When we were in California buying the van last year, a story hit the news which has haunted us ever since. A couple of tourists, who were healthy and in their 30s, died in Joshua Tree National Park after their car got stuck in the sand during a heatwave. They walked off to find help but were later found dead, a mile apart from each other, having succumbed to heat exhaustion.
A nice cheerful start to this blog entry then?
And yet despite our fear of being stranded in deep sand, with not a drop of water in sight, we are strangely drawn to desert landscapes, like moths to the flame.
We love the beach and ocean too, so when we read that at Colombia’s most northerly point the desert met the sea in dramatic fashion, it was a no-brainer.
The La Guajira peninsula – which borders Venezuela – is not only the tip of Colombia but is the most northerly point of all of South America, and home to the fiercely independent indigenous Wayuu people. It sounded like a potential headache to get very far without a 4×4 vehicle, but we had plenty of reasons to give it a go.
After a few days on the beach further south, at Palomino, we decided to head north and see what happened. We were a bit short on information but it looked like we could make it as far as a town called Uribia and then would have to ditch the car and continue by a combination of 4×4 trucks and boats.
A couple of hitches on the way delayed our arrival, and as we pulled into the town at dusk it became clear quite quickly that there was nowhere obviously suitable to camp in the car. We pulled into the police station, where a group of officers were hanging around outside, and asked about a hotel. Two of them jumped on their motorbikes and escorted us there, but it was full due to a regional event and there didn’t seem to be another one.
‘You could park here?’ said the police chief, waving towards the town square opposite the police station. It contained a football pitch, playground and was basically the middle of a roundabout. We thought about it for a minute and said ‘what the hell’. We rarely camp on the street but reckoned we’d be safe enough with the police station opposite.
As we drank a beer outside the van they came over the chat. We told them we were trying to get to Cabo de la Vela, a beach town in the north of the peninsula, but didn’t know if it would be possible in our non-4×4 van.
‘Yes, no problem!’ they said. ‘The road is fine’. We hadn’t really contemplated this as our guidebook says that going to Cabo without a 4×4 is a ‘definite no-go’.
Hmm. It was a dilemma. On the one hand, the guidebooks are often wrong about road conditions because they are almost never researched by people who drive. On the other, we sometimes find that local advice can be a bit cavalier because so many people drive 4x4s and don’t consider how it might be with a 2-tonne front-wheel-drive campervan. As for the maps, well…
What the hell. Next morning we set off for Cabo in the van, and resolved to turn back if it got too hairy.
The main part of the route was remarkably driveable. A bit muddy and bumpy in parts, with a large flooded dip to deal with at one point. We filled up on cheap contraband Venezuelan petrol on the way and became more and more confident we’d make it. We revelled in the desert landscape, with its unfeasibly straight road cutting through acres of scrub and cacti. We saw the sign for Cabo, turned off the ‘main’ road and passed through a little village before heading down to the 17km track to the coast.
Within metres we paused and looked ahead with sinking hearts. The track was made of deep sandy ruts which is parts changed to sticky mud. Not a good combination. We inched forwards and kept telling ourselves, ‘well we’re still moving so it’ll probably be okay’. The further we went the more difficult it was going to be to go back, as there was no way to get out of the deep tracks and turn around. After about a mile and a half we were really quite scared.
We came to a point where the track went several ways, each one looking muddier than the rest. We tried to change course onto what looked like harder packed mud. But as the van rolled over it, the topping crumbled and gave way to soft sand. The wheels spun and spun, Jeremy revved – we were stuck. Remarkably I managed to push us out, and Jeremy tried to turn us around and get the hell out of there. But just a couple of metres later we were well and truly wedged in the sand again, this time even deeper.
So here we were were in the desert. It was roasting hot and shadeless, but we did have water and supplies. The Joshua Tree story wasn’t expressly mentioned but hung loudly in the stillness. “What should we do?” I said. “Maybe walk back to the village, it’s only a couple of miles… or no, maybe we’re not supposed to do that…” I tailed off.
I was trying to remember why people said the Joshua Tree tourists should have stayed with their car. Was it to make it easier to find their bodies, I thought?
We hadn’t seen any other vehicles on the track yet but felt fairly confident the route was used by 4×4 trucks ferrying people to Cabo, so waited for something to come along. It might have felt like 20 hours at the time, but a mere 20 minutes later we saw a truck driving on a different track, and shouted and honked the horn to attract attention.
They pulled around and drove back towards us. The driver leapt out, yelled at us a lot, and then his passengers set about pushing us out. We told him the police had advised us that the road was okay. Surely they can’t have meant this one!?
Once free – phew! – we made our way (carefully!) back to the main road and continued north, looking for a better route out to the coast. We found another turn-off and checked with someone that it was driveable. Nice of the police to let us know there were two completely contrasting routes!
It was a very rough road but nothing like the sand hell of the other one. We pulled into Cabo and let out a big sigh of relief. It was a dusty, boiling desert town, with a long white sand beach and calm waters. The beach was lined with large palapas, perfect for camping. There was no mains electricity or running water, but we had the van and we had the sea for bathing. Perfect.
We camped on the beach opposite one of the village shops and for the next few days had a steady flow of visitors to the van, from the shop owner and her family, to passers-by, to other tourists. The van can become quite a focal point, especially in rural places. One night we were cooking dinner when a bloke just appeared from the darkness and flopped into one of our chairs, saying he was waiting to be served petrol at the shop across the road. ‘Like a beer while you wait?’, we said. ‘Si, por favor’, he replied. It’s a great way to meet people.
From Cabo we explored the nearby stunning beaches of Play Pilon and Ojo del Agua (more sandy tracks!). We asked about driving further north, and were told we’d need an amphibious vehicle at this time of year because, despite everything seeming to be as dry as a bone, there was flooding further north. It’s good to know when to quit. We left the car behind and continued to the most northern point of the peninsula by 4×4 truck and boat.
It was well worth the effort. After travelling through impossibly luminous turquoise waters which lined the burnt orange terrain of the peninsula, we arrived at the family home-cum-hostel where we’d be staying. We spent the rest of the day travelling on in the back of a cattle truck to the Punta Gallinas, the tip of South America, and then on to Taroa where gigantic untouched sand dunes rise and then fall sharply towards the ocean. We half-ran-half-staggered down the dunes to the beach – truly one of the most scenic we have seen on all our travels – before watching the sunset at Punto Aguja, and returning to our hammocks for the night.
We’d heard Colombia would be choc-full of pleasant surprises, and so far we’re finding this to be no exaggeration.
Once back in the Santa Marta area, we decided to spend a few days at a surf camp. With beautiful open areas for camping among the palm trees, it looked ideal. We pulled in during a rainstorm and headed straight for a good spot right on the beach. But just before we reached it we heard the dreaded sound – spin, spin, rev. We were going nowhere.
You wait a whole year to get stuck in the sand, and then two come along at once.
Things we now know to be true: Quitting while you’re ahead is generally preferable.