When I first heard that going to the desert in Colombia was an actual thing, I decided it was something I must do. Punta Gallinas is the highest point of Northern Colombia, insanely close to the Venezuelan border (bar a couple of hours perhaps) and incredibly difficult to figure out by yourself, so it was great when I discovered Annie – my 32 year old sister from another mister – in Cartagena, and we figured out that our routes were going roughly in the same direction for a little. After having some days to relax and hike around Santa Marta, Taganga and Tayrona, Annie, the Germans ( Eve and Nicky ) and I decided to spontaneously figure out the desert route ourselves from our base in Palomino rather than book an expensive tour.
The suggested “DIY” route to Punta Gallinas is the following. You need to take a 1 hour and a half bus to Riohacha, ask to be dropped where the colectivos to Uribia depart from and then from Uribia you need to get on a 4×4 public truck to get to Cabo de La Vela, in La Guijara (aka desert land) which takes a further 1 hour and a half. Sounds easy right? Well yes, if you’re prepared and speak great Spanish, but we are not prepared and did not speak great Spanish so continue reading.
We walked from our hostel Tiki Huts (opposite the world famous Dreamer hostel and in my opinion a LOT nicer) up the road to jump onto the bus to Riohacha. I was aware I needed an ATM but was under the assumption that the bus cost 15,000 Colombian Pesos so thought I’d be fine. Turns out the bus is actually a lot more per person and Samuel Torres AKA 20 year old ticket inspector with all the power tells me in Spanish to get off the bus in the middle of nowhere if we can’t pay. I decide quickly on a perfect plan and asked Samuel if it’s possible, upon arrival in Riohacha, to find an ATM and just pay him when we get there and thankfully he agrees. So, after everyone gets off the bus, Andres – our now personal bus driver – and Samuel – our now personal bus dictator- starts driving this huge coach around trying to find us an ATM.
We park up and Samuel – a native Colombian – gets as hassled as we do for taxis and fruit, touring four backpacked tourists around looking for money to pay him and his driver. Once we’ve found a working ATM, we discover it doesn’t work for all of us, so upon us asking Samuel to get us a good deal for our following journey in a taxi, we jump into a cab to get to yet another ATM. The taxi we have stops in a random street to get someone to throw some gas in his car and then we’re on the road!
I’m in the front, looking at the scenery of cactuses and then realise that it seems impossible that we’re doing 80mph when his speedometer says 15mph. Are we flying? Is this a dream? No. His speedometer is broken. So yeah, there’s that.
Upon jumping into a jeep, we arrive in the desert, driving through plain sand, past a few random shacks and watch little children hold up a “string” – this becomes more of an occurrence over the next few days – to try and entice people to pay them to drive through. Well, most of the time the plan doesn’t work, and we drive through. The unfortunate thing is that whilst you can pay some, you can’t pay all, and it becomes apparant that there are a LOT of poor children in the desert, eager to make about 75p.
Upon arriving on the desert strip, I start to learn a little about the ancestral tribe that lived here and their children’s children’s children’s children who now live here too. They have their own language and don’t know Spanish. The strip itself kinda reminds me of the Kavos strip, but with no proper functioning bars and no drinks to buy from inside – the guys that work in these bars have to motorbike to other places to buy them for us – no people, no tourists, only small Wayuu children forcing us to buy the same headband and bag – and naturally I bought a headband because I’m a sucker for a good deal. So basically, the only similarity to the Kavos strip is that it’s a long road and that’s it, but hey ho.
We read that some travellers stayed at a place called Daniel’s and we decide to stay in the room for 9/10 people for £5 a night. Daniel’s can be mistaken for anything BUT a place to stay, surrounded by fruit and plastic chairs and random people watching a small television in a room facing the road. We walked through other random Colombians lounging in a row of colourful hammocks before getting to our 9 person room and we’re lucky because we got it ALL TO OURSELVES. That’s right, we had the choice of 9, perhaps 10 single beds lined up next to each other, covered in flies and god knows what else. The bathroom was opposite and consisted of a toilet with no seat and upon asking Daniel for toilet paper, no toilet paper either. I don’t even know what the shower was, because people were just throwing bucket water over themselves. Either way, it was awesome – and I’m not being sarcastic. It was SO great to be somewhere absolutely disgusting for us first world citizens, but somewhere that people in the desert would probably think was a palace. By god does it make you appreciate a real toilet when you sit on one… my body, knowing that there were no seats, paper or functioning facilities held onto pooing for at least three days.
