One of the strangest and most spectacular spots I’ve ever seen in South American is located at the northern most point of South American in the Guajira peninsula which is a reserve for the Wayuu – a Colombian indigenous tribe, which politically rules the entire peninsula. It’s one of most visually stunning places on earth where bare, desert landscape meets the blue turquoise of the Atlantic.
The trip is a must see if coming to Colombia, not an easy trip but well worth the sacrifice. This is not a trip to do alone but not impossible if you take it slow – jeep ride by jeep ride. But it is recommended one hire a tour guide from the Wayuu tribe. It’s cheaper to find a tour in the peninsula’s largest city and transport hub of Riohacha where for $165 one can find a three day tour of the Guajira all included with: a guide who only speaks Spanish and the local dialect of the Wayuu. The meals are all fish (excellent whole fish meals of red snapper, sea bass and lobster), and the lodging is hammocks under lean-to thatched roofs on desolate Atlantic beaches. One can book Guaijara tours in Santa Marta and Cartagena but it’s cheaper in Riohacha. A fact that doesn’t escape the local residents: more foreign tourists visit Guijira than Colombians, they report
Did I mention there are no roads on the peninsula, just Toyota four wheel jeeps banging across the dramatic desert landscape? They swear by Toyota’s here and after seeing the beating they put these vehicles through on a daily basis, I’ve become a supporter of the off-road vehicle. But the stops they make – in the middle of nowhere where the desert meets huge, empty, Atlantic beaches – no lights, no internet, no cell connection – just lizards, buzzards, grazing goats, flamingos, cactus and the Wayuu– mind blowing stuff.
In three days we saw the salt flats of Manaure where they pump ocean water over dessert flats creating salt from evaporating sea water. Fishermen hand flung fishing nets and fished for shrimp in still, beautiful bays.
One the first day we stopped for a swim at Pilon di Azuri a beautiful beach on a bluff with red dirt, white sands and volcanic rock. The second beach was Arcoinis or rainbow beach where a brisk hike up a wind swept mountain takes you to a statue of the Virgin Mary its peak.
Cabo de la Vela is the destination for the first day. It’s a little village on as beautiful still bay with a kite surfing school operating in the midst of the Wayuu fishermen. Here there are plenty of bars and restaurants and hostels where you can rent a hammock in thatched roof huts or under lean-tos on the beach for the night. The tours come all included with lodging and meals. There are one day or two day tours to Cabo which is actually not that hard to get to (a four hour trip from the capital – Uribia).
Beyond Cabo – Though most 2 day tours end at Cabo, the most scenic route is to continue up to the settlement Punta Gallinas via a three day tour. Here lies the most beautiful part of the peninsula: beautiful bays like Bahia Hondita, Azucar beach (Sugar Beach) and Arconis Rainbow beach.
The dunes of Toroa are a two hour jeep ride outside of Cabo. The jeeps drive up to the crest of the dunes and leave you off to explore the dunes which spill down to incredible beaches. Here you can swim and sun bathe and everyone in my tour group agreed, the dunes offer by far the most beautiful and remote beaches they had seen in all Colombia.
We spent the night in Punta Gallina at the Hospedaje y Restaurant Luzmila where we would spend two nights. We were assigned our hammocks and treated to a wonderful fish and lobster dinner. And the last night before dinner we took off for the lighthouse to see the sunset.
The lighthouse at Punta Hondita is the northernmost part of South America. This remote spot with its lighthouse on a bumpy knoll was where the Pablo Escobar’s planes would land. The lighthouse was the marker to find the primitive airstrip. The Wayuu were paid to see nothing. The Colombian airforce would occasionally get word of a contraband landing fly over and drop bombs on the drug running planes. Bomb craters along the road are now a tourist attractions.
Colombians have no authority on the peninsula. The Guajira remains a lawless reservation where contraband reins.The Wayuu, being a border tribe, have both Venezuelan and Colombian citizenship. They bring in cheap gasoline from Venezuela, whiskey from Panama and openly sell them on the peninsula. The police have border controls every 3-4 miles to stop every vehicle and control what they transport but they can’t control what they sell. Next to a police barricade the Wayuu Indians sell contraband gasoline at $.70 a gallon – Colombian price $2.50 a gallon.
