Cycling to Punta Gallinas (The Northern Tip of South America)

The worst ideas in the long sad history of bad ideas are normally realized half way through doing whatever it was you set out to do. In this case it was realized 6pm after a strenuous day cycling a desert and finding the cheap bags of water we dragged with us had bust open, reducing our capacity and soaking our pillows (fleeces) in the process. Not only lost water where we needed it the most after 35c and high humidity, but the fact I had hauled dead weight that slowed us through the day, only for it to evaporate away at the end of the night leaving us with nothing. Welcome to the Punta Gallinas Cycle.

We start from Uribia, a bicycle shaped town and the last town before Punta Gallinas. The town revolves around the bicycle with bike taxis, the market assembling on the back of load carrying trikes and a lot of colour. Hotels cost about 20-24 dollars a night, which is high for us, but more than compensated by the cheap street food and decent meals for three USD. The local guides told us it wasn’t possible to cycle there and certainly the bemused looks from locals made us sure it would be a full micro adventure on our big South America adventure. We rose early as the market was assembling for the the day to gather supplies needed for the trip. We left our climbing equipment at the hotel telling them we would be back in three to four days. We had been used to buying heavy duty 6 liter bags of water to keep us hydrated but at this hour, the vendors were not open that held them. So we substituted them for light duty 3 liter bags which, though looking frail and not ideal certainly were water. We supplemented them with 4 large bottles of water that would form our turn back point (24l), the point at which water was low and if we couldn’t purchase any more we would head back. All in around 50 liters. This figure sounds crazy, but in the heat and humidity we decided we needed 6 liters for a days cycling between us, plus 6 for properly rehydrating overnight. We stocked up on food the only way we knew how- potato chips, sugary gummies and bread, vaguely counting the calories and deciding ‘that should do it’.

Leaving town the sky was overcast, the temp warm, but not hot, and the wind already getting up. We had an easy 30 miles on a gravel road parallel to a rail line before crossing into the scrub and start of 4 wheel drive trail. We sat to eat our lunch of potato chip, only to find my front tire was flat when we were ready to set off. This was to be a theme of the next couple of days.   The area was mainly cacti up to 8 feet high creating a dense desolate dry forest with plenty of thorns and needles on the ground making bicycle landmines. Some trail was hard packed and easy, but interspersed with sandy patches that were soul destroying. The hope was it would stop around every winding corner. It didn’t stop the wheels turning , but was hard going. I slightly regret not buying the fat tires for the trailer but most the time it did well.      (The bicycle tires we picked are Schwalbe marathon mtb 2.4″ with a good smooth rolling tread on the center but some reasonable traction for the rougher stuff, and with some puncture resistance, though I don’t think any tire has puncture resistance to match the size and hardness of thorns out here.)

As the hours churned by, one wheel rotation after another, we felt progress was good. The occasional 4×4 would stop to ask where we were going and advised that it’s a long long way on a bicycle, even for a four wheel drive. It was nice knowing we had a decent reserve of water taking pressure off this thought. As each three liter bag was emptied, we checked progress and knew we were on track perfectly for water there and back. The whilst Karli was behind me she noticed drips coming of the trailer. On inspection, needle sized holes had sprouted and were soaking the t-shirts and socks placed to cushion them. We quickly drank the water we had and filled our bottles with the bust bag. So started the system of dealing with leaks that would repeat over the next two days.

To our surprise, there are people living out here, though on what I cannot imagine. Everything is brought out on wagons . Due to the boost in tourism going to the most Northern Point, the locals had started blocking the road with toll stations made of shredded tires, old clothing, and anything else they could get their hands on. There must be around 40 attempts at charging 2000 pesos (60cent) making this probably the most expensive road in South America mile for mile (based on no supportive facts) but also the worst. We realized pretty quickly though that they listen out for cars and when they hear them an armada of kids come running at them with hands held out and quickly pull up their makeshift rope to bring vehicles to a stop. Unfortunately for them we were not cars and made no noise so we were just chased by kids often. A few roadblocks we did as the locals and rode around them on the motorcycle pass gap.

Things were slowly becoming more sparse and sandier. Half way through the day we passed a military checkpoint searching a water tanker for illicit goods. They seemed befuddled by our being there on bicycle and untrained for the circumstance, letting us pass with a confused look. On we rode through the burning sun. The cacti soon gave way to open pans where the full effect of the headwind was felt, a good 20-25 mph with gusts of 30, it was hard and hot. Our sweat mixed with the dirt creating tan mud on our legs. Salt crystallizing on our clothes where the heat baked them. Despite the cloud cover the temperature was still over 30c/90f.

We took a break at the edge of one of the pans.

‘Karli?’ I asked as we sat back to back for support.

‘Ye?’ came the response a few seconds later.

‘Have you ever felt like you were cycling across a desert?’. to which we both chuckled a little.


big flat pan at sea level, the sea water of an inlet not far off to the side.

