Punta Gallinas: The Northernmost Point in South America

Welcome To ParadiseSeptember 18th to 20th 2014

I wake up without my alarm at 4:35 am tingling with the anticipation of getting somewhere I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get to.  Glad the electricity is still on until the 5 am sunrise I quickly pack my smaller bag, the bigger one’s been left behind in Santa Marta.  There’s a knock at the door at 4:52 and I answer quickly, my ride’s early.

“Dos minutos por favor.”  The friendly young man nods and I quickly cram the rest of my belongings into my bag, out on the road 60 seconds later and ready to go.  I climb into the front seat of a very modern looking tricked out SUV with Venezualan plates, quickly finding out that Gasoline, Beer and food aren’t the only thing smuggled across the turbulent border, stolen cars are a big hit too.

There’s a driver switch at the edge of town and then we start hurdling across the desert as the sun begins to rise off to our left.  the landscape is surreal cacti catching the bright hues of orange and pink as a huge ball of fire rises out of the abyss and into our sky, mercifully lighting our path as the driver seemed to think he didn’t need any light to navigate.

The speed he’s going on the rough roads leaves me stunned and very thankful we’re in such a modern car with good shocks and tires, even so my insides are rattling around freely, though there is something thrilling about it.  nocturnal hares dart out in front of us looking for a place to sleep and bleary eyed goats and shape look on at this goliath tearing through their world.  They seem unmoved and sometimes even require some loud honking before they will clear our path.

We reach the railroad tracks and make a left onto the only thing resembling a real road this far into the desert and now the speed really picks up as we continue along that path further and further from Uribia and civilization.  Eventually we cross the tracks and are back to the rutted untempered terrain of the Guajira desert.  About 20 minutes from the railroad crossing the ride suddenly gets rougher.  Eventually the driver stops and climbs out before telling me that we have a flat tire.

I get out and do what I can to help him in the preparation of changing a tire, fetching rocks and helping him get the spare tire out of the trunk.  My heart sinks though as this too has gone flat.  My young driver Miguel looks defeated and shrugs his shoulder.  He gets on his old style cellphone and talks some torrents into it, then we turn around and start heading back the way we’ve come.  I manage to understand that the current plan is for him to drive me back to Uribia by 10 am where another truck is headed to Punta Gallinas.  I feel discouraged but smile and decide it’ll be worth the journey.

Luckily, just after we cross back over the railroad, he pulls into a small collection of houses and finds a guy with an air compression tank.  After a lot of work we get the spare filled up, the broken one poorly patched and taken off and the newly functional spare put off.  45 minutes later were off again, tearing through the desert all over again.  I’d been foolish enough to think with one tire broken and a barely usable spare in back he’d take the road more carefully, as we wooshed through the desert faster than ever I realized the opposite was true.  I find myself just waiting for another flat and the end of my journey for the day.

A little past where wed first gotten to, we get to our first roadblock, basically a rope across the road tied to two wooden stumps and manned by child toll booth attendants.  They ask for candy or coins for the right of passage and I was well prepared, sadly my driver was out of patience and honked his way through.  I let him know I did have some candy but he shook his head and pointed at the clock in the car.  I don’t want to cause a fuss and decided it would have to wait for the way back.

The desert sprawls out in front of us and we zig zag across it, following loosely marked tire tracks in the sand, weaving through the brush life and randomly placed housing compounds for each Wayuu family.  Eventually we reach a point where I can see the Caribbean in the distance again and I figure we must be getting close.  I’m wrong.  We continue through the loosely defined roads along the coast for at least another 90 minutes, bypassing more toll booths which grow less and less frequent the further we go.

As we change one dirt track for another dirt track that looks exactly the same I realize just how simple it would be to get lost in this desert.  There’s no signage, if there ever was some the Wayuu people have torn it down to keep their land there own save for those willing to work to get there, whom they welcome warmly.