Being a desert – water is at a premium here. But they know how to find wells in the desert. How? First someone in the village has a dream, then they go and dig for water at the spot he or she saw in the dream. Apparently dreams are more than just symbolic here. Then there are solar panels to power pumps that pull the water from the wells. The water is free for all in the tribe. People haul water around in the back of trucks and in plastic urns tied on the sides of donkeys
The Wayuuare physically small in stature the men only 5’ tall the women shorter. They are stoic – answer questions with grunts and like to watch your every move. There is no private property for the Wayuu. A matriarchal society, the women hold the political power, their families run the clans. If a family wants to move his or her house they go to the mother’s clan, get approval and just move their house to another spot. The mother’s clan is responsible for solving all conflicts.
Definitely a barren landscape reminding me of Carlos Castaneda books – the desserts of North Mexico or Sergio Leone spaghetti western flicks filmed in the desserts of Sicily. Don’t think I could live here long but there’s a stark peace to the arid landscapes and star filled skies – so simple, seemingly lifeless, infinite, and void. The people living here are poor but scratch out a living from their environment through fishing, tourism, weaving hand bags, goat farming, salt and coal mining and contraband. The Colombian government doesn’t seem to care about the Guajira reservation and the Wayuu seem happy living well outside the box – leaving things the way they are and for them the way they should be.
It was a long day trip back across the desert. It was a Saturday and there were kids all over putting ropes across the road to stop your car so they could come up and ask for money. We soon depleted our stash of candy and cookies to give them. Towards late afternoon we arrived at the town of Urbia, – the largest town and the indigenous capital city of Guijara and stopped at the market.
(For more on the top beaches of Colombia see the following articles:)
Capurgana is a small village on the Caribbean on the Colombian – Panamanian border. There are no roads to get here; either one flies in – $100 from Medellin to a small airstrip outside of the town or comes in by boat – $20 from Turbo. The difficulty getting here makes this place one of the best kept secrets in Colombia.
I took the boat from the port town of Turbo which is a hot, rough frontier town and there’s no reason to visit here except to catch the boat to Capurgana. Most of the hotels are shit holes. The only descent hotel in town is Castilla de Oro or Hotel 2000 next to the bus terminal. A good place for fish is Restaurant Marinero.
The a.m. dock action is interesting with the fishermen coming in and selling fish right off the boat at the docks. It’s best to go to Turbo and spend the night. You have to get up at dawn to buy a ticket at 6 a.m. down at the docks to ensure your seat. The boats leave around 8 a.m. They sell you plastic bags for $.50 to put your packs and bags in to keep them dry. Do buy one as they store all the cargo in the open bow of the boat and if the seas are rough everything gets soaked.
Early in the morning they pack a couple dozen people into 24’ skiffs. Though there are a few larger boats that make the trip. On the way out they stop at a police dock to give them the passenger list. Everyone has to show their passports or i.d. cards so make sure you have your passport at hand. Then the boats leave pounding across the Gulf of Uraba a full speed through 3′-4′ chop. Not a pleasant 3 hour ride for the faint of heart or seasick prone. Stopping at a few little seaside towns and along the way they let you get off in the small fishing village of Acandi to stretch your legs take a bathroom break – get a coffee and snack.
After the open sea journey the boat slides up to the dock at Capurgana which is always bustling with activity. People from different hotels and hostels are there ready to take your bags and rent you a room. I went with a guy to a hotel call Villa Victoria – a nice private room with a bath, fan and Wi-Fi (when the electricity was on) for $10 a night.
Until recently this sleepy fishing village was an important point for smuggling drugs into Panama with guerrilla activity. But now a heavy military presence in town has put an end to that. In just the last 15 years the town has a warmed up to tourism and a dozens of hotels and hostels in and around town at all different price points and a dozen restaurants serving fish, meat and chicken lunches and dinners for $5.
The beach to the north of town called La Caleta is a very developed sandy beach catering to upscale weekend Colombian tourism with all inclusive hotels with artisan stalls, discos and kayak rental. The beaches to the south of town is quieter and rocky.
Sapzurro and La Miel – There are a few good day trips to neighboring beaches from here. One – is to take a boat north to the little town of Sapzurro. It’s a hard one hour walk from Capurgana over a mountain in tropical heat. Or one can go to the dock and wait for a boat passage for a few dollars. There are also economical day trips that leave in the a.m. taking groups of tourists to Sapzurro and La Miel in Panama with lunch – choice of shark, tuna or snapper at a restaurant in Sapzurro.
