In Colombia’s remote northeast corner, where the jungle becomes desert and Spanish town names give way to the ancestral names of the land, live the Wayuu.
Not many people outside Colombia know about the Wayuu. I learnt about them by chance, thanks to a Colombian film, “Birds of Passage”, at the BFI (London Film Festival). The film combined the harshness of the scenery with the tough pride of its inhabitants and exploded with colourful dances and passionate violence. Coming out of that screening, my friend Sam and I decided we had to visit La Guajira and see it for ourselves. It felt like fate – especially to her, as she is Colombian but had never been to this part of her country. She asked her family and no one seemed to have travelled this far into the desert. Our mind was set – we had to go to La Guajira.
15 months later, our adventure starts in Riohacha, the capital of La Guajira and the starting point for any traveller who decides to venture into one of the most remote and least visited areas of Colombia. Riohacha is a transit town – a short flight away from Bogotá and connected by bus to Barranquilla, Cartagena and Santa Marta – which is a shame, as it has more charm than we expected (more on that later). The route to visit la Alta Guajira (Upper Guajira) will take us to Cabo de la Vela, a beachside town in the desert, and to Punta Gallinas, South America’s northernmost point.
We arrive to Riohacha in the middle of the night, having taken a (freezing) bus all the way from Cartagena. Our first accommodation is Hostal Santa Cecilia, a very basic but friendly hostel close to the bus station. The following morning we wake up still cold but incredibly excited about what lies ahead. We are in La Guajira! Set for adventure, we manage to secure a spot in a ‘colectivo’ (shared car) to Uribia, where the jeeps depart for Cabo de la Vela, and are struck by fate once again. Our travel partner, Señora Belsis, turns out to be a teacher of Wayuu culture and gives us our first lesson into their beliefs and traditions. Listening to her is like hearing the voice of many generations of her ancestors.
Photo of Ailin Gómez by Samantha Wilks-Pulido
The Wayuu come from the rain, which sounds ironic given how dry and arid the land is. The elders say that it used to rain more and the land was greener. Maleiwa, the God of creation, created the land, and Juya, the God of rain, fertilised it. First, grew the plants, then, came the animals and, when everything was ready, the Wayuu. And there they have been for many years, resisting the Spanish conquest and the harshness of the terrain. Nowadays, the Wayuu that still live off the land live in small ‘rancherias’, mud and hay houses with no water or electricity, and their children hold strings across the road, trying to stop cars that pass by to ask them for money. Not many do.
An hour and a half later we are in Uribia. Milord, a local driver who organises transportation around the region, drives us to Cabo de la Vela. With a full car and the Vallenato (local music from the Colombian Caribbean region) blasting at full volume, we pass many trucks and cars with a Venezuelan plate. Not a surprise, given how close the border is. Venezuelans come to sell fuel and buy food, and we also find families that have settled in the most isolated corners of the region, running away from hunger and a country that is sinking into the abyss.
Photo by Samantha Wilks-Pulido
Cabo de la Vela is stunning and surrounded by the most absolute nothing. The sea is grey and the wind strong, making it a kite surf hotspot. Most of the local businesses seem to be run by women, not entirely surprising as the Wayuu are a matrilineal society: surnames and territory are passed on through the mother. However, the most important decisions, like marriage, are made by the mother’s brothers.
We stay at Hostal Arco Iris, owned by Señora Idenia Gómez. Her niece Ailin helps us organise a motorbike tour for the following day. They can also arrange Wayuu dances, rum tasting and storytelling. The accommodation is basic but comfortable and clean, and you have your own bathroom with plenty of water, which is a rarity in the village. The food is fresh and abundant and we feast on local fish whilst overlooking the sea and listening to Ailin’s stories about local traditions. She also dreams of opening up a bar by the beach, in front of the hotel.
The following day, local boys come to pick us up with their motorbikes and show us the sights. The landscape is immense and the country is eerie. Sam blurts out ‘it’s like it’s listening to us’ – and it seems like it really is. We have a series of ‘coincidences’ – meeting the teacher of local culture; Sam taking an unfortunate tumble down a hill and coincidentally there is a doctor carrying around a first aid kit right next to us; and most interestingly, given the Wayuu’s belief in the significance of dreams, is my dream about a friend getting transferred back to her country the day before it happens. We both get goose bumps. The Wayuu regularly consult the ‘Outsu’, men and women that have the ability to interpret dreams and guide people. It is not a hereditary gift, but they are chosen by existing Outsus, who dream about them.