In the last few minutes of the drive we establish when I want to be picked up and all those details, then we pull up onto a beach directly where a small about is waiting, the driver having called ahead to warn of his arrival.  I shake my head in wonder realizing just how much technology, especially mobile phone technology has changed this world, even in it’s endless remote reaches.

As I climb out of the car I take in the full astonishing beauty of the scene, my organs slowly migrating back to their original places inside me.  The Turquoise blue of the Caribbean is unparalleled here, accented incredibly by the orange arid desert and lines of very green mangroves growing up and down the channel out of the later itself.  The boat driver smiles nervously and gives me the thumbs up as three other foreigners climb out of the mall wooden motor boat hauling their bags into the SUV that’s brought me here.  As I load my Osprey daypack into the surprisingly solid and dry wooden boat, ready to be whisked away to the rugged landscape that has been promised me by various travel blogs on the internet, the friendly young boatman starts a conversation, asking me where I’m from and why I chose to come so far north.  Spanish is clearly his second language but he manages with aplomb and by the end of the 5 minute boat ride were smiling and laughing with each other.

I climb through a minor maze of boats to the shore and up some rough hewn stairs to the hostel compound, settling in to a warm welcome of breakfast and meeting the 5 other visitors currently at the hostel.  A charming Italian couple, a very friendly Colombian Brother and sister from San Gil, and another Colombian girl from Cali.  These five are to be my family for the next few days and help me with my lacklustre spanish to arrange check in and other details.

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I’m presented with three sleeping choices, a standard hammock for 15,000 COP , a  Chinchorro which is a Wayuu hammock, somewhat bigger and handwoven including blanket flaps for 20,000 COP, or a Cabana which I did not get a price for but I suspect would be about 40,000 COP.  I choose a Chinchorro and then sit down for a spanish presentation about turtle conservation which is one of two major undertakings here in Punta Gallinas, the other being a UN clean water initiative.

I’m just too early for the hatching of the turtles sadly, but it is inspiring to hear about how the local communities have banded together to protect this incredible creatures, local children even helping the baby turtles make it to the water safely.

As the presentation comes to a close more and more local people are walking up to this terraced vista, sitting and talking an a language I can’t hope to understand.  More people than I’d believed could be so far removed from civilization show up and a meeting starts.  After some investigation we discover it is a debate regarding the turtle initiative and the water initiative and whether they should be merged.  They are laughing one moment, telling what seem like dirty jokes from the motions and then they are all listening2 to various people speaking passionately.  I just find myself wishing I could understand more of it

Breakfast  of two fried eggs and an arepa (approx 6000 COP)and the presentation both done and then leave most of my stuff in one of the empty cabanas and head out with two of the girls to a nearby beach in the truly scorching desert heat.  It’s only maybe a 25 minute walk from the hostel through a ramshackle of small houses and rough football pitches.  A few friendly locals look on nervously and wave back when waved to.

Despite the fact that there is some breeze I’m sweating by the time we make it to the beach and don’t hesitate in peeling my shirt off, emptying my pockets and plunging into the amazingly cool waters of the Caribbean.  The single moment where the cool water washes over my face, sweeping the suns rays off my skin and bringing it new life is utterly intoxicating, and I find myself only seeking to live in that moment again and again.

To that end I quickly find myself out of the water scared of the suns damaging rays on my pale white chest.  I put my shirt back on and wander toward one end of the beach where a large flock of Pelicans and other sea birds have made their temporary homes at the meeting point of rocks and sand.

They retreat quickly out to sea and watch me resentfully As I clamber over the rocks and look out at an unbelievably blue and orange vista, with cliffs and points breaking the endless blue in the distance beyond me.  The jagged rocks make me wish I’d though to bring my shoes must I make it far enough out to see around the corner and also take in hundreds more crabs who mostly scurry away before their souls can be captured by my camera.

