Adventure to the top of South America!
June 27, 2017, Trip:
We got an early start out of San Martin and drove along the coast northward. We are now in La Guajira province which borders northwestern Venezuela – this means cheaper gasoline! It is brought across the border [not sure if it’s all done legally or not ;-)]. We need to bring extra gas with us for our journey up to the northern point so we stopped in the village of Palomino and filled up – it was already cheaper. We had been paying around $2.78USD a gallon prior to this point and here we paid around $2.25. We filled up not knowing what the price would be when we got to the only large city up here, Riohacha.
We did stop in Riohacha to pick up items to use at the “roadblocks” along the desert highway (more on this below). We bought 25 small bags of rice, 10 small bags of sugar, 40 individual water bags (instead of bottles), 100 candies, a bag of oranges and some bars of soap and hotel size bottles of shampoo. We understood that the first tolls want only small amounts of money so we had small bills with us as well.
We also filled up the tank once again and the jerry cans for about $2 a gallon! We still had not heard from anyone about joining us on the way up to the point so we’re heading to Cabo de la Vela in the hopes of picking a guide there. After Riohacha you drive inland, then north through Uribia (following the railway line which goes to the port east of Punta Gallinas) and topped up one more time. We aired down the tires and carried on as there is pretty much no pavement from this point onward.
The temperature reached 104F today and it’s amazing the goats survive grazing in this area.
It’s about 50 km up to the southern turn off to Cabo de la Vela and then the roads get worse and the tolls began shortly after the turn off.
Tolls in La Guajira: There are proper tolls all over Colombia (and they are not cheap) but these tolls are different. The indigenous tribe called Wayuu live up here and there are extremely poor. Using the roads/tracks up here crosses their lands and both adults and children (sometimes whole families) have set up “roadblocks” where they ask for money to pass through. Now we don’t, (like many other overlanders), support begging so as often as possible, we try to “pay” with food items or necessities. There are many small communities of huts with no power, water or sewer up here and these people really struggle to get by.
There were fifteen of these tolls with kids holding strings or chains across the road and they wanted sweets for the most part (it’s usually those manned by adults where they insist on money). Doug made several balloon animals and we tried to pass those and double ended coloured pencils out more often than sweets. It was still about fifteen kilometres to Cabo.
It’s a very small town with one main sand/road right on the bay with calm waves but strong winds. There are a couple of hotels and lots of small eateries.
We stopped at one hotel that offered AC but they wanted nearly $70 for a room – out of our price range when we’ve been paying half that to now. We decided to boondock at the lighthouse outside of town but wanted to stop at the Kite School that Joe & Josée told us that they stayed at to see about getting a guide .
This is a kite surfing school/hostel with a bar and small shelters with hammocks in them. They run totally on solar so no power is offered.
Eko and Paula (German and Colombian couple) told us the wind blows all night and we should manage fine without AC. We met a polish guy, Miki, at the bar who’d just come down from Punta Gallinas on his motor bike. We spent the evening chatting with him. Paula had her contact come see us about a guide and Adrian told us a man named Julio would meet us here at 7AM tomorrow and we agreed on a price. Julio would come with us in Tigger and do the trip up in one day, stay up there and return on Thursday.
Miki really wanted to buy a lobster for dinner and was trying to convince us to join him but we declined and said we’d get fresh fish. Doug and Miki went on his motorbike and went to purchase the seafood while Fran prepped veggies to go with it. Turned out the place had no lobster left so they ordered two fish to be cooked and they returned for them an hour later.
We sat at the bar after dinner with Miki and then hit the hay around 9:30.
Wednesday morning, Julio, never showed up so we left just before 7:30 and decided to go on our own. We had a route in both our Garmin (from Hernando at Iguana 4×4 in Barranquilla) and Maps.me. We left Cabo de la Vela on a different route than we entered and made it back to the railway road to the turn off to Punta. As we were just about to turn, the brakes went in Tigger! There was a truck stopped across the road and a man came over and helped Doug diagnose that we’d lost the fluid in the left rear cylinder. He said we should drive down the road the 58km to Uribia and there’d be someone who could help us.
