One of the strangest and most spectacular spots I’ve ever seen in South American is located at the northern most point of South American in the Guajira peninsula which is a reserve for the Wayuu – a Colombian indigenous tribe, which politically rules the entire peninsula. It’s one of most visually stunning places on earth where bare, desert landscape meets the blue turquoise of the Atlantic.
The trip is a must see if coming to Colombia, not an easy trip but well worth the sacrifice. This is not a trip to do alone but not impossible if you take it slow – jeep ride by jeep ride. But it is recommended one hire a tour guide from the Wayuu tribe.
It’s cheaper to find a tour in the peninsula’s largest city and transport hub of Riohacha where for $165 one can find a three day tour of the Guajira all included with: a guide who only speaks Spanish (though not English) and the local dialect of the Wayuu. The meals are all fish (excellent whole fish meals of red snapper, sea bass and lobster), and the lodging is hammocks under thatched roof open-air huts on desolate Atlantic beaches.
One can book tours to Guaijara in Santa Marta and Cartagena, but it’s cheaper in Riohacha.
A fact that doesn’t escape the local residents: more foreign tourists visit La Guijira than Colombians, they say.
Did I mention there are no roads on the peninsula? Just Toyota four wheel jeeps banging across the dramatic desert landscape, following tire tracks laid down by jeeps and trucks before? They swear by Toyota’s here and after seeing the beating they put these vehicles through on a daily basis, I’ve become a supporter of this off-road vehicle. But the stops they make – in the middle of nowhere where the desert meets huge, empty, Atlantic beaches – no lights, no internet, no cell connection – just lizards, buzzards, grazing goats, flamingos, cactus and the Wayuu– mind blowing stuff.
In three days we saw the salt flats of Manaure where they pump ocean water over desert flats creating salt from evaporating sea water. Fishermen hand flung fishing nets and fished for shrimp in still, beautiful bays.
One the first day we stopped for a swim at Pilon di Azuri a beautiful beach on a bluff with red dirt, white sands and volcanic rock. The second beach was Arcoinis or rainbow beach where a brisk hike up a wind swept mountain takes you to a statue of the Virgin Mary its peak.
Cabo de la Vela is the destination for the first day. It’s a little village on as beautiful still bay with a kite surfing school operating in the midst of the Wayuu fishermen. Here there are plenty of bars and restaurants and hostels where you can rent a hammock in thatched roof huts or under leantos on the beach for the night. The tours come all included with lodging and meals. There are one day or two day tours to Cabo which is actually not that hard to get to (a four hour trip from the capital – Uribia).
Beyond Cabo – Though most 2 day tours end at Cabo, the most scenic route is to continue up to the settlement of Punta Gallinas – a three day tour. Here lies the most beautiful part of the peninsula: beautiful bays like Bahia Hondita, Azucar beach (Sugar Beach) and Arconis Rainbow beach.
The dunes of Toroa are a two hour jeep ride outside of Cabo. The jeeps drive up to the crest of the dunes and leave you off to explore the dunes which spill down to incredible beaches. Here you can swim and sun bathe and everyone in my tour group agreed, the dunes offer by far the most beautiful and remote beaches they had seen in all Colombia.
We spent the night in Punta Gallina at the Hospedaje y Restaurant Luzmila where we would spend two nights. We were assigned our hammocks and treated to a wonderful fish and lobster dinner. And the last night before dinner we took off for the lighthouse to see the sunset.
The lighthouse at Punta Hondita is the northernmost part of South America. This remote spot with its lighthouse on a bumpy knoll was where the Pablo Escobar’s planes would land. The lighthouse was the marker to find the primitive airstrip. The Wayuu were paid to see nothing. The Colombian air force would occasionally get word of a contraband landing then fly over and drop bombs on the drug running planes being loaded on the ground. Bomb craters along the road are now a tourist attractions.
Colombians have no authority on the peninsula. The Guajira remains a lawless reservation where contraband reins. The Wayuu, being a border tribe, have both Venezuelan and Colombian citizenship. They bring in cheap gasoline from Venezuela, whiskey from Panama and openly sell them on the peninsula. The police have border controls every 3-4 miles to stop every vehicle and control what they transport but they can’t control what they sell. Next to a police barricade the Wayuu Indians sell contraband gasoline at $.70 a gallon – Colombian price $2.50 a gallon.
Being a desert – water is at a premium here. But they know how to find wells in the desert. How? First someone in the village has a dream, then they go and dig for water at the spot he or she saw in the dream. Apparently dreams are more than just symbolic here.
Then there are solar panels to power pumps that pull the water from the wells. The water is free for all in the tribe. People haul water around in the back of trucks and in plastic urns tied on the sides of donkeys
The Wayuu are physically small in stature. The men only 5’ tall, the women shorter. They are stoic – answer questions with grunts and like to watch your every move. There is no private property for the Wayuu. A matriarchal society, the women hold the political power, their families run the clans. If a family wants to move his or her house they go to the mother’s clan, get approval and just move their house to another spot. The mother’s clan is responsible for solving all conflicts.
It’s definitely a barren landscape reminding me of Carlos Castaneda books, the deserts of North Mexico or Sergio Leone spaghetti western flicks filmed in the deserts of Sicily. I don’t think I could live here long but there’s a stark peace to the arid landscapes and star filled skies – so simple, seemingly lifeless, infinite, and void.
The people living here are poor but scratch out a living from their environment through fishing, tourism, weaving hand bags, goat farming, salt, coal mining and contraband. The Colombian government doesn’t seem to care about the Guajira reservation and the Wayuu seem happy living well outside the box – leaving things the way they are and for them, the way things should be.
It was a long day trip back across the desert. It was a Saturday and there were kids all over putting ropes across the road to stop your car so they could come up and ask for money. We soon depleted our stash of candy and cookies to give them. Towards late afternoon we arrived at the town of Urbia, – the largest town and the indigenous capital city of Guijara and stopped at the market.
(For more on the top beaches of Colombia see the following articles:)
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