I head back to the beach sweating again and relive that perfect moment of refreshment plunging back into the waters and relishing the temporary escape from the scorching desert sun.  After repeating the whole process again with the other side of the beach and savouring that moment of bliss int he waters again we decide to head back to the hostel for lunch.

By the time we reach the concrete shaded compounds where our hammocks are I’m wishing we never left the water.  Unfortunately my bed has yet to be put up so I lounge in the shade of the concrete floor and find that sweet spot between sleep and consciousness where reality and fantasy blends into one.

One of my new Italian friends brings me fully back to reality and making sure I didn’t miss the calls of “almuerzo.”

Together the 6 of us eat a hearty meal of fish or chicken, rice, plantains and basic salad (15,000 COP), glad to have the food inside us and quickly growing more and more excited for the upcoming tour around the area.  As we chat and eat slowly the time passes and finally an old cattle truck pulls up.  Our ride for the tour which costs 20,000 COP.

We climb in the wooden boxed back, all standing and all holding tight as our driver speeds off deeper into the desert and closer to the northernmost point in South America. It’s a bumpy but impressive ride as we careen through the desert waving to some of the locals who over the lunch hour slowly dispersed from our hostel/town hall back to their homes.

We spot a truly spectacular bird perched high atop a cactus and we pound on the top of the truck for the driver to stop so we can snap a photo.  Anyone know what kind of bird it is?

Proud Perch

We carry on returning to a view of the Caribbean, driving along roads marked only by lightly worn tire treads, until the driver stops again outside a small lighthouse of sorts. Behind the metal frame of the lighthouse is a small shack whose inside is graffitied but interesting.  A few stray donkeys graze on what they can get in the arid wasteland.  I hurry to the ocean first, standing at the edge of the rocks on the northernmost point  of the continent.  I return to the lighthouse to find my two Italian friends are quite good at climbing, one of them almost halfway up the lighthouse.

We climb back into our truck and head off further from the hostel on roads that just keep getting rougher and rougher. Both my fists are permanently clenched against the wooden fencing of the cattle truck, until my knuckles burn white.  Still, the wind in your face and the perfect views are worth the discomfort, especially as we round a bend in the road and stop at our second destination, a truly spectacular viewpoint, where the Caribbean stretches out in shallows towards the endless mud and sand below.  To our right is an old tiny local cemetery and I can’t help but think there’d be worse places to spend eternity.

Sadly we only have about 20 minutes here before being herded back into the cattle truck and were back on the roller coaster again, heading towards the most anticipated destination of all, the dunes.  Fabio, a friendly Colombian hostel owner in San Gil who is on vacation here for the second time tells me it is unlike anything else he has seen.

After a long rough ride, he’s proven right.  The truck pulls up and stops at the base of a huge orange hill, the sand built up in small waves and seemingly entirely untouched.  I cant help myself, jumping out of the truck and hurrying up to the crest of the hill wondering what awaits me.

As I reach the top I begin to laugh uncontrollably wondering one thing, how does this exist.  The thought is verbalized several times later in the day but in that moment I can’t hold back my laughter and cackle with joy as I look down on the golden sand plummeting sharply down all the way into the rolling see.  Francesco is up next and he too is laughing and smiling, not hesitating to run down the dunes at a break neck pace, plummeting into the water directly.

I take a few deep breath’s a smile still splitting my face in two, and follow suit, rushing down as fast as I dare, half stepping half jumping to get into that welcoming sea.  Once submerged I turn and look back up the dunes, shaking my head in puzzlement at the incredible various beauty’s I have been lucky enough to see so far in my endless explorations of this world.  Punta Gallinas is among the most dramatic and in fact it does feel almost separate from the world.  As I climb out of the water I have no doubts I will use this incredible setting in some form of fiction.

