Colombia’sFinal Frontier

 

Going to Punta Gallinas

Getting there: American, LAN and Avianca fly nonstop to Bogota from Miami; Spirit and JetBlue fly nonstop from Fort Lauderdale, a trip just under four hours. Roundtrip airfare starts around $390 from Miami, $415 from Fort Lauderdale for weekday travel in early December. Roundtrip connection on Avianca to Riohacha (about 1 1/2 hours) runs $200-300. Aventure Colombia, with offices in Cartagena (011-57-5-660-9721) and Bogota (011-57-1-702-7069), provides guided tours to Punta Gallinas and travel agents who speak English and French. Three night/ four-day tours run $300-$500 per person, depending on group size. Info@aventurecolombia.com.

When to go: December to February and May to August provide ideal conditions for refreshing ocean breezes and optimal travel conditions. The flamingo community at Hondita Bay can be seen from May to August, and sea turtles nest from May to November.

Be prepared: Bring sunscreen, clothing to protect you from the sun, and drink plenty of water. A book for lounging in a hammock or on the beach is a must as are extra camera batteries. Earplugs to dull the droll of an outboard motor are also helpful. Spanish fluency is not a requirement.

Recommended travel guides: “The Green Guide Colombia,” “Lonely Planet Colombia”


Special to the Miami Herald

En route to Punta Gallinas, I wasn’t sure we’d make it. After leaving the pavement outside Riohacha, the capital of Guajira province in northern Colombia, we wove through mud pits and cacti in a Toyota 4x4, bouncing along back roads cut through the desert. Four hours later, we arrived at a surreal, secluded beach where a dozen tiny wind turbines spun on the horizon below a mass of greenish clouds and orange sunrays. There we boarded a tiny fishing boat for the last leg of our journey.

As we raced across the coastal water toward our destination, a blaring outboard motor made any conversation impossible during the first two hours of sea travel. The waves were rough, and after each one our fiberglass boat would slam down with a bang. I kept trying to imagine, if the boat should split in half, if I could swim to the distant strip of land on my starboard side.

Soon, the water turned steel blue with the setting sun and our crew of five — three tourists and two guides — were on our own, blazing at breakneck speed toward seemingly nothing. The strip of land had disappeared and we were heading northeast toward what appeared to be open ocean.

It wasn’t until the sky was completely dark and a vast array of stars began to twinkle above that I saw a tiny lighthouse flash ahead of us. As we passed by numerous small islands in Honda Bay, I began to see and feel the wonder of this place: the green glow of bioluminescent microorganisms alongside our boat, thousands of stars amid that fuzzy cloudiness of the Milky Way galaxy that you can see only when you are this far from civilization.

After almost three hours on the water, we passed through the smaller Hondita Bay and pulled up to a tiny mud and rock dock some 50 feet below a windswept plateau. We scrambled up the embankment with our bulky suitcases, and my wife and I were led with a flashlight down a pathway bordered by painted white rocks. We passed a lean-to where hammocks swung in the wind, toward mud-brick houses that would serve as our sleeping quarters. Just as before, the Wayúu Indian guides quietly transported us, on schedule, as fast as possible.

EDGE OF THE WORLD

The next morning I realized where I had arrived. I was on the edge of the South American continent, miles from civilization, in a nearly uninhabited bay free of telephone lines, the bustle of shops or shouting street merchants usually found along Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The only sounds were those of the waves slapping against the rocky shores, the wind whipping through the cactus and the occasional bleating of a goat kept by the dozen or so locals who live near Luz Mila’s lodge. We felt as though we’d reached the edge of the earth.

From our perch on the plateau, we oversaw aquamarine waters and mangroves teeming with pelicans and other birds. White ripples on the water revealed it to be the home of dolphins and sharks. From May to August, a flamingo community dwells in Hondita Bay, while sea turtles nest from May to November. Each can be seen on outboard motorboat excursions included in a two-day stay.

Ten years ago such a trip was unthinkable. The FARC guerrillas controlled much of the northeastern department along the Venezuelan border, an area better known for contraband smuggling than sightseeing. Many Wayúu villages had no telecommunications, and a network of guides who knew the back roads and could ferry a traveler to the distant location had yet to be assembled. No longer.

In 2011, 4,000 visitors, mostly Europeans and young professionals, reached Punta Gallinas.