So I digress, we get to Daniel’s after an extremely long trip there, and decide to walk around and explore for a bit. We pass a guy trying to sell us a trip to Punta Gallinas but minus his fantastic, white teeth, there was nothing else that appealed to us about him so we continued walking and were approached by a short, stout man who owned a restaurant called Toti’s. He himself was called Toti (junior) and Annie and I instantly took a liking to him. He invited us in, got us drinks (that we paid for, they weren’t free obviously, this IS the desert) and told us about the trips he could provide for us. He told us that he could take us around La Guijara the following day to explore pyramids and viewpoints and then on Saturday we’d need to wake up at 4.30am to get on the way to the highest point, our ultimate destination at Punta Gallinas. Somehow, and don’t ask me how, it might have possibly been the desert ganja, but I was miraculously not only having a full on conversation with this man in Spanish, but actually negotiating deals! Aka there’s four of us, can you knock down the price a bit? Toti was obviously prepared for this type of bargaining because it wasn’t difficult for him to automatically eliminate the cost of the day trip around the desert straightaway. Toti was also EXTREMELY organised and decided to write us a contract just so we knew exactly what was included – a contract written on a piece of paper of course. 2 tours and return transport to the place to grab a jeep back – readers, please remember this piece of information, it’s important for later, also please remember to ALWAYS take a photo of a badly written contract if you ever end up in the desert because you’ll have to provide the evidence to said man later when he tries to weasel you out of return transport but ANYWAY. Back to when Annie and I were solemnly discussing how we just had a feeling Toti was a trustworthy guy. Just like that? This random man and the random young guys who worked for him and us four started to hang out.. eating in the restaurant with exactly the same meal for lunch and dinner. I’ll talk about the actual trips in a second, but actually the experience with Toti, his random group of cronies and us 4 was one the main highlights of this trip.
The routine before/after a trip would be the same. We’d turn up at the “restaurant” which was really the only place on the desert strip that had a table and four chairs amongst the hammocks and ask for the “menu” which involved Ray bringing out a plate of 5 fish and maybe some prawns freshly caught and the conversation with Ray and I – remembering Ray didn’t speak English – went like this:
Emily : Que es esto? – What is this *points to random fish
Ray: *names random fish in Spanish that as per usual Emily doesn’t know because it turns out Haddocks, Salmons and Lemon Soles (most definitely was never offered a Lemon Sole but you get the gist) have completely different names in Spanish.
Emily: Cuanto Cuesta? – How much?
Ray: Vein-TAY – 20,000 (equivalent to five pounds)
Emily: Y esto? – And this?
Ray: * names random fish
Emily: Cuanto Cuesta?
Ray: Vein-TAY Cinco – 25,000
Emily: Y esto?
Ray: * names random fish and Emily nods like she knows what fish it is
Emily: Cuanto Cuesta?
Ray: TRAAAEN-tah (usually prounounces Treinta which is 30,000 mil pesos)
And Emily picks between the black and pink fish, swaps it up between lunch and dinner and it comes with rice and two lettuce leaves and a slice of tomato SIN cebolla (without onion) whilst the others follow my fish lead and add on beers to their order which need to be bought by one of the guys who work for him from somewhere else entirely.
Anyway, so now you’re getting a picture of who we’re hanging out with in the desert right? We’ve got Toti, chief godfather, who has this restaurant, which is mainly a wooden bar with no actual drinks inside. Somehow, and for the life of me I don’t know how, he seems to know everyone on the strip. Between sniffing **curious** substances whilst chatting, making jokes with us through bloodshot eyes and barking orders at the people who seem to work for him, he was chatting with the policeman on the road – you know he’s the godfather when he’s busy mixing with naughty substances and yet befriending the police – and people are randomly dropping in, young youths in hoodies and caps mainly, eager to use his power to charge their phones – perhaps he owned the desert and therefore the electricity? Who knows.