The flat open areas were a welcome break from the cactus watch but the winds took a bit of the joy, struggling to make much more than 10mph. We took a wrong branch at one point and upon turning barely had to pedal to get back to the junction. Off to the side of the hard packed track was a thin crust that would start sticking to the wheels if we ventured off. Towards the end of the day and feeling pretty beat by the heat, we picked a half rock/ half sand dune to make camp beneath, that would keep us reasonably out of sight. Using the bikes and rocks to stake out the tent, we chucked our pads inside and sat down. We had covered as a conservative guess 52 miles (not accounting for the twists and winds of the road). This was disappointing. We knew it also meant a second day just like it. Opening our panniers we then found two nearly empty bags of water and two soaked fleeces- our pillows for the night. With a sigh we lay them out to dry and ate dinner, a combination of potato chip, bread and biscuits and drank the rest of the bust bags. At least we would be well watered. The night sleep was uncomfortable and for the main, the sleep part lacked. When the alarm went off at half 4, I knew it would be a slow day. Rationality might have said turn back, you just lost more water, but we still had a few liters till we hit the turn back point. Sometimes good surprises happen. Today is cloudless, and the full intensity of the sun piercing down.

We set off to find the remnants of more roadblocks. We came to a fork that offered a choice of what was on the map, a road through the ocean, we were guessing a wetter pan, or a hilly alternate with more cactus. We chose the hilly way not wanting to risk turning back. What followed was probably close to type 3 fun, with the odd little downhill on which we still had to pedal into wind. (Note Karli’s hat sinched tight and flapping up in most of the pictures).

Some time in the afternoon we came to a small town that sold cold drinks and some provisions for 2-3 times the value back in Uribia. I don’t resent prices like that, It was pretty nice to have some cool pop unexpectedly in the middle of a scorching day but it did raise the question would we have enough for more water on return? We didn’t expect to need cash in a desert. On we rode eventually moving onto the return supply of water, I was glad to be drinking some of the 24 liter (52lb) I had hauled behind me.  I would like to say it made me faster, but heat and a bad night sleep make anything worse. We passed a tanker who stopped and asked.

“donde van? Punta Gallinas?” To which we replied “Si.”

He smiled and said we were almost there, it’s just around the bend. This was the best news all day. But the reality was that bend was 10 miles of soft ground and a final climb up to the costal cliffs. This was tedious, hot, grinding labour. Like a filthy headache that just won’t give in. The heat was getting to us both. That sickly taste of knowing you can’t keep going like this. Checking every mile watching them slowly count down on the map. We arrived on top of the cliff around 3pm. On a rock was painted the words Hospedaje with an arrow. We headed straight for it.

Arriving we ordered some food and a couple of beers, relieved to be in some shade. With the sea in sight, I didn’t feel the need to walk down and put my feet in, that looked like more work than it was worth and the beer that looked like it was stored under a chicken coup was more welcome. The hard part was done. Now, with a tailwind we rode downhill 5miles back to camp.

I sat at the roadside for probably the tenth time that day to assess my punctured tube. As the day wore on and frustration built over either completely disassembling to put a new patch on or just pump it up for another few miles, it was getting a bit sickening. We decided we had done the hard part. But with a failing pump, a tube with a needle wielding ghost in it and low on water we conceded we could hitch a ride out. The next morning before dawn we saw lights coming over the cliff down to us. It was a local making his once a week run to Uribia. He had already picked up a couple of guys and three goats for the market. He was happy to give us a ride if we bought him an Empenada in town. Seemed like a pretty good deal. I thought it would detract from the adventure, but with no guarantee of other vehicles that could help if things went downhill, we hopped on. It was kind of fun but also with a hint of ‘this is scary am I going to die being flipped from the wagon as we hit sand on an adverse cambered corner.’? I wondered if I would realize? Would it be fast? Would I be paralyzed and have to send Karli to the hotel with the bikes while waiting for rescue? Would they chuck me in with the goat like a carcass? Before I had considered much more we stopped to pick up a lady and her kid (making it 4 people in the 2-seater front) plus a mile further on a farmer and his dozen goats off to market. It was a bit odd to have someone pass me goats by the bound legs and hauling them up and in. It did feel honest. Though the last goat had eaten a lot and wasn’t easy to pick up.

The first few miles the farmer that joined us spent re-organizing the heads and necks so they wouldn’t suffocate, after which I was surprised they all seemed to go to sleep, only to hit a bump in the road and they would let out a horrific long wail. I am happy to say by the time we reached town and unloaded the goats they were all still alive and after a quick bit of business the original three goats seemed to be sold to the herder of the many. For how long they would stay alive I do not know. What I do know, is that our lunch that day tasted very fresh. So concluded going to the most northern point. Our panniers covered in dust and goat poop the can no longer join us in the hotel room. While we could have got a ride to the northern point and cycled South, this seemed more fun and worked out well.


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