Photo by Samantha Wilks-Pulido
We go on to visit Playa Arco Iris (Rainbow Beach), which forms a beautiful rainbow when the waves crash against the rocks, the Pilón de Azúcar (Sugar Pylon), which genuinely resembles a mountain of sugar, and the Cave of Jepira, where the souls of the dead Wayuu go to rest. It is also called the Devil’s Cave so we decide not to hang around for too long and go back to Cabo de la Vela for lunch. We have a freshly caught lobster at Glamar, followed by a nap at the beach in a chinchorro (local hammock). In the afternoon, we visit the Playa Ojo del Agua (Water’s Eye Beach) and finish an amazing day looking at the sunset from (a very crowded) lighthouse.
Señora Idenia takes out some chairs and the three of us just sit by the main road outside the hotel in complete silence, only interrupted by my questions about Wayuu culture. Not having phone connection is a privilege and we feel how our pace slows down by the hour. We then decide to wander around, as shops and restaurants close late, which is a good chance to buy the beautifully handwoven local handbags. They are also available in larger Colombian cities, but given the economic situation of the region, it is encouraged that tourists buy them here. They cost around 9 GBP, and they take approximately a week to make. The women tell us in broken Spanish that they walk up to 3 hours in each direction to come to Cabo de la Vela to sell them and we feel the price is cheap. For dinner, we try Nomade, which offers cocktails made with the (very strong) local rum, chinchirri.
The next morning, we are picked up by Milord at 5am to go to Punta Gallinas (Hen Point). The trip is around 3 hours through the desert, with (once again) very loud Vallenato and (also once again) a very crowded car. We arrive to an even more surreal landscape, but more green and lush – we even get to see pelicans fishing. In Hostal Alexandra, we eat a traditional breakfast (perico eggs, which are scrambled eggs with tomato and scallions) and get ready to explore the local sights.
We start in the actual ‘Punta’, where there is a lighthouse and the beach is full of little mountains made of stones, built by travellers. The sea is grey and wild and I think of Che Guevara, who got here when he was travelling around the continent in the trip that would change his life. I have not read his book, but I can’t stop wondering how was he able to make it here with his motorbike through this insane road, given it’s a miracle our jeep has not gotten stuck yet.
Photo by Samantha Wilks-Pulido
Our next stop is Mirador de Casares (Casares Lookout), which is breath-taking, both for the beauty of the view and for the harsh wind that makes you hide in the car after only a few minutes outside. Even there, we meet a Wayuu woman and some children selling trinkets, it’s amazing how they are able to live in such a hostile environment. We then move on to the Dunas de Taroa, a dune so gigantic that is almost too scary to climb in order to get to the beach. They are majestic, and everyone sits down in the slope in contemplation.
After the tour, we have lunch and decide to go back to Riohacha that same day. It’s only been 3 days on the road but it feels like an eternity. While passing by Uribia, we see fields full of plastic bags, left to fly with the wind, that end up stuck in the trees. It’s one of the saddest sights I have ever seen and makes the impact of plastic in the environment scarily obvious. Apparently, the mayor tried to do a community clean-up but it only happened once, and the bag waste has been accumulating, like a new city being built in the desert.
Back in Riohacha we stay at Hotel Laguna Salá, which has a relaxing rooftop pool playing reggaeton and serving fresh tropical juices. The town really is a pleasant surprise. The beach is clean and the seaside walk is charming with many lively bars and restaurants. We have dinner at El Malecón Playa Bar and Lounge, and Cabo de la Vela seems miles away. We also have the chance to learn about a new local enterprise, Asawaa, that commercialises chinchirri. They offer tastings in its bar and want to sell it throughout La Guajira and beyond, helping to promote local tourism.
On our final day, we say goodbye to La Guajira with a strange feeling – happy to go back to the comforts of Bogotá and escape this land that follows us with its eyes, but sad to leave such a special place that has treated us so kindly.
Arranging the trip:
- Getting around: Milord can be reached on +57 313 5359445, he can organise transportation all around La Guajira
- Hostal Arco Iris can be booked through Booking.com, Señora Idenia can be reached on +57 313 2341432 or +57 323 4591570
- Glamar and Nomade can be found in the main road of Cabo de la Vela
- Hospedaje Alexandra can be arranged through Milord or any local driver in Cabo de la Vela
- Books to read
- Oblivion: A memoir, Héctor Abad Faciolince
- One hundred years of solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
- Love in the times of cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
- Films to watch
- Birds of passage, Ciro Guerra, Cristina Gallego (available on Amazon Prime)
- Women travellers
- We felt very safe at all times, and we were comfortable to dress however we wanted (Disclaimer: both my friend and I come from cultures where unsolicited flirting and open displays of male attention are common, which might make women from other cultures uncomfortable. We are also native Spanish speakers, which makes travelling around easier)
- Overall we felt quite safe, but it is extremely important to exercise caution with your belongings and never leave them unattended, especially in public transportation – e.g., a tourist had her wallet stolen in the night bus
- La Guajira is hot and dry all year long, with temperatures oscillating around 29°C. April to July tends to be 2-3 degrees colder