Cabo de La Vela is tourist destination located in the La Guajira region which resides in the far northern panhandle of Colombia. It is dry, arid and surrounded by desert. The severe conditions combined with the coast create some of the most spectacular scenery in all of Colombia. The entire region is inhabited by the indigenous Wayuu people who have lived there for hundreds of years.
*This is an excerpt of a multi-location trip that originated in Medellin and included Santa Marta, Parque Tayrona & Cabo de La Vela. See the complete trip report to Santa Marta and Cabo de La Vela here.
Day 3 – ARRANGE TRIP TO CABO DE LA VELA:
We decided that it was time to get out of Santa Marta for a few days and chose to visit Cabo de La Vela in the northern region of La Guajira. I have wanted to visit the area for the last several years. We spoke to a few different agencies first, but ultimately decided to rent a car and drive. This was ultimately the right decision for us as the group tours tend to run on a schedule that does not allow for you to spend much time once you arrive. We rented a small 4 door Hyundai from National Rent a Car and decided to setup the first thing the next morning.
- TIP: The tour guides that offer the Cabo de La Vela trip have a great service. However, if you are going to take the time to see this amazing spot, you want the ability to stay for a few days and let Cabo really sink in. In fact, I am already planning a return trip where I would like to stay a few weeks and learn how to kite board. Also, the small busses that most of the guides are not made for comfort. If you are tall and/or large like myself, you might find yourself in a very uncomfortable seat for the duration of the guided tour. Check the guide’s vehicle if you do decide to utilize one of their services to Cabo de La Vela.
Day 4 – CABO DE LA VELA DEPARTURE:
Excited about the trip, I woke up around 6 a.m. and began to get ready for the drive to Cabo de La Vela. We finally left the cabana around 8:00 a.m. and headed north toward Riohacha. After about 20 minutes and one toll booth (peaje), we began to ascend into the western side of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The climate begins to cool and the terrain turns into a lush green tropical postcard filled with small fincas, tiendas and hotel/hostel options dotting the roadside. We passed the entrance to Parque Tayrona about 30 minutes into the trip and continued northward until the road once again comes into contact with the ocean. This is also where El Sapo & Brians have their finca development that I will talk more about later in this report. The hotel/resort Mendihuaca is also located in this area. You will pass several plantain plantations along the way as you slowly work your way around the northern side of the Sierra Nevada. The terrain begins to become less steep as the majestic mountainside slowly gives way to rolling plains with massive hardwoods dotting the landscape. About an hour into the trip, you come into the tiny town of Palomino where you begin to see street vendors selling cheaper, higher grade Venezuelan gas for about 50% less than what you normally pay in places like Medellin and Santa Marta. I began to think of the $4.25 a gallon price I paid to fill up the tank in Santa Marta as vendors walk out into the town to greet me as I drive into town.
- TIP: Only fill the tank to ¼ in Santa Marta before leaving for this trip. Fill the car full of gas once you get to Palimino with much cheaper Venezuelan gas.
- Every town has a series of road humps to be aware of as you drive into and out of the small towns that exist between Santa Marta and Riohacha.
- TIP: BE SURE TO STOCK UP ON WATER. WE CARRIED TWO GALLONS FOR TWO PEOPLE AND SHOULD HAVE PACKED DOUBLE THAT AS WATER IS PRECIOUS IN THE DESERT. IF YOU HAPPEN TO BREAK DOWN, YOU WILL BE GLAD YOU PACKED THE ADDITIONAL WATER.
- TIP: You will pass through a total of 4 toll areas (peaje) before reaching Cabo de La Vela. It is best to pulse enough cash to pay the toll fees and sustain you for your few days while in CDLV. The toll fees were $7000 COP (x3) & $3500 (Uribia) each way. Tolls exist at Neguanje, Altopino, Ebanal & Uribia. *Our hotel did not take credit cards at the time of our visit.
It takes approximately 3 hours to get to Riohacha from Santa Marta, depending on how many times you stop for things, views and/or photo opportunities. By the time you reach Riohacha, the terrain is once again much like Santa Marta, yet the humidity is much less and the air is drier here. You will pass Carrefour on the right as you come into town. This is a good place to stop and buy the things that you may have forgotten to bring for this trip. It is also a good place to stretch the legs, grab a bite and use the restroom. A short time after Careffour, the roads forks and there are two options to take. One option continues to take you north along the Carribean coast and the other takes to Cuatro Vias. We chose to make a cutback east for Cuatro Vias in order to stay on the nicest freeway. It takes approximately one hour to get to Cuatro Vias as you begin to enter the interior zones of La Guajira. It is here that you will begin to notice the indigenous Wayuu people as they wait by the roadside for public transportation and/or walk and ride bikes along the highway. There are Wayuu vendors that also sell items such as handmade bracelets (pulsera), carry all bags (mochilas) and honey (miel) depending on the season. You will also begin to take notice of the numerous goats (chivos) that exist in the La Guajira region. These goats belong to the Wayuu people and serve as an important food source for the indigenous of the region.