Sapzurro is a clean little town with a few hundred residents. It is much smaller than Capurgana but with a descent selection of restaurants, hotels and hostels. Sapzurro would be one of those ideal, sleepy tropical towns in which to hide out, lay low and escape from it all. If you want to drop off the radar for a while – this is the place to do it. On my next trip that is where I will be staying. Bring your passport as they check it at the dock as you get off the boat as this is the last town in Colombia before crossing over to Panama.
There are two sandy beaches. On the North beach is Hostel Playa di Oro right on the sandy beach with calm water in a bay which are great for swimming. Off the south beach there are a dozen 40’-60‘ transient sailboats moor. Some of them are for rent and offer cruises to the San Blas islands in Panama – 4 days, sleep on the boat with food included for just $300 per person.
There’s a path over the mountain and down to a little beach called La Miel in Panama. It’s a steep climb up the hill and at the top there’s a a very laid back Panamanian border crossing. It’s a 30 minute walk down to the sandy beach which has a little bay and a dock. There are huts along the beach selling cold beverages and meals. At the end of the dock there’s a tiny duty free.
Another day trip is to take a boat south to the beaches of Aguacate which has a small beach great for snorkeling and Playa Soledad – a white sand beach fringed with palm trees.
Another half day trip from Capurgana is to follow the footpath in back of town along the airstrip and up into the jungle for an hour leading to a nice little waterfall called El Cielo. It can be a muddy trek with streams to cross. At El Cielo there are nice jungle water holes with cool water for bathing and cooling off. Perfect after the tropical trek. There’s also a small restaurant serving patacones (a type of flatbread pizza spread with tomato and beans) and drinks. Above the restaurant the path continues getting smaller turning into a muddy clay trek – follow it as far as possible then sit quiet to hear the howler monkeys roar. An unnerving sound at first – sounds like a lion coming at you. Welcome to the Darien pass.
The Darien Pass is 50 kilometers wide and 160 kilometer long – 16,671 square kilometers with only 40,000 inhabitants living for the most part along the coast and rivers. It is one of the densest tropical jungles in the world – mountainous, steep, thick, hot and humid – one of the planets most untouched tropical jungles. Trekking in the Darien is only advised with an experienced guide. They say those who venture off by themselves often get lost and die. The hot, thick, wet jungle is unforgiving- rife with malaria, venomous snakes, blood sucking vampire bats carrying rabies and tropical trees with shallow roots that come suddenly crashing down after a hard rain. The indigenous communities living there don’t like trekkers passing through Neither do the drug traffickers, kidnappers, bandits who hide in the forests making this a hostile environment where even armed hunters are afraid to go.
(For more on beaches in Colombia see the following articles:)
Off the beaten path Santander, a Colombian department, is rarely visited. Santander is on the east side of Colombia between two mountain ranges one of which borders Venezuela. It’s a region with green mountains that go from tropical valleys to high plains, tumbling rivers, deep gorges, sleepy Spanish colonial villages and bustling medium sized cities.
Not many people know much about Santander because it’s not on the road to any significant stop in Colombia. It’s a 15 hour – 450 mile bus ride from Cartagena to the north and 250 miles and another 10 hour mountainous bus ride to Bogota to the south. Why bother? It’s one of the cheapest areas in the country offering bargain adventure, colonial lodgings, a great climate and country food.
Bucaramanga – the main city you arrive at is the capital. It’s a modern industrial city of about 500,000 and the capital of the department of Santander. It’s out of the way but a good place to stop, relax and enjoy another side of Colombia. It’s especially appreciated after traveling the coast with its the crushing heat.
Not too many people have ever visited this town. Everyone has heard of it, but few have gone – which is maybe why I liked it. I didn’t see one foreigner the whole time I was there. The city of Bucaramanga is a tad congested and not the most walkable city in Colombia. Called ‘the city of parks’ but all of the vegetation in the parks has been drying up and dying due to global warming so don’t expect to see all that much greenery.
