Having been to Ushuaia (arguably the southern-most city in the world), I felt that I should mark a milestone in my journey by visiting the most northern point of continental South America six months later.
I was already in Taganga, a charming fishing town on the Colombian Carribean coast, and I figured the journey would be pretty straight-forward and easy, and besides I'd likely never get the chance again, so why not? I was to discover, it was anything but easy, but it was definitely an adventure.
I left my hostal in Taganga at a bright and early 8am anticipating the long day of travel that lay ahead of me. I dragged my belongings along the unpaved Tagangan streets to the bus stop, and I boarded the blue bus bound for nearby Santa Marta (1600cop).
Santa Marta is very close to Taganga, but the bus terminal is quite a long way from town, so I was stuck on the bus for at least 45mins before we arrived at the terminal.
I then boarded a bus bound for Riohacha, a big city about 4hrs up the coast toward Cabo de la Vela. I think the company was called Brasilia (I've heard that it's wise to avoid the company Flamingo owing to the number of stops they make). The bus was comfy and spacious and I have no complaints. The cost was 25000cop.
The journey proceeded more or less without incideent, except we had a temporary breakdown for maybe 15-20mins, but the driver fixed whatever was wrong and off we went again.
Not a particularly scenic journey, but only 4hrs and you could even break it up further with a stopover in Palominio for the night, which I hear is very nice.
When I arrived in Riohacha, I told the driver I was heading to Cabo de la Vela and he told me to stay on until Cuatros Vias (crossroads).
He charged me an extra 5000cop for this trip and I think it took another 30-45mins perhaps.
Cuatros Vias is kind of an unofficial transit hub, consisting of a few food stalls and touts sitting around trying to sell onward travel and tours. I had some arepas con queso and a juice and then was approached by a guy trying to get me to come with him to Cabo de la Vela and take his tour to Punta Gallinas the next day. I had read online that 150,000cop was about the going rate for the Punta Gallinas tour, plus I'd have to pay for the transport from Cuatros Vias to Cabo de la Vela too. He wanted 180,000cop for both, but ideally I had wanted to wait until Cabo to decide. There were no other tourists at the crossroads however, and after waiting around for 2hrs his offer to leave now if I also signed up to his tour was too tempting. Eventually I agreed and off we went.
Annoyingly, about 15mins into the drive the got a call and went back to the crossroads to pick up some other tourists that had just arrived! Typical!
We went back and picked up some Argentinians and an American guy, then off we went again. The Argentinians were travelling with a baby and he was an artist who said he had been travelling around for the last 5 years - quite the alternative lifestyle!
In Urbia we stopped briefly to use an ATM and get snacks (30mins from Cuatros Vias perhaps). This was the last trace of civilization before we pushed offroad into the desert toward Cabo. The landscape was becoming increasingly more arid and full of cactuses. I was amazed how we could be only a few hours from the lush, verdant Tayrona park.
By this time the sun was setting, and it was going to be tight wether we got to Cabo before sunrise to see a few highlights the guide had promised that day, but then 'boom' we got a flat tyre and that was the end of that.
At least we got to see a nice sunset in the red desert.
Cabo really was a lot smaller than I was expecting and I was not expecting it to be big! It's basically a single dirt road with some shops for basic supplies and hospedajes. There is no running water, flushing toilets and all power was coming from a generator. I believe the supplies (inc beer) are brought in from Venezuela.
The Argentinians left us and I went to the hostal with the American guy, Ben. We managed to get a shared room for a fraction more than the hammock so went with that option. We were the only ones in the hostal, and before we went for a walk and bumped into a friend of Ben's we were wondering if we were the only gringos in town?? There certainly were not many anyway.
We enjoyed a great fish dinner at the hostal at any rate and later some Pain Perdu in a French-run hostal/restarant. I certainly wasn't expecting that out here.
After brushing my teeth with bottled water, I tried to get some sleep before the 5am wake-up call for the tour to Punta Gallinas. The heat certainly didn't help, but the main problem was at 2:30am I woke up with sharp, stabbing pains in my stomach. "Ugh the cerviche", I thought, as I suddenly remembered the food I had from the street-stand in Taganga the day before. Ironically the owner of the stand had made me pose for a photo with said cerviche for his Facebook page, so I had a mind to comment with what the aftermatch had been!
I spent the next 2 hours sat on the non-flushing toilet, without even knowing where the water and bucket was at that time of night, in the dark except for a headlamp, whilst staring at a cockroach on the wall and cursing the timing of this bout of food poisoning.