- Nice beaches exist in/outside of Riohacha. We did not visit any of these beaches, but will upon a return visit.
Cuatro Villas actually appears to be a small town on the map we used, but in fact is just a four way intersection with lots of vendors selling everything from trinkets and food to Venezuelan smuggled cheap gas (good quality by the way). We proceeded to turn left and head north to the next juncture of Uribia which also happens to be the turnoff to Manaure where you can visit a working sea salt manufacturing plant. This leg was approximately forty five minutes driving the speed limit.
The next juncture is Uribia. This is another four way intersection and marks the place where you can continue north (dirt road) to Cabo de La Vela or turn left (west) and drive a short distance to visit the sea salt plant in Manaure. *The town of Uribia is actually a mile or two after taking a right(east) at this same intersection. We decided to first visit the sea salt plant and the town of Manaure before continuing on to Cabo de La Vela.
The road into Manaure once again takes you through Wayuu country desert terrain. The road appeared recently paved with asphalt and the drive takes approximately 15-20 minutes. Arriving into the city of Manaure is less than spectacular. The dry and dusty city is in poor condition and there are some rather large potholes you will want to make sure and avoid as you make your way through the downtown part of city. Weaving your way through the streets, the people greet you in a friendly manner and are helpful pointing the way to the sea salt plant which is just a half of a mile outside the city center located right on the sea.
As we pulled into the parking lot of the sea salt plant, we were greeted by a small pack of indigenous young boys who were eager to charge us to watch the car while we toured the plant. These little guys looked pretty dry and dusty and we were all too happy to spare some water for our new security guards. They assured us that the care would be well guarded and tussled amongst one another which ones would get paid and which would not.
SEA SALT PLANT:
There is a gate that you walk through to enter the plant. No bags, purses or backpacks are allowed as I guess pilfering of the salt has been a problem in the past. You have the choice of paying a small fee for a guided tour (in Spanish) or walking the area on your own. The tour lasted about 20-30 minutes and our self guided expedition through the salt mountains lasted about the same. There are several large cone shaped piles of salt in a small area. A black conveyor belt stands out against the white background of the salt and a small rail line juts out into the dusty blue sea as a transport mechanism for the salt that is loaded on shipping boats for export.
- The wind is strong in this area. Be careful to secure your hat.
- The sun is very strong here as well. Sun block is advised here and from this point forward in La Guajira.
- We overheard one of the tour guides explaining how there are actually 3 grades of salt that are manufactured at the plant. The more Spanish you know, the more information you will come away with if that is a prerogative.
The salt mines that the processing plant actually derives feedstock from are located on the southern part of the town on the opposite side of the sea salt plant. The mines which are owned by the local indigenous Wayuu are plotted out into small square sections and each family has ownership to their own small mine.
- We did not actually take time to visit this area as it was getting late in the day and we wanted to make sure to have enough time to arrive to Cabo de La Vela and secure accommodations.
CABO DE LA VELA / FINAL LEG (Dirt/Gravel Road)
Leaving Manaure behind, we set out on our next destination to Cabo de La Vela. Working our way out of town and back down to the four way intersection of Uribia, we grabbed a quick bite from a roadside vendor and proceeded to enter the dirt road that goes all the way north to Punta Gallinas. At this point I was a little concerned about the amount of time it would take to travel this final leg as our Hyundai definitely stood out as other four wheel drive SUV’s and big trucks passed us like we were standing still.
- Driving cautiously, it takes about 1.5 hours to get to the turn off point which redirects you via a large sign to Cabo de La Vela. You will turn off the road left and begin another dirt/sand road to the final destination which takes another 30 minutes or so (no signs).
- TIP: It is a good idea to roll up your driver’s side window as trucks coming the other way can fling rocks and debris into your car. A rock to the head at 60 miles an hour will ruin your trip!
- There were military personnel posted along the way and they were glad to ask for some of our water as we stopped to ask and make sure we were going the right way. We were glad to see them and had no issues sharing our water.
- THIS IS A GOOD TIME TO STOCK UP ON WATER BEFORE TAKING THIS FINAL LEG WHICH TAKES APPROXIMATELY 2 HOURS.
- NOTE: There is plenty of food and water in Cabo de La Vela. No need to stock up on supplies to last beyond your arrival unless you so choose.
The trip from the turnoff at the big wood sign can be precarious. There are no marked signs and sometimes the road forks off into several different directions. We managed to stay on the main part of the road and it seems like all roads converged into the same route upon arrival. It seems that travelers create new roads/paths when old roads become too wet/muddy/etc. Once you spot the beautiful blue/green sea, you will need to continue north about another 10 minutes or so until you reach Cabo de La Vela. You will see a considerable amount of buildings (stick huts/houses) that line the beach off to the left. There are several roads that can take you into town. We were immediately greeted by Wayuu women dressed in typical manta fashion offering us their creative hand weaved products including bracelets and hand bags (mochilas). The Wayuu are quiet and gentle people who don’t make much small talk.
