The North of South
The truck is ticking while the engine cools. Parked between the roofed hammocks and the hostel’s bar area. Filling the space broodily, flexing for local attention.
Cabo de la Vela is a kitesurf paradise, but still just a simple collection of single-story basic shacks and buildings hugging the coastline. Cabo boasts three hundred days of sand-bitten wind per year, some of which is currently nipping at the backside of Tawi Hostel; our stop for the night and a good place to arrange a guide.
We’re enjoying a beer and lobster dinner, looking out over the salty playground; gravity-defying kids hanging from miniature parachutes splashing back down into the sea and accelerating across the bay.
‘Cabo’ is the jumping-off point for the North of South. Punta Gallinas in La Guajira region. A true no man’s land at the peak of South America. Ignored by the Spanish invaders and current governments of both Colombia and neighboring Venezuela but home to the Wayuu; an indigenous group living in extreme heat and wind with little water or food.
The guide is necessary at this time of year. The rains soaking into the desert floor leaving pitfalls of deep mud under an innocuous hexagon cracked crust. We can’t simply follow a trail. There are several, some just a day or so old. You can’t tell which is which and the wrong ones will drag the vehicle into a messy red mud recovery. Sometimes there is a general direction rather than a trail. No road made. Not enough vehicles on one path creating a track.
The couple sitting at the next table are keen to ensure their fish is cooked to exacting standards. The bearded husband pulls a selection of homemade fish ‘rubs’ from a holdall and hands them to a bemused chef. The wife looks on, her grin either knowing or embarrassed, I can’t tell which. A delinquent green parrot sits on her shoulder. The pet with Tourette’s who has joined them on their jaunt from Cartegena rocks from side to side as his owners inevitably tell us the journey to Punta Gallinas is both difficult and dangerous. This from a man who fears the chef’s own recipe for fish is too high risk.
Ready to Roll
It’s morning. Still dark. The sun due to rise after the pickup time designated by our guide who, despite specific rules dictating we were to be ready and waiting, is nowhere to be seen.
Claire revisits the reusable cloth bags filled with small packets of basic goods crammed on the back seat. Coffee, sugar, rice, lentils, candies, and water. Currency for the roadblocks rumored to litter the route to Punta Gallinas.
I stare at my watch as the first rays appear over the horizon. The guide is an unreliable mix of 18 years old and a kitesurfer. He is also half an hour late. A Landcruiser with a couple of tourists drives by and as there is only one place they are likely to be headed so we ask if follow along for directions. At the same moment a motorbike appears, our bleary-eyed guide keen to avoid his wages disappearing into the distance with another tour outfit.
“Ready?” he asks. Seemingly oblivious to the fact we’re sitting in the vehicle with our engine running.
House and ‘Store’ – Just outside Cabo de la Vela, Colombia
Into the Death Zone
I glance up to see Cabo de la Vela reducing in the rearview mirror, forgetting that we replaced it with a dashcam. The flat sandy earth here a tiny taster of what is to come as we cross straight over the horribly surfaced highway and head west on an ironically smoother trail towards the desert. It is unsurprisingly hot and dry, transporting us straight back to the deserts of the U.S. South West. The harsh scrubby landscape a stark contrast to the familiar comfort of driving such roads.
Our guide still isn’t fully awake. Bleary eyes and the occasional grunt for directions. I stab at the air conditioner controls as the sun starting to make its presence felt, hoping the cool air will keep him conscious.
As we move further North West it becomes apparent that, unlike the U.S. deserts, people actually live here. It’s not like we didn’t know; it’s just that the reality of life in this death zone suddenly hits us. The further we move the highway the more insane their living conditions seem. Low slung mud squares with a door, occasional areas of cracked and faded paint attempting to add some joy. A hammock clinging to shade. Some clothes on a line that probably dried before the hands that put them there let go.
I guess that’s one benefit of living here. The insane heat, lack of humidity, and infernal wind are great for drying clothes. Welcome to La Guajira. Clothes drying capital of the world.
We see scant few people outside, a wise decision on their part. But the truck noise and trail dust act as a warning system to the inventive locals.
Travel through their land is based on a series of taxations. Ones we are happy to pay. Anyone begrudging these people a small handout as they pass through should reconsider their privileges.
We drive through roadblocks manned by an adult or two, a kid or two in the background. They slowly raise their flimsy line across the road and look hopefully at us as we approach.
Winding down the windows adds a new layer to the dust already lining the dashboard.
“Buenas, como estas?”
“Bien, gracias! Que tu quires? Cafe? Arroz?”
We have no idea how old this lady is. There are kids with her but she’s either heavily sun-baked or their grandma. She’s wise to the ‘aid packets game’, tucking one bag under her arm and gesturing for more. Her colorful loose cotton top draped over a starved frame. She continues garbling a Spanish dialect or Wayuu language. It tumbles out of her mouth, indecipherable either way.
Wayuu lady with armfuls of food – La Guajira, Colombia
For all the warnings of danger, we meet none on the trail. This indifferent lady at the window being the lower limit of cordiality.