At this stage, I was even thinking of cancelling the tour as I had little desire to be trapped in a jeep through the desert whilst feeling like this, but the guide came at 4:30am to wake us up, and well off I went.
We were packed into a jeep (2 on the passenger, 4 in the back and the luggage in the boot) and we drove around Cabo de la Vela, doing odd jobs like getting Gasolina, talking to the drivers friends, delivering parcels - you know all the essential things they needed to wake us up at 4:30am to help them do! Grr. Then around 6am we finally began the journey to Punta Gallinas, the most northern point of South America.
It was certainly a bumpy offroad ride, esepcially with my stomach doing cartwheels and us squashed together, but it was about to get a lot bumpier. We came across another broken down jeep after maybe 30mins of travel. A Dutch couple and French/NZ guy explained they had broken down, but also spotted that we ourselves had yet another puncture that our driver hadn't even noticed this time. We sat around as the drivers swapped the tyre from the broken down car onto our car, and then 11 of us (!) squeezed into our jeep to continue the journey, 2 were even in the luggage area. Woohoo.
I couldn't quite believe my bad luck at this stage, 2 flats in 2 days, food poisoning, and I really felt every bump as my head bashed against the window or someone's elbow hit me once again. Haha. I had the skinny guide to one side of me, who clearly was used to the bumps because he managed to fall asleep on my shoulder, mouth agape, arm around me (for space reasons!). Wonderful.
The people who live in this part of the country are called the Wayuu. They are known to be quite aggressive and perhaps not the most fond of tourists or even other Colombians, and as we neared Punta Gallinas they would block the road with rope or chain seemingly every 10minutes. Usually it was just kids and the driver would rev his engine, honk his horn and shout at them in Wayuu and they'd quickly desist. I never really understand what the point was. Sometimes it seemed they just wanted to stop us to try and sell something, other times maybe a kind of toll fee for using the "road". It was quite odd.
The journey seemed to last forever and I had to stop to answer the call to nature several times. Luckily the Dutch couple had medicine, which seemed to help my stomach a lot, and the French/NZ guy brought toilet roll, so I was able to avail of the bush toilet!!
We eventually arrived around 5 hours after setting off, feeling like tenderized steak. We waited for the lancha to come and take us the very short distance across the lake/lagoon and finally we were at the hostal.
There are only 2 hostals to choose from and we went with Alexandria. There is literally no other infrastructure here except farms maybe, however I was amazed; it was actually much nicer and with more amenities than in Cabo. Since I was ill, I splurged on a private room and I had a fan, electricity, flushing toilet. I was in heaven.
Owing to being so delayed, there wasn't much time and we had missed breakfast, so off we went again, piled into a kind of minivan this time.
We first stopped at a Mirador (viewpoint) to take photos of a kind of flatlands, then went to the famous lighthouse that marks the most northern point, before finally the sand dunes. At the dunes we were able to swim in the sea and have a well-earned cool off after a killer morning. The waves were insanely strong through, so by swim I mean stand nearby the edge of the sea, get knocked off your feet and repeat!
We were back at the hostal early afternoon and after another amazing fish dinner I slept the entire afternoon.
The next day I felt much better, but the fun wasn't over yet. We were awoken at 7am for breakfast and told to go down for 8am to wait for the jeeps, but of course they were delayed 2 hrs. The journey back to Uribia was otherwise much smoother however. We were all perplexed at why they had once again squashed us tight into one jeep though when there had been so many jeeps waiting (were the others really full of cargo?).
The final hurdle was the taxi driver from Uribia to Cuatros Vias. The tour guide had only paid him for 2 people apparently and there were 4 of us. We'd all paid as part of our tour to be taken back to Cuatros Vias, so none of us were going to pay a cent more at this stage. I had the best Spanish of our group of gringos at this point, so found myself trying to argue with him, before we escaped on a passing Flamingo bus to Riohacha leaving him cursing us and threatening to call the police. I'm sorry if he genuinely hadn't been paid enough, but as I told him he needs to take this up with the tour guide in that case.
I was certainly relieved to get back to Riohacha. It had only been 2 days, but had felt like a lifetime given the way things had gone. I was exhausted.
It's the kind of place which definitely had me questioning was that really worth it? Just to see this lighthouse, some desert, goats and cactuses? But the journey, despite all the unpleasentness was something in itself and whilst not something I'll repeat, definitely something I'll remember vividly from my time in South America.