A tour or excursion in Colombia that is becoming more popular involves heading to the desert in the north known as “La Guajira”, to visit the indigenous Wayuu people of Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas. Typically visitors leave from Riohacha and make their way up either with a tour or by themselves and stay in the desert, mostly in hammocks or in luxurious Chinchorros, to see where the desert meets the sea and creates a fantastic landscape for the eyes and, of course, for your camera.
Much like other multi-day tours, you can choose to either book yours in advance with a tour company in Riohacha, or decide to make your own way out by using shared transports and booking accommodation once you arrive in each location. There is no real downside to organising the journey on your own, except for a little extra stress (though you will save money).
We decided to go on our own, more because we only had time to go partly into the desert to a little beach-side town called Cabo de la Vela. Regardless of whether you go by yourself or take a tour, there are certain items that you will regret not taking.
What to Take
Our advice is to take the following:
- Water – this is scarce in the desert and indeed the region, which is going through a bad drought at the moment. Water in the desert is usually mixed with the salt water of the sea to make it last longer, so you will find yourself showering in semi-salty water for the duration of your stay. As for drinking water, we recommend taking 5L of water with you, easily purchased in either Riohacha or the following town, Uribia. This should be enough for a 2 night stay in the desert.
- Insect Repellent – We did not find the insects to be too bad, but the ones that did find us would not leave us alone. Repellent is probably one of the more important things to have in both Central and South America and that still applies whilst you are in the desert.
- Sunscreen – It of course gets quite hot in the desert, but this is also masked quite well by the winds that tend to pick up throughout the day. This means that a lot of people do not bother applying sunscreen because they do not feel hot, and then come back after their trip wind and sunburnt! Make sure you continually apply throughout the day, as all of the sites on your trip are outdoors.
- Warm Clothing – the age old adage of the hot desert changes dramatically at night, where the cool sets in and the breeze adds to it. As you will most likely be sleeping in a hammock (you can choose a bed but they cost extra), it is a wise idea to bring along a few extra sweaters and maybe even thermal pants to keep the cold at bay. Even a beanie is a good idea in case you really do feel that cold, with the advice that having more is always better than having none at all.
- Snacks – we always bring snacks along with us whilst travelling around, and the desert was no different. Muesli bars, fruit, candy; we packed it all, and it definitely came in handy whilst touring around. There are a few different supermarkets located in Riohacha (including an Exito), and a final opportunity for food at some smaller tiendas in Uribia.
Going to the Desert (without a tour)
Once you have all that you need for the desert, the next step is actually getting out there. If you are staying in Riohacha, your hostel should be able to organise a colectivo for you to the next town along, called Uribia. We left Riohacha at around 7:45am to make it out to the desert with plenty of time left in the day, and it took us around 1.5 hours to get to Uribia. The cost for this leg was 15,000COP each.
The next step for us was to start the actual journey to our overnight stop – Cabo de la Vela. This involves taking a 4WD for 20,000COP each over dirt and sand roads to the town. The only problem with heading out there without a tour is that the drivers will wait until they can fill their cars before making the journey, meaning we waited around 45 minutes before we had the required 4 passengers. This allowed us to explore the local tiendas of Uribia, purchasing a few final items and seeing how people lived their lives here on the edge of the desert.
Eventually we began a 1 hour drive towards Cabo, winding our way through bumps and sand towards our destination. Along the way, we were confronted with many children holding our their hands, usually wanting candy but also water and whatever other food people were willing to part with. We had pre-purchased a few bags of water which we passed out to the kids whenever the driver was willing to stop. Unfortunately the majority of the children always protested for more after we supplied them with water, a repercussion of asking daily for food and water from tourists.
We reached Cabo de la Vela at around 11:30am, meaning it took us just under 4 hours to get out to the desert. In general it will take you 3 to 4 hours to get from Riohacha to Cabo de la Vela, depending on waiting for colectivos! We got dropped off at a Rancheria called Pujuru which had been recommended to us by our hostel, which was perfectly located in front of the kite surfing schools and the beach giving prime views! We chose to stay in hammocks, which cost 10,000COP, with the Chinchorro hammock costing 20,000COP.
