In the northernmost part of Colombia, the Guajira Peninsula is a remote, inhospitable area where the rules are different. Getting there takes commitment. During a brief bout of frustration while trying to find a tour company to travel there with, I thought, “I go lots of places on my own…why not do this on my own too?” It was a fleeting thought and one that I am thankful I did not pursue. Taxis only go to Uribia, where the pavement ends. From there, people travel either on motorcycles or piled in the backs of trucks, for two more hours before reaching our destination, Cabo de la Vela. Yes, I was very thankful for the 4Runner we were in, with windows that kept the dust at bay and the handles over the door that kept my head from hitting the ceiling, as our guide drove down the dirt roads way too fast.
La Guajira operates under a different kind of law. The vehicle we were in had Venezuelan plates, as many of the cars there do. We were north of the Colombia-Venezuela border, and not far from it. One striking feature is the lack of gas stations in the region, but lots of people selling gas at roadside tiendas and shacks. Gasoline comes in all kinds of containers, many of which are recycled 2 liter plastic soda bottles. When drivers pull up to one of these and let the vendor know how much gas they want, a funnel is inserted into the gas tank and any number of bottles of gas are poured in. And then you’re off again. This gas, like the vehicle we were in, also comes from Venezuela. It is smuggled across, because according to our guide, it is as much as $40 cheaper per tank of gas this way. Is it legal? Of course not, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone around here. It’s just the way things are done.
You may be asking why I would want to come to a place like this. It is an area of extremes. Extreme desolation. Extreme poverty. Extreme beauty. And it is the beauty that I came for. The secluded beaches are stunning and are what draw visitors here. Our group stayed at a rancheria about 15 minutes outside the town of Cabo de la Vela. We didn’t have running water, but the food was good and the serenity was worth every minute of the nail-biting drive to get there. The beach was all ours. A thatched roof covered the row of hammocks where we slept, drifting off to the sound of Caribbean waters kissing the sand just a few feet away.
The Wayuu people inhabit this area. They are an independent tribe that successfully resisted Spanish control. They live in earthen houses spread through the landscape, called rancherias, and travel between places mostly via bicycle. Goats are plentiful in the area and are a sign of wealth. They are used for food and are paid as a dowry when daughters are given in marriage. The women are known for the beautifully vibrant bags and bracelets they create. The men are fishermen, leaving early each morning in small boats to bring in fish and lobster. The Wayuu that we encountered were quiet and kind with firm boundaries in their interactions with those of us visiting their homeland.
I feel fortunate to have seen this slice of paradise when I did, after it has opened up to tourism a bit and is considered safe, and before it is overrun by the changes that tourism inevitably brings. Hopefully its rugged remoteness will control the speed of that transition.