My favorite parks are Jardin Botanico Valezuelo, also known as ‘El Paraguitas’ – a large park in Floridablanca up the mountain. The Rio Frio runs through it and it’s an oasis, a quiet, shaded park where turtles, birds and sloths roam freely.
In the center of town Parque Garcia Roviera (Calle 36 Cra. 20), near the government buildings and courthouses, has a lot of palm trees, empty benches and pigeons.
Located near the park is the Casa Cultural (Calle 37 #12-40a). It’s dedicated to Simon Bolivar and the fight for independence but it was memorable for it’s nice display of well preserved mummies.
Calle 35 (btween Parque Santander and Parque Garcia Roviera) is a very interesting street. It is closed to traffic, full of shops and little malls and street vendors.
And just off this avenue is the central market of Bucaramanga. A large, four story structure. It is very clean with hundreds of stalls selling everything from food to clothes. There are also restaurants and a row of jugo or fruit juice stands on the third floor.
Just up from Plaza Bolivar is the Museum of Modern Art (Calle 37 Cra. 26) Entrance is free.
There plenty of restaurants and hotels in all different price points and thousands of taxis that will take you anywhere for a dollar or two. I stayed at the Hotel Hormiga Cra. 17c No. 55-56 in the center by the new market. It had an outdoor pool, private room with private bath, air, t.v., desk and a window for just $20 a night.
Hormiga means ants and in Santander they eat ants – Hormigas Culonas or ants with big butts. They are sold as boxed novelties, a conversation piece found all over the place. Like the early American settlers in America would eat grub which was whatever they found crawling around under a rock – squashed and heated up in a tin cup. A cheap sort of protein. No one actually east grub anymore but we call catching a bite, ‘getting some grub’. You get the idea. The ants are roasted and are crunchy like coffee beans.
Around Bucaramanga – there are places to visit – enough to fill up 2-3 days with plenty of time to relax.
Ecoparque Cerro del Santisimo is a new structure built a few years ago. You take the cable car up into to a mountain offering a ‘mirador’ or lookout over the city. Here there is a huge Christ statue, one of the largest in South America and you can take an elevator up into the head of the statue for a better view. Below there are food stalls and a nice horse shoe plaza offering exhibits and performances.
Also outside the city is another park called Mesa de las Santas y Panachi. It has another cable car that will take you across a huge gorge to an amusement park – all rather expensive.
Like Giron and Floridablanca, Piedecuesta is a village about a 30 minutes drive outside of Bucaramanga. But it refuses to be a suburb and demands to be considered a town in its own right.
Giron is outside of the city of Bucaramanga there’s the delightful gem of a colonial town – Giron which only the locals seem to know about. It reminded me of Mompox. It’s a nice town for a stroll. There’s a nice Church in the main plaza and a market off to the side. And down by the river there are more market stalls, tejo courts and an old bridge going over the river.
Foreigners, mostly senior citizens from Europe, are seeking out these colonial towns to come and winter in – a week here – a week there – biding their time till spring when they return home. The villages are quiet, quaint, the locals are friendly and the prices of food and lodging – practically a steal.
San Vicente de Chucuri
is a torturous 3 hour ride north of Bucaramanga on gravel roads through green mountains and farms. San Vincente, not so long ago a stronghold of the FARC. The town is famous for its avocadoes, coffee and cocoa beans used for making chocolate. They even make a delicious coffee and cocoa breads here.
Berlin – an interesting day trip from Buca is to take a bus up into the mountains of the Eastern Cordillera, a two hour trip ($6) to the town of Berlin which is located at 4,350 meters above sea level. Here the air is thin and cool. Berlin is high in the mountain plains of the Cordillera Oriental and reminds one of the Scottish Highlands.
Pamplona — C0ntinueing on down the road you arrive at the quaint little colonial village of Pomplona. This village is a 4.5 hour bus trip from Bucaramanga. Pamplona is a university town and 40% of the inhabitants are students. At 6,600 feet above sea level, it’s warm during the day and cold at night. But like most college towns in Colombia (Popayan being the most famous) they are lively, laid back and extremely friendly and open. The main square, center of town, is Parque Ayueda Gallando where everyone gathers. There are lots of little museums in town but unfortunately most of them don’t open till 3.
