After carnage at carnival it was time to get back on the cultural trail and explore an area which I consider off the beaten track (although perhaps not for much longer) – the desert. Myself, Lauren and Carl (all members of the Carnaval crew) headed off on a bus to Palomino, caught a second bus where I’d read we should change at Riohacha and change for a third time at Uribia. The conductor of the bus we’d caught from Palomino however told us to stay on when we tried to get off at Riohacha, not fully understanding we assumed there was a proper stop further down the road we should be switching at as we’d told the conductor our final destination was Cabo de la Vela. I was very quickly frustrated as we left the town completely and then the conductor demanded more money off each of us. I won’t repeat some of the choice phrases I said in English but I got very heated and kept trying to explain to the conductor in Spanish what we were trying to do. In my defense he never explained himself, simply told me to wait and pay more money. I was furious, thinking we’d have to cab it back to Riohacha and realising we were on a street headed for a town extremely close to the Venezuelan border – the opposite direction from where we were headed. Eventually the bus stopped at a random cross roads just before Maicao, where the conductor got us off and loads of men came running up screeching ‘Cabo de la Vela’. At this point I was more than a little embarrassed about my name calling on the bus, but I really had believed we were just being kept on a bus for more money. Shame on me – Colombians are good with their tourists. Usually.
At this stop we got into a pick up truck for an extremely dusty and uncomfortably bumpy 3 hour ride to Cabo de la Vela. I bartered our tickets down to 25 pesos each and another three people got in and joined us. It’s important to note that these pick up trucks will not leave unless they’re full. We heard one story of a girl, travelling alone, who waited there all day and as the sun began to set was turned away. It’s the middle of nowhere – not somewhere you want to find yourself alone in the dark.
At Cabo de la Vela we decided to sleep in the first place we found, which coincidentally three other girls from Carnaval were at! We got a basic dinner (bring food with you!), which was extremely basic and quite uncomfortable due to the sheer amount of flies buzzing around.
We’d bought Oreos and small bottles of water to hand out to the children, when, much to my chagrin old ladies started coming up to me and hitting me for Oreos as well. I had to hide the rest away as they’d been bought predominantly for the people living in the actual desert. (I’ll admit I may have broken into a pack or two because I was still hungry – but we’d bought a massive box…).
We booked on to a tour and without much else to do called it an early night as we tucked into our hammocks and slept on the beach.
A 4.30am start the next day with no shower (there’s no running water – not for showering, toilet flushing or hand washing – do not come here if you’re squeamish about these things). At 5am all six of us from Carnaval were piled into a Jeep for another uncomfortable three hour ride to tour the most northern point in South America. Bear in mind the people who live here have absolutely nothing, there were ‘road blocks’ almost every five metres for at least a solid hour. A piece of fabric or rope tied to something, only to be released when a payment had been made to the person holding the other end. Payment could be small change, cookies, little bottles of water, anything, so long as it was something. Hours later and we finally made it to the boats. I just have to note here is where Carl realised he’d lost his wallet in the Jeep and we had someone call the driver who duly came back and delivered Carl’s wallet plus contents to him.
A short boat ride later and we were treated to an extremely basic breakfast – optional of course. We were then piled into two vans and took off to Punto Gallinas, the most northern point in South America.
The final stop of the tour were the massive sand dunes that meet the Carribean sea. An absolutely stunning sight! It was easy to lose your legs to the sand, people were rolling down the dunes into the water and we all got very silly in a very beautiful place. Wear lots of suncream!
A quick lunch later and Lauren, Carl and I were racing off, back on the boat, on to the uncomfortable Jeep ride that took us from Punto Gallinas back to Uribia. We got back much faster – our driver often not stopping for the desert ‘tax’ stops and the people had to simply drop their ropes or risk our driver breaking them. It made me sad, angry and uncomfortable, but we’d also run out of things to give them (please try to bring a lot of little things such as sweets or cookies – it doesn’t cost much) so I spent a lot of time looking at my feet. Once we reached Uribia after driving at decent speeds from the end of the ‘toll zone’ our driver was suddenly going incredibly slowly, and would cut the engine every so often. Eventually we realised his road rage at people in his way, and beeping was due to the fact the breaks on the Jeep didn’t work. Oh wonderful. We made it in one piece, found ourselves a collectivo to Riohacha and eventually a bus to Palomino for a night in a suspect hostel I wouldn’t recommend.
