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 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 4s 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.
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 didnt go as far north as Punta Gallinas. Getting there, its 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 didnt 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 dont hurt either this is a Colombia now within reach.