinking into the sand, faster and faster until I hit the water and dive into the current head first. The views in front and behind me are nothing short of spectacular. Blue-green expanses of the Caribbean in front, soft, towering sand dunes behind. To the right, a craggy landscape, covered in so many oddly shaped rocks and stones it looked like the surface of the moon. To the left, sharp cliffs of red clay with the waves cresting and crashing against the rocks.
I close my eyes, duck my head under water and let the ocean overtake me, let the desert overtake me. I surface, squint up into the desert sun, exhale and in this singular moment realize and say aloud, “This. This is La Guajira.”
Five Things to Bring On This Tour:
Sunglasses -- extremely important to protect your eyes from the sand.
Camera, Go-Pro, or Phone with camera
Five Must-See & Must-Photograph Moments & Locations:
The view from the top Pinol De Azucar
The view from the top of the Dunes of Taroa
Migrant desert goat herds
The kite surfers of Cabo De La Vela
The salt mines of Manaure Pescaditas