Cucuta – further down the mountain from Pamplona lies the city of Cucuta. It is a hot, humid town on the Colombian/Venezuelan border. Probably the most important border crossing between the two countries, it has also been called the contraband capital of Colombia. It’s a town in crisis, overrun by desperate refugees who sleep in the parks and beg on the streets. More than 600,000 Venezuelan refuges are now in Colombia. Thousands more are entering everyday. The U.N. says 1.1 million Venezuelans have left their country making this the largest displacement of people in Latin America history.
Barichara – a few hours travel south of Bucaramanga there’s the town of Barichara founded in 1741 which means in the native Guane language “place of rest with flowering trees”.
Barichara is less expensive than neighboring Villa de Leyva. The streets are made of cobblestones and the whitewashed colonial houses have been kept original. They filmed many Colombian movies here. Inside the houses remind me of Tuscany with wooden beams, terra-cotta tile floors and terra-cotta roof tiles. The town has been named the most beautiful village in Colombia. I stayed at the ‘Mansion of Virginia’ in town. A nice little colonial style hotel with only a few rooms. It has a tasteful courtyard and breakfast is included in the deal.
Guane – is next to Barichara it is the smaller village of Guane a 30 minute bus ride away. The houses in town were all whitewashed colonial style like in Barichra and there was a nice church in town. Though the town wasn’t as clean or as well maintained as Barichara so a morning or afternoon day trip is sufficient. Neither village is even remotely being crushed by tourism like Villa de Leyva and the towns are not as pricey. Here they specialize in a drink called Sabajon -crème liquer -Baileys kind of drink mixed with alcohol and infused with coffee or whisky.
Magotes – the hour bus ride over the mountains from San Gil, through the coffee and sugar cane fields, is worth the trip alone. Mogotes is a small farming town where the village streets turn into dirt paths on the outskirts of town leading up into farming country. Here men with machetes and straw hats ride through the town on magnificient horses.
Socorro – is a town outside of San Gil where the scream of the cicadas in the trees on the main square is so loud it fills the adjacent dome of the Basilica with a surreal undulating high pitched screech. There a nice museum just up the street from the main square called ‘Casa della Cultura’ and the ladies working there give a very nice tour.
Curiti – is a little gem of a pueblo just 30 minutes bus ride outside of San Gil. It was hands down my favorite and one to which I will be returning soon. There’s a nice colonial hotel right on the main plaza called Hotel Colonial Vizcaya where the rooms are only $10 a night. There are a few food restaurants offering local fare. But the town is mainly known for its arts and crafts using the local ‘fique’ fiber. There’s a cooperative factory called Ecofibras, right in town that offers free tours of the fique weaving process.
This craft dates back a thousand years to the Guane tribes who extracted the fibers from agave type cactuses and weaved them into clothing. The locals have taken this ancient art and marketed it as an ecological alternative to plastic.
After stripping the cactus of its fibers, the threads are manually combed to extract the impurities then died with 70 different naturally extracted colors. Then the fibers are weaved into a course cloth used to make fabrics, bags, rugs, shoes, wall hangings and numerous other products. The weave can be of pure fique fibers, which tend to be somewhat course, or mixed with cotton producing a softer material.
The town markets their material as an eco-fiber. For household use they make shopping/tote bags. And for commercial use gunny sacks for Colombia’s coffee shipments and large fique fiber rugs for export – a hot item in Switzerland they tell me.
Excellent swimming holes are located just a 30 minute walk downhill outside of Curiti. Tuk Tuks can take you down for cheap and an occasional bus comes by every couple hours to take you back up the hill into town. The place is called Pozzo Azul, or the blue pool. The locals call it El Balneario de Pescaderito. Just take the path going up river and there is one deep swimming hole after another. There is a restaurant/bar on the road by the river.
San Gil – in juxtaposition to these laid back villages, just a 30 minute trip from Barichara, a 3 hour trip from Bucaramanga, is the town of San Gil – nicknamed the extreme sports adventure capital of Colombia.Located between two rivers the town is larger town than expected but laid back. Here there are plenty of hotels and restaurants. The town’s main park is Parque Liberdad a nice place to sit and soak in the energy of the town.
Down by the river along the malecon there is Parque Gallineral, a 20 acre park on the edge of town down by the Foce river. It has huge Chiminago trees covered with long silvery tendrils of Spanish moss called barba del Viejo (the old man’s beard). A great place to find a bench and relax. They also have a very nice pool in the park next to the bar, which is hardly used during the weekdays. The entrance fee wristband is only $2, with use of the pool, and you can come and go all day.