So Trip 1 was a three hour tour around La Guijara. Well we thought it was a tour, as we jumped onto motorbikes to get to the first viewpoint. However, when we arrived, there was no Toti. In fact, we were standing around having no idea what was going on, assuming he was going to meet us and trying to speak to the young motorbike guys who took us there. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t get what we were saying … turns out they didn’t speak Spanish, they spoke their own Wayuu language and therefore just stared at us blankly when we asked how long we had to walk around, where was Toti etc. Eventually, we finished hiking around the pyramids, jumped onto the motorbikes and hoped they knew where else to take us. It was interesting when they suddenly stopped in the middle of the desert, and I was convinced I might get robbed .. when suddenly we see a jeep hurtling towards us and out jumps good ol’ Ray and his friend Breymar. Hooray! All is well, our good restaurant friends are here. We jump in, excited to see familiar faces and Ray decides to keep his foot on the accelerator as we’re driving off to see different viewpoints for sunset – how they managed to find us in the middle of a sandy desert I don’t know. See below pictures for an insight into our first proper day 😉
We returned to eat Ray’s fish and sit by the fire and chill before heading back to our fly ridden beds. Now, the fact that it was clear we had signed a contract with the godfather of the desert was ever so slightly unsettling, and naturally, when you’re in a place that’s completely different to what you’re used to, you can either enjoy the ride and see what happens or start to freak out a tad. The Germans started to feel a little worried about the fact this guy was obviously dodgy as f, that we’d paid for a completely unlicensed tour and that he might rob us HOWEVER I chatted in depth about how selling tourists unlicensed tours was his job and if he murdered the tourists he was selling this unlicensed tour to, he’d be out of pocket which calmed them down. I also reminded them that we were here for four days and this felt like REAL travelling, not all fancy hostels with beer. It’s eye opening to see how another tribe lives and absolutely amazing to see another part of Colombia that needs serious prepping to travel to.
The following morning we got up at 4.30am and walked to Toti’s restaurant, eager to jump into the jeep at 5am. CAFE?!! A woman screamed at us in the pitch black from a corner which I found very nice actually! How kind of her to get up at this time to offer her services, and to wake us up a little better with a fright. Now, one thing I’ve learnt about Colombia is that there is an actual KNOWN thing called “South American timing” as in “yeah he’s two hours late because he’s on South American timing duh” and sure enough although not two hours late, the jeep hadn’t arrived to collect us. Nor had Toti. In fact the Germans, Annie, myself and three other tourists were the only people standing in front of the restaurant gone 5am, although it was reassuring for Nicky and Eve to see other people had also paid for this tour – pretty hard to murder 7 people now. Eventually, Toti comes down in his pyjamas, and then the car arrives and we jump in.
We visited a number of sites before being told we had to pay for a boat to get to Punta Gallinas – NOT in the contract Toti – and eventually arrived at the Sand Dunes which were absolutely beautiful and I was amazed to see the sea at the bottom. The only bad thing about the Sand Dunes (and I say “bad” lightly because a) it was the best Glutes exercise I’d ever done and b) I couldn’t stop laughing, was that it was the steepest hill climb ever naturally created and I was watching Annie get stuck trying to force her way back up whilst being knee deep in sand myself. Everytime Annie tried to lift her legs with her massive backpack on, she’d not get any further. No wonder return transport was included in our contract – I bet Toti thought we’d never make it out of the Sand Dunes alive, cheeky bugger.
Then that was it! On our way back to Toti’s, looking forward for our transport back – INCLUDED in the contract Toti! – so we could grab a jeep, a bus and then eventually get back to showering, toilet needs etc. However, when we arrived, Ray told us that it was too late to drop us back, and we could stay free of charge in the hammocks at the restaurant and the following day, at 7am he could personally drive us back. How kind! How thoughtful! Most definitely not on the contract but sure a free night in a hammock by the sea is a hell of a lot better than staying in my bug filled bed so we agreed, setting our alarms early, settling down to another dinner of fish – VEINTE MIL – (20,000 pesos) and with me being the incredible person I am, sucking up to Toti like everyone else who works under him, and helping him translate to these lovely English speaking people that they should totally do the tour he provides .. even though the girl’s on crutches and if I find it difficult to get out of Sand Dunes, she’s got no hope.
