Nowadays touristically La Guajira is known for its space, desert and beaches and is a very interesting part of Colombia to visit. Because of it’s landscape, culture and ecology. It still doesn’t have a lot of tourist infrastructure. But this is where to go if you want to see a completely different Colombia . La Guajira is the most northern part of Colombia borders Venezuela, Aruba, and Curacao. It is situated on the Caribbean Coast.
La Guajira is also one of the most inhospitable, dry and poor parts of Colombia . This peninsula the most eastern part of Colombia and South America was seen for the first time by an European in 1498 when Alonso de Ojeda sailed along the shores the peninsula. It was near the most Northern point of the peninsula very near to the place that is now called Bahia Honda (Deep Bay) on which Alonso de Ojeda on his second travel in 1502 set ashore and built the first European settlement on the continent: Santa Cruz named after the day of Santa Cruz (3rd of May) on which he set foot on land. The settlement only lasted 3 months due to aggresivenes towards the Guajira people in the area and internal conflicts. During Spanish colonial time at Cabo de Vela a pearl fishery site was set up.
This activity stayed there until the 17th century. In this work the Spanish used slaves originating from Africa. Later the Afro-Colombian community spread out towards Riohacha where they worked in sugar, tabacco and corn cultivation and cattle breeding. Pearl fishing stagnated in the 17th century.
The peninsula was a place in which different powers strived for hegemony like the Spanish, English, French, Dutch and pirates. The north eastern part of La Guajira however always has been an inhospitable place with desert, cactuses and sanddunes that never has been dominated entirely in colonial days. It is here where the Wayùu people have preserved their culture and identity to a great extend. The Wayùu have a word for outsiders: Alyunas.
Being borderland made it an area ideal for smuggling Rum, cigarettes and gasoline from Venezuela and in the sixties and seventies it was an important marihuana growing area especialy in the Sierra Nevada and it is it known that in these times from this department many airplanes with weed left for USA from small airstrips.
In the meanwhile the Afro Colombian and Wayùu communities living outside the cities have endured attacks, killings, kidnapping and threats by paramilitary groups often associated with the control of land because of the minerals or narcotic trade.
Now a new La Guajira is awaiting you in peace and all its beauty.
La Guajira’s main airport is the airport Almirante Padilla in the capital of the department: Riohacha. Riohacha can be reached directly by air from Bogota. But is also possible to fly to Valledupar and take a collective taxi or bus to Riohacha (3,5 hours) or to take a bus shuttle from Santa Marta.
Some facts about La Guajira
The department has an area of 20.848 km2 that is comparible to the size of West-Virginia, Wales, El Salvador, and half the size of Holland and has a polulation of almost one million people.
La Guajira is one of the most etnicaly diverse departments of Colombia. Almost half of the population have an indigineous background. According to DANE the statistical bureau of Colombia the main indigenous groups living in La Guajira are the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wayùu, & Wiwa peoples consisting 45% of the population of the department during the last census in 2005.
La Guajira is home to the largest proportion of Wayùu people in Colombia that is the largest indian etnical group in Colombia. The Wayúu people represent 20.5% of the national indigenous population, and this group is concentrated in La Guajira. The other indigenous people (Arhuaca, Kogui, Kankuama & Wiwa) are cultaraly and linguisticaly destinct and live more in the mountanious area of the Sierra Nevada. Also other ethnic groups came to La Guajira such as Afro-colombians, Whites, Arabs and etnical mixed people such Afro-guajiros, and mestizos.
The department La Guajira is one of the poorest departments of Colombia. It scores very high on poverty indexes that measure things like hunger, houses with earthen floor, children that don’t go to school and no toilet and running water in the house. Especially in Alta La Guajira , the north part of the peninsula where not suprisingly also lies the La Guajira has the worst conditions. For example in 2014 around 80 children died of malnutrition. Official figures indicate that between 2013 and 2017, at least 193 indigenous children in that age group in the province died because of malnutrition.
