There are quite a few epic trips and tours you can do while in Colombia. Among some of the most popular ones, you will find the Lost City trek and a Visit to the Tayrona National Park. Yet, the Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas trip is still largely undiscovered by foreign tourists and backpackers.
Visiting Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas is so far the best thing I have done since I arrived in Colombia. I will update this statement once I have seen it all – but for the time being, this part of the country amazed me and created emotions I did not expect. On many levels.
La Guajira is one of the most extreme parts of Colombia. In many ways – it is extremely beautiful but also one of the poorest departments in the country. You will see jaw dropping and breath-taking landscapes that you didn’t know could be encountered in Colombia and simultaneously, you will see people living the harshest lives in the most extreme circumstances.
There are many aspects as to why this trip is so epic.
It is definitely an adventure, and La Guajira is like no other place you will ever visit. There are no paved roads, and sometimes it seems like there are no roads at all. You will drive along roughed landscapes where the dessert meets the turquoise sea, pass cactus forests, and witness the lives of people who learned how to live in those extreme conditions.
Cabo de la Vala and Punta Gallinas trip will be far from luxurious. In some locations, you will be given a bucket of water to shower with, and you will sleep outside in chinchorro (traditional Wayuu hammock). If you are lucky (or choose your tour provider wisely), you will have running water to shower and electricity for few hours in the evening.
You will be hot day and night, burn your feet on the sand dunes and fall asleep to the sound of silence under the ceiling of the unpolluted starry sky.
You will encounter indigenous Wayoo people and see the poverty levels that will break your heart.
La Guajira is one of the 32 departments of Colombia, and it is located in the extreme north of the country in the Caribbean region. Its capital and main city is Riohacha, and a large part of its population descends from the indigenous Wayuu people.
It is a geographic and natural extreme where desert and the sea blend together.
It is an extremely beautiful yet the most impoverished and neglected department of Colombia. La Guajira is home to Colombia’s largest indigenous group, the Wayuu. Wayuu represents a little over 20% of Colombia’s total Amerindian population and under 50% of the Department of La Guajira population.
Their history is fascinating as the Spanish have never subjugated them. Not only that, they learned how to use firearms and horses and fought many battles with the Spanish. Wayuu occupied the harsh environments of the La Guajira desert for centuries. They lived off the land, creating crafts and passed all their traditions for generations.
The region suffers from a lack of clean drinking water, and kids are often severely malnutritioned.
As you will enter the winding roads of La Guajira and its desert you will encounter many Wayuu kids and adults creating artificial checkpoint/tolls made of ropes and colourful clothes which are meant to stop you on your way. It is expected that you give both children and adults sweets, water, drinks. I was told this is the case before the trip, but it has to be seen to be believed and understood.
I don’t know how often they receive something, but their faces were beaming every time they received a piece of a chocolate waffle from our driver.
Families and children are living in extreme poverty, begging for a piece of chocolate or water while spending days on this exposed and hard to live on the hot and dry land.
This department is also very neglected by authorities. I have never seen this much plastic lying around, but I guess when you are troubled if you are going to eat today, the rubbish disposal is the least of your worries.
Many Wayuu are either employed or make some kind of income thanks to growing tourism.
La Guajira is one of Colombia’s most publicized regions for eco and ethnic and eco-tourism; thus, brightly-coloured Wayuu bags (mochilas) are souvenirs many take home. It requires time and effort to weave those mochilas, and those are symbols of the region and a significant source of income for local people.
Those are beautiful, colourful bags and buying one will support the families and this region’s growth. I suggest that if you like the Wayuu bags, buy them from women during your trip from Wayuu, rather than getting a fake one in Santa Marta.
Cabo de la Vela is a small fishing town only accessible by jeep or motorbike, located on La Guajira desert, on the Eastern Caribbean Coast of Colombia.
Punta Gallinas is the northernmost point on the mainland of South AmeThe landscape of Punta Gallinas is unlike any other landscape in Colombia.
In Cabo de la Vela, Punta Gallinas and throughout Alta Guajira, the only alternative accommodation you will find are the typical rancherías.