Though the dunes are steep I can’t help but run up them and try something else.  Lying down on my side, I let myself go and  start rolling, half terrified half exhilarated as my speed just keeps growing until any semblance of control is far out of reach.  I reach the bottom with a thud and crash into the shallow waves, trying and failing several times to regain my feet as the golden sand spins and swirls in my vision, the rolling waves stealing any fragment of equilibrium I have left.  People laugh from above as I stumble into the deeper water, rinsing my body of the warm sand that clings to my toasted skin.

A few more trips up and down follow, rolling, running, and jumping with reckless abandon.  A few of us stumble and fall but no one is hurt and everyone is laughing, and euphoric.

As the sun sinks in the sky, one by one we leave the sea behind and congregate on the top of the dunes, watching with only occasional murmurs of awe as the sun turns an orange a few shades brighter than the sand and the scorching ball of fire fades from our vision, sinking below the distant horizon.  We take photos for each other and smile as eventually our truck shows up again.  We climb back on board in the midnight blue light of dusk and take of for the longest ride yet, all the way back to the hostel.

The nocturnal hares emerge from their sleeping burrows and dart in front of our truck as the stars claim their kingdom in the sky, swirling and glowing brightly in the mercifully cooling desert night.  The rest of the ride home is a balancing act between holding on and looking up.  The stars glow in the ever deepening darkness o the desert where for a long time there’s not a single light to blot them out.  After a long and wondrous day we find ourselves back at the hostel where I climb into an astonishingly comfortable Chinchorro hammock and await the call for dinner. Lobster, freshly caught but pricey at 30,000 COP.  Still it’s delicious and worth every penny as we talk about plans for the next day and the rest of our respective trips together.

Eventually I wander away from the lit compound into the darkness and lose myself in the diamond swirls of the stars above for a brief half hour, music gently humming in my earphones as I forget the rest of the world and reside in the bliss to be found here so deep in the desert.  Then I head back and collapse into my hammock, sleeping soundly until sunrise at 5:30 or so in the morning.

The day starts early with the same breakfast as the day before and a few more hours of conversation.  Four of us decide we want to try to return to the viewpoint and hike down to the ocean below.  Our hopes are buoyed by the arrival of 3 spanish women who will be taking our tour from yesterday themselves.  We manage to negotiate a roundtrip ride to the viewpoint with them for 10,000 Cop.  The charming young Wayu woman who runs the hostel tells us we’re crazy since we’ll be out in the exposed sun from 11 am until 1:30 but we all have our hearts set on it and, after stocking up on water, for 2,000 COP per 600 ml bottle we head off with the spanish ladies, visiting the lighthouse again before coming to the viewpoint.

We spill out of the big van there using today and hurry down a very dried out riverbed to the mudflats which lead the the shallows of the Caribbean Sea.  We skid along the smooth wet mud, until we reach the water.  I’m forced to abandon my shoes before long, as they’ve tripled in weight thanks to the sticky mud.  We wade out into the shallows which continue hundreds of meters before mud under the knee deep water grows too treacherous to continue.  I had both legs sunk in to the knee at one point and most of us needed help escaping at least once.Muddy FeetDSCN7801

Heading back in to land we continue out towards the edge of the valley below the desert cliffs, along an endless beach and passed a few tiny islands of mangroves out in the shallows of the sea.  Eventually the unrelenting sun forces us to dump our belongings in the limited shade to be found under some scrub at the back of the beach and sprint back in the the bathtub like warm water.

We struggle to get to deeper waters as a wall of sea plants block our way, but Mara Is brave and leads the way through leaving Francesco and I with no other choice but step through the thick green weeds.  Adriana soon joins us in the waters and we swim along toward the end of the beach, basking in the incredible beauty of the 360 degree panorama all around us.  A jellyfish stinging Adriana on the leg scares us all out of the water, but our ride is almost due to return anyway so we gather up our belongings and start what under normal circumstances would be a simple climb back up to the cemetery.  The unbelievably hot sun makes it a little unpleasant but we fill the windswept desert with chatter and make it up without too much hydration lost.

