Land of Extremes: Exploring La Guajira, Colombia’s Undiscovered Desert

Land of Extremes: Exploring La Guajira, Colombia’s Undiscovered Desert

every traveller’s dream, getting off the beaten path,
exploring somewhere that feels untouched. Throw in an element of
danger and it’s up there with scaling Everest or finding your soul
in a shamanic retreat. Indeed, getting off the track was exactly
what I set out to do as I made the long, perilous journey through
La Guajira, a vast desert region in the north of Colombia which
stretches up to the tip of South America.

In the past, La Guajira has been known as one of the poorest and
most dangerous regions in Colombia, an entry point for drug
smugglers, a transit route for Venezuela and a target for armed
guerilla groups. It’s considered Colombia’s most violent region,
which is saying something in a country where the annual murder rate
exceeds 25 in every 100,000 people. But after half a year
travelling through South America I learned to take these warnings
with a pinch of local salt – and I’m glad I did.

I soon discovered this was a place of genuine, raw beauty, a
place where nature is left to its own devices. Here, the landscapes
are bare; it’s an arid, glorious ocean of sand where the silence is
intimidating and dusty, empty roads trudge on into infinity. There
are barely any tourists. The peace is punctuated only by a few
loud, hectic cities. It’s authentic Colombia in all its wilderness
– and it’s exactly what I was looking for.

Much of La Guajira is home to the Wayuu people, an indigenous
tribe that occupied the area long before the Spanish arrived in
1499. Colombians, Venezuelans and Spaniards have previously fought
over ownership of the land owing to its pearl reserves. More
recently, it’s coal which has sparked attention; Cerrejón, located
in the south, is home to South America’s largest open-pit coal
mine. In spite of all this, the Wayuu tribe have remained, battling
against invaders and resisting the culture imposed by colonisation.
They speak a Goajiro, a language few other Colombians understand.
They have their own unique traditions and inhabit a world so far
from their southern counterparts that it’s hard to believe it’s
part of the same country.

There’s a reason few travellers in Colombia have heard of this
place, let alone been there. It’s not easy to reach. I got a bus
from the better-known Santa Marta to Palomino, then a three-hour
rickety bus to Riohacha, the capital of the Guajira department. A
two-hour taxi ride brought me to Uribia, Colombia’s answer to the
Wild West, where the smell of dusty, hot air mixes with the buttery
wafts of arepas being cooked outdoors. From there I haggled for a
jeep and drove to my first destination, Cabo de la Vela. After
three hours shaking my way along an abandoned, rocky dirt road
without another soul in sight, I finally arrived.

Set right on the Caribbean coast, you can imagine this fishing
village as a world-class holiday destination – a turquoise strip of
sea flanked by fine gold sand, lined with restaurants, shops and
hotels serving freshly caught lobster. Except here the restaurants
are unstable wooden shacks deserted but for the tables and chairs
and ordering food involves waking up the owners. The main strip is
a dirt track covered in sand, the hotels are rustic lodges boasting
more hammocks than beds and the only shop is a chemist where metal
railings barricade the windows. This ghost town sleeps day and
night. It’s eerily charming.

Tourists, mainly Colombians from further south, have started to
visit Cabo since it’s crime rates have dropped in recent years –
but it’s clear the locals aren’t quite used to it. There’s no such
thing as customer service and it’s normal to wait two hours for
your food. If you can persuade them to cook it. It’s normal not to
see anyone for an entire day. Catching a moped to a local viewpoint
for sunset, you may encounter a few tourists and wonder, “how did
they end up here?”. Yet as swathes of orange, pink and red
illuminate, all thoughts melt away, enveloped by the silence.

But things became more remote still. The next day I ventured
further north with a local tour guide to Punta Gallinas, the tip of
the continent, located another four-hours’ drive and boat ride
away. It’s difficult to describe the feeling that hit me when I
stepped off that boat. There’s a sense of absolute nothingness, of
lawlessness, of being at the end of the world. There’s just a mass
of luminous yellow, a glimmer of water in the distance, a sheet of
blue sky, and our lodging, a makeshift looking outpost blurring
into the backdrop.

It’s hard to imagine that people actually live in this
wasteland. There’s no agriculture, vegetation or wildlife beyond
snakes, goats, fish, thorn trees and giant, towering cacti. There
is barely any electricity. Running water is limited. Weather is
extreme. But the hundred or so people who do occupy its barren
landscape have learned to cope with these conditions, making money
from weaving, fishing, salt and, more recently, the droplets of
tourism slowly trickling in.

Children now bar the roads asking for sweets from visitors as
payment for passing. Tour guides coming from Cabo offer jeep trips
out to the Taroa dunes – dramatic swathes of sand plummeting down
into the rough waves of the Caribbean. The sole hostel here cooks
fresh seafood ready for your return. Things are changing.

But ancient traditions remain, according to our guide Juan.
Wayuu society remains predominantly matriarchal, despite the fact
polygamy is common for men. Locals still live in rancherías; houses
made from traditional mud and hay with cacti rooftops. Wayuus have
their own laws, resolving disputes via an individual named the
palabrero, a fact which has been recognised as a UNESCO Intangible
Cultural Heritage.

When I asked Juan for an example of these laws, he told me: “If
someone draws blood from another man, he pays him in goats”.

It’s a comical image but one that sums up my experience of La
Guajira. What seemed unusual at first quickly became a norm. To the
point that, as I made my way back down to Palomino, I barely even
noticed the man next to me caressing a live, squawking chicken or
the policeman discovering a baby snake smuggled in the luggage
compartment – it writhed around loose, right on top of my

La Guajira is a place of all things extraordinary: people,
incidents, landscapes. It’s a place that’s happily cut off from the
rest of the world, one that’s like nowhere else I’ve ever been.
Vehemently independent and surprisingly self-sufficient, it’s a
land of real authenticity. And in a world where it’s becoming ever
harder to discover the untouched, that’s worth more than its coal
and pearl reserves ever will.

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