In La Guajira as a border department both trade and smuggling with Venezuela has always been important. Because of political tensions in Venezuela there has been a large drop in the amount of trade between both countries. Visitors to La Guajira will discover that along the road there are a lot of vendors along the road selling cheap gasoline from Venezuela that is smuggeled into the country.
Coal minging and the export of coal are an important part of the economy of La Guajira since the middle of the seventies of the last century. Mining concession are owned by Cerrejon that exports predominatly to Turkey, The Netherlands and Chile.
The mine has lead to more investments and work in the region. But it gave also various negative effects: Any visitor to Cabo de Vela will pass the 150 km railway that has been constructed for the coal that cuts through indigenous land, and killed both people as goats. But most importantly in this region where water is so scarse is that the mine has negative effect on the hydrological cycle of the Ranchería river because of deforestation , contamination and changing of river courses. Wayùu and Afro-Colombian communities living around the mine tell that many river streams disappeared because of mining activity.
Many riverstreams were redirected for mining activity others were polluted with particles of coal. One of the first rivers that was redirected was Aguas Blancas in 1991 for further expansion of the mine. The river, a side river of the Rancheria river was moved 6 km. This river doesn’t exist anymore . El Cerrejon says it recycles its waste. But still the Rancheria river keeps spilling more heavy metals in the sea near Riohacha. Especially in rainy periods nitrate and ammoniak, oils, petrol and carbon particles enter in the water.
And this while clean drinking water is scarse in La Guajira, especialy in the northern part desertified part. Here the water supply system is done by trucks. Alta La Guajira (Uribía municipality) is the most dry area of Colombia with an average rainfall of less than 500 mm on less than 50 days with rain per year. Rainfall varies throughout the year with January as the dryest month with rainfall below 100 mm to rainfalls that can reach up to 300 mm in October, November, and December. Locally however there can be many weeks or months without a drop of rain.
Thousands of people in the desert have to walk or cycle for hours to get water.
Infratructure is bad there are no roads , almost no electricity and schools are of low quality and far; we spoke to boy who had to cycle 2 hours through the desert to reach his school. Drinking Water comes by trucks from the nearest city with a water company Uribía. The trucks come once a week and delivery to all the rancherias can take up to 8 hours. Besides this there are some waterwells and reservoirs that collect rainwater. But often people have to cover many kilometers to reach them.
In the period between 2014-2016 in La Guajira there were very dry years even for the people that are used to life in the desert. This lead drying up of waterwells and water reservoirs (jagüeyes) to death and disease among animals and crop (like yuca, beans, corn) and also people especialy children were affected. Many people migrated from the rancherias to towns like Riohacha and Uribia.
The largest Indigineous group living in La Guajira are the Wayúu people where more than 98% of this group live of the total amount of Wayùu people in Colombia (another part lives across the border in Venezuela). The amount of Wayùu people in La Guajira is estimated at around 250.000 They are divided in to around twenty clans. Each clan consists out of several families.
The Wayùu people live predominantly in the arid and semi arid zones of the peninsula that correspond with Municipios de Riohacha, Uribía, Maicao, and Manaure. Many of the Wayùu and other indigenous people live in Reserves (Resguardos). It is also in the areas with biggest concentration of Wayùu people where the biggest reserves are located. The biggest reserve is the resguardo of Media y Alta Guajira (El Gran Resguardo Wayùu) that lies in the areas of the municipalities Manuare, Uribía, Maicao & Riohacha. El Gran Resguardo Wayùu was established by the Colombian government in 1984 and covers more than 1 millon hectates.
The Wayùu people don’t believe in land ownership and borders. Because of this it is also not possible in Wayùu culture to sell or buy land and the reserves are outside of the land-market.
