In the course of researching where I wanted to go in Colombia, the place I looked forward to visiting most was the Guajira Peninsula, a vast, arid desert that juts out into the Caribbean Sea like a fisted forearm.
What piqued my interest? The sheer effort required to get there independently. That and the promise of natural beauty and a chance to be among the indigenous Wayúu people who inhabit the peninsula.
From colonial Cartagena, the trip involved a two-hour bus ride to the city of Riohacha, a one-hour shared taxi drive to Uribia, and, finally, a three-hour trip in the back of a pick-up truck to the fishing village of Cabo de la Vela, where I secured a hammock for the night in a thatched-roof hospedaje along the dusty main road.
As I made my way farther and farther into the Guajira desert, I felt like I was pushing myself to the very edge of the world.
The lush banana trees and dense green jungle I’d initially encountered along the Caribbean coast were being replaced by barren hills and scraggly herds of sheep that somehow found sustenance from the bone-dry land.
Experiencing the dramatic change in the landscape gave me insight into what it takes to survive in this harsh region—and what it takes to call it home.
The owners of my hospedaje, an older couple named Jorge and Flor, have lived in Cabo de la Vela for decades. I swiftly discovered that there is no electricity in the village—only noisy generators that are switched on after sunset. And in lieu of a refrigerator, Flor’s perishables are stored in large styrofoam coolers that are kept cool by a daily delivery of ice from Uribia.
I spent much of my first full day in La Guajira on foot—walking from Cabo de la Vela to admire a conical mound and shrine known as the Pilón de Azúcar, then on to a lighthouse lording over a turquoise sea.
When I finally made my way back to Jorge and Flor’s house that night, I arrived with a thick layer of dust coating my face and feet.
I thought about the wind that buffets the area—“It is always this strong,” Flor remarked—and the grit and resilience local residents must need to endure it. And I thought about the tribe that has called the peninsula home for centuries, whose women wear long floral dresses and weave brightly patterned bags called mochilas.
Knowing the Wayúu successfully resisted being conquered when the Spanish invaded, I couldn’t help but wonder: Had this landscape shaped these people, or had these people shaped the landscape?
On my third day in La Guajira, I joined a group of fellow travelers for what would be the last leg of my journey—a five-hour ride to Punto Gallinas in a dark red 4×4.
“Now we will go to the más norte parte [most northern part] of South America,” said our affable guide and driver Berni Hernandez, who had a scruffy salt-and-pepper beard and crossed himself as we departed.
The rugged scrublands surrounding Cabo de la Vela gradually gave way to the desert I’d imagined before my arrival—a sea of dunes so soft that at one point we all had to pile out of the 4×4 to free its wheels from the sand.
Upon reaching Punto Gallinas, a few of us traded Berni’s 4×4 for a faded wooden boat with yellow trim to explore a seven-mile-long bay called Bahía Honda. After spending days in the featureless desert, it was quite a shock to see verdant mangrove trees growing along the shore and to smell salt in the air.
There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to where we were heading until the driver directed our attention to the far edge of the bay. There on the horizon was a strip of the brightest fluorescent pink—the first flamingos I had ever seen in the wild.
We inched closer until one flamingo spooked, its rose-colored wings beating briefly against the earth. Within moments the entire flock was airborne. To witness such a vibrant burst of color against the drab palette of La Guajira was nothing short of astonishing.
The next morning, as I prepared to depart and retrace my steps back to Cabo de la Vela, I found myself silently hoping we’d get stuck in the dunes again, so reluctant was I to leave the untainted beauty and wide open spaces of La Guajira. The openness had been unsettling at first; now it felt like home.
As we drove along a stretch of sand, we suddenly glimpsed a line of figures moving through a shimmering mirage. It was a Wayúu family—men balancing buckets of water on rusted bicycles, women walking next to them, their scarves catching fierce gusts of wind—along with five donkeys laden with coolers.
I didn’t know where they’d come from or where they were going, but the sight of the procession moved me to my core. Here, on the last frontier of Colombia, life continued to triumph against the odds.