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Discovering Colombia’s desert: La Guajira

posted by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

Travelers to South America’s most northern point, La Guajira, will encounter a wildly arid landscape, rough roads, desolate beaches and one of Colombia’s most enduring indigenous communities.

The photos were kindly contributed by Victoria McKenzie

A main attraction for visitor’s to La Guijira state is the small town Cabo de la Vela, or “Cabo,” set on a crescent-moon bay overlooking the Colombian Caribbean coast.

Visitors to Cabo can laze about on the many hammock-filled shacks, eat freshly caught fish, hike the seemingly endless arid landscape, or trek the almost “inaccessible,” northernmost point of Punta Gallinas.

Although tourism from both foreign and Colombian visitors to Cabo and Punta Gallinas has increased sharply over the past decade, visitors should be aware of cultural sensitivities when dealing with the indigenous Wayuu community .

Travel Warning

It is important to note that even though security in La Guajira has improved, the area still experiences the presence of armed guerrilla and paramilitary groups. In January 2014, a Spanish photojournalist was allegedly kidnapped in Cabo and his whereabouts remain unknown.

However, if a traveler takes precautions the  La Guajira, which sits on the Colombia-Venezuela border, will amaze and leave the visitor reluctant to leave.

MORE: Spanish photographer feared kidnapped in northern Colombia

The native Wayuu are regarded as one of the main surviving Indigenous groups of Colombia, maintaining their distinctive culture and language, which can be overheard in buses and restaurants throughout the state. Their handicrafts, specially their unique bags, or “mochilas,” are famous throughout Colombia.

Getting there

There are a number of ways to get to Cabo from the more accessible parts of Colombia’s long Caribbean coast. The most popular departure destination is from the city of Santa Marta, which boasts the Sierra Nevada mountains and one of Colombia’s prime national parks, Tayrona.

From Santa Marta visitors can either join a packaged tour, or take a local bus in the hope to next mode of transport.

Packages normally range from two to five days, and start from around $100 per person, although prices vary between tourist seasons. The tours normally include trips to Uribia, the “Indigenous Capital of Colombia,” Cabo, and Punta Gallinas.

For the more intrepid and experienced travelers, a two to three hour bus ride, costing around $7,  can easily be found from Santa Marta to Riohacha. In Rioacha, a “collectivo” (shared cab) will get you to Uribia’s central market area. The last leg of the journey is a jam-packed pickup truck (around $6), which winds through rough desert roads on a three hour route to Cabo.

An alternative is to take another bus from Riohacha to the turnoff, called “Four Roads,” and a collectivo to Uribia. The last bus to Cabo from Uribia usually leaves around midday, but arriving early is recommended.

Cabo and Punta Gallinas

Some tourists find there is not much to do at Cabo, except relax and enjoy the white beach that extends the length of the protected bay.

However, a small kite-surfing industry has sprung up in one end of the town, that exploits the prevailing easterly winds and calm waters. Cabo is the ideal location for kite-surfing beginners.

Visitors not seeking an adrenalin rush can hike to either the “Pilon de Azucar” hill or the nearby lighthouse, to enjoy Cabo’s other beaches and watch one of the coast’s magnificent sunset.

Punta Gallinas is a popular next step for travelers. Unless you have your own transport that can handle rough terrain, and excellent navigation skills, an organized tour (approx $75) is the only way to reach Punta Gallinas.

Depending upon your bargaining skills, the two day package from Cabo can include transport, accommodation, food and a tour of the towering sand dunes that run into the wild side of the Colombian Caribbean Ocean.

Accommodation

Cabo now offers a range of accommodation including hotel rooms with en-suite bathrooms starting from $15 and tent spaces for camping ($2 to $5). Again, prices vary between seasons. In addition a choice of colorful hammocks, or the large Wayuu “Chinchorro” hammocks, are available and can be rented for between $4-$8 per night. If you choose a hammock, bring warm clothes or a sleeping bag as the night desert winds can be cold.

Due to the remote nature of the region, water, fresh produce and electricity can be scarce. Depending on the time of year, most establishments will offer electricity, available during certain times of the morning and evening.

If you are planning to stay for more than a few days in Cabo it is advisable to bring supplies such as snacks, fruit, and large water jugs sold in Riohacha or Uribia.

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