After an early morning Uber (taxi), collectivo (shared taxi) then a plane (plane) from Medellin we landed in Santa Marta on Colombia's Caribbean coast. We then took a bus a few hours east to a cross roads called Cuatro Vesas, a hot roadside shimmering in the heat not too far from the Venezuelan border. A middle aged man in an luminous green trucker cap beckoned us and another guy over to a heap of metal that kind of resembled a car which needed a lot of attention under the hood from most of the local men present. It soon roared and shuddered into life and soon we were flying up the dusty highway often on the wrong side of the road causing us to reach hastily for our seat belts, however there were none. Up front was a foot high strip of black tinted vinyl across the top and bottom of the windscreen leaving a small section of clear glass for the driver to peer through. At first I thought this was because of the intense sunlight, however I then noticed the many massive cracks running the full width of the windscreen and decided the extra strip might be the only thing holding the glass together. We arrived in Uribia unscathed and clambered into a mud splattered jeep with its roof piled high with boxes, barrels and our bags. Once full we zoomed off north east across the dessert arriving in Cabo De La Vela just after sunset.
Cabo De La Vela (Spanish for "cape of sails") is a little ramshackle community close to Colombia and South America's most northern point. Tourism is pretty new here as until recently it was just a simple fishing village home to the Wayuu indigenous community. We hurried about in the fading light trying to find a room eventually chatting to a friendly lady called Beanise who strung up two hammocks for us in an open sided shack looking out onto the ocean. We were pretty hungry and this is when something amazing happened... Beanise said "Hay una langosta por treinta" (there is lobster for thirty - about 8 quid). It turned out our little beach shack was also Beanise's little beach restaurant so we drank cold beers and ate fresh lobster under candle and starlight feeling very pleased with ourselves. We then made the shortest journey of the day from chair to hammock.
You would of thought after sleeping in a hammock on a rocking boat up the Amazon that sleeping in a hammock on a tranquil beach would be a doddle. It wasn't... we tossed and turned finding balance in odd positions with a leg out there and an arm over here, until you either fell out or got tangled up and needed to start again. To be honest though the setting, lobsters, stars and sea breeze made up for the patchy sleep.
We awoke early to a cacophony of sounds. Fishermen dragging out the boats, dogs barking at passing motorbikes, plastic chairs and tables being unstacked and the odd generator chugging away. A young lad of no more then ten walks back and forth from ocean to house with heavy buckets of water (he repeats this for most of the morning), an old man sprinkles water on the sandy street outside his shop and rakes it back and forth and a middle aged man with a slightly creepy laugh drags a dog up the beach for no apparent reason and throws it into the sea with a yelp. He seemed to find it hilarious, obviously the dog didn't, and quickly scarpered. As the sun was up along with the rest of the village we decided to get up to and go for a walk.
It turned out we were staying a tad out of town to the north. This is a famous kite boarding spot and probably what put this place on the map. By mid day when the offshore wind had kicked in, as many as ten to fifteen kites could be seen dancing over the ocean. Some of the locals were incredible, flipping and flying all over the place often dangerously close to shore. I couldn't work out how they could spin and flip upside down landing perfectly balanced never getting caught up in the kite strings, yet we couldn't even manage to balance in a hammock without getting in a tangle.
There wasn't really much to the village if you weren't a kite surfer, just a dusty road with sporadic even dustier shacks. The locals were really friendly and would smile and talk to us, even when we looked confused and just smiled and nodded back. There was generally no power unless someone turned on a generator which was saved for lighting in the evening. The Wayuu community who live in these parts are famous for their textiles, more specifically handmade woven bags in bright colours with jazzy (traditional) patterns. Apparently you can buy them in fancy London department stores for about £200, here they sell for about £12.50. We learnt unfortunately that due to the rise in tourism, parents are pulling their children out of school to help make and sell bags and bracelets which is not good. As a tourist you are also constantly surrounded by an army of some of the cutest little kids you will ever see trying to sell you stuff. We wandered if there was a cute kid vetting process for who should sell and who should make. On a couple of such occasions after many "No Gracias's" we let them play with our iPad or camera for a while to change the subject from souvenir shopping. They were fascinated with them and turned from little salesmen back into little children again. When you're constantly hounded it's easy to get a bit short with them and forget they are just kids doing what their parents have asked. We did buy a couple of bags and a few bracelets whilst we were here, as they are pretty cool things that do take a lot of work and skill. Plus it's how these communities make their money and it's the least we could do after visiting their village.
One young girl we got talking to was called Paula. She was thirteen years old, really friendly and helps her mother make bags and other textiles. She was really interested in who we were and where we came from, we spent quite a while chatting to her. H bought a little bag and some bracelets then Paula gave Helen one extra as a present. Helen was really touched and nearly cried at the gesture.