In one three-day trip last fall, we smothered on sunscreen to lounge on desolate beaches and swim in warm, salty water. We made short hikes to rocky peaks. We ran, rolled and slid down 120-foot tall sand dunes that drop precipitously into the ocean. Lunch and dinner were the same each day: fish — delicious grouper, ground shark meat or sumptuous lobster tails (two lobsters per traveler) — served with an ice-cold Venezuelan Polar beer.

The Wayúu

The indigenous peoples known as the Wayúu began to inhabit the Guajira peninsula 200 years before the Spanish arrived. They are fiercely independent and were never subjugated by the Spanish, maintaining relative autonomy from the government to this day. Nevertheless, they adopted customs of various occupiers, trading in pearls and learning to use firearms and horses to protect themselves. A matriarchal society and the largest indigenous group in Colombia, the Wayúu also developed a culture of contraband smuggling that is made possible by their dual Venezuelan-Colombian citizenship and uninhibited cross-border movement.

The Wayúu most often can be seen lining the beachfront in the departmental capital of Riohacha and in some parts of Cabo de la Vela, where their bright, woven handbags, hammocks and dresses are a splash of color on an otherwise earthy palette.

Francisco Huérfano is a guide with close ties to the Wayúu on Punta Gallinas. The cell phone-wielding, self-described “father of tourism” for the Wayúu spent 18 years as a tour operator across the country before settling in the Guajira Peninsula three years ago to live among the reserved community.

On a recent visit, he described to tourists how the sand dunes were created and when the sea turtles nest and he made sure the tour truck, motor boats and 4 x 4’s all ran on time. At dusk, he stood next to me pointing out the sights from the back of a bright orange Toyota cattle truck with other tourists from Europe and Colombia. While he adopted the ways of the Wayúu and gained their trust, he was not as timid. The answers — all well formulated and seemingly accurate — flowed like the whiskey from a leather pouch that he passed around.

THE TRIP

“Adventure travel” is sometimes shorthand for “willing to rough it,” and Punta Gallinas is no exception. Even Anthony Bourdain had to bounce through the desert rocks for hours while filming the Guajira segment of his culinary trip through Colombia, but he didn’t go as far north as Punta Gallinas. Getting there, it’s wise to cut the trip in half with a night at Cabo de la Vela, a beach town popular with Colombians and wind-surfers some three hours from Riohacha. On our day at Cabo de la Vela, we relaxed on the stunning, secluded beach cove at Playa del Pilón, sharing it only with the occasional tourist and one homeless woman who didn’t budge from a nearby cave.

For some exercise, I climbed to the top of the adjacent Pilón de Azucar, a mound of black rock with special meaning to the local Wayúu that also draws devout Christians. Walking alongside me one day were a half-dozen or so nuns, trekking in sandals over the loose gravel to a Virgin Mary shrine on the windy peak.

After our day at the beach, our guide transported us to another hilltop on the northern edge of town to watch the sun set from the Faro de la Vela lighthouse. There we watched dark shadows draw over the vast expanse of desert behind us, and the ocean turn from a rippling, shimmering mass to a deep, navy blue.

Try to use your opportunity in this more populous town to find a delicious plate of a Wayúu favorite, goat meat. Juicy and delicious, the thin slices of chivo over a grill are a must.

Accommodations in Cabo include your choice of limited-electricity board houses (the walls are made of wooden boards) and “bucket” showers. Keeping cool will depend on the nighttime breeze and whether you sleep in an outdoor hammock or on an indoor mattress.

The route from Cabo de la Vela to Punta Gallinas depends on the season. During the rainy season, from March to April and October to November, a combination of overland and sea transport is used. An hour-long desert ride is followed by a motorboat ride of two to three hours over open ocean and through the Honda and Hondita bays, where calmer waters open to mangrove shrouded islands and rocky cliffs. During the dry season (December to February and May to August), high winds blow rain clouds off the peninsula but prevent safe passage by sea, instead requiring a five-hour ride over rutted dirt roads.

The accommodations and voyage aside, being in such a remote place inspires an awe in nature that is difficult to capture anywhere else in the world. The calm winds will clear your mind, and the desert sand and cactus will put you at ease. Two lobsters each night for dinner don’t hurt either — this is a Colombia now within reach.

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