We set off at 7am the next morning catching another bus to Tayrona Park, where, after three days of being reopened the queues were no longer too heinous and people weren’t being turned away. I’ve since heard you’re not allowed to bring your own alcohol into the park, slightly ironic as a guard pulled out a box of wine from Lauren’s bag during a bag check, looked at it and then placed it back into her bag. Either he felt sorry for her for having bought boxed wine in the first place or he knew how much we were about to struggle having brought our big bags with us and didn’t have the heart to take away the one thing that might make it worthwhile – thanks mate we definitely needed the wine after that hike!
Here’s where research would have helped. Tayrona park is a national park and as such there aren’t roads throughout the whole place for cars to get through. It’s also massive. So take your small bag only! I think it took an hour and a half of trekking, and while I’m glad I’ve got a relatively ‘small’ large bag I’m still not used to hiking with all the extra weight. So in a sundress and converse I hiked an hour and a half with all my belongings for this trip with gritted teeth and tears threatening to fall. Carl was our absolute outstanding hero of the day and at one point took both of our smaller bags as we struggled on. Upon reaching the main camp and finding no free hammocks Carl ran off while we sat with bags, begged bread off the closed kitchen and munch on peanut butter sandwiches. Within the hour Carl was back and had hammocks booked.
Legend. We saved him some bread by the way. As we dropped off our bags and sorted out our hammocks I hear a tentative ‘bex..?’ Turning around, in the hammocks next to me were the cute Irish couple I’d met back in Mancora, Peru, in January. You couldn’t plan this stuff if you tried!
Carl, Lauren and I headed down to the main campsite (which looks cool but everyone who gets a hammock here spends the night cold and miserable), to try and meet Lauren’s pal, Sam. En route we found fresh orange juice and mixed it with our boxed red wine (definitely needed) and had a weird but tasty Sangria hybrid. We waited around for a few hours and were about to give up hope of finding Sam when I got talking to a German girl who fed us all cake and faces stuffed Lauren peers to the beach next to us with a ‘I think that’s Sam’, ‘no that’s not Sam’, ‘no I’m sure it’s Sam’ – it was Sam in case anyone was wondering. So a double thank you to the German girl and her cake!
The three of us stayed at this camp (another 1.5 hour walk away from ours), eating dinner here before deciding to walk back to our camp at 9pm. Can I please just advise against this? It was pitch black, in a national park – what did we think would happen?! Within the first 10min my flip flop clad feet had nearly stepped on a blue crab (bring a head torch, the phone light simply isn’t strong enough), we were stopped by a tarantula in our path (although I was more freaked out about the fact a tarantula eating wasp could be nearby, a whole other story), and we found an orchestra of singing frogs. I’ve no clue what creepy crawlies we managed to avoid, and there were some extremely suspect noises in the trees all the way back to camp.
The next morning we woke up to rain. Not ideal. So we decided while we waited for it to stop we’d get breakfast at our campsite which was a huge mistake. It took about two hours to get basic scrambled eggs and toast and by our turn they’d run out of coffee. Arf. A very cold shower later and we went to explore (the rain had stopped). We found a little bakery and got some absolutely delicious (and still warm) chocolate bread and fresh orange juice. We wandered to the lagoon just beyond the bakery, munching still warm chocolate break and lo and behold there was a croc on the other side of the lagoon. Which we of course had to get to and take selfies with as closely as we dared.
More beach time and monkey viewing ensued and we stopped off at Lily’s (try to find it – no queues, amazing food and a good price) for a massive lunch. We spent the remainder of the day in our hammocks, chatting, reading and relaxing.
On our final day we went back to the bakery for breakfast – again no two hour wait and the food was simply amazing. As we were packing up Lauren suddenly screeches and shakes her whole body – a spider had been on her arm, after a little bit of searching we re-found it lurking on her flip flop. I don’t know why but I felt like sleeping in hammocks would keep us safe from the nasties. Nope! Lauren and I were in agreement that we were riding horses out of the park because carrying our bags all that way across the terrain was simply torturous. It was a hilarious experience. Lauren’s horse decided to run off into the wilderness, all of our horses stumbled at one point or another, my knee started to go up Carl’s horses bum and the guide encouraged the horses to jog where possible because he found Lauren’s screeching hilarious ‘no no no noooooooo’ – it was kind of funny.
We had to hurry to get back to Santa Marta to book the Lost City Trek. But tips for Tayrona park – bring food with you, don’t bother queuing in your camp for breakfast, there are little places and stalls you can find better and cheaper food and do not bring your big bag!!