Day 5-7 CABO DE LA VELA:
Where to Stay in Cabo de La Vela, Colombia:
We arrived into Cabo de La Vela around 6:30 p.m. The town is nothing to speak about in terms of architecture as most of the structures are made from two main materials, concrete block and wood. A lot of the roofs are palm thatch and I suspect the small wood pieces they use for exterior walls are gathered from the brushy countryside. The landscape is wild, nothing but cactuses and green low-growing trees, called “Trupio”, the only vegetation that seems to survive in this hot, very dry land.
The majority of the small motels around the town offer hammocks to sleep in. There are, however, beds that can be found as well. We traveled a kilometer or two down the road and checked into Hotel Rancheria Jareena. The price we paid per night was $100,000 COP for two people, or $50,000 COP per person. This hotel sits just 30 yards from the ocean and has approximately 8-10 cabins in total. There is a kitchen and small restaurant where you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had our own cabin and private bathroom.
- Hammocks can be had for as low as $10,000 COP per night in some locations.
- TIP: Unless you have a cabin that has ample access to nightly breezes, the rooms can get uncomfortably hot and sleeping is difficult. After the first night, we chose to use hammocks on the open patio of our cabin. Also, forget about water pressure. Showering can be difficult with only a small stream of water. We requested and received a 5 gallon bucket that we then used to dip water out of with a small plastic bowl. This method was far more efficient, but the tradeoff was the amount of time that it took to keep the bucket full at all times. Sometimes we had to wait 10-15 minutes to leave the cabin in order to fill up the bucket after showering.
Where to eat in Cabo de La Vela, Colombia:
Most of the small motels that offer hammocks and beds have some type of food service. There are also a few places to eat in town where the menu ranges from sandwiches, hamburgers, fish and pasta. Prices are reasonable based on the fact that you are in the middle of nowhere and all food and mercantile items have to be imported into town.
What to do in Cabo de La Vela, Colombia:
1) Relax – This place oozes relaxed vibes and it is very laid back. The stars at night are magnificent and you can clearly see the Milky Way in all its majesty.
2) Swim/Snorkel – There are two great options for swimming/snorkeling. The ocean that the city sits on appears to be confined in an open bay. This makes for no waves or light waves and warm water as the bay also appears to be shallow. The downside to the bay is some of the beach areas are also roads. On the other side of the town (10-15 minutes away), Pan de Azucar can be found where an amazing bright orange beach exists with surf that makes for great fun in the sun. Although the beach is small, the crowds are virtually non-existent. In fact, there were never more than 25 people at any given time while we visited the beach over a 3 days period at various times.
3) Kite Board – The prevailing winds in the area and calm bay waters make for near perfect kite-boarding conditions. There is a designated area of the beach and bay that is utilized for most of this activity. The downside is that it is kind of expensive unless you already know how to kite-board and have your own equipment. Lessons were $90,000 COP per hour and basic board, kite and harness systems were available for $60,000 COP per hour.
4) Explore – There are some great places to explore around the Pan de Azucar beach. On the south side of the beach, you can find additional secluded beaches as well as volcanic areas that create “mars-like” settings against the emerald blue ocean. Marine wildlife is everywhere and several different species of crabs call this area home. There are also interesting birds including pelicans in the area that share this paradise with their human counterparts. The march to the top of pyramid shaped rock that sits on the northern face of the beach reveals spectacular views of the La Guajira coast to the north as well as the south. To the north one can see the beginning of a wind farm project that will produce electricity for the area one day soon. Views back toward the city across stretch of land that separates the two bodies of water reveals a dry lake bed that is crusted in a frosting of salt. These views are even more spectacular one hour prior to sunset where you can watch the glory of the area transform as the sun goes down over Cabo de La Vela.
5) Relax – You are in Colombia and life is good!
PHOTOS of Cabo de La Vela, Colombia (Bayside):
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PHOTOS of Cabo de La Vela, Colombia (Pacific side)
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Leaving Cabo de La Vela
After three nights and three days of superb weather and great fun, we left Cabo de La Vela around 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon. The plan was to make it to Riohacha by nightfall and secure a place to stay for the night before returning back to Santa Marta in order to return the rental car. As we began our much begrudged exodus, a Wayuu woman appeared in the road and motioned for us to stop. It seems she was looking for a ride back to her house and we gladly obliged. She explained that she walked these roads and dirt paths everyday back into the Wayuu communities and open land territories. She explained that she was happy to have a ride as the walk would have taken almost two hours.
After arriving in Riohacha around 6:00 p.m., we stopped at a roadside chicken place and had a quick dinner followed by 3 more hours of drive time back to Santa Marta. The ride back from Riohacha was smooth with no problems and only a slight storm as we came into the Sierra Nevada mountain range 45 minutes away from Santa Marta. Shortly after the Mendihuaca resort, we pulled in for the night to our next accommodations, Sapo Seaside Finca & Hotel.