Fortunately, it’s a straight road and we made it safe and sound; we stopped inside the town and asked about a shop that works on brakes. We found a “shop” in a backyard. The mechanic helped us right away and confirmed the cylinder blew, we lost all the fluid and THE ROTOR WAS SHOT! If you recall that other side’s rear rotor went almost a year ago in El Salvador and Doug brought one back from a work trip to the States. We were not sure we’d get a new one here in Colombia. The mechanic disconnected the left rear brake and we were good to go on the three remaining ones until we could get to a bigger city.
We turned around and began the adventure to Punta Gallinas. After the turn off despite seeing a few ropes down on the ground we did not have roadblocks right away but then there were three in quick succession at which we gave a monetary donation then after that there were several for which they accepted food items. This went on for a few km but then not many until much further down the line.
We are now definitely in the desert and the landscape is every changing; scrub, sand, gravel, dirt, clay and the flora changed from cactus to trees to shrubs to grass and back again. There was a salt flats like section, a dune area, a hilly rock section and more.
Now most of the way is of course, not on real “roads” per se, more like tracks and many disappear if it rains and the tracks become reinvented. Most of the time we find tracks but at the salt flats section they were not very discernable and we tried to just following the bearings on our maps. Unluckily, we got stuck once and between Doug using our shovel (the one we replaced in Costa Rica) and Fran find what branches we could, we got unstuck and we saw a vehicle go by to our right about 50 metres and made our way over to it. (This is the kind of remoteness we love; no cities; no crowds, no touristy crap – just us and the road in our little house!
Many times we got off the “track” but managed to work our way back; at times you’d see up to three tracks at one point and at times, none. According to the GPS’s we were following, we drove across three bays – driving on water – but of course, there was no water; the weird part is the road shows up crossing the water on the maps! It’s all part of the adventure.
In the last third of the 86 km/52 mi drive we encountered many more tolls and happily paid them. These indigenous people are so poor and it really tugs at your heart strings. Some are selling bags or bracelets, snails or shrimp (not sure how long those were sitting in the sun….) but we have no need or space for such things and they gratefully accept our food items. In this area, we were approaching the coast again and sand dunes began to appear and as it was late in the afternoon we decided to postpone checking them until in the morning when we begin the drive back down.
We made it to the point where the lighthouse is located after in six hours and found hundreds of inuksuk’s set up there.
There were two SUV full of tour groups and we chatted with them and the next group that showed up. After dipping our feet in the ocean as it’s again, too rough to swim in, we took a short drive further down the point to see what was there. The road took us to the other side which faces a pretty bay.
After the last group left the point, we had it to ourselves and spent the night. It was windy up here too but still quite humid and hot.
Note: As mentioned, Punta Gallinas is the northern most point in the continent of South America. To give you some perspective, we are almost as far north as Leon, Nicaragua!
We ran the generator and used the AC for sleeping that night. Unfortunately it rained overnight twice and when we awoke it was pretty socked in and began to sprinkle again – we were rather concerned about the roads ahead so to try and stay ahead of any big rain coming, we left, deciding to skip the visit to the dunes. Within a half hour, we were stuck in wet sand; Doug pulled out the shovel again and a few locals showed up. Fran collected a few rocks and they helped us get the tires ready to drive out.
About a half hour later, we saw a white SUV on the road ahead and tried to keep him in sight so we were knew we were on the right track and hopefully, help if we got stuck again so we followed his tire tracks on the wet “roads”. The gap actually began shortening so we figured they were having difficulty and could see where their tracks looked like they might have had issues.
We had a few times where the back end of Tigger fish tailed but our expert 4×4 driver, Doug, managed to keep us going until…..we hit some really deep mud with huge ruts and finally we were stuck once again; the right back end was up against the short dirt “wall” along the side and the right front tire was slightly raised from the ground – we weren’t going anywhere! Getting out of the rig was slippery with mud that really sticks to your shoes and weighs them down. Doug saw that there was actually a tree nearby and we could use the winch and it got us out of there.
Shortly afterwards, one of the SUV’s we’d encountered at the point last night came up behind us and he said we could follow him (cause by now we’d lost sight of that white one) so off we went once again. They did wait for us twice to catch up but then we lost them but by this time, it seemed we reached the outskirts of the area where it rained and the roads improved so our only worry was that boggy section we’d hit the day before.
When we crossed the third “body of water” we stopped for breakfast in the “water”. Like other times when we stopped, a local or two would come out of nowhere and check us out. This time it was a young boy with a dog. We gave him some water and an orange while we ate.
We came across a few other vehicles once again and followed them and they took us a different route back to the railway road and we didn’t hit the boggy section again. This road was better overall and saved us 11km. There were a few tolls again but not as many.
This was a fun adventure but it really took a toll on poor Tigger. It had so much mud it was amazing. Doug managed to get a bunch off while Fran made breakfast but it was going to need a major wash.
We reached Uribia, went to air up the tires to highway pressures and got more gas and asked about a car wash. A young man lead us on his bike through town to a large one and it took nearly three hours to get Tigger spic and span! There was one man and a young boy working on it and they did an amazing job – all for the equivalent of $10! We tipped the man another $5 and the young boy $3. They brought to our attention that our propane hose was leaking! One of the men took Doug into the village to a hardware store in the hopes of getting a new piece of hose that he said he could replace the cracked one with – no luck. So we turned off the propane and will have to wait until we get to a larger city.
By this time, it was getting late and our next stop was 200 kms away so Doug asked if we could spend the night here in the gated lot and they allowed us to plug in – and all for no charge! Upon moving we discovered that the rear right blinker was not working. Doug fiddled with it a while, replaced bulbs and checked the wiring but we had no success. Doug also noticed that the left rear corner of the rig sustained some damage when we slid into that dirt wall so that will need some TLC too. Fun, fun, fun! We moved over to a different part of the lot and we spent a quiet night and after the gates opened in the morning, we paid the man something anyway and left.
It took us about two hours to drive from Uribia to the much larger city of Valledupar and we noticed quite a military presence on the highway in that there were many checkpoints but we were never ask to pull over – a nice change – we figured they were looking for Venezuelan illegals or contraband.
Fun facts: A few things we’ve notice in our short time in Colombia:
- Instead of the many ant infestations we had in Central America, we’ve not been bothered by them at all here (we did have an issue with gnat in Taganga but that was probably from some fruit)
- We see way less advertising for beer or pain meds; in Central America most tiendas either had a beer sign or an Aleve or Tabas sign (cold meds) but here, it’s very rare
- We also rarely see a “coco frio” stand anymore (cold coconut water served in a coconut) probably because they import most of their coconuts rather than finding them free
- There also seems to be a lot more topes (speed bumps) again although not as extreme as in Mexico
Valledupar is on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and it’s a good sized city. It, like many Latin American cities, has many roundabouts but here there seems to be a statue in each one. (the car in front is the typical Hyundia taxi)
We’d seen a good recommend for a mechanic here so that was our first stop. Hector’s shop welcomed us warmly and everyone was super friendly, much of the staff is from his family. They took a look at the rear brakes and tried for several hours to try and locate a rotor for us but had no luck. Fran found us an inexpensive hotel room with good wifi and AC. Doug got online at the shop and ordered a rotor from the US and paid for expedited shipping to Bucaramanga where Hector’s brother also runs a brake shop; how convenient as we are heading in that direction. It’s supposed to arrive in 4-5 business days. They had an electrician come and fix the blinker and one of the mechanics there also fixed the propane hose!
That night (Friday) Hector invited us to his home for dinner. Many of his family turned up as well. Sadly, it seems that he has a drinking problem and it was one beer right after another all evening and he was often pushing them on us as well. He has two sons and a daughter and his middle son was with us and he spoke some decent English so Franco helped translate when needed and he also drove us to their house.
They also invited us to come with them the next day for a dip in the river and they said they’d pick us up at our hotel. The next morning, Doug realized he has the keys so walked over to the garage so they could continue working on Tigger. No one mentioned the river trip and the work was done by 1PM – closing time. Doug returned with Tigger and we found a place across from the hotel to park it securely for one night and then went to run some errands and went for pizza for dinner at a little spot on a street corner.