And so morning arrives, and after an interesting experience sleeping in hammocks, we get up at 7am ready to be taken to our final destination – which we all know very well, WAS INCLUDED IN THE CONTRACT TOTI.
At 8am, I ask Ray why we haven’t left and he tells me he can’t personally take us as he needs to work (Ray is chief of admin at the restaurant and has most definitely calculated our food prices all wrong, but hey, no judgement) and that there will be a car arriving for us soon – a different car to our original driver as apparantely our original driver has JUST at this very minute been involved in a … road accident? Not that Ray looked worried at this seemingly new piece of information. I smell bullsh*t.. or maybe the non functioning toilet but still. Ray lets us know that there will be another car available.
At 8.30am, I ask how soon and he tells me 9am.
At 9am, I say ‘Hola Ray’. What the heck is going on – noticing the Germans are getting agitated, I smell like a farm with a 100 cows and Annie is getting impatient. He lets us know that he can get us a car but it will cost. At this point, Toti comes out, snorting, sniffing and smoking away and looking a little bit wild. He was great with us last night and now he looks ever so slightly like he wants to thump me – unsure why. So I let him know that I’m refusing to pay for a car to take us all the way back to the jeep stop which will be super expensive and also in the contract? It says return transport is INCLUDED. And here we go… Toti responds angrily telling me sleeping in his hammocks was not included and therefore we need to pay for the car back. His hammocks, can I just add, are the price of a packet of crisps and the car back costs a LOT more so I could see what he was trying to do here. I look at him, straight in the bloodshot eyes and tell him that we never WANTED to stay in the hammocks in the first place last night, we wanted to go home, however RAY told us/OFFERED us the option of free accommodation as he was unable to take us back. Therefore? It’s not my problem, it’s Ray’s problem for lying and he can get us a free ride.
I’m just really glad I can speak Spanish enough because Toti could see I was refusing to back down and eventually, five hours, three conversations with his homies and two shouting matches at Ray later, Toti eventually manages to hail down some random car and we jump in, hoping the guy driving knows we aren’t paying. Somehow, and with the help of the lovely woman in front, we manage to jump onto a small bus and after everyone leaves, negotiate a deal for him to take us to a supermarket to buy COFFEE and REAL FOOD NOT FISH and use a toilet where I can SIT DOWN AND RELAX.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, patient readers who have got this far, I end my story in relief. Annie, Eve, Nicky and I run through the shopping mall, amazed after four days to see a supermarket, go crazy buying fruit and I get a whole load of looks from people watching me wash my entire body, feet and face in a toilet sink – not sure if I’ve mentioned that I haven’t washed in four days? Complete with almond cappuccino – I think I deserved it.
And so to sum up the desert? I know I’ve spoken a lot about these men we were with for four days being tricksters, but that was just for overall context. Journey-ing to and from the desert, having to figure our way out of uncertain situations, having the opportunities to surround ourselves with adults and children of a tribe that not many people know about, seeing these beautiful, stunning places, practising Spanish to save our pockets, taking an unlicensed tour that meant we were on motorbikes, in jeeps and not in a big air conn-ed coach, watching through the windows or on said bikes how families live in shacks beyond the desert, eating the freshest caught fish, laughing until I cried with members of Toti’s group, getting closer to three people I’d met only possibly a week before and feeling like I’d known them forever, realising how lucky I am to HAVE a toilet I can flush, food I can eat, money I can spend and a house with a roof made this one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had.
And I challenge you to do the same. I don’t mean literally going to a desert – although I’d recommend it – I mean throwing yourself out of your comfort zone and surrounding yourself in a culture totally unfamiliar to yours. It could be the best thing you ever do.