El Pilón de Azúcar & La Playa Dorada
Other than arranging a trip to Punta Gallinas (Colombia's most northern point) the two main things to do here are walking up El Pilón de Azúcar to the view point overlooking Playa Dorada beach and heading over to the light house for sunset. We arranged a lift on two motobikes across the bright orange dessert and soon we were trudging up a rocky triangular shaped hill to the lookout. You can walk it from the village, however it's a long way in blazing hot sun and the thought of taking a motorbike through the dessert was quite appealing. The view was incredibly colourful for a dessert. The bright yellow and orange sand glowed in the hot sun, this contrasted with the brilliant blue of the Caribbean ocean and down on the beach the exposed rock in the cliff sides looked almost green. We stood in the ferocious wind as long as we could, constantly pulling windswept hair out of our eyes and mouths, then headed down the beach for a swim and shelter.
Again we were descended upon by a troop of child salesmen, only this time they had swapped bracelets for beer. Each one had a little colourful woven bag of change with a bottle opener hanging from the strap. We decided to help their young businesses, it was the least we could do.
Rather than asking for sweets (although some did) many kids asked for water from us. In a community with no running water and everything brought in on the back of a bike or roof of a jeep it's easy to forget how isolated they are. We had bought a 6litre bottle for the few days we were there, these are then turned into candle holders in the restaurants.
As the sun drew low we rode over to the lighthouse. I felt short changed, there was no house just a light on a bit of scaffolding. Still the sky went some pretty colours and it was a nice place to sit and chat to who ever wandered past.
As we had covered a lot of ground recently we decided to dedicate a day to lobster and hammocks. Only really leaving the hammocks for lobster and vice-versa. It was marvellous and in the afternoon we had a great view of the kite surfers flying past our swinging feet and large bellies. After dinner we totted up our lobster count which turned out to be nine, not bad for three nights and two days. Hopefully on our trip out to Punta Gallenas tomorrow we can take it to double figures.
Our neighbours in the beach shack next to us were a fun bunch who had met each other at various points whilst traveling Colombia. There were three girls from London, Rihanna, Hailey and Niha, Gus and Simone from downunder and Mark from Preston. They had managed to find a two day one night trip out to Punta Gallenas for 100,000 Pesos each (About £25) which was far cheaper than anywhere else in town. Luckily they let us tag along.
We were up before the sun, strapping bags onto the roof of a Toyota Land Cruiser as silently as possible even though out phone alarms probably awoke the whole village. Pedro was our driver, a happy talkative man that unfortunately spoke so fast it was hard to catch what he was going on about, leaving us in many 'smile and nod' scenarios.
Soon we were cruising through cactus filled arid plains punctuated by the odd cluster of little shacks. This whole area is home to many indigenous communities who must have found it quite strange at first seeing the 4x4s roaring through full of white faced gringos peering out. However they have started to use this to their advantage. It wasn't long before we arrived at a chain across the road propped up by two wonky sticks. We pulled up and a young teenager walked over and said "Plata" (Silver / Cash). Pedro gave him 1000 pesos (25p) and we were on our way. We could have just zoomed through as the road block would have been no opposition for our mighty Land Cruiser, however stopping was a way of showing respect to the people that live all the way out here. Within about five minutes we arrived at another, manned by two small children. This time Pedro just handed them some sweets and we were let past. I was beginning to wander why we had two bumper bags of sweets by the gear stick, I just assumed Pedro had a sweet tooth. Deep down I was kind of hoping they were travel sweets for us, but I said nothing and started planning my own road block. This continued to happen throughout the drive, maybe this was the reason for the early start. Just when I thought we were far enough away from a settlement for any more stops, we rounded a corner to see a shoeless child no more than six or seven holding a big stick like a barrier. He had a slightly scared yet determined expression on his face and held the stick firm as we approached. As soon as he saw the sweets appear through the window his face lit up and he threw the stick to the ground and ran over.
We continued on through massive expanses of cracked orange mud then rolling dunes. The sun was unforgiving, baking the ground and making everything really bright and vivid. Eventually after more makeshift roadblocks and a lad trying to sell us lobster through the window we arrived at a tiny calm inlet of vivid green water with a little boat moored up. Pedro bid us farewell and we hopped on a boat to Alexandra hostel.
Alexandra consisted of a small collection of buildings up on a headland. The winds whipped through the open sided structures however it was more than welcome under the hot sun. A few folk grabbed breakfast and coffee then we were bundled into two more land cruisers with a few other visitors and went for a tour of the point.
Our first stop Punta Gallenas Faro. (Lighthouse)
Similar to Cabo De La Vela this was a poor excuse for a light house, however the setting made up for it. Bright orange sand disappeared into a brilliant blue sea and hundreds of rocks had been stacked up along the shore. This was the most northern point of South America. We had actually made it from South America's Lands End to John O'Groats. I kind of thought it would be more dramatic and monumental, possibly with a marching band and some falling streamers, but instead we took our souvenir photos and calmly stood watching the waves lapping the shore. I then decided to jump in the sea as it was dead hot.
Our next stop was a look out over a beautiful bay with calm green waters surrounded by crumbly orange and red cliffs. We didn't hang around too long and soon were cruising over large sand banks and more cracked mud valleys.
