Tag Archives: Punta Gallinas

Just a couple of old stick-in-the-muds

1 Dec

dunes at Taroa, La Guajira, Colombia

Excuse me, where’s the ice cream shop? Sand dunes, Taroa, La Guajira, Colombia

Taganga, Colombia
[By Paula]

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.

Filling up on Venezuelan petrol

At this price I don’t care if it’s real petrol or not. Filling up on cheap Venezuelan gas.

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.

De-scaling a fish for dinner, Cabo de la Vela

De-scaling a pargo fish for dinner, Cabo de la Vela. Bear Grylls eat your heart out.

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.

The wrong road to Cabo de la Vela


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?

Wayuu woman and baby in our van

The woman from the house opposite our camp spot brought her baby, Valerie, over to be photographed in the van.

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!

Jeremy on the cattle truck to Punta Gallinas

We enjoyed the views and let someone else do the driving on the trip to Punta Gallinas.

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.

Jeremy dune-running, Taroa, La Guajira, Colombia

I can’t seem to stop! Sand dunes, Taroa, La Guajira.

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.

Days: 387
Miles: 12,728
Things we now know to be true: Quitting while you’re ahead is generally preferable.

Colombia ahoy!

23 Nov

[We’ve fallen a bit behind with the blog. Tsk. And so much has happened recently. So for that reason we took half each and turned this next post into a two-parter. Fellow travellers who want more details about shipping and boat journeys from Panama to Colombia can email us or wait until we get round to posting a separate page of tips]

Taganga, Colombia
By Paula

Transporting a vehicle from Panama to Colombia is rarely trouble-free. Take two countries, two separate ports, two customs authorities, four shipping agent workers and two sets of independence celebrations, then sprinkle liberally with a bucket load of inexplicable bureaucracy and questionable language skills… and you’ve got a headache before you even begin.

Van enters the shipping container in Colon, Panama

Bye bye van. See you in Colombia!

However, even by the usual standards I think we did well to turn it into the epic it became. But my, what a journey. And here we are, finally, in South America.

Following a seven-day delay due to riots paralysing the port in Panama, we were relieved to get the go-ahead to load the cars onto the container ship the following week. In all, twelve overlanders were shipping on the same day with the same company – us with Zach and Jill, plus eight others, from Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Korea and Germany. For many reasons it was comforting to all be in the same boat, so to speak.

We met each other and our agent in Colon and set off in convoy across the city, which had been the scene of riots, gunfights and looting just days before. Even at the best of times Colon, a desperately deprived and run down place, is not a safe place to hang around. It’s fair to say we were all keen to get the day done and get out of there.

Jeremy with some local Kuna kids, San Blas

Jeremy shows off his colouring-in skills, San Blas, Panama

After a long sweaty day at the port and customs offices, two cars were driven into each 40ft container. The containers were locked up and we waved them goodbye, hoping we’d be reunited successfully in Colombia asap.

In the meantime, we were backpackers once more. All we had to do now was get ourselves to Colombia in time to meet the cars in one week.

Now, we could have flown in a few short hours, but that just sounded far too easy. We could have taken a sailboat direct to Cartagena, but it was pricey and we were worried about its route over open water and the risk of severe seasickness. Option three was a more basic motorboat to the Colombian border, with stops on the San Blas islands for some beach camping and a chance to meet the indigenous Kuna people who live there. After that we’d have to make our own way over the border and east to Cartagena, by means of various boats and buses.

Our boat to Colombia at its final stop, La Miel

Our transport to Colombia stopped off at several islands in the San Blas, and dropped us here at La Miel.

It sounded like a mixture of both adventure and unnecessary hassle. Perfect, we said, let’s book it!

Along with Zach and Jill – with whom we shared every step of the process – we took a bus to the scrappy Caribbean town of Portobelo, which was the departure point for the trip we had provisionally booked, but was not due to leave until three days later. It was a fairly miserable place to kill three days, and we had some doubts about whether our boat was definitely going to leave on Saturday. Arriving late to Cartagena was not an option for us, as this would incur storage charges at customs. We spent a day deciding whether to switch to a direct sailboat, but in the end plumped for our original plan and sat it out til Saturday.

On day one of the trip, we all wondered if we had done the right thing. It was clear from the start that our captain and his mate were nice enough blokes, but worryingly hapless. Shortly after setting off we broke down and stopped for over an hour in the water. As we bobbed about in the waves, inhaling engine fumes and trying to ignore the smell of burning, people started to go green and at least one vomited. I stared at the horizon for an hour, unable to talk, willing the contents of my stomach to stay put.