San Gil – Capital of Adventure Sports –This is this only place in Santander adventure seeking young travelers will visit, putting up with a 14 hour all night bus trip just to get here. If you’re an adrenaline junkie and have adventure sports on your bucket list, this is your Colombian destination. Just check them off one by one at a small fraction of what it would cost you back home. San Gil is even a lot cheaper than other South American adventure destinations like Banos in Ecuador.
The sports take place on and around the Rio Fonce, which doesn’t go through San Gil, as I had expected, but is short trip down into a valley gorge, the deepest gorge in Colombia after the Colorado River.
Adventures For Hire: Here one can go paragliding through the deepest gorge in Colombia for 30 minutes with transportation, lunch, tandem guide, sails, equipment – just $60
River Rafting down the Rio Fonce rapids – the #2-#3 stage for 1.5 hours always with transportation, lunch, guide, equipment – $13
River Rafting at the fourth level for 24 km. down and insanely fast stretch of the Rio Fonce river just – $48 – you know you want it.
Abseiling, known as rappelling in Colombia, up 180’ through a three-tier waterfall – $20.
Caving or Speleology through caves half filled with water leading to bat filled rooms and saloons with waterfalls – $10
Bungee jump from 210 feet up over a river – $25
An all-day bicycle tour with a guide, breakfast, lunch, bikes 75 km. – $90
Horseback riding with lunch and guide – $35.
The agencies in town will organize everything. They’ll even do combo packages where you can squeeze as many activities as you can possibly endure into 1-3 days. Then there’s kayaking, swimming and hiking activities you can pretty much do on your own.
To get there: I traveled there from Urbino in the Guaijara Penninsula. Stopped for one night in Valledupar – a four hour trip from Urbino. The next day got a bus to Bucaramanga which is an 8 hour trip about 420 miles from Bogota. The city has an airport and you can fly in from Panama City or any major city in Colombia. Most people going to San Gil come from Bogota or the Atlantic coast. From the Bucaramanga bus terminal it is a six hour trip through the mountains to Barichara. To get to San Gil it’s a four hour bus ride from Barichara to Tunja ($2). It’s an 8 hour bus trip from Medellin.
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About five hours inland from the Caribbean coast is the intriguing town of Mompox – a perfectly preserved colonial town. Founded in 1537 Mompox (also spelled Mompos) was an important port city for cargo and travelers during in the colonial era. The Magdelena River splits in two just before Mompox. Back in the 1800s the branch, on which Mompox sits, silted up with mud and became unnavigable for big boats – so traffic was diverted down the other branch. Mompox became a sleepy, back-water town frozen in time.
There’s no way to get here directly by car. You have to take buses from Sincelejo (if coming from Tolu) then another to Maragane then a small ferry boat up the Magdelena River to the port of La Bodega and then a collective taxi or motor-taxi to the city center. It’s a day-long hot trip from Cartagena or Tolu. From Cartagena there are air-conditioned buses.
The heat and humidity in this town is oppressive but the architecture of the center is fascinating, there are nice restaurants and boutique hotels along the river all nicely priced. A nice room in a tastefully decorated hotel in 400 year old building like the Hotel Villa Mompox that would cost you $500 in Italy is $14 a night with a ceiling fan – $25 with air-conditioning. There are plenty of restaurants along the riverfront typically priced $5 for lunch or dinner.
The city center is like one huge museum. All the Villas in town leave the huge doors and windows open displaying quaint courtyards and sitting rooms adorned with antiques. When the cool evening breezes float in at sunset, the residents sit outside their houses on the street to cool off and chat with neighbors while bats dive down the whitewashed streets for mosquitos coming up from the river. There’s a languid charm to this place, quintessential colonial Colombia. There are very few cars here. Most people stroll, ride a bicycle or take a motor-taxi.
A number of tourists, architectural enthusiasts mostly, venture to Moxpox. But I fear Mompox won’t stay like this long though. They’re currently building a bridge across the river which should be completed by 2020. With a road to town, the vibe of this river town will change in the next decade.
(For more on colonial towns in Colombia see the article: