Cabo de Vela and Punta Gallina

We had 3 nights to explore this remote, desert, area of Colombia, whose inhabits are subsistence Indian herders.

On leaving Tayrona, our fist stop was Los Flamencos Sanctuary

This is an important coastal wetland and dry forest reserve created to protect a large population of the American Flamingo. The reserve is accessed through the small town of Camarones. The flamingos and numerous other waders, herons, ibis, gulls and terns can be found in large saltwater lagoons. In addition, the xerophytic scrub vegetation of the area is very productive for all of the Guajira specialties restricted to NE Colombia and NW Venezuela.

When we were there, there had not been any rain for two years, water levels were low, and flamingos were as scarce as hens teeth, with only a couple of forlorn flamingos wading in the lagoon. Quite bizarrely a specialist bird guide, armed with a telescope, spent over an hour showing us the virtually nothing that there was to see in the way of bird life. And equally bizarrely, one of the local guides (the "yellow peril") who had been brought in to translate the bird man's Spanish, into English, was not up to the task. So a hot walk in the sun. The 3 local guides under Andres (a particularly uninspiring man), whom we picked up here when we changed from a bus into two 4x4s, were an odd lot. Andres, the leader and driver of one of the 4x4s, did not know how to use 4 wheel drive, got stuck in sand later, and had to been shown how to drive out by local children. The "yellow peril" was later removed from the vehicles to give us more space, as his presence was not necessary: his main aim being to improve his somewhat basic English by asking us questions, and some of the group were unhappy with him taking inappropriate photos of them. And "el gordo", the large monoglot driver of the second 4x4, who although monosyllabic in Spanish, seemed a competent enough driver. The Spanish accent in this part of the world is particularly difficult to understand

My feeling was that this was a stop on an "off the shelf" itinerary, which had the Los Flamencos on it, and therefore, Los Flamencos it was. And nobody had bothered to question whether it was worthwhile now or not.

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A pit stop here to stretch our legs and enjoy a stroll along the malecon and a glass of lulu. Here were a lot of stalls along the promenade selling distinctive woven bags. Then a supermarket stop to grab a few supplies, including several bottles of wine, before we headed out into the wilds of the desert of La Guajira peninsula.

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So it was then a long drive up to Cabo d la Vela. Some interesting, one could even say colourful, toilet stops along the way. Sometimes travel in distant lands offers you new insights on life. Happily gentlemen could use the open countryside as a more agreeable place to do the necessaries, ladies had to use the facilities provided, though I don't think they were a bad as the Gentleman's Convenience shown below.

Petrol stations ceased to exist - put out of business by petrol smuggled in from Venezuela. We had two such stops over the next two days, both very similar. Petrol was poured from plastic bottles, directly into the petrol tank of the car. Petrol ran everywhere, and I removed Chris from the car, as she wanted to sit in it during the pit stop. One small error, and the whole thing would have gone up in a clouds of flames and smoke. You can see in the photo the amount of liquid petrol swilling about on the road. Luckily the process passed off without incident and we were on our way north.

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Apalanchiis Hostal at Cabo del la Vela

The town of Cabo de la Vela is a god forsaken hamlet of shacks strung out along the beach. Ecotourism these days tends to be a synonym for tawdry, cheap and nasty. Although the beach is not wonderful, and suffers from rather toxic jelly fish, the main sport here is kite surfing. Although there are markers to define the kite surfers limits, they ignore them, and swimming was dangerous as they thundered by within a few metres of the shore. Do not bank on getting a safe swim!

You would only come here if you were en-route to Punta Gallinas, or if you were kite surfing. We were heading to Punta Gallinas, so had a one night stop here on the way, and another a couple of nights later on the way back. So we experienced one hut at the front, and one at the back - I would advise anyone to ask for a hut at the back, you did at least get a more open (but not in any way scenic) view from the back huts. The generator runs very Catholic hours, and hence there is no water much of the time in the bathrooms - this is a bit daft, as you can easily leave a tap open and it will run for an hour or more if you are not in the hut.

The staff are certainly not friendly (but that may just be their normal attitude). The meals are truly appalling . We asked for a towel, and it was as if we had made an indecent suggestion. Though we eventually got one, and it was a proper hotel towel with their name on it, so they do have towels. The hut did not have either a chair nor a hammock. We eventually procured both but again with the reaction of it being an unreasonable request.

There was a large Venezuelan group staying there the same night, who got up at 5am, and make one heck of a lot of noise. Be warned! If you want to see Punta Gallinas, then you probably need to stop at least one night in Cabo de la Vela. I have no idea whether any of the other accommodations here are any better, certainly, on cursory inspection from the outside, they looked even seedier


Next morning we left from Cabo de la Vela, and headed north again. By now the unmade road had gone, and a lot of the trip was across open salt pans.

One peculiarity was the "road blocks" put up by the indigenous indians to collect bread rom passing cars. The barriers themselves were thought out with military precision, with strategically placed tyres sunk into the ground to stop cars bypassing the barrier. Each barrier was a piece of heavy wire which would be lower once the toll was paid.

Now not that many cars passed in a day, maybe half a dozen in each direction, and they got a bread roll or similar from each, so manning the road blocks was a job that was not returning top dollar. Maybe that is why the women and children involved rarely smiled as they got their "tax" from the driver. We passed around 30 in each direction. They were not necessarily the same barriers, as the barriers seemed to be somewhat variable - sometimes there would be 6 within 100 metres, then a gap of several kilometres to a single barrier. But whatever way you looked at it, our drivers had underestimated the demand and ran out of bread long before the last barrier.