The more than 200.000 people living in the Uribía and Manaure reserves of Alta and Media La Guajira are almost all Wayùu . In fact in the upper and middle part of La Guajira except for the cities of Riohacha, Maicao en Uribía the rest of the population is predominantly Wayùu. Within the territory of the city of Riohacha there are already six reserves.
The Wayùu people traditionally live in rancherias. This is a practice that grew in the colonial days when the Wayùu lost more and more land and it was impossible to live as nomads.
It is not difficult to find rancherias. Typically these Rancherias consist out of 4-5 houses where family lives traditionaly according to the family line of the mother.
The rancherias consist of houses with their own bathroom and kitchen grouped around a yard with gardens for vegetables a water well and a collective grazing land for goats, horses and cows. Often there is also a commmunal water reservoir nearby.
The rancherias were traditionaly fenced by fences of cactus (12). Every rancheria has a name of the family name, plant, animal or description of place.
The Wayùu community especially in the arid Nothern part of La Guajira is predominantly poor. In 2014 60% of the population was non literate and 44% of the Wayùus suffered from cronic desnutricion.
Fishing and gathering shellfish and crabs from the beaches, and the extracting of salt from seawater by evaporation has always been important for the coastal Wayùu communities (called Apalaanchi ). These people of the beach know the winds and currents of the sea. Livelistock farming is nowadays seen to have more have status within Wayùu culture. It was in the old days for example common for a future husband to pay the drowry with a large number of goats, donkies or cows. But the dowry can also be covered with jewelry or other valuables With a larger amount than father in law paid for the mother of the bride. Uncles of the mothers side are very important in the community and in the rearing of children. After marriage mostly the bride goes to live with the family of the husband.
Large scale salt mining has contributed to the diminishing of traditional salt mining. While on the other hand climate change cuased the diminishing of the stock of goats because of draughts. Many Rancherias adopt to the change to offer touristical services such as lodging, cultural activities and tours, and also the selling of their traditional woven bags with typical woven patterns and colors that are brought over from generation on generation. According to the chief of a rancheria this is traditionaly done by the women but more and more men also weave bags to generate an income in this way. On the backdrop of diminishing work in the goat herding. Men that weave are highly respected in Wayùu culture.
Things to do
Riohacha is the capital of the department and is a city of 957.797 according to the 2005 census. The town has had a lot of uncontrolled growth in recent years which also we be reflected in a growth in inhabitants. A big part of the town has unpaved roads.
Touristically however the focus of the town is at the beachfront, the so called Malecon or Paseo de la Marina that was totaly restructerd in 2015 along more than 2 km of beach front that connects the mouth of the Rio Rancherias, the peer and other monuments such as the Monument of Identity (Monumento de la Identidad) and “The yellow butterflies” (Las Mariposas Amarillas) of Mauricio Babilonia in honer of the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The malecon is used a lot to stroll and by Wayùu vendors that sell their bags and other handy crafts. The bags cost around €25 but don’t forget that it takes around 3 months to make a bag.
There are terrases at the Riohacha beach and malecon where it is delicious to eat fish and have a cold drink. However the water of the sea is not always that beautiful due to sendiments in the water of the Rio Rancheria by mining activities more upstream that is taken by the river to the sea at Riohacha. Nearby Riohacha are however beautiful beaches.
Playa Camarones (Playa de las Camarones) is a beautiful beach 17 km south west of Riohacha. It is mostly quiet and you can eat delicious shrimp, fish and even crab here. A whole crab costs around 30,000 COP (€9) a fraction of that it would cost in Bogota. There is a small town nearby: Camarones that apperantly got it’s name from the shrimp fishery. And along the road you can see the orange color of the peeled of skin of the shrimps. Rice with shrimp is the most popular dish. The people that live in the town are mainly Afro-Colombian and Wayùu. There is a reserve and rancheria nearby the town. At the parking of the beach you can ask a local guide to bring you to the natural park: Santuario de Fauna y Flora Los Flamencos that is very close to the beach. Here you can enjoy the marvels of the lagoon, the Flamengos, and the Wayùu community of 1500 people that lives inside this natural park.