Finally it was established that they had forgotten to put any oil in the engine. In what was to become a recurring theme, they appeared to be blaming each other for the cock-up. Were we really going to put our safe passage across the sea to Colombia in the hands of this pair?

We’d had to change the island we’d be sleeping on that night, because it was a major holiday in Panama and the boat guys hadn’t realised that all the sleeping huts were booked out at their usual destination. Fine by us, we said, we are flexible and easygoing.

Roasting marshmallows

Roasting marshmallows for dessert on one of our overnight stops. Yum.

We felt less easygoing when we realised they couldn’t find the island. We drove from island to island, asking various Kuna people for directions. It didn’t inspire confidence. But things gradually began to look up. We pushed our anxieties to the back of our minds, and made light of little incidents like seeing the captain drinking at lunchtime and falling off his hammock, before taking to the helm again.

Over the four-day trip we stopped at truly deserted palm-fringed Caribbean islands, camped on the beach, snorkelled, made new friends, drank rum and roasted marshmallows on the bonfire. We slept in hammocks in a Kuna island community, and ate fresh lobster, crab and octopus. We slapped through the waves, got continually soaked, and (mostly) managed to avoid going green again.

On the final day we stamped out of Panama at a bizarre little border crossing town and arrived, tired and not a little hungover from the previous night’s rum festivities, at our final destination of La Miel. The inviting turquoise water cleared away the cobwebs and the four of us set about getting ready for stage two.

Despite having officially left Panama we were still in a Panamanian no-man’s land, and had to get to Colombia under our own steam. Although going by boat to the next door Colombian village was possible, we opted to go on foot, just a short hike over the hill and into South America.

Crossing the Panama-Colombia border with Zach and Jill

Yay! Crossing the Panama-Colombia border with Zach and Jill.

It seemed to us like a pretty cool way to arrive. It was unfeasibly hot as we climbed up to the top of the peak, to be greeted by two immigration officials. They looked at our passports and then kindly agreed to take a group photo, with both the Panamanian and Colombian flags fluttering above us.

The downward path into Sapzurro, Colombia, became increasing muddy and slippery. So our entrance into South America was not so much cool as downright undignified. The locals must surely enjoy watching foreigners sliding into their country, smeared with mud and sweat and trying to look nonchalant with it.

With one more boat ride we were in Capurganá, where we found a hostel with the only four things we wanted in life at that moment – a comfy bed, a shower, a seat that didn’t move, and a TV on which we could monitor US election night. Zach and Jill in particular were becoming increasingly nervous about a Romney win, which they and their compatriots were mercifully spared.

Early the next day we set off on the long journey to Cartagena. We’d thought long and hard about the trip, and how to make it work and get back to the port in time to collect the cars. We were on the home stretch and it felt good.

First, a final boat trip, to the town of Turbo. At times we almost flew through the waves and landed with such a thump I thought my bones would shatter. But the stunning scenery more than made up for it. At Turbo we jumped straight onto a bus, the first of two 5 or 6 hour journeys to Cartagena.

Lobster for dinner, San Blas islands

Lobster for dinner, San Blas islands, Panama.

After a long and stinking hot day we finally arrived in the beautiful colonial city late on the Wednesday night. We’d done it! We knew we’d have to hit the ground running the next morning to make sure we got the vans back before the weekend, so there was just one more thing to do – check our emails to see whether everything was on schedule…


Colombia ahoy! Part two
By Jeremy

Kafka would not have dared make it up. It would have been too far-fetched even for those giants of Russian literature intent on exposing and ridiculing the dehumanising morass of a maze-like bureaucracy. But, I was there. It’s true.

After our gruelling 15-hour journey to Cartagena we arrived to be greeted with the wonderful news that the van had arrived safe and sound in Colombia. We also arrived to the devastating, and surprising news – news which our shipping agent had failed to mention – that a five-day public holiday was starting in the morning and all the ports, customs and government agencies would be closed or closing early. And so, after all that, it was unlikely we would be able to get the vans for another 6 days.

Carnaval time in Cartagena

Carnaval time in Cartagena provided a welcome distraction from the boring car stuff.

Oh, and all the hostels were filling up fast, in time for the fiesta.