The Guijira Peninsula and the Wayuu Indians

The Guijira Peninsula gets the trade winds that flow down from the northern hemisphere. The Trade winds cause a welling up of the deep littoral waters and makes the sea richer in fish on the western side of the peninsula. The northeastern flank of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range acts as a barrier that generates abundant rainfall in its steppes and originate the Ranchería River, the only major river in the area. Climate and vegetation varies from south to north, presenting a hyper humid jungle weather in the southern part (3000 mm a year) to the desert areas in the north (300 mm a year). In the northern area there is a small range of mountains called Macuira that reaches 900 m over sea level that trap some of the trade winds and cause mist.

The peninsula is mainly inhabited by members of the native tribe of the Wayuus which use the plains to raise cattle, sheep, goats and horses. The descendants of the Spanish colonists settled in the southeastern part of the peninsula , where the land is more fertile due to the proximity to river basins, such as the Cesar river basin and is used for large plantations of cotton, sorghum and cattle ranching. Since the 1980s the central area of the peninsula has been a source of coal and natural gas in the area of Cerrejón and of oil in the littoral.

Although the Wayuu were never subjugated by the Spanish, they were in a more or less permanent state of war with the Spanish. There had been rebellions in 1701 (when they destroyed a Capuchin mission), 1727 (when more than 2,000 natives attacked the Spanish), 1741, 1757, 1761 and 1768. In 1718 Governor Soto de Herrera called them "barbarians, horse thieves, worthy of death, without God, without law and without a king." Of all the Indigenous peoples in the territory of Colombia, they were unique in having learned the use of firearms and horses. In 1769 the Spanish took 22 Wayuus captive in order to put them to work building the fortifications of Cartagena. The reaction of the Indians was unexpected. On May 2, 1769, at El Rincón, near Río de la Hacha, they set their village afire, burning the church and two Spaniards who had taken refuge in it. The Spanish immediately dispatched an expedition from El Rincón to capture the Indians, but was defeated by the Wayuu. This success was soon known in other Guajiro areas, and more men joined the revolt. According to Messía, at the peak there were 20,000 Indians under arms. However the rebels themselves were not unified and eventually the rebellion faded away.

According to a 1997 census in Colombia, the Wayuu population numbered approximately 144,003 – representing 20% of Colombia's total Amerindian population. The Wayuu occupy a total area of 4,171 square miles (10,800 km2) within approximately ten Indian reservations. Wayuu communities are not uniformly distributed within these territories. This irregular distribution is related to seasonal changes in the weather – during the dry season, a significant percentage of the population crosses the border into Venezuela to work in the city of Maracaibo and its nearby settlements; once the rainy season begins, these Wayuu tend to return to their homes on the Colombian side. The Wayuu people refer to themselves simply as "Wayuu" and do not acknowledge the term "Indian", preferring instead the term "people". They use the terms Kusina or "Indian" to refer to other ethnic indigenous groups, while using the term Alijuna (essentially meaning "civilized") to refer to outsiders or persons of European ancestry.

A couple of stops along the way to climb large, sea fronting, sand dunes, and a quite bizarre group of Pentecostal Church families struggling in the middle of nowhere to get their large convoy through the sand. With at least 30 assorted cars and lorries, containing well over 100 people, I have no idea where they could have been coming from, or where they might have been going to. Populations of this size just did not exist out here in the desert tip of South America


Punta Gallinas (Cape Gallinas, "Cape Chicken") . Eventually we reach it, a headland in northern Colombia and the northernmost point on the mainland of South America. Looking at the cairns, a few others had passed this way, though we saw very few fellow travelers out here - no more than a handful

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We took the obligatory photos, admired the pelicans, saw the lighthouse (not your European's idea of a lighthouse), then headed to our nights stop not very far away.

The posada, run by the local community, I thought was charming. The rooms were certainly "basic", but still an improvement on those in Cabo de la Vela! - Chris got a bad electric shock from exposed wires on the dangling light switch. But the open air dining room gave onto a lovely vista over the sea, and was a nice place to sit.

There was a bit of a fracas when we installed ourselves in the hammocks for an after lunch snooze, and were rudely thrown out as they were reserved for another group.

It is a very personal thing as to the thin dividing line between "traditional" and "local" on the one hand, and "dirty" and "squalid" on the other. This place I found to be in the former, rather than the latter class.

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There was a boat excursion from here to look at flamingos (there was a small flock, but they were silhouetted against the sun, so were difficult to photograph). A walk along an interesting shingle beach. And we did spot a cayman sleeping in the mangroves, plus a stack of jellyfish - somehow the urge to swim seemed to disappear after that.

Next morning we had a short boat ride across the mouth of the lagoon, and as the 4x4s had left earlier to rendezvous, saved us a couple of hours bumping around on the dirt roads. We still had to run the gauntlet of the "toll" barriers by the local indians, and eventually got back to the Cabo de la Vela where we had stayed 2 nights earlier

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Then we had an excursion to the Sugar Loaf mountain. It was windy and the descent looked a bit dodgy on the loose gravel, only Nick, dutifully/cheerfully accompanied by Max, walk up to the top

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Next morning it was off to Venezuela, and the delights of a border crossing.

On to Maracaibo

Colombia - Venezuela Holiday