To Paradise, Hell, and back again. Part 1: 24 hours to Paridise

Punta Gallinas in the La Guajira Penisular is the northernmost point of Colombia and South America. It is a desert wildscape, with sand dunes that tumble into the Caribbean Sea. La Guajira Penisular is neither Colombian nor Venezualian but inhabitied by the Wayuu. We didn’t have much more information about Punta, other than the place was stunning, there are flocks of flamingos and it is very difficult to get to. That ticks all my boxes, so we decided to go.

After the trek through the jungle to the Ciudad Peridida we decided that we wanted to avoid the two organsied tour operators that worked in Punta. This was to save money, for the love of independent travel, and in part, to avoid the possibilty of being stuck with more douchebags from the music and TV industry for half a week.

We had heard that the route to Punta Gallinas is not easy and consists of buses, collectivos, 4x4s, cars and possibly a boat, all depending what time of year it is. We started from Drop Bear Hostel in Santa Marta at 6am as one part of the journey had to be completed by 1pm. The Crystal Maze hour glass was started!

A taxi took us to Santa Marta Bus station where we got tickets with Superstar buses, the cheaper option, for a two hour journey to Riohacha. The bus was late and when it did finally arrive six other people pushed past us in a desperate struggle to get on the bus first. We figured that British queue etiquette has no place in Colombia and decided to take the every-man-for-himself approach next time. However, once on the bus it became clear why everyone was pushing. The bus company had overbooked the seats, leaving Anthony and Fran without. They were ushered to the front of the bus to sit in the reserve drivers seat and a small poof on the floor. Five minutes later Anthony came back down the bus smuggly saying “Wake me when we get there, I get a bed in the back!”.

The driver was typical of bus drivers in South America and drove at great speed, embracing the danger of overtaking other vehicles on blind corners. He almost crashed into a stationary vehiclel at one point, nearly sending Fran through the windscreen. Anthony later told us that his “bed” was actuallty a half sized mattress in a cupboard at the back of the bus with only a dim light for sanity. Every time the bus slammed on the breaks the ill fitted mattress slid into the door of the cupboard, slamming Anthony against the door which flung open exposing his startled little face to the rest of the passengers. To recitfy this, Anthony constructed a door locking mechanism involving his day-pack and the pressure of his left leg.

An hour into the joureny we were stopped at one of the numerous police check points . A policeman collected the ID cards of the Colombians on the bus (which they must carry at all times) and asked where we were heading to. When the policeman reached Anthony`s cupboard he tried to open it, but Anthony resisted with his door locking mechanism unaware that it was the police. After a struggle, the policeman managed to force the cupboard door open revealing a startled Anthony lying in a crumpled mess. The policeman looked at him and without saying a word closed the door again. The policeman probably thought Anthony was a spare driver, not a British tourist subjected to the spare cupboard due to overbooking.

After two or so hours we arrived in Riohacha which was our last destination to withdraw cash before the desert as there are no ATMs beyond this point. Typically, Natwest`s fraud team had barred Anthony`s card. This is the fourth time they have blocked the card in Colombia, despite us telling Natwest on numerous occassions that we are in Colombia traveling. It was 11am by this point and we still had a 1-2 hour journey to Uribia to get a collectivo before 1pm. After much frustration, Anthony finally got through to his friends at the fraud team while at the bus station and they unbarred his card.

In the mean time, Fran, Claire and I were trying to negotiate a car to Uribia, as no buses go there. A bus conductor we were talking to pulled out a scrap of paper from a wad of cards he had in his pocket that had a name and number written on it. This is the guy who would take us to Uribia. Five minuets later our driver had arrived and was waiting.

Our driver, a friendly, chatty man with a thick Guajira accent, drove a silver Toyota Avensis and causually pushed it to 130 KPH on the 80 KPM road to Uribia. He too was a fan of highspeed chicken and narrowly avoided a collision while overtaking a bus. I sat, wide-eyed and white knuckled while he just looked over and gave a knowing smile “Ahh the easily scared westerner”. Although terrified, his speed was greatly appricated as he knew as well as we did that the cut off for the ride to Cabo was 1pm, and time was almost up.

We arrived at Uribia with 15 minuets to spare, and our driver drove around the run-down-halfway town  known as Uribia to find us a 4×4 collectivo for the final leg of the day to Cabo de la Vale. The town was grimey, depressing and felt like a border town, which I suppose it is. The border to no roads and the wild desert. Our driver found us a ride for a good price and we said our goodbyes. As I stepped out of his Toyota and waded through the trash and scrapes of food littered across the road I had to step over a dead dog to get to the 4×4. This was not the kind of place you wanted to get stuck in. We piled into the back of the collectivo with three other adults and two children and quickly pulled out of dead dog town.

 

The “road” out of dead dog town consisted of packed sand and stones surrounded by an arid landscape of scrub and cacti. After 30 minutes it became clear why people only drive 4x4s in this area as the collectivo made a sharp left into the desert. We were then thrown about for the next hour or so as the 4×4 ambled through sand and rocks, and weaved around desert scrub and cacti.