We eventually arrived at a large sand dune. We hiked up and were greeted with a thirty foot steep sand dune leading straight into the ocean. We all ran, jumped, rolled and fell down and cooled of for an hour or so in the sea. Later on me and H took a walk up the beach and noticed a bunch of people swimming over a shallow reef. We started to feel jealous as we wanted to go snorkelling and started to grumble. Then as we drew closer we realised it was four local fishermen catching lobsters with their bare hands. I went over and chatted to a man called Jose on the rocks and he showed me his catch. They had done well and suddenly a wave of excitement washed over me as this raised our chances of being able to eat lobster tonight, taking out total into double figures.
In the afternoon most folk just hid from the sun, gently rocking in the hammocks, the early start had taken it out of most of us and for the few that still had some energy left, the large fish lunch washed down with beer took the rest. About a twenty minute walk from the hostel is a tranquil beach which faces bang west for sun set. On the way we passed through a small village of mud wall open sided houses, some with palm roofs some with none. It looked like a hard life to live there, unless you were the baby goat we past who was having a great time munching on pretty much everything in his necks radius. We had a quick swim then lay on the sand watching the sky do its thing.
We made it back just as the last streaks of pink and gold left the sky to be greeted by two massive lobsters EACH! They were also the best we have tasted, freshly caught and cooked to perfection. It was a good job we enquirer about them when we returned from the beach round midday, as we were the only ones not eating fish or chicken pasta. Just goes to show if you don't ask you don't get lobster.
After yet another unsuccessful nights sleep in the hammocks we took a small boat across the estuary to where our 4X4 was waiting for us. Instead of Pedro we had two other guys we met in Cabo De La Vela one of which had to make the four hour rollercoaster ride on the roof. I think he knew a lot of the people involved the communities here and talked his way through a lot of the road blocks, still people didn't seem happy about it. The whole road block thing sat uncomfortably with me. I think it's good that these communities can profit from this new wave of travellers visiting the point however training kids to stop cars for sweets or adults making road blocks every five minutes to demand money and getting angry is not ideal. I personally think they should get more money from tourism, I would have paid more if I knew it was going to help the communities. Maybe they could gather all the families together and form an alliance where each car pays one large entry fee and this is saved up and split amongst the villagers or used to help build a school or community centre. Either way it was really eye opening to pass through these communities and see how these folk get by.
Soon we were back out rumbling through the desert. About halfway through a massive sand and dust storm brought us to a crawl as we could hardly see past the bonnet. lucky there isn't much out here to crash into except the odd cactus.
Eventually it cleared and we were back to Colin McRay Rally mode forcing us to constantly check our guy was still on the roof all the way to Uribia. Our next task was to find some transport back to the main highway to try and flag down a bus along the coast. Luckily a man in a empty pick up pulled over and said he'd take us for about £1.25 each. The four girls jumped into the cabin and me H, Mark and Gus threw our bags and ourselves in the back. We just about fit everybody and everything neatly in like a traveler Tetris. As we drove through town a sunbaked old man with a faded red cap and white moustache flagged us down. He looked like a walking secondhand shop as he was holding a peculiar collection of items. Two blender jugs, various rubber seals in every colour, a battered old suit case and a mega phone held together with gaffer tape and finally the old chap himself somehow found their way into every bit of available space between us and our bags. He was called Alonso, him and I ended up sitting on the tail gate. Just when we thought we couldn't get any more full and were heading out of town we stopped again. This time for a younger guy called Junior. Alonso took the opportunity to squeeze into the cabin where there was roughly one third of a seat free and Junior joined me up on the tail gate. His lovely white dog Pechey also joined us finding a comfortable spot on my left foot and a stack of large plastic buckets that ended up between my legs. Gus took the opportunity to buy us all a slice of watermelon from a passing fruit seller. We were now definitely full and the driver floored it onto the highway sending a large amount of melon juice all over my face and a few pips into the beard. Ever tried to eat a watermelon whilst holding on to the side of a 4x4 for dear life traveling 100+ kmph? It was a messy experience. For about twenty minutes or so I don't think the driver took his foot off the accelerator swerving round holes or goats in the road. When we reached our jumping off point Cuatro Veces crossroads my knuckles were whiter than when I used to paint my hands in PVA glue in art class just to satisfyingly peel if off.
We grabbed a bite to eat from the road side stalls and within five minutes another truck pulled over offering us a ride to Palomino. A beach town two hours or so along the coast. We piled into the back squeezing ourselves round a fruit seller and his crates of tomatoes, pineapples, melons and passionfruit. It smelt great in there. The driver was also transporting two massive barrels of strong liquor fermented by the Wayuu tribes. We we were not sure how legal this was but the police checkpoints didn't seem to mind. The girls in the cabin said this was because the driver was handing out a few notes here and there. We were sat on wooden beaches down each side with a black tarpaulin stretched over a rusty frame to shield us from the sun. It was tad more comfortable than the tailgate of the pickup. Over the course of the journey dry dusty dessert was exchanged for a lush tropical landscape. We helped the fruit man unload his crates at a village about half way then were joined by two Chilean lads who started playing the guitar and singing badly.
We arrived into the bohemian beachy village of Palamino mid afternoon. Our trip to the northern tip had been a great adventure and well worth the effort. The landscape, people, transport and lobsters made this a very memorable trip, however now I was ready for a gin and tonic and a proper bed.