We were warned about the epic heat in the coastal deserts of the Guajira Peninsula heading to Cabo de la Vela and the most northerly point in all of South America. However, we couldn’t resist the pull of the ocean, (mostly) deserted beaches and the distinct culture of the local Wayuu people. Egged on by George and Teresa, whom we were traveling with after having successfully shared the cost and hassle of shipping our trucks together from Panama to Colombia, our two truck desert convoy headed northeast from Minca. Our journey included a slight wrong turn, destructively bad roads and wandering through criss-crossing desert tracks at night. In return we got beach camping, kiteboarding and the biggest grasshoppers we’ve ever seen.
Getting to the Guajira
We left Minca and drove 112 miles (181 km) to the small city of Riohacha. From there it’s another 110 miles (180 km) to Cabo de la Vela but our Garmin GPS told us there was a shorter route that followed the coast. We went for it only to have the “road” peter out near the outskirts of Riohacha, forcing us to backtrack to the highway.
We were heading toward the border with Venezuela and the closer we got the harder it was to find gas stations that actually had fuel. Instead, contraband fuel is sold by people on the side of the road who happily fill your tank with gas or diesel from large drums filtered through dirty t-shits into funnels. It’s real fuel and it’s a steal. We didn’t fully trust the quality of the roadside fuel so we finally found a station with fuel and got diesel for 6,500 COP which was at least 50 cents cheaper per gallon than in stations further away from the border.
We continued west then north to Uribia and the highway began a slow deterioration, getting worse the further north we drove. It finally became a “maintained” dusty dirt highway that seemed to be in place mainly for vehicles servicing a rail line built to transport coal through the region.
Finally we saw a sign that said “Cabo de la Vela 17 km”. However, by the time we reached the sign and the turn off toward the coast and the village of Cabo de la Vela it was getting dark. Worse, the turn off wasn’t really a road at all.
As the sun continued its inevitable setting, the four of us were faced with a criss-cross of rough tracks through the desert. It looked like a herd of drunk camels had recently stumbled home through the sand, leaving confounding and conflicting trails behind them. Which one would take us to Cabo was anyone’s guess. So we did what any reasonable overlanders would do: we turned to technology.
Our paper maps were all but useless because they had little or no information for the area and we were miles away from cellular service so Google Maps was of no use either. However, George had an app on his phone called Maps with Me. We’d never heard of it but he explained how it uses previously downloadable open-source country map and works well even without a cell or internet signal.
Though the “track” to Cabo de la Vela wasn’t exactly on the map, George was able to use the Maps with Me app and his GPS to guide us in the general direction of the village. Still, it took more than an hour to navigate the 10 miles (17 km) to Cabo and by the time we arrived it was well and truly dark and we were well and truly fans of Maps with Me which we’ve used ever since (thanks, George!).
We found the local owner of a string of empty, simple, three-sided beach huts and arranged to rent two of them (US$4 each per night, showers in a nearby bathroom were about US$1 and hammocks were available for an additional cost). We used one shelter as a camp kitchen for the four of us to share and we set our tent up in the other one. George and Teresa sleep in the pop up tent on top of their truck, so they were set. We parked our trucks next to our selected huts, set up camp in the dark and fell into bed already sandy and wind-blown.
Beach camping in Cabo de la Vela
At day break we got our first good look at our new temporary home. The fishing village of Cabo de la Vela used to consist of little more than a few beat up fishing boats, fences made from cactus, skinny dogs, herds of free range goats and a collection of traditional huts scattered among the desert beach scrub. All that still exists, but a recent attempt to attract more tourists has seen the construction of an optimistic number of simple guest houses (US$4 to US$16 per night) and basic restaurants and even a kiteboarding business (more on that later).
Despite the presence of massive concrete electrical line poles all along the sandy main street, power in Cabo is supplied by generators and most business turn them off at night. If you want the fan in your guesthouse room to work all night (and you do), be sure confirm the generator hours before you choose a room.
All in all, Cabo is still a kind of Mad Max set by the sea, all wind, heat, sand, monochrome colors and goats. Lots of goats, which are raised by the local autonomous indigenous group called the Wayuu. Why goats? Because nothing else can live in such a harsh environment. The place is like a tumbleweed factory with even more wild west flavor thanks to its proximity to the Venezuelan border.
Seeking shade in the Guajira
Now, we’ve been hot before. Really hot. But there’s something about the combination of wind and sun in the Guajira that makes you feel like your brain is boiling. For most of the three days we spent beach camping in Cabo de la Vela we were busy simply trying to stay in the shade by moving our camp chairs around in our rented beach shelters whenever the sun shifted, which was often. At certain points in the day we were all crowded together in the lone shady corner like vampires at high noon.
All of us except George, that is. He was busy. Very, very busy.
Kiteboarding in Cabo de la Vela
George is a passionate kiteboarder. So passionate that he’d been overlanding for months with not one kiteboard canopy in the back of his none-too-spacious Toyota Tacoma, but two. He was practically beside himself with excitement at the opportunity to use his gear and in conditions that, according to George, were world-class: consistent wind, not too choppy and almost no one else in the water.
Kiteboarding conditions in Cabo are so good that diehards from all over the world come here to kite. Recently, a kiteboarding shop and school called Kite Addict opened up in Cabo as well offering gear and instructors and everything.
George didn’t need any of that and he kited on his own for hours and hours and hours as we watched his blissed out antics from the precious shade of our three-sided beach hut facing the water.
The ways of the Wayuu
The Guajira is the domain of the indigenous Wayuu people who have their own language, their own dress and their own customs (including women who paint their faces black). They’re a distinct and very proud and independent culture within Colombia who number more than 140,000 and have autonomy in the Guajira region. They are tough and industrious and seem to be a product of their environment. In many ways they remind us of Tibetans, but more persistent when it comes time to sell handicrafts…
It was incredible to us that anyone, even the Wayuu, could live in the harsh conditions of the Guajira where some areas get only 11 inches (300 mm) of rain per year. Lately, things have gotten even harsher thanks to ongoing drought. First, hundreds of livestock died and more recently members of the Wayuu community have begun dying as well, including at least 15 children.
The World Food Programme recently warned of more drought-related deaths in the Guajira, particularly among children. As we write this the region is experiencing clashes between local residents and government officials whom they feel are not doing enough to help the communities through the drought which has officially been blamed on El Nino but some believe may also have links to the area’s lucrative coal mines. It remains a complicated and dangerous situation which some call a humanitarian disaster.
If you travel to the Guajira, bring as much of your own water as possible.
Despite our best intentions, we never made it to from Cabo to Punta Gallinas, the most northerly point in South America. The heat and multiple warnings about the crappy and confusing quality of the desert tracks that pass for roads from Cabo to Punta Gallinas deterred us. The idea of hours on even worse roads (the rough journey to Cabo had already snapped off one of our PIAA lights) and being told repeatedly that we’d have to take a guide with us were the final straws. Besides, George had more kiteboarding to do…
We did take a few short excursions including a drive to Playa del Pilón, a beautiful beach and viewpoint near Cabo, and El Faro a nearby lighthouse that’s a popular spot for watching sunset and checking out the biggest grasshoppers we’ve ever seen.
We never made it to the Los Flamingos Nature Sanctuary near Riohacha, but saw a few scattered flamingos and many roseate spoonbills in a small pond beside the railroad tracks.