The rancherías are villas built by the Wayuu people set in the middle of the desert. In them, you will sleep in the famous hammocks (chinchorros) – hand-woven by Wahuu, which are larger and more comfortable than regular hammocks. However, it is possible to sleep in a bed with a private bathroom for an additional fee.
The rancherías have public bathrooms, yet water is very limited, and energy is often only available from 6 to 9 pm.
Touring La Guajira is an unforgettable experience, yet very much bittersweet. One cannot fully appreciate the natural wonders of the region without noticing the poverty.
I came back a different person. Grateful I could experience land so beautiful but also extremely thankful for the privilege and ability to make choices about my life. I have not seen schools, hospitals, nor any ways those children could have a better life. Having a choice and opportunities is a privilege. We should never forget this!
How to visit Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas
The best place to start your Cabo da la Vela and Punta Gallinas tour is Riohacha.
I do not recommend taking the trip from Santa Marta. You will spend most of the time in the car, and the journey will be very tiring. Even if you take the trip from Riohacha, you will spend a lot of time in the jeep, so adding 3 hours of driving from Santa Marta to Riohacha could make the journey so exhausting you will not enjoy it fully.
If you don’t want to go to Riohacha, you can take the trip from Palomino. Also, Riohacha is a surprisingly nice town, so spending a couple of days there could really enhance your Colombian travels.
The best way to get to Riohacha from Santa Marta is by bus from the main Santa Marta bus terminal. It is located outside of the town and you will either have to take a local bus, moto-taxi or taxi to get to the bus station. There are few bus companies operating on this route, so the best is to ask once you have arrived at the station (I have only done the return trip from Riohacha this way). You can get a ticket from the driver, and it will cost around 30,000 COP one way.
The best way to get to Riohacha from Palomino is by bus or colectivo. You can catch the same bus that goes from Santa Marta, and you will be dropped at the bus stop in the centre of Riohacha. If you decide to take a colectivo ride (minibus or car), you will most likely be dropped right in front of your hostel (I chose this option), and the ride will be cheaper. I paid 5,000 COP for my ride.
Cabo de la Vela can be visited independently, and I have met some people that either drove there or went on a motorbike. I do not recommend it, though, and I will explain why.
This is one of the most extreme parts of Colombia. In many ways – it is stunning but also the most impoverished department in the country.
I personally would love to rent a jeep and travel across the desert with all the photo stops I could take, yet I would not do it without the local guide.
First, you could easily get lost. The road goes through the desert and is not always very visible and not marked or signed at all.
You will deal with children and families stopping your car or bike, and you will need to stock up on sweets and water. I think once they see a total gringo – it might not be so easy to pass without tipping, and you might be more prone to theft.
Suppose your car or motor breaks down – then you are in trouble. People in Colombia are very helpful and friendly, and most likely, someone would stop and help, but at the same time, you don’t want to be stuck in the middle of the desert with a broken car.
For all the above reasons, I believe, especially if it’s your first visit and you are not familiar with Colombia – I would definitely recommend taking an organized tour.
Like with everything, there are cons and pros as to taking an organized Cabo de la vela and Punta Gallinas tour.
My main con is a lack of independence. There were so many stops I wanted to take in order to take amazing photographs – but often I couldn’t.
You might be stuck in the car with people you don’t get on with (very unlikely in Colombia, but it did happen to me), or you might have issues understanding Spanish.
Still, with all those cons – an organized tour is still the best option.
The most important pro of taking an organized tour is your safety. You will not have to worry about finding the accommodation, places to eat, the guide will stop at all interesting spots, and you will be safe as most of the time the guides are local folks who know the place and local customs well and do this job for years.
Given Cabo de la Vela tour is most popular amongst Colombian tourists majority of the tours are run in Spanish. You should know some Spanish before coming to Colombia. Yet, if your Spanish is very basic or not good enough to understand the more complex sentences – you might struggle or miss some important or interesting information.
This is where this article comes in – don’t worry, I have your back!
I will take you step by step, point of interest by point of interest, and tell you everything you need to know so once you are on your trip, you can sit, relax, and enjoy the incredible views.
Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas organized trips usually last three days. You will have overnight accommodation for two nights – one at Cabo de la Vela and one at Punta Gallinas. There are also two days tours available, but you will not go further than Cabo de la Vela as the distance is too long to cover in two days only.
What will you see during Cabo da la Vela and Punta Gallinas 3 days trip
On the first day, you will leave Riohacha and head towards Cabo de la Vela and all its surrounding attractions, which will include:
Manaure Salt Flats (Salinas de Manaure)
At the backdrop of crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea and with La Guajira desert at the back – you will find imposing white salt hills reflecting in the water wells used for mining the salt.
It is a pretty impressive place, set in a remote area and originally a nomadic town of Wayuu people, now Manuare Salt Flats is the leading Colombian salt producer.
About 70,000 gallons of seawater is pumped per minute through the brine tank, where the degree of salinity intensifies. Then it is moved to ponds, where salt is naturally evaporated and crystallized.
Even if you are not interested in salt production – the site is fascinating, and the views are stunning.
Desert de Carrizal and cactus forest.
The jeep will take you across Carrizal desert and cactus forest.
I was absolutely mezmerised by the vastness of the desert and turquoise sea shimmering at the far back. This was the moment when i just wanted to get out of the car and take hundreds of photos yet i wasn’t able to.
The landscape of La Guajira desert is incredible – it is truly magical.
Pilon de Azucar
Pilon de Azucar is a white rock hill sat between some most amazing beaches near Cabo de la Vela. It is known by indigenous people as Kamaici, “Lord of the things of the sea”, and it has a deep mythological significance for the Wayúu culture.
The top of the hill can be climbed on foot in around 15 minutes, and from there, you can enjoy the stunning panorama of Cabo de la Vela.
Dorada Beach (Playa del Pilon)
Located right next to pilon de Azucar, Dorada beach is one of the most visited and photographed beaches of Cabo de la Vela. It is a gorgeous beach, and you can take a refreshing dip in its clear waters. You will need it by this poini
Ojo de Agua Bay
This beautiful bay and beach derive its name from the fact that although the Wayuu people suffered from extreme droughts, this place managed to harbour freshwater when the pool of fresh water was discovered here. This is a deeply sacred site for the Wayuu people.
You can also take a walk towards the massive stone extention of the land in the shape of a turtle – La Tortuga.
Faro de Cabo de la Vela (Lighthouse)
You will most likely finish your day here watching the sunset from the Faro de Cabo de la Vela.
I had better sunset moments in both La Guajira and Colombia as a whole. All the tourists for the day gather there at sunset, and although it is unquestionably beautiful, it is a very touristy experience.
Still, Colombia has some of the best sunsets in the world, so maybe I’m just totally spoiled.
Cabo de la Vela town and Beach
You will most likely have your accommodation for the night set at Cabo de la Vela village, and to be honest with you – this was a highlight of the whole day for me.
It is a small town with a couple of restaurants and tiendas set along the main dirt road, few rancherias with sleeping accommodation, hostels and a couple of kite schools.
If learning how to kite surf was always your desire – this is the best place to start!
The beach is incredible. It is divine to swim in, and you can watch acrobatic feats of kitesurfers and drink Cuba Libre after the dark. Yes, you can! I did it!
There is a pizzeria set right on the beach that serves pizzas (obviously) but also beer and few cocktails. I just couldn’t resist!
Cabo de la Vela is known as Jepira in Wayuunaiki (Wayoo language), and is a sacred place where the souls of the dead Wayuu come to rest. Please make sure you are respectful of the local communities and refrain from parties and excess drinking/drunkenness.
On a day two you will head towards Punta Gallinas headland.
You will start your day by driving through Portete Desert towards Bahia Honda, passing Bahia Honda desert as well.
I was mesmerised by those desert views. This is an incredible landscape with yet again the views of the sea glistering from far.
Bahia Portete is part of Kaurrele National Natural Park, and it is one of the most recently established national parks in Colombia.
You will not be able to swim in those waters, but the views are stunning! Visiting this place was definitely one of the highlands of the day. That is before we arrived at Bahia Honda!
Bahia Honda beach
This is as close to paradise as it can get.
Not only the beach is incredibly beautiful (im running out of adjectives to describe this place) it is also peaceful, remote and literally, picture-perfect.
