For those of you that have been following our trip from the beginning, you know that somewhere in this sun-soaked, dramatic part of Colombia’s Caribbean coast is the most northern point of this trip. Starting from the dense jungles of the Darién Gap, to the windswept desert of La Guajira near Venezuela, this coast has been in our minds for quite a long time now. In reality, after over a year since we started, we were for the first time so close to the point that we had been waiting for and that was exciting.
As mentioned before, we headed to Santa Marta to take care of our paperwork. Although we expected a long process, that was not the case at all. Our passports were stamped straightaway (you need to apply online). As for Voukefalas’ papers, after submitting the necessary documentation (mostly photocopies of the originals) we were given a week’s long processing time (aka 10 days by Colombian standards). That gave us the opportunity to celebrate our one year anniversary in the nearby Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) Tayrona, a wonderful stretch of perfect beach and virgin rainforest. A magical slice of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, with stunning golden sandy beaches shaded by coconut palms. The perfect place to celebrate, I would say!!! After all that paperwork though, we arrived late so we spent the night camping nearby and entered the next morning. At first we were a bit disappointed as high season had kicked in and the attitude of the rangers who run this place made us feel that they were more after our money than anything else. The minute that we passed that gate though and rolled into the park itself, all that negativity was forgotten and our mindset changed completely. The natural beauty of the park had worked its magic. Yes, we were here in high season and it was overcrowded but that could not take anything away from the unique nature that was all around us. After all, this park was the perfect place to celebrate our accomplishment. For the record and from our usual reference point, “the Lonely Planet”, we give you the following information about the park: Stretches along the coast from the Bahía de Taganga, near Santa Marta, to the mouth of the Río Piedras, 35km to the east, and covers some 12,000 hectares of land and 3,000 hectares of coral-rich sea”. In our own words, no matter how busy this place gets, it still magically manages to keep its solitude and beauty for the individual to enjoy. A BY FAR MUST NOT MISS!!! The only downside we could find was that strong currents make many, if not all of the beaches inside the park not suitable for swimming. Did that bother us? No, it just gave us a good enough reason and after a couple of days, we moved to our next destination, finally reaching the11th parallel North that lies in the part of the coast that stretches from P.N.Tayrona to Riohacha. In this part someone can also find the country’s best beaches. With Voukefalas new extension papers in our hands, we took that road that led us to all sorts of camp-surf sites right on the beach along the way. All of them had their pros and cons location and facilities wise. So after spending a fair amount of time on one or two of them, we finally reached the mid-point of Palomino. This place doesn’t look like much when you pass through it from the highway but things change when you venture towards the coast and you come upon one of Colombia’s most perfect beaches, while on the other side of the highway you can still spot the dramatic Sierra Nevada mountains, a place the local indigenous people still guard carefully from outsiders. With seven different ecosystems between the beach and the glaciers of the Sierra Nevada, we were not surprised to find out that ecotourism has slowly come into life here, making Palomino an almost obligatory stop for all the travelers into Colombia. So what else was there left for us to do? Find a great place to camp, relax and take all that in. It’s not a difficult task for us, as you know!!! It took us a week!!!
Further east we spent a night in Camarones, a small fishing village where we made an unsuccessful attempt to visit the famous flamingos that call in every day to rest. During our boat ride we didn’t manage to spot no more than two but our experience interacting with the Wayuu people that arranged our boat made this a minor detail that didn’t bother us at all. We then pushed into Riohacha, which traditionally is the end of the line, the gateway to the northern desert region of La Guajira that still retains a frontier-town feeling. Nowadays, with nearby Venezuela under constant problems, the city has turned into a diesel-and-dust landscape with more than a fair share of lawlessness and bandits. The town isn’t teeming with things to do, but it’s pleasant enough to become a mini–traveler hub. You may well find yourself spending some time here before you get on your way to the isolated La Guajira Peninsula.
Before we headed to La Guajira, we had been hearing scary stories from other travelers, mentioning the constant illegal roadblocks by locals requesting money, a fair share of robberies, gun holds and all types of catastrophically scary scenarios, along the road to Cabo de la Vela and even further, to Punta Gallinas. We are not sure if you should take them into serious consideration and cancel your visit to this area, but in our own personal experience and maybe by pure luck, we didn’t come across any of that. All we saw and can assure you of, beside the fact that it was a dusty bumpy ride, kids do set up thin harmless ropes blocking the way, in order to make you slow down and get something out of you. Don’t forget, this is an area of extreme poverty. So since we don’t like to hand out money to kids, our solution was just to use candies instead. That was it. The only other dose of adrenaline we had came from the fact that we needed to assist and rescue some locals that had gotten themselves stuck in the sand patches that are spread along the way. Ha, ha, yes!!! We finally got to use our winch, something that I personally was looking forward to. All that brought us to Cabo de la Vela, our next stop, where the history talks about English pirates, Dutch smugglers and Spanish pearl-hunters, all trying to conquer from here the Guajira Peninsula. No-one though was able to overcome the indigenous Wayuu people, who wisely traded with, or waged war upon, any of the invaders. This remote village is located180km northwest of Riohacha and it was until recently a dusty rural community. Its symbol was “a plastic bag caught in a treeless bush”. Nowadays the local Wayuu people make their living mostly from fishing and build their traditional tinny huts out of cactus, right up against the sea. In the last couple of years only, Cabo has become a hotbed of ecotourism and now boasts a variety of indigenous-style accommodations. Still, though the village has electricity by generator only and there are few places that provide internet or any of life’s other distractions, most of adventure seekers like us head here, promised to find an end-of-the-world paradise. If an immaculate collision of desert sand dunes and brilliant blue sea is what you are after, then this is it. The Caribbean coast’s most remote landscape is here without a doubt. For us this was a turning point as from here onwards we will be heading back south.
With the impact of the desert still on our skin, mostly caused by the lack of shade and the constant wind, we took the road back to Cartagena. Here we had planned from the beginning to celebrate festively. Thanks to Rochelle who found it, we managed to book a place on board a beautiful boat that took us out for New Year’s, in the bay overlooking the Old City and the fireworks. A bit of luxury? Yes, but it was much needed. On top of that and for one more time strangely for us, we also booked a hotel where we finally emptied the car for the first time. What came next??What more than jumping into the festive celebrations and enjoying ourselves among thousands of others. Another great memory into the Overlanddiaries book of adventures.
With all that completed and with Voukefalas loaded for one more time, we turned south and while on our way to the capital, Bogota, and after some minor overnights along the way ,we stopped in Pamplona. This small city is spectacularly set in the deep Valle del Espírito Santo, in the Cordillera Oriental. Although it is hard to get here, it’s a delightful town of old churches, narrow streets and bustling commerce. The inviting central plaza is a mix of reconstructed colonial and modern architecture with a surprising number of trendy cafes, bars and restaurants catering to the young student population. All in all a trip back in time if you ask us. Highlight of all though was Hostel Normandy, where we were aloud to camp in the back yard of the hospitable French Philipe witch made our stay unforgettable. Next up, we reach the capital, Bogota but for that stay tuned till the next episode!!!