Cabo de la Vela – The Middle of Nowhere

“Please come with me! Pleeeaaaaase,” said Lenny, a new friend that we had met in our Santa Marta hostel. He adopted a puppy-dog stare, which on a 22-year-old Vietnamese-American was surprisingly effective. Lenny reminded me of the Pillsbury Doughboy–soft and adorable–and I was a little worried about him trying to do something on his own.

I looked at Craig and said, “Well, we COULD change our plans to go earlier.” I knew that he had been wanting to go to Cabo de la Vela, but to be honest, I didn’t know much about it except that I’d have to sleep in a hammock. Having company on a trip that has a lot of potential to go wrong is never a bad thing since it keeps me from strangling Craig, so I told him we should go with Lenny.

“Yay!” was Lenny’s reaction when we told him we would accompany him to the ends of the earth. It was gratifying to see somebody so excited to hang out with us, but we also knew that he had been trying to convince everybody in the hostel to go to Cabo de la Vela for the past week, and Craig was the only one who had actually heard of the place.

Our preparations began–we knew we wouldn’t need much in the way of clothes; it would be so hot that the only two purposes that they would serve were as 1) a reflection of our modesty and 2) protection from the sun. As we discussed what to bring, the gaps in my knowledge of Cabo were filled in by Lenny’s enthusiasms and by Craig’s cautions.

Lenny: “You can roll down a sand dune straight into the ocean!”

Craig: “Accommodation might be really basic, though. I don’t think they have running water.”

Lenny: “They have really cheap lobster! Lots of lobster!”

Craig: “And the hammocks will be on the beach, out in the open.”

We bought snacks, Lenny made half a dozen PB&J sandwiches, and finally, we were all packed up and ready to go. The night before the journey was to start, Craig began behaving like a boor, a sure sign of either anxiety or stomach issues. After his fifth groan, I decided to ask him what was up.

“I’m just worried about you,” he said.

“Oh? Why?” I asked, as if I’d never had a complete mental breakdown in the face of rustic lodgings.

He gave me a look. “What if you hate it?” he asked, with the implied Like you’ve hated some other, similar things unsaid.

“Well,” I hedged, “I know what to expect, and perhaps if I just keep thinking about it as camping, it’ll be fine, no matter what. Besides, what if YOU hate it?”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “There’s that.”

On that pleasant note, we went to bed and were eating breakfast the next morning when Lenny came out of the dorm, his face a mixture of guilt and pain. He proceeded to detail the previous night spent mostly on the toilet and how he was worried that this present bout of traveler’s diarrhea would not be conducive to traveling for 6+ hours to Cabo.

“I’m so sorry! Please don’t hate me,” he implored, using those damn puppy-dog eyes again, to which I have no defense. In any case, it was evident he felt bad enough about missing out on the trip–his flight back to the States was imminently approaching and wouldn’t leave time for trying to get to Cabo again later.

“We’ll eat some lobster for you!” we called as we left him standing forlornly in the lobby of the hostel. We wouldn’t have our third-party buffer; Craig would just have to allow for some strangling if things went wrong.

Arriving in Cabo took nearly the entire day and involved four modes of transportation: 1) the taxi to the bus terminal, 2) the bus to Riohacha, 3) the colectivo (shared) taxi to Uribia, and 4) the truck to Cabo. All of these modes added up to about $65 for the both of us and were as we expected. Transportation always astounds me in South America. The longest we had to wait for any of these rides was the 20 minutes in Riohacha for another person to completely fill the colectivo taxi. Our only hiccup was the last truck to Cabo. We were dropped off in Uribia on a street that seemed to serve as a public market. We were directed to the back of a pick-up truck, already packed with people and goods, and the driver quoted us a price that was way above what Craig had expected.

“Gasolina es carisimo ahora,” he said, dismissing our complaints. We were about to turn away when he called us back, “Bueno, cinquenta para ustedes dos.” Fine, fifty for the both of you. It was still above our price range, but as Craig and I expect things to be slightly more expensive than we’ve heard, it was acceptable. We climbed aboard and squeezed in on the wooden benches lining the sides of the truck. Almost everybody going to Cabo is either a Wayuu (the indigenous people of the area) or a tourist. In this truck, we were the only tourists. It was strange to hear another foreign language besides Spanish again.

The truck already seemed to be filled to capacity, but the driver managed to fit a few more people in. By the time we left, there were 9 other people ranged around a mountain of sacks filled with clothing and food. The truckbed was covered with a handmade metal and wooden shell, onto whose roof was also lashed some other dry goods. We bounced off, and the Wayuu laughed as Craig put sunblock on; we couldn’t understand what they were saying, but the meaning was clear. Gringos are probably pretty weird to them.

Bracing against the wind in the back of the truck from Uribia to Cabo.

Not being able to shift an inch on wooden benches while barreling down a dirt road was not very comfortable on the rear parts of our anatomy, but we knew that with every stop, the truck would get emptier. Finally, after disgorging one woman and what seemed to be her family’s entire yearly supply of food and clothing, it was just us and we were upgraded to the cushy seats in the cab. About 10 kilometers away from town, we passed another over-laden truck and we glimpsed two gringos in the back, with the same astonished faces that we were sporting after an hour and a half of dusty wind blowing through us.