The Wayuu people are a hardy bunch. Curt from the kind of cloth that blunts scissors and repels invasion from foreign countries. The Spanish waltz through most of the Americas held little worth to the Wayuu. They got guns from English and Dutch smugglers, learnt to ride horses and proceeded batter, shoot and set fire to the Spaniards to such a degree that they never really gained a foothold in the region.
As we continue, children form the mainstay of roadblocks. Our candy stores taking a beating, forcing us to start rationing based on the fact that we need to return the same way and will meet the same people.
I unfairly charge at one roadblock just to see what happens. They are used to this and simply drop the line. I slam on the breaks and head back, grinning at them out of the window. They laugh and rush the window, hands held out. Running off once they have their stash. A girl in the background is older. She wanders over last, allowing her siblings the spoils first.
The girl is halfway to adulthood in the sense that she wants candy but has also developed both the need for normal goods and the pride of offering something first before accepting charity.
She is still very young, pretty, and clutching a bowl of shrimp for sale that, frankly, look less than fresh. There is no first world covering of ice, freezer to cool the water, or water to make it. She is adorable and we load her with candy, water, coffee, lentils, and rice. She runs off shouting, eager to share her bounty with the family.
Wayuu girl with shrimps – La Guajira, Colombia
We stop and wind down the window again. Candy? I hold out a handful that they refuse to take. The kids look desperate.
“No. Agua, agua!”
They want water. Kids. Wanting water more than candy. If there was one thing I took away from La Guajira it was this. Children desperately asking for the very source of life. You don’t smile after that. You don’t talk. You drive and hope that something happens to break the deadlock. Allowing the conversation to move on without feeling guilty.
A typical kids ‘string and bag’ roadblock – La Guajira, Colombia
Stuck in the Muck
As the scrubland fizzles out a little the people and shacks do too. The last section of desert before our goal. The very northern tip of South America.
Any sign of an obvious trail starts to fade too and the reason for monosyllabic guide becomes apparent. There is no trail because the desert floor is now a Russian roulette of either rock-hard earth under a cracked surface or thick sand/mud under a cracked surface.
Either by error or judgment, we arrive at a soft section. I misjudge the gears and we lose momentum. My off-road savvy enough to know that as soon as the wheels spin, you take your foot off the accelerator. I want the wheels to go forward, not down.
The guide, aware of the fact that he drove us into it, jumps out to inspect the damage. The wheels are only tire deep, so I jump back in, ask Claire to lock the front hubs, and try again. The back wheels spin and bury themselves a little further.
The ground is sandy but heavy. It shouldn’t be this difficult to get out of. I decide to go all-in and dig the rear wheels out – the front are surprisingly still on top of the sand, not buried at all. I grab some nearby branches and place them under our TreadPro boards as added foundation and grip at the back. Claire fires up the compressor and activates the ARB lockers, both front and rear. The full arsenal ready to be employed.
We try again. Not enough digging and poor recovery board placement have now seen the rear wheels buried above the hubs.
Hubs deep and a comedy of errors – La Guajira, Colombia
The guide doesn’t know any better but I am scratching my head. We have locked axles front and rear. Locked four-wheel drive and yet the front aren’t even moving and the rear seems intent on finding the earth’s core.
Claire checks the front hub locks. The ‘Free’ and ‘Locked’ words embossed on the centre cap incredibly difficult to see when the wheels are dirty. But they are unlocked. They must have been locked already when I asked her to lock them so she simply turned the dial the other way. We’d been trying to get out in 2 wheel drive.
I swear the truck is giggling under the sound of the big diesel engine as I get in the drivers seat and try again. With the front wheels now engaged, the truck simply rolls forward without fuss.
Ok, I’ll admit. Without the heat and wind, this is a beautiful landscape – Punta Gallinas, Colombia
The most northerly point in South America
It has taken us eight hours to reach, but the small lighthouse and crumbling side building of Punta Gallinas is now next to the camper. The Caribbean ocean lapping at the most northerly sand in South America.
The nearby hostel is bereft of guests but the few staff don’t offer much in the way of excess enthusiasm over our arrival. We park up the camper, backing into the wind for a more comfortable night. A broken swaybar end link, now held together with a cable tie and, unbeknown to us, an air conditioning compressor that thankfully still has 8 hours left in it for the return journey before it seizes up on the highway south.
I sit next to a tattered and rigid Colombian flag. One that leaves little imagination as to the wind direction. It was a long drive. Not all of it was fun. But we got here. The North of the South. As with much of overlanding, the destination less of a draw than the journey itself. La Guajira is an incredibly unique place; ironically inhospitable and notable for its residents at the same time.
Contemplating the drive. Punta Gallinas, Colombia
Would I go again? Absolutely not. Would I go again, knowing what I know now, if I hadn’t been already? Absolutely. One and done does not mean the one should be devalued in any way. It’s a must-do trip for anyone venturing this way