I had the best swim in the sea! The sand mixes with tiny seashells, and the views are spectacular! I know that in the future, every time I will want to take my mind to the perfect place – it will be Bahia Honda!
Taroa Dunes and Taroa Beach
What might seem like a mirage is actually true! The slope of the steep sandy dunes descent into the Caribbean sea. It is the out of this world experience.
You can sandboard down its slopes straight to the sea, which seems like a lot of fun I, however, opted for a walk. The sea is pretty rough around here, so you won’t be able to swim. Take a walk to the far right end of the beach, however, and you will be able to enjoy much calmer waters.
On the opposite side of the dunes, you will find a simple restaurant where you can buy some drinks and rest in the shade.
Mirador de Casares (Casares Viewpoint)
From Mirador de Casares you will be able to admire the whole valley of Punta Gallinas. This view is spectacular, and you will be able to fully appreciate the beauty and extend of the land.
This viewpoint is called Casares because the people of the Wayuu usually carry out marriages in that place. They also used to carry out reconciling conflicts that existed between the members of the community.
Punta Gallinas Lighthouse
Finally, you will visit the Faro de Punta Gallinas (Punta Gallinas Lighthouse) – the northernmost point of mainland Colombia and South America. This is where you can take your ‘historical’ photos and admire the rugged and beautiful coastline.
Punta Agujas Beach
Punta Agujas Beach will most likely be your last stop for the day and you will watch the sun setting here.
I liked this sunset much more than the one from Faro de Cabo de la Vela. The beach is also very pretty and you can have a sunset swim in the sea! Perfect end of the evenful day!
You may see some of those places on day three, but most likely, you will just spend this day driving back to Riohacha with a stop for lunch.
How much should Cabo da la Vela and Punta Gallinas tour cost
A three day Cabo da la Vela and Punta Gallinas tour with chinchorro accommodation (sleeping in the hammocks), three meals per day, and insurance included should not cost more than 550,000 COP in 2021. This will be a basic tour with a Spanish speaking driver or guide.
Expect to pay more for rooms with a bed or dedicated English speaking guide.
Choose your tour company carefully. Follow the reviews because you don’t want the grumpy driver to spoil this incredible adventure.
Best time to visit La Guajira
The only time I would avoid visiting La Guajira for Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas tour would be October and November. Despite being a desert area, there is a period of rainfall that occurs in those months, and although it could be cooler, you might encounter a cloudy day, and you won’t be able to fully appreciate the landscapes. I visited in July – it was hot but pretty dry for the Caribbean.
What to pack for Cabo da la Vela and Punta Gallinas tour / important information
- Water – It is hot, and you will need a lot of water. Get a supply in Riohacha, and you can keep it in the car. You will be able to buy the water at the pit stops, yet it will be more expensive.
- Cash – You should have meals included in your tour but take cash for additional water or this cold beer on the beach.
- Mosquito spray/repellant – Mosquitos are not so bad in this area, yet you will sleep outside at night, and you want to make sure you don’t get bitten badly.
- Sunscreen – Once you are out in the open space, there will be no place to hide from the sun.
- Padlock for the locker
- Swimming costume – There will be many swimming opportunities during your trip.
- Towel – For the beach and shower. I carry one microfibre towel, which dries quickly, is very light and is versatile. The great thing about microfibre towels is that sand doesn’t stick to them either.
- Power bank: There probably are charging stations at the hostels and rancherias, yet I didn’t ask. My power bank charged my phone and camera for all three days.
- Torch or headlamp – for the night trips to the bathroom. There is also no light where the hammocks are – in case you need to access your locker or padlock combination.
- Toothpaste and toothbrush / Soap – Self-explanatory
- Warmer clothes for the night – I didn’t need them, but it might get a bit chilly at night in the desert.
- Toilet paper – There was toilet paper available at the first hostel I stayed in. Yet you don’t want to be surprised if there is none!
Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas tour is a true adventure and a off the beaten path trip. You will not regret going and you will never forget it!
I will be looking forward to your thoughts and if you decide to go and would like to add something to this guide please leave a comment below.
Until then – happy travelling!