Our driver stopped and told us this other truck would take us the rest of the way without us having to pay more. We climbed out and handed him the agreed-upon amount. “No, you owe me $10,000 more peso,” he said, bringing the cost back up to what he originally quoted before we bargained him down.

We were furious, but completely at his mercy. “If you don’t want to pay, you can just walk the rest of the way,” he said. It was understood the other truck wouldn’t take us unless we paid him the extra money.

“You lied,” I said. He gave me a smug grin. We paid him, as we had no choice. Getting taken advantage of just because we’re foreigners is always a strange thing… it skirts a grey line between our own privileged status as travelers and the right of locals to charge us higher prices, or at least try to. If the driver had never agreed on a lower price in the first place, it would have been fine. But because he increased his price later when he had an opportunity to do so just really grinds my gears. I think it changes the game from simple bargaining to pure thievery.

It wasn’t a great introduction to Cabo, but the other two foreigners in the truck were a nice Austrian couple who sympathized with us. When we arrived in town, one of the Colombians clinging to the side of the truck said that we could rent hammocks with his family for $10,000 COP per night (about $5 USD). He led us to a three-sided shack situated 20 feet from the flat, waveless expanse of ocean, and hung up our hammocks for us.

Our hammocks. The Austrians were on the other side of the divide.

I should probably now explain my aversion to hammocks. It started in Huanchaco, Peru, a little beach town where we stayed several nights. They had several hammocks there for people to use, and at first glance, they looked pretty inviting. Who doesn’t love napping in a hammock, right? But the problem is that hammocks are reversible. So when you lay down in one, you could, conceivably, be resting your head in the exact same place that somebody else’s dirty feet have just been. And believe me when I say that I’ve seen backpackers with some pretty gnarly feet–you know, those crazy hippies that walk barefoot everywhere. You might as well just smear a lot of mud and dog poop on the hammock, that’s how I feel about it. Hammocks now make me cringe.

But I had brought a couple of secret weapons with me: my sarong, and my sleeping bag cocoon. Together, these allowed me to overcome my totally ridiculous aversion to the hammock by completely insulating myself from it. Nonetheless, sleeping in a hammock for an entire night is not, as most things have turned out to be, as romantic or adventurous as you’d think. It’s mostly just uncomfortable. In natural hammock position, your body is in the shape of a banana, feet and head elevated. This becomes tiresome after awhile (about as long as an afternoon nap). But if you scoot around so that your body is diagonal in the hammock, you can almost achieve a flat position. I figured this out by observing the natives–nearly everybody in the tiny town also slept in hammocks, without pillows.

In most respects, Cabo was as rustic as a civilized town can get. On the edge of a barren desert and just steps away from the ocean, it seemed like a strange, isolated place to build a town. We had arrived in the off season, and it was hard to imagine things being more lively when tourism was up, but we had heard that the place could become so full that a bed or hammock would be hard to come by. We walked through the only street, running between the line of mud and brick houses-slash-businesses and more three-sided shacks like ours.

Desolate little place.

The family whose hammocks we were renting owned a small store, full of dry goods, candy, shaving razors, and dusty boxes of ampicillin. I doubt a doctor lived in town–perhaps the stores dispensed medications as seemed fit? The floor of the two-roomed house was dirt, and there was no running water, as Craig had warned me. All of their fresh water (potable or not) was brought in from Uribia. Just after we arrived, I wandered into their abode (also where we could store our things so they weren’t exposed to theft on the beach), and asked if I could use the bathroom.

The man had his hands full of some kind of raw fish (what would become our dinner), and yelled at the woman to help me. As she bustled around, filling up buckets with water, the man asked me, as they all eventually do, what my heritage was. Asians must be a rare sight in that out-of-the-way place. Finally, the woman said the bathroom was ready for me.

“We use the sea water to flush the toilets, so just use that bucket there,” she said, pointing. O-kay… I was an adult. I could figure this out. After I had done my business, I stared at the bucket.

Then I opened the bathroom door and called out, “So I just put this water in the toilet??”

“Yeah, yeah,” they said.

“Right here?” I asked, tipping the bucket into the toilet bowl.


“The whole thing?”


Oh well, okay. I suppose if I had known anything about plumbing, this wouldn’t have been such a mystery to me, but I always thought pushing the handle down on a toilet not only let water from the tank into the bowl, but also opened some unseen barrier into the sewage system. Craig explained a u-bend to me later.

“Something new for you, eh?” the woman asked after I had marveled at the water swirling down and suctioning away with that same gurgle that I knew so well.

I laughed at myself. “A new experience!” I said. She smiled complacently, probably used to the idiocy of gringos by that point.

For dinner, we had salpichon, a shredded fish dish that is quickly becoming a favorite. There were plenty of moths and flies, but for a wonder, there were no mosquitos! The woman (I never did figure out anybody’s relation to each other) told me that it was too dry for mosquitos to thrive. Hooray! At least one luxury had arisen from the lack of anything’s ability to survive in that desert.