Wanting to make the most of the day that we still had left, we decided to visit the 3 big attractions of Cabo de la Vela that are explained to most before they head out to the desert. These include:
- Pilon de Azucar – this short climb overlooking the ocean has mythological and religious ties to the local indigenous people, the Wayuu. Thus at the top is a concrete pillar with religious works attached. There is also a fantastic view from up here, especially if you can handle the ever-blowing winds.
- Playa Ojo de Agua – a beach that is located below the lighthouse, it is mostly black sand with many interesting shells and washed up treasures. You can swim here also, though in comparison to the beach or waterfront in town it is not as good.
- El Faro (the lighthouse) – The lighthouse is where everybody heads to last, as it provides a great vantage point for the sunset. Grab a beer for 2,000COP from the vendors at the base of the small hike, and then make your way up to see a great sunset out over the ocean.
We were taken around to all three of these on the back of a motorcyle, sometimes sharing one bike (with three people on it – hold on tight!). It was a great day for us, as even riding on the back of a motorcycle through the desert created a great sense of adventure! At the end of it all, tired and worn out, we made our way back into Cabo de la Vela to catch the last of the kite surfers practicing their craft and got ready for dinner.
If you are heading to Cabo, it would be a poor decision not to try some form of seafood. This might well be one of the cheapest seafood dinners available (or that we have seen), and I decided that tonight would be the night I ordered a lobster dinner! Fortunately for Rach who does not eat seafood they also had chicken available, with both dinners coming laden with rice, plantain bananas, and salad. The meals were HUGE, and quite economical with the lobster costing 20,000COP (approximately $7US), and the chicken 15,000COP (approximately $5.50US).
Full and with the light having faded away into night, we went for a quick walk before retiring to our hammock and chinchorro for the night. The next morning, we made the same trip in reverse (as we only had one night available to us), and made our way back to Riohacha.
For those doing the trip properly, the next step would be to continue on to Punta Gallinas, to visit the famous Taroa (sand dunes) where the sand dunes lead into the sea beyond. You would spend another night here in a Rancheria (with hammocks or beds being similar prices to Cabo de la Vela), and then make your way back to Riohacha the next morning.
Prices for Going to the Desert (without a tour)
The all important pricing for a 2 night, 3 day trip into the desert will include the following costs:
- Colectivo from Riohacha to Uribia: 15,000COP
- 4WD from Uribia to Cabo de la Vela: 20,000COP
- Tour of all 3 sites in Cabo de la Vela: 15,000-20,000COP
- Accommodation in Cabo de la Vela: 10,000-25,000COP (depending on if you take a hammock, chinchorro, or bed)
- Return transport Cabo de la Vela to Punta Gallinas (includes transport to and from the sand dunes): 120,000-150,000COP (try and negotiate)
- Cabo de la Vela back to Riohacha: 35,000COP (combination of the 4WD and colectivo back)
- Meals in both places in the desert: 15,000-25,000 per meal
This may look pricey, but the experience out in the desert with the local people really does make up for it. It is well worth going!
Going to the Desert With a Tour
Going to the desert with a tour gives you the following inclusions:
- Food (meals only, no snacks)
- Accommodation (chinchorro)
- Additional stop in Manaure for a salt flat tour
The price of the tour is 480,000COP for 2 nights, 3 days and we highly recommend booking through local hostel PuraGuajira Hostel in Riohacha. They use a tour agency in town called Kai Eco Travel, however booking through the hostel gives you access to information (in English as well as Spanish) and a great overview will be provided by the staff there.
However you plan on going out to the desert, we say just go out there and do it. This is an area of Colombia that is often skipped by backpackers and travellers, who usually stop after doing the lost city trek or after a quick visit to Tayrona National Park.
If you are making your way to Riohacha to head out to La Guajira, we cannot recommend PuraGuajira Hostel enough. There is a reason this place won best hostel in Colombia in 2017, with the owner being one of the loveliest people we have met (disclaimer: we did volunteer work here, but in all honesty we had such a great time here and saw how happy guests were here as well).
Have a great time in the desert!