Before coming to La Guajira, I’d never even heard of it. But one day, riding the bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta, I met a family who started to tell me about the arid beauty of Colombia’s largest desert…and before I knew it, I was invited along on the three-day adventure of a lifetime.
While it’s a difficult destination to travel to completely alone, it was, by far, the highlight of my time in Colombia. If you have the time, GO!
But what is La Guajira?
La Guajira is a remote desert that sits on the Guajira peninsula in Colombia, sharing a border with Venezuela. For most travelers, the first stop in La Guajira is Cabo de la Vela (or Cape of Sails), which is un-ironically one of the best places in the world to learn to kite surf. From Cabo de la Vela, you can then continue further north to Punta Gallinas (or Chicken Point, haha)…which is also the northernmost point in South America.
However, La Guajira is really is somewhere that’s about the journey, not the destination…and the mornings we spent driving through the arid, Mars-like desert of La Guajira were truly insane. What was even more edifying, though, was interacting with the local Wayuu people who live in La Guajira; our guide, Migue, was a Wayuu tribesman and gave us background about Wayuu customs and ways. The Wayuu people are self-governed with their own tribal leadership and law enforcement independent of the Colombian government. However, Wayuu people are able to pass freely between the borders of the Colombia and Venezuela if they have “proof” of Wayuu citizenship; this “proof” is the ability to speak the local Wayuu language, which is an oral language that is passed down inter-generationally. Apart from uniquely fluid citizenship, the Wayuu tribes also have a complex polygamous social hierarchy and unique tribal customs.
It was SO cool to spend three days with Migue traveling and learning about the Wayuu ways. Migue left his life in La Guajira to make money for his family, and became a tour guide as a way to give back to his community. The Wayuu people are extremely impoverished and rely on tourism as a main source of income (and food/water, which we brought and passed out to locals on our trip). His passion and love for his people was evident in all his interactions with the people we met along our journey.
Our trip was truly once-in-a-lifetime, and I think pictures will do it better justice than words can. Enjoy!
A few tips for going to La Guajira:
Planning your trip
- I can 1000% recommend our guide, Migue, if you’re looking for an organized tour/guide combo for your trip. His boss, Jose, has super affordable rates and will help plan your ultimate La Guajira trip (and coming from a backpacker…when I say affordable, it’s actually affordable! Think ~$50/day budget max). Jose is on Whatsapp and happy to coordinate – he can be reached at +57 313 7982385.
- Because I went with a family who had pre-arranged travel plans and used Jose’s services, I didn’t take the public transport from Riohacha (the last “big town” going east into the desert) to La Guajira. However, here’s a few great resources on how to catch the bus/colectivo from Riohacha to Uribia and into Cabo de la Vela if you’re looking to do it that way:
- When traveling, BRING SNACKS AND WATER! As briefly mentioned above, the Wayuu people are very, very impoverished. They truly rely on tourism as not only a source of income, but as a means to get necessary food and water. Migue, our guide, suggested bringing cookies and water bags for the children and young mothers. And while the nurse in me was a little apprehensive about bringing sweets for kids (no one wants to be that Western asshole who introduces diabetes to a group of people), Migue assured us that these sweets are truly the only sugar the Wayuu get…and as a moderate amount of glucose is critical for a healthy diet, the cookies were brought (and enjoyed by all).
- ***Note – when bringing water, it’s more eco-friendly to bring water bags (“aguitas”) rather than water bottles. These use a lot less plastic so are less of an environmental impact.
- ***Note #2 – for an idea of how many cookies/waters to bring: our caravan brought eight large boxes of cookies (with ~100 cookies each) and five large bags of water baggies (each with ~30 waters). We ran out of both cookies and water on day two. So, you’ve been pre-warned…bring a lot! 🙂
- Make sure to tons of sunscreen and a good hat. The sun is no joke out in the desert. We all got FRIED.
- Ensure you have enough cash (small bills are better!). Everything out in the desert is cash only, and you’re about a 12-hour drive out from the nearest ATM if you run out of money in Punta Gallinas. 😉
When you’re there
- IMO, it’s important to have at least a conversational level of Spanish while traveling in La Guajira. Most of the certified guides speak Spanish and Wayuu, and very few speak English. Knowing Spanish (or traveling with someone who does!) will dramatically enrich your experience traveling, as you’ll learn a ton more about La Guajira and the Wayuu culture.
- I seriouslyyyyy recommend sleeping outside at least one night in a Wayuu chinchorro, which is like a hammock with a built in blanket. You can wrap yourself in the chinchorro’s sides at night for warmth…and falling asleep listening to the wind and the waves on the desert is really magical.
- Finally…and this is an important one!…if you can, contribute to the local economy! Many Wayuu women and men make their livelihoods selling traditional woven bags, bracelets, and chinchorros to tourists. These handicrafts are beautiful, affordable, and help the local people directly. Many of the bags I saw for sale in La Guajira were being resold for 4-5x the price in bigger cities like Medellin and Cali…so if you’re on the hunt for gifts or souvenirs, this is the place to do it!
…And last but not least! A HUGE thank you to my new Colombian friends, Jaime and Juana, for adopting a solo-traveling American girl on a bus and inviting me on the most amazing adventure ever. Besos! ❤