The electricity only ran in the evenings in Cabo, from sunset until about 11:00pm. As soon as it was on, neighbors began crowding into our proprietor’s hut, and they sat glued to the 20-inch TV for the rest of the night. There might not be running water, but at least there were telenovelas.

As soon as we went to “bed”, a cacophony of dog barks began. Since the spontaneous orchestra didn’t seem to be ending anytime soon, I put in my ear plugs and thus deprived myself of falling asleep to the lull of ocean waves. Oh well, the ocean was so flat and still, it probably wasn’t going to be very soothing anyway.

After a restless night trying to find the perfect sleeping position in our hammocks (hint: there isn’t one), we woke to a blindingly hot day. Craig’s bright idea, then, was to hike to a rock, Pilón de Azúcar, which we were told was about an hour away. We set off, and immediately the heat seemed to weigh us down. We had brought tons of water with us, but the rock seemed to taunt us for the next hour; it never seemed to get closer in the shimmering air of the desert.

Hiking to that rock in the middle of the desert.

Finally, we plodded up to it only to discover that it was actually the other side of the small peninsula the town was situated on. Since we had no idea we were even on a peninsula, and the man who told us to hike to the Pilón neglected to tell us that there was a beautiful beach there, we hadn’t brought our swim suits. So we just sat there for awhile, admiring the view and the crystal clear waters of a much nicer beach than the one we were sleeping on, and wishing we could go for a swim. After hiking up and back down the rock, Craig decided that, for our greater good, we should hire a motorcycle to take us back. So we squeezed behind the driver and the three of us rode over the dirt and dust to arrive back safe at our little hammock hut.

Beautiful beach at Pilón de Azúcar.

The rest of the day was spent trying to find lobster (we were ultimately unsuccessful… poor Lenny wouldn’t be able to live vicariously through us for that particular experience), swimming, and laying about. Several times, we had to politely refuse the Wayuu women who came into our huts, selling their hand-woven baskets and bracelets. They would set these wares on top of us as we laid in our hammocks, and then would snatch them up and leave, grimacing, after we had repeatedly said no. We felt bad, but it would have been impossible to buy something from everybody… it seemed a hard life, scraping by on the sales of just a basket or bracelet a day.

The ocean on that side of the peninsula wasn’t very inviting… Craig surmised that it was because of the lack of waves that the water remained so murky. It could also be due to everybody’s using the ocean as their personal sewage system. The night before, I saw the man take a pan of bloody water (from preparing our dinner) and throw it into the sea. Afterwards, he laid down in it and floated around before getting up, washing himself off (with same water) and hauling himself back to the shack.

We were told that the only transport back to Uribia would leave Cabo at 4:00 in the morning. I slept fitfully that night, and woke up several times worried that we’d missed the truck. I had little desire to remain in Cabo for any remaining time–two nights in a hammock in the open air had started to give me a cold, despite how warm it was. Not to worry, we woke up and hurriedly dressed just in time for the truck, which came barreling down the main street, honking its horn into the still, dark night.

After we climbed aboard, the truck drove to the other end of the town and we waited awhile for an Argentine couple to pack up their tent on the beach. We had seen them arrive the evening before and were a bit perplexed–it seemed they were leaving less than 12 hours after arriving. It was a long way to go for an uncomfortable night camping on the beach.

We crowded in and set off. My rear end was completely numb by the time we bounced to yet another stop to pick up more Wayuu people and their goods. This particular stop was memorable because we also picked up a goat. He had been tied to the back of a bicycle, and we had watched, fascinated, as a man untied him and set him on the ground. His legs had all been twined together, and he had been muzzled as well. They set him on the bed of the truck as we all watched, fascinated. It made several, sad, bleating noises and then lay quivering, the whites of its eyes showing.

It was at this point that I noticed the Argentine girl was markedly refusing to look at the goat. Then I realized she was crying. What was going on? Was she a member of PETA? A strict vegan? She couldn’t even look at an animal that was destined to be eaten? Or maybe, as evidenced by their extremely short stay, she’d just been having a terribly shit time and the poor, miserable goat was the last straw. Goodness knows I’ve had several such breakdowns myself–I sympathized with her and the goat. Neither seemed to be having a very good time.

The goat, and an example of the colorful mumus the Wayuu women wear.

When my butt seemed like it was finally going to succumb to the pounding of the hard seats and remain flat forever, we reached the crossroads and switched to a bus that just happened to be sitting there already, perfectly timed. Once again, transportation in South America came through for us. We settled into the air-conditioned luxury and they started playing one of the best bus movies I’ve ever seen: “Escape Plan” with Sylvester Stallone AND Arnold Schwarzenneger. Talk about a killer combination. A mindless couple of hours later, we were back in Santa Marta, coddled by our hostel’s amazing staff.

It was an interesting experience and the most rustic and basic one we’ve had on this trip so far. I once visited family in jungle of Hainan Island, China, who lived similarly; without running water or constant electricity. But they, at least, had a farm and a sustainable way of life. Cabo, in the middle of the desert, didn’t seem like it had as much going for it. A dusty little place, recalling scenes from ghost towns or western movies, it was, at least, a “new experience”.