Mayapo beach is a small paradise with white sand beaches and blue/ green water. This beach is 30 km from Riohacha. The beach lies in a Wayùu reserve and has become popular in the last decade for people from Riohacha. Driving to Mayapo you cross some Wayùu rancherias. It can be that you will be stopped by local teens holding a rope across the road to ask for toll (you can give any small change you have) Before the construction of the road connecting Mayapo with the highway to Riohacha this was still an undiscovered beach. In the last years some Wayùu have sold their land and their have been plans to build an hotel. Nowadays it is still a quiet beach with families from Riohacha and mostly Wayùu vendors selling their handicrafts or delicious seefood.
Visit a rancheria. With recent dry years and pressure from investors to buy land individual Wayùu families have left for the city or sold land. Other families have adopted by doing business in tourism to show tourists how Wayùu live on the rancheria and tell about the culture. There are a couple of rancherias around Riohacha that are open for tourists, and where you can eat a dish of chivu (goat), see the dances and ask questions about Wayùu culture.
Cabo de Vela is the main touristic attraction of La Guajira. Here you can see the desert flowing over into beautiful beaches and the blue see stay in basic cabins with bed or hammocks. For the Wayùu the most predominant wind comes from the northeast is called Jeperichi . In their belief this supernatural world is called Jepira which entrance is in Cabo de Vela . Here the winds are often strong so it is an ideal site for kite surf.
It lies on 120 km northeast of Riohacha. However the road is quite sandy and bumpy after a 30 km drive the road is unpaved. On the way to Cabo de Vela it is common that children from the different rancherias in the desert come to the main road and hold a rope acros the road to urge to stop cars and ask for a treat especialy candy. Be prepaired to be stopped many times by many children.
Cabo de Vela lies in the Alta La Guajira reserve. The traditional Wayùu leaders govern the reserve and are semi autonomous. The majority of the establishments is Wayùu and the Wayùu leaders propogate Wayùu culture, belief and the ancient rights of their people in the ownership of touristic establishments and their activities. That take in to account the sacred value the Wayùu people have for the place. The Wayùu local leaders want to keep the touristic business in the La Guajira desert in the hands of the local Wayùu, Community. The Wayùu population in the desert is poor, water is scarse and there is no running water , and there are not many facilities such as schools for the children. In Cabo de Vela there are some basic hostels, some that offer beds and others that offer hammocks, and restaurants that mainly serve delicious seefood. So if you are vegetarian or don’t like fish it is best to prepare yourselves.
Palomino lies on the foot of the Sierra Nevada 80 km from Santa Marta and 91 km from Riohacha on the border between the departments of La Guajira and Magdalena, and is best visited off-season. Once it was just a fishers town that lies in an area full of diverse landscapes, climates, and ecology. More in the north-west towards La Sierra Nevada live decendents of the arhuaca, kogui ,wiwa and kankuama tribes that to a great extend have maintained their language and culture that is destinct from Wayùu culture and langauge. The Sierra Nevada has been a marihuana producing area since the sixties when hippies from the US discovered the green cold.
Palomino until 2003 was part of the armed conflict when armed groups of the FARC and paramilitaries (Autodefensas Campesinas del Magdalena y La Guajira) sometimes came down to the town from the Sierra Nevada mountains. In the last ten years people that fleed gradually came back. Because of peace and internet there has been an exponential rise of tourism, that has changed this quite coastal town in a tourist attraction. This beautiful place is a frequent stop for travellers on the travel from Santa Marta to Taganga and Cabo de Vela. Unfortunately tourism also can have negative influences on the local community such as the sharp rise of the hotels, prostitution and use of drugs, and the degradation of the environment.
Recently there are voices that want to regulate tourism and the establishment of hotels in Palomino to prevent getting it out of control. Because tourism and local culture and environment have to be in a careful balance to not be a paradise lost.