Cabo was stunning (despite being told by an interesting Polish guy later that he thought there were better beaches in landlocked Poland). It is a one street village right on the beach. The houses which line one side of the street are all traditioanl Wayuu houses made from cacti. The beach side of the sand road was lined with hammock huts and the odd fishing boat. Cabo was traditionally a fishing village, but now most houses have been converted into guest houses and restaurants for tourists.

We quickly found our guest house, Hospitalerio Bonita, where we had four hammocks strung up in a semi fenced off area at the front of the property. From my hammock I could see the beach and sea and the warm sea breeze was funnelled onto my face, while drinking beer and letting the rest of the afternoon fade into night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following day Anthony and I woke early and took a stroll down the beach. We still needed to organise the final leg of our journey to Punta Gallinas, which was supposed to be the most difficult. We had read about people dropping out before making it to Punta. We decide to ask a local on a bike who told us (well the bits we understood) that a man down the road in El Rancho could help us. Once in El Rancho we were warmly greeted by Brian, and began to discuss logistics. From our limited Spanish we managed to negotiate transport there and back, a guide for the main sights, and two nights in Punta for 800,000 Colombia pesos for all of us, and that it would be cheaper if we found two more people. We decide to pay for the privilege of going without the risk of douchebags and enjoy the place with just us four. We spent the rest of the day chilling, ready for our 5am start the following day.

 

 

 

 

This didn`t help me persuade Anthony the water was safe…. 
 Sea Poo.

 

At 4.30 am the following day we got ready to leave the  hospitalerio. We waited outside for 30 mins for Brian but there was no sign of him. Two other cars stopped, but niether were our driver. Anthony and I decided to walk down to El Rancho and find out what was going on, but it was closed. On our return we saw Fran and Claire standing with a short man dressed in white. He had offered to take us to Punta in a boat, but despite the girls explaining to him that we were waiting for our driver he wouldn`t leave. After 10 minutes he returned to his boat and sailed off along with our hopes of reaching the mystical Punta Gallinas. Maybe this is why so many people don`t make it? But why would the driver not turn up, he stood to make a lot of money.

At 6.30am we spoke to one of the owners of our Hospitalerio who said he could arrange a boat for us to Punta that morning, or a car for more money the following day. He began to pressure us and was rude so we decided to leave it for the time being and confront Brian at El Rancho.

On arrival, we explained to Brian that our driver had not turned up. He looked confused and lead us through his hut and out to the beach at the back where he shouted “Hey-Zus! El mio Tio” (Jesus! He is my uncle). From the house next door came the short man in white with the boat. It suddenly dawned on us that Jesus was our driver, and our vehicle was a boat…..We made frantic apologies and explained that we hadn’t recognised him. Jesus was a very laid back Wayuu who had travelled the length of the Caribbean and didn`t seem to mind. He simply said “Listo?! Si? Vamos!!” And with that we were off in his little speed boat to collect our bags, our Fran and start the two hour boat journey to Punta. ALWAYS confirm your driver and mode of transport!

 

 

 

 

Our guide was called Jesus. Not sure who the cap was for. 


The boat journey to Punta was epic. For two hours the boat powered round the edge of the tip of country and continent. Anthony and Claire bore the brunt of the rough ride sitting in the middle of the boat. Every wave equalled the tiny boat flying up at the front taking Claire and Anthony with it. Neither could sit properly for days after. Fran, on the right hand side of the back of the boat kept her merino wool top on, unaware of how wet she was going to get, and looked like she had been hosed down by the end of the journey. The journey only got worse 30 minutes from the beach, where two different currents met in a raging battle of waves. Our boat was thrown about with us in it as it desperatly tried to fight through.

Once we had passed the roughest part of the journey we could see the first beach. A huge open plain of golden sand with no one in sight. Our boat pulled round the right of the beach down a small channel of calm sea that was lined with bright green mangroves and, behind these, burnt orange cliffs. There was a small entrance through the mangroves (passed the sinking boat) that lead to a tiny dock and steps up over the cliff. We pulled through, docked and carried our bags up the stairs to Hospitalerio Alexander, one of the only three places to stay in Punta, and possibly the only place accessible by boat.

 

 

 

 

Once there we wait a few hours for food (Wayuu typical that we have eaten for the past six meals of fried plantain, rice, eggs and salad) and spend the rest of the afternoon in our hammocks.

 

 

Sometime in the late afternoon (we have decided to ignore all timepieces while in the desert) our driver for the sand dunes arrives. This part of Punta is incredible. Dense cacti for as far as the eye can see, and then to the left the sea. After seeing the northernmost tip of South America and the mirador we head for the jewel of the excursion, the 60 meter sand dunes into the sea where we played for the next hour.


Emma, Drop Bear Hostel, Santa Marta, Colombia, 23rd January 2013


To find out what happened next, head here.

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