Updated: Jun 2, 2021
One of the top items on our list of things to do in Colombia was visit Cabo de la Vela and its nearby areas. We first arrived in Cartagena from San Jose, Costa Rica, and enjoyed a couple of days unwinding there at their lovely beaches and islands. To get from Cartagena to Cabo de la Vela was an adventure in itself though.
We booked our transportation using Busbud on the 5am bus with Expresso Brasilia from Terminal de Transportes de Cartagena to Terminal Riohacha for less than $20 USD ($10 USD each). When booking with them try using the promo code BBPROMOHUNTER, which has actually worked for us multiple times. The bus ride is supposed to take 7 hours but as is usually the case in Colombia, with a few stops here and there we only reached Riohacha around 1:30pm.
Once at Riohacha, we paid a visit to Bona Vida Hostel La Tercera where we had a booking for the night upon returning from the desert. We did this for three reasons:
We needed a place to keep our bigger backpacks that we had no need to take with us all the way to Cabo de la Vela, knowing the journey wasn’t going to be an easy one. The hostel allowed us to store our bags there until we came back.
We needed to find a nearby supermarket in order for us to gather some food and supplies for the coming days.
This is where our ride was going to pick us up to take us to Uribia.
Remember, you’re going to be staying in the middle of a desert so sources are limited. If you’re a vegetarian, do not enjoy seafood, or are traveling on a budget, make sure to stop at a supermarket in Riohacha and pick up groceries. We recommend taking a 6 liter bottle of water (depending on your length of stay), toilet paper, and wipes. We spent 3 nights in the desert. For food, we took non-perishable items such as bread, peanut butter, jelly, caramel spread, chocolate spread, cereal, packs of chips, and cookies. For two people, the sandwiches lasted the perfect amount with only a few snacks leftover in the end.
Uribia is the closest town to Cabo de la Vela and its your next stop on the way there. Here's a couple of things to be aware of:
Getting to Uribia can be challenging but it doesn't have to be. For us it was made easy by Rodrigo, the owner of Jepira Inn in Cabo de la Vela, which we can’t recommend enough. He even Whatsapp messaged us the day prior just to offer help. If you book your stay at Jepira Inn, which is only $10 USD per night, per person, Rodrigo will setup your journey from Riohacha to Cabo. No matter where you decide to stay in Cabo, we strongly urge you to contact the establishment beforehand in order to setup your journey to Cabo. Everyone there is very helpful so don’t be shy to reach out to them, this will really make your ride to Cabo smooth sailing (not to be taken literal).
The ride from Riohacha to Uribia is about 1.5 hours by car and can be done in a regular car as there are still roads. Keep in mind though that you need to be in Uribia by 3 or 3:30pm, the latest. This will give the next driver enough time to get you to Cabo before the sunsets and it becomes difficult to see where they are driving.
Once in Uribia, your driver will drop you off to a local from Cabo with a 4x4 pickup truck who will take you the rest of the way. The reason why you need to get into a pick up truck and be taken by locals is because once you enter the desert, you are literally on roads created by previous drivers. There is little to no service in the desert. It is impossible to get to Cabo without a local who knows the way and has a good vehicle. The ride is heavily bumpy. We suggest going with an empty stomach as the ride can feel quite queazy. But once you enter the desert, you’ll be excited to see all the cacti and goats and forget the long, bumpy journey. After about 1.5 hours, you’ll start to see the beach and within 30 minutes you’ll be at your hostel or hammock. If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive on a beautiful day with no clouds in sight and will get to enjoy the sunsetting in the desert over the beach. The kids will be kitesurfing with dogs running along side them on the beach, and a group of boys will be playing beach soccer.
The entire journey from Riohacha to Cabo costs $16 USD per person which is very reasonable.
Going to Cabo de la Vela isn't so much about what to do when getting there, it's so much more about the journey and the people you meet along the way, and the sites you encounter once there.
A step by step guide to get from Cabo de la Vela to Punta Gallinas
The best way to book this trip is to ask your innkeeper in Cabo. They will help you book a tour in Punta Gallinas which includes sightseeing, accommodations, and transportation all for $40 USD (cash only). The ride to Punta Gallinas starts at 5AM and after about 1.5 hours you will reach a dock, where you’ll get into a speedboat for about 20 minutes. The boat will take you to the dock in Punta Gallinas. From there you just walk up the desert steps, following the boat driver and you will reach your hostel in Punta Gallinas. At the hostel, there are bathrooms, showers, and sinks, all which work using bucket water (similarly to Cabo). There are no lockers, all belongings are stored on top of a long wooden desk. All food is hung up so that it doesn’t attract any insects or get taken by the goats, who from first hand experience we can tell you, they can open up bags.
At night, all travelers sleep in hammocks with blankets provided. We found the hammocks to be quite comfortable and enjoyable for our one night stay. The hostel also provides lunch and dinner for a price. We didn’t indulge, as we had already stocked up on food, but everything smelled and looked delicious! The tour included a trip to Faro Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point in South America, a lookout point in the desert, where we were able to take some beautiful pictures, and a visit to Playa Taroa to spend some time on the sand dunes and enjoy the beach.
A step by step guide back to civilization from Punta Gallinas:
The speedboat driver will take you back to where he originally picked you up. From there the driver from Cabo will meet you and will take you back the same route but instead you'll go straight to Uribia in a 4x4, then while in Uribia the same driver that brought you from Riohacha will take you back by car. Hopefully, you’re lucky and won’t get a flat tire on the way like us. But if you do, you’ll get to see how many people stop to help in the desert and how quickly you’re back on your way.
Our favorite memory of the journey will always be the desert tolls! I’m sure you’re wondering what a toll in the desert is like and why we will always cherish that…
When you’re traveling through the desert, you will eventually start to come across wooden poles on the left and right sides of the road tied together by a rope blocking your way. But don’t worry, you don’t need to get out of the car. Instead, you’ll see a child or children between the ages of 2 & 8, waiting with there hand out. The only way to drop the rope and pass, is to give these adorable little children, a pack of cookies! When we first got into the car with our driver, we thought he had packs of cookies because he got “snacky”. We were pleasantly surprised to see that it was for all the children that we encountered on our way through these “tolls”. It was heartwarming to see the huge smiles on the children faces when they received their small pack of cookies. If you want to get the best view of this, make sure to sit in the passenger seat, if the child is on your side of the car, you will get the honors to hand him or her a pack of cookies.