Undeterred by such trifles we swore a bit [a loted] then set about finding a bed – surely I am too old now for sleeping with a dozen other fragrant backpackers in a dorm. Apparently not. With no choice we settled down in our bunks to a night of noisy sleeplessness and arose what seemed like just a few short hours later to begin the process of trying to beat the holiday half-day closing and get the van back.

We had just 25 steps to achieve – after 4 hours of form-filling, waiting, waiting a bit more and pacing up and down we were still on step 2. This was never gonna happen. But at least we learned how to conjugate the Spanish verb – esperar. (to wait, to hope).

There are great blogs (eg Life Remotely) which explain in detail (and without the ranting) the process, costs and address details of where to go to retrieve your imported vehicle so I’m not going to bother. Suffice it to say that in a 3-day epic, said steps required us to go – armed with forms, innumerable photocopies and endless patience (not one of my strong points) from the shipping agent’s office, to the port authorities, to the cashier’s office, to the customs office, to the port – where not one but two inspectors had to fill out separate reports – to the customs office again (where we were dealt with by a man with the slowest writing in the world), to the shipping agent again and back to the port authorities – which on day 2, with noon closing fast approaching, we arrived at with 7 minutes to spare. We’d already decided that if we hadn’t been seen before they tried to close, we’d have to occupy.

Carnaval in Cartagena

Everyone tried to out-wig and out-outlandish eachother during carnaval.

From there it was another trip to the cashier, to the container port, to the car park to be reunited with the van and another inspector who checked to see if we had an ashtray, fire extinguisher, windscreen wipers and various other vital parts of the van and duly noted them all down – in triplicate. I’ve no idea why he felt the need to check since no-one had noted any of this down at the Panama end.

From the car park we drove (after Zach had to jump-start their van from ours) 100 metres to the port office to get another stamp, then drove (after I had to jump-start our van from Thomas’s car) 100 metres further to the gate to hand in the stamped bits of paper, and then back to the port office to put a fingerprint on the stamped bit of paper and give it back to the man at the gate – in triplicate.

And then….freedom!
Except we couldn’t get insurance until we had actually left the port with all the necessary paperwork, and by this time it was Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend. All we could do was drive to a car park, head back to our new and much-improved hotel and wait until the insurance office re-opened at 8am on Tuesday morning. It meant it had taken us 14 days to travel 80 miles or so. At this rate we’ll be in Argentina in 33 years time.

Celebrating getting the cars out of the port

When we finally got the cars back, beer was drunk.

As if all that were not surreal enough, Cartagena was in the midst of the biggest fiesta of the year – its independence celebrations. It’s a culture shock to emerge from the bowels of the bureaucracy onto the sun-drenched streets filled with beauty queens, exquisite carnaval costumes and grown men in diapers. Everywhere people painted themselves – and anyone else they could lay their hands – sprayed unsuspecting passers-by with foam, dressed to thrill and frankly just had a ball. What choice did we have but to join in?

Cartagena is beautiful. And the steaks at El Bistro are amazing. The ice-cream is heavenly. A cold Aguilar beer atop the city walls is a fantastic way to cool off and spend the evening.

Finally Tuesday arrived and we all marched down to the insurance office, paperwork in hand. Had we learned nothing from the past few days? How could we have been so naïve as to arrive without multiple photocopies of every document? So back out again we went, to the photocopy shop and eventually the scared piece of paper was handed over, meaning we were free to go.

It was a moment of joy tinged with the sadness of saying goodbye to new found friends who’d shared the tortuous process with us. But in particular to Zach and Jill, whom we had by then spent several weeks with, in a number of countries. We all meet interesting people on our travels, but it is rare to find friends who you can be truly at ease with; where you can be silly, grumpy, blunt, excited, drunk, serious, hysterical or smelly – and occasionally all at once.

Jill gets foamed at the carnaval

Jill got well and truly foamed during the parade, Cartagena.

It was only our livers that were glad to say goodbye. Hasta pronto comrades.

Ours is a journey from north to south. Not for the first time on this trip, though, we found ourselves heading in the wrong direction. This time deliberately. If we were going to make it to the southernmost tip of the continent it would seem rude not to have arrived there from the northernmost. So we headed for Punta Gallinas – a remote and rugged desert on the northern tip of Colombia.

On the way we stopped off at Palomino for a few days of fantastic tranquil beachside camping – and the chance to catch up on some reading. I think I might try Kafka next.

Days: 378
Miles: 12,667
Things we now know to be true: There’s nothing that can be done with a drunken sailor.