Colombia really does have everything. Mountains, rain forest, the Amazon, the Caribbean, the Pacific, cosmopolitan cities and La Guajira.
Stepping into La Guajira is like stepping out of Colombia and into the Sahara. You will never get so thirsty. The flat and arid plains of the province are poles apart from the dramatic mountains and lush jungles found in other parts of Colombia. And it’s every bit as impressive.
The beautiful Wayuu people sparsely populate the area and are mostly self sufficient. They live off their own natural resources, fishing from their vast ocean to survive. Wayuunaiki (which sounds closer to Mongolian than Spanish), is their official language, but a local ‘Guajiro’ can tell you that hearing five different dialects spoken in the streets is not uncommon.
La Guajira is the northernmost point of the whole of South America. And traveling overland from Bogotá is not exactly easy, but certainly the most adventurous way to do it. Slow buses carrying people and a zoo of animals are the norm. When the buses aren’t breaking down along the Venezuelan border, they are regularly stopped and searched – almost certainly checking for drugs on their way into Venezuela, the main stop before they are shipped to Europe. You can also fly to Riohacha from Bogotá. Going overland takes a few days and is not for those who are lacking in adventure.
After stopping in Villa de Leiva and winding up through Boyacá, Santander and César, you’ll get to Colombia’s hottest department Guajira.
First stop should be Manaure, a sleepy town with multi-colored houses and no shortage of salt. White salt mountains and purple salt lagoons surround the town. If you have the luxury of timing your visit, don’t miss the Wayuu Indian festival celebrations at the end of May. It is amazing fun, with lots of Wayuu music plus the obligatory salsa thrown in, of course.
An hour travel from Manaure is Uribia, known as the Wayuu indigenous capital and a great place to buy local handicrafts like mochillas, hammocks, hats among other things. If you’re lucky you may be able to hitch a ride with some friendly policemen from Manaure to Uribia, but buses are cheap and frequent.
Deeper into La Guajira is Cabo de la Vela. If you go at the right time of year flocks of flamingos and herons fill the lagoons. The beaches at Cabo de la Vela are beautiful, and it’s easy to find a secluded empty beach with nothing but the warm, clear, Caribbean water and golden sand…paradise.
Don’t miss the beaches at Pilón de Azúcar or climbing up the Virgin of Fatima shrine. From here you can see windmills twirling in the far distance and the coastline stretches as far as the eye can see. The view is really spectacular. Do walk early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat and take bottled water to remoter areas, as it can be hard to come by and you are not likely to return without it.
Food in La Guajira is delicious, with typical Wayuu dishes including lots of seafood and other Colombian food prepared in wooden ovens. The Wayuus believe their souls go to Cabo de la Vela after death….and if that’s what they believe it must be true. Riohacha is the capital of La Guajira and a stop here is unavoidable to get to Cabo, Manaure and further afield places.
In Riohacha you can stay in either upmarket or cheap accommodation. In remoter areas, travel and tourism infrastructure is lacking – be prepared to sleep in basic hotels, posadas or hammocks. Some Wayuu families offer their houses to tourists coming to the region, especially in and around Cabo de la Vela.
Heading northeast from Uribia you reach the Wayuu village of Nazareth. Nazareth is the gateway to the Macuira National Park, which is an excellent place for wildlife spotting and nature walks. The Macuira National Park is a vital habitat for thousands of rare species of flora and fauna. There isn’t much public transportation in this area, so you will have to try and flag down some sort of vehicle…or buy a horse. It is even possible to find a tour operator in Riohacha to organise a 4WD driving package.
La Guajira doesn’t make most people’s itinerary when in Colombia, but it is a really special place. It’s not as developed as Cartagena or Santa Marta, but far more interesting. Most importantly, it is conserving some of Colombia’s purest traditions and cultures.
Current safety conditions should of course always be checked before visiting this remote part of Colombia.