The spanish trio have decided to take a quick run down to the water so we watch them go and continue to talk of travel and everything else under the makeshift shelter of a wooden framed structure which at least offers partial solace from the sun.

Eventually though were all back in the van which is more comfortable if less exhilarating that the cattle truck of the previous day.  That said, I think I prefer the cattle truck overall.

By the time we make it back the sun has taken it’s toll.  I have a headache that even a nice cold shower fails to wipe away entirely.  Luckily, lunch is up next and it does the trick knocking out any bad feeling and leaving only a pleasant fatigue.  I give in to it and head back to my hammock again finding that wonderful place between sleep and wakefulness before slipping into an hour long nap that is utter perfection.

Mara wakes me as we’ve agreed to take a walk to a shop selling hand woven bags which are famous across all of Colombia.  Much as I’m tempted I don’t have space but decide to come for the walk anyway.  Francesco and Adriana do the same.

As we’re ready to set off we suddenly realize none of us have any idea where to go.  Knowing the maze like quality of the un-signposted desert we turn to our host who is happy to provide us with two charming sisters. who agree to guide us to the shop.  They are nervous but we do get a little spanish out of them, and they’re rewarded with candy by Adriana at the end of our trip.Our Guides

Francesco and I don’t make it to the shop though as three quarters of the way there we see a large gathering of locals playing football in the fading light of the setting sun.  Francesco and I look at each other and decide we can’t miss the opportunity to play.  We’re welcomed warmly and assigned to opposite teams as we kick off our shoes and step onto the pitch.

Much to my dismay I find the pitch is actually just a lose collection of knuckle sized gravel, some it exceedingly sharp.  Still, the shared enthusiasm for the sport quickly overwhelms the pain and I’m doing my best to maraud up and down the right wing.

For those who don’t know I’m pretty bad at football (soccer)  unless I’m playing goal, but I think I managed to acquit myself fairly well.  I only gave the ball away a few times and even set up our teams only goal, putting in a teasing low cross which a man in a Colombian Falcao jersey put into the bottom corner of the net seamlessly.

At one point one of the smaller opposition player turns suddenly to make a run and crashes straight into me.  He bounces off and I stand unmoved before we both start laughing.  We play the game until half an hour after the last meaningful light has left the sky and as the game comes to an end we are met by Mara and Adriana who found only one bag for sale at the shop.  We manage to find our own way back in the darkness thanks to our three head torches (an invaluable traveller’s tool!  Don’t go without!)and decent senses of directions.

I’ve ordered lobster for dinner and I’m shocked to find two whole lobsters on my plate.  I laugh and snap a picture before digging in and shortly thereafter heading to my hammock for some well earned rest.

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This 20 year old woman ran the whole hostel and even went on the boat ride to our jeeps with us to say goodbye

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Bleary Eyed morning portrait of the Desert family

This time I manage to sleep though the sunrise but am woken by calls for Mara, Francesco, and I to join the others for some pictures with the lovely staff of the hostel.  We then eat breakfast and pack our bags, everyone setting off together for our own respective destinations, mine is Santa Marta, and I know it’s going to be a long day of travel.

This time my jeep through the desert is both packed and much older and rain the night before in the desert makes our path even more confusing to find our way back to the railroad.  We do eventually make it, having met many more candy roadblocks along the way.

One of the Candy Bandit Groups

I climb into collectivo after collectivo and finally find myself on the bus back to Santa Marta, eventually stepping back into the home that the Dreamer hostel has become.  Weary but sad to be gone from the Guajira desert and the rugged paradise I found in the northernmost reaches of Colombia.  It’s an experience not to be missed for those adventurous souls who aren’t afraid to leave the beaten path and test what spanish they have in their quivers.  Four days I’ll never forget, and one of my favourite places in all the world so far.

One Comment
  1. The bird is a caracara falcon if hounding find out

    Just reading the blog in preparation for my hopeful journey tonight gallinas on the moto x bikes

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