In 1499 a Spaniard named Juan de la Costa first spied the desert coast of La Guajira, when he spotted the windswept cape that is known today as Cabo de la Vela (“Cape of Sails”), and Jepira to the indigenous Wayuu inhabitants of the Guajira deserts – along with Venezuela’s Gulf of Paria, this makes Cabo one of the first places visited by Europeans in the South American continent. And now, more than half a millennium later, Europeans, along with tourists and travelers from all over the world are making a similar journey to experience Cabo de la Vela for themselves – the small, beach-side community is fast becoming a hugely popular stop-off on the Colombian backpacker circuit. Cabo de la Vela is hardly swamped with travelers just yet (although it can get very busy on holidays) but it’s generally seen as a fairly important spot to visit on a Colombian adventure. So, to make your life easier if you’re planning a visit to Cabo de la Vela (which you should really think about doing), here’s a complete travel guide to Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira – how to get there, what to do, where to stay, eating, drinking…the whole 9 yards!
How to get to Cabo de la Vela:
Traveling to Cabo de la Vela isn’t exactly hard, but it can be quite long-winded – if you’re starting in Santa Marta or Riohacha then there are going to be 3 different vehicles involved in transporting you to the desert cape…but never fear, that’s what I’m here for! You can take an all-inclusive tour to Cabo de la Vela, but it’s much nicer and offers more freedom and flexibility to travel independently to Cabo de la Vela. So here’s the step-by-step guide to getting there:
- Step 1 – You need a bus to Riohacha: chances are you’ll be starting in Santa Marta or Palomino (most travelers take this route); if you’re in Santa Marta take a cab to the gas station on the main highway outside town and ask for a bus to Riohacha, and if you’re in Palomino then wait on the main highway for a bus heading in that direction (going right, if you’re facing the sea), and get a price. From Santa Marta it should take roughly 3 and a half hours and cost around 30.000 COP; from Palomino it’s more like an hour and a half, and should cost closer to 10.000 COP (NB. a good rule for Colombian bus travel is to allow about 7.000 COP for each hour of travel more or less).
- Step 2 – When you get in to Riohacha, ask to be dropped where the colectivos to Uribia depart from – this is basically a few streets with a bunch of drivers of shared taxis heading into the Wayuu capital of Uribia, the starting point for trips into the desert north. The cars are big, old Cadillac-style cars that seat 4/5 people plus the driver – there are plenty and they depart when they’re full. On arrival lots of drivers will come up and offer you their car – ask for a price first, and try not to pay above 15.000 COP (a price they’ll usually come down to, especially if you use the classic line: “My friend told me they paid that…”). It takes just over an hour to get to Uribia; ask to be dropped where the colectivos for Cabo de la Vela go from.
- Step 3 – In Uribia you need to get on a public 4×4 truck to get to Cabo de la Vela: prices here are negotiable, but expect to pay between 15-20.000 COP for the journey, which should take between 1 and a half to 2 hours. These trucks are by no means luxury: on my last visit in December I was with 3 other travelers in the back seating area, along with 10 locals, plus a bunch of crates, personal belongings and a goat, in an area designed to seat 6 at most! It’s all part of the magic though! These trucks can take a long time to fill up, so be patient.
So, if you follow these 3 steps you should be able to get to Cabo de la Vela without too much hassle. Here are a few bonus tips to make it run even smoother (plus a key tip on getting back again)
Tip 1: Start this journey early from your starting point – with delays and waiting for colectivos to fill up it can take the best part of a day to reach Cabo, and the Uribia connection is less reliable after the early afternoon – if you’re arriving in Uribia after 3pm, look for a hotel!
Tip 2: If you’re coming from Valledupar, you’ll need a slight variation on this journey – you’ll need to get a colectivo for about 30.000 COP to ‘Cuatro Vias’ (the crossroads that leads to Valledupar, Riohacha, Uribia or Maicao), then get onto another shared taxi to Uribia for about 4.000 COP and 30 minutes. Then follow Step 3 as above and Bob’s your Uncle!
Tip 3: When you’re looking to leave Cabo de la Vela, tell your hostel and they can call and make sure the return truck has space for you – these trucks leave between 4-5am only from Cabo…so set an alarm!
So that’s how to get to Cabo de la Vela…the next stage: where to stay…?
Accommodation in Cabo de la Vela:
Where to stay in Cabo de la Vela? At this point it really is up to you: there are so many options for a night’s sleep in the little town, ranging from basic hostels to beach-side huts. I have visited Cabo twice and have stayed in both a basic hut by the sea and a hammock in a hostel – stringing up a hammock in a beach-side shelter should cost between 10.000-20.000 COP depending on the season (national holidays, Easter and Christmas are the busiest); there’s also a nice new beach-side hostel called El Caracol (look for the building with 2 storeys!), with hammocks for 10.000 and chinchorros for 15.000. They also have basic rooms for 30.000 COP.
Most places that offer accommodation also offer food (more on that below), and basic shower facilities – be warned squeamish travelers…there’s mostly no running water in Cabo de la Vela; showers are generally taken with a bucket of water from a tank, poured over you with a bowl. It’s really easy and not bad at all, but maybe not for the precious backpacker…your call! Anyway, what I’m really saying here is that it’s easy to find accommodation in Cabo de la Vela…but what about food and drink!?
Eating and Drinking in Cabo de la Vela
This part is quite easy as well…unless you don’t like fish or are a vegetarian! There are lots of little restaurants in Cabo de la Vela, mostly serving fried fish dishes, accompanied with coconut rice and patacones. This is usually about 15.000 COP, and there’s sometimes a fresh lobster that’ll set you back more like 25.000 (still not bad for a whole lobster!). Breakfast is the normal egg and bread affair and is more like 5-7.000 COP; lunch and dinner are basically variations on the same theme. There’s sometimes beef or chicken available for closer to 10.000, or goat for about the same.
For drinking, there are plenty of little stores that sell bottled sodas and water, as well as beer – be warned, the beer is Venezuelan beer, due to the easy importation from the nearby border: it’s not the best, and the bottles are usually tiny, but it’s only 1.500-2.000 pesos a bottle, so it’s not too bad really. One tip I would have when it comes to drinking is this: be really respectful of the local culture – Cabo de la Vela is known as Jepira in Wayuunaiki, and is a scared place where the souls of the dead Wayuu come to rest, so please keep drunkenness and noise to a minimum and be respectful of local people.
What to do in Cabo de la Vela:
There are plenty of things to keep you busy for a few days in Cabo de la Vela: mostly involving beaches and desert! Here are the best activities available in Cabo de la Vela:
– Visit Pilon de Azucar and it’s beach: this conical hill by the sea is sacred to the Wayuu and can be ‘climbed’ in about 15 minutes for commanding 360° views of the surrounding desert and Caribbean sea. The beach is the nicest in the area, with not too many waves, warm water and nice sand. It’s worth making time for a few hours here. A mototaxi from Cabo will take you there and come for you later for between 8-10.000 COP (negotiate!).
– El Faro lighthouse: this isn’t much of a lighthouse, but the views over the sea are pretty special, and the sunset view from here is undoubtedly one of Colombia’s most beautiful.
– Ojo del Agua beach: this beach gets it’s name from a small, freshwater pool located in the rocks behind it – these days the pool is pretty unimpressive, and the beach, whilst worth a look, isn’t as lovely as Playa del Pilon.
Most mototaxi drivers will offer a visit to all of these places over a few hours, arriving at El Faro for sunset for a negotiable cost of about 25.000 COP – this is a good option if time is of the essence!
You can also enjoy some time in the town itself: the beach and sea directly in front of Cabo de la Vela has the nicest, calmest water you’re likely to see in Colombia, and there are lots of small shops and people selling artesanias like the famous Wayuu mochila bags – expect to pay much less for these than you would elsewhere (between 40.000-70.000 depending on the quality of the bag – you can negotiate, but show some respect with this: the bags take time to make and are important income in a very poor region).
The other popular activity in Cabo de la Vela is kitesurfing; it’s supposedly one of the best places in the world to learn how to do this, with classes going for about 80.000 COP per hour, and full courses available on request. At the far end of town are couple of kitesurfing schools, where you can usually sleep in a hammock as part of the cost of a course.
Cabo de la Vela is also the base for visit to the northern-most point of South America, Punta Gallinas – here’s our complete traveler’s guide to visiting Punta Gallinas (which you really should!)…
Extra Cabo de la Vela tips:
La Guajira is a desperately poor region, which has been hit disproportionately hard by Colombia’s droughts – the very northern deserts haven’t seen rain in over 3 years! This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit; on the contrary, tourism income is becoming essential to the region’s local economy…but please, please, please: be respectful and aware of the situation in the department – La Guajira is not the place to get righteous about perceived over-charging or haggle over-zealously! Simply be happy to have the privilege to visit this stunning, unique environment and treat the place and the people with the respect they are due!
So that’s the complete guide to visiting Cabo de la Vela in La Guajira: everything you need to know to make your trip easy, fun and interesting. If you have any further questions please get in touch or leave a comment below…