The La Guajira peninsula is the northern most tip of the South American continent shared between Colombia and Venezuela - a thin strip of arid desert straddling the two countries and jutting out into the Caribbean Sea. The peninsula boasts more than 350 kilometres of uninhabited windswept coastline, hours of open red sand desert expanses, colonies of cactus populations and remote indigenous communities and fishing villages. It is a paradoxical place, reminding me of the beauty of outback Australia but the poverty of rural Africa – somewhere both stunning beautiful and devastatingly poor.
‘Gambas’ for sale: A Wayuu woman sells fresh prawns caught that morning in the Caribbean Sea just a few kilometres from the desert environment in which she and her family live.
Tippy top of the continent: Straddling Colombia and Venezuela, the La Guajira peninsula is the most northern point of South America.
La Guajira attracts travelers with a certain sense of adventure– those happy to go without running water for a few days, those excited to sleep in hammocks under the stars, and those who won’t miss phone reception for more than 48 hours. The best way to see the peninsula is in an arranged tour organised from Riohacha, the capital of the La Guajira department on the Colombian side of the border. Companies use four-wheel drives and charge per car (4 people) and can arrange tours from 1 day to a full week. The peninsula is around 70km across at its widest point and 300km to its northern tip from Riohacha.
Our trusty steed: 4WDs are mandatory to cross the harsh desert and rocky terrain in La Guajira.
Middle of nowhere: The coastline is windswept, rugged and virtually uninhabited save for a handful of small fishing villages.
You’ll need at least 3 days to enjoy the main attractions; Cabo de la Vela, a large conch shaped red sand beach renowned for kitesurfing; Punta Gallinas, officially the northern most tip of the continent; Dunas de Tatoa, huge orange sand dunes hiding an idyllic and isolated beach; Parque Nacional Natural Macuira, an unexpected green oasis in the middle of desert, with some spectacular sand dunes and a 2 hour walk through a national park managed by the local community.
Kings of the Dunes: The deep orange sand dunes in the Parque de Macuira are spectacular against a green backdrop that gives way to the ocean.
Punta Gallinas: Here we are at the ‘official’ northernmost tip of the continent.
Dunas de Tatoa: Kilometres of rippled sand dunes at the end of the peninsula, which you have to climb up to reach this deserted beach.
The La Guajira peninsula is home to some 5000 indigenous Wayuu, a nomadic group with bi-national rights who have historically and traditionally existed freely on both sides of the peninsula. The artisanship of the Wayuu people is something rather extraordinary, including handwoven chinchurros (intricately handwoven double hammocks) and the iconic mochila bag with bright and bold colours. We were privileged enough to be invited into the home of a Wayuu village leader to try our own hand at weaving a chinchorro (not straightforward!).
Weaving the Wayuu Way: The chinchorro hammock is a family labour of love. Here a Wayuu community leader and her mother show us how they painstakingly hand weave every stitch in the chinchorro, which takes months of focus, creativity and careful attention to detail.
Mochila madness: These beautiful bags are someone iconic all over Colombia but originate in La Guajira. Here is a roadside selection of some of the beautiful and brilliant colours used to weave these mochilas.
The Colombian side of the La Guajira peninsula is a remote and largely underserviced department plagued by corruption, lack of government presence and the basic resources that go with it. The Wayuu people live in extremely impoverished conditions, in small huts made from cactus, sticks and mud in shared rancherias (remote communal settlements). The current political situation in Venezuela is forcing more Wayuu to the Colombian side of the peninsula. Many head through the desert bound for the city of Riohacha, but others survive by smuggling contraband across the lawless border. Our driver filled the 140L petrol tank of our Nissan Patrol for less than US$20 from smuggled gasoline for sale in jerry cans under trees on the edge of the sandy road. We sipped on ice cold Polar (beers from Venezuela’s largest brewery), which had been slipped across the border in cooler boxes and then sold on the beaches on the Colombian side by desperate Venezuelans looking to sell anything to eke out a daily income.
We boarded our flight back to Bogota with mixed feelings about our time in La Guajira. It was bittersweet – we felt privileged to travel through some of the most rugged and remote terrain on the continent as well as incredibly humbling to experience the hardship and poverty that goes along with living there.
1) Organised tours leave from Riohacha, capital of the La Guajira department. Trip Advisor offers an impressive variety of companies to choose from.
2) At frequent intervals during the long drives, Wayuu children erect rope barriers expecting a small food handout from tour cars. To avoid plastic and sweets, we took a large supply of water bottles and biscuits. A stash of some kind of food/water items is essential to pass through these communities.
3) Guajira is incredibly windy. Take a scarf/sarong to cover your head when exploring the beaches and sand dunes. Take your own snacks, and cash. There are very few shops or ATMS.