Last updated on January 27th, 2021 at 04:05 pm
My name is Frank and I run a travel agency in Bogota, Colombia. Have fun while reading!
La Guajira is the northernmost department of Colombia and also the northernmost region of the whole South American continent. The region is very diverse and the area is partly a desert. La Guajira is one of the poorest regions in Colombia, with one of the highest rates of corruption.
Many will have heard of Palomino already. This place does not belong to the area of Santa Marta, but already to La Guajira. Part of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is also part of the department, which also borders Venezuela and Cesar.
The capital of La Guajira is Riohacha. On the territory live not only the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta but also the Wayuu, which form the largest population group after the mestizos. The Wayuu people populate the whole of the desert region and move freely between countries as dual citizens of Colombia and Venezuela, as the territory is assigned to the indigenous people across borders. Many Wayuu also do not speak Spanish.
If you are surprised that there are few or no petrol stations, in La Guajira petrol from Venezuela is sold at low prices on the roadside. One tank (80 liters) cost me the last time around USD 10.–.
Activities and sights in La Guajira
This is probably the most popular and most visited destination in La Guajira by foreign tourists. Palomino is a kind of hippie village, which has grown immensely in recent years.
It is also said that Palomino is the new Taganga and has immediately taken over all the problems. Here we talk about drugs, prostitution and sex with minors. Whether the young Israelis, who are blamed for many of the problems in Taganga, could also extend their influence to Palomino, I do not know.
Anyway, anyone arriving in Palomino will be shocked at first. The ugly, dusty country road that runs through Palomino does not seem very inviting. The dusty unpaved roads, which open up the village beyond the main road, turn after rain into waterholes with some way in between.
Behind the ugly facades, however, there are neat hotels and hostels, which offer something for almost everyone with diverse and sometimes very funny concepts. Outside of Palomino, and up in the hills, there are also some real gems. Within the village, you will find yoga, vegan food, very good seafood and all kinds of activities for an alternative lifestyle. Palomino has a long beach that stretches almost the entire coast. Due to the currents and the waves, however, it is not the ideal beach for swimming.
If you are bored in the village, you can look around the Sierra Nevada and you will not be disappointed.
Tubing on the Palomino river:
Put on sufficient sun protection! I caught the sunburn of my life there and then had two days of fever. Wheels and transport are available in Palomino on every corner.
Wildlife Viewing in the Sierra Nevada:
The Sierra Nevada is bursting with life! Best ask at the hostel for a guide or tour.
Not the ideal beach, but still suitable to pass comfortably under a palm tree the day.
The area is very good for hiking. Best ask at the hostel for a guide or tour. It is not recommended to explore the Sierra Nevada on your own. Armed persons guard the drug cultivation there.
You always wanted to ride on the beach? Best ask at the hostel for a guide or tour.
Although not in the area of La Guajira, it is situated in the immediate vicinity of Palomino. Here you can learn all about the indigenous cultures of the Sierra Nevada and finally tube down the river. There I learned for the first time that a howling monkey can reach the volume of a starting jet fighter, impressively!
Riohacha is the capital of the department La Guajira. With a population of around 150,000, it is a small town. The temperature is hot during the day, up to 40 ° Celsius, but it cools down in the evening. Impressive is the beach promenade, which is lined with many indigenous beach vendors. You get the handmade bags, hammocks and jewels of the Wayuu. Although I attribute Riohacha a huge future tourist potential, this development will probably take decades.
Looking down from the terrace of Hotel Taroa, you can see that the existing infrastructure is perfect for tourism. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of appropriate accommodation, but gastronomically, there is a positive development.
The security situation in Riohacha is not safe. If possible, you should not be strolling around the city and especially in the evening don’t walk, use a taxi. However, strolling along the beach promenade during the day and in the evening should be fine.
Riohacha itself does not offer many activities, but is the best starting point and also has a bus terminal and airport.
Uribia is the capital of the Wayuu and is completely surrounded by desert. From Riohacha you need about 90 minutes by car, the road is still paved here. From here the whole logistics for all life in the desert starts. The last few times when I was there, there was a ready bus terminal, but this was not in operation. The city is hot and dusty.
You can either arrive from Riohacha with a Colectivo or take the bus to Cuatro Vias, where vehicles are ready for further transport.
If you go on a tour or visit a Rancheria (a Wayuu village), you can buy food and water here. The Wayuu in the desert are very poor and child mortality is high. That’s why food is a welcome donation here. The situation in La Guajira is very complicated in this respect.
If you want to travel from Uribia without an organized tour, you will find Colectivos. These are big 4×4 pick-ups that transport the local population and goods. These transports are dusty and bumpy, but you arrive.
Here is also the last ATM, because for an onward journey you need cash. If you want to buy the by far best hammock (Chinchorro) in the world, these are produced in La Guajira. Simple models are already available from COP 250,000.–. A double, which I bought among other things and which I recommend, costs twice as much. The family hammock costs from 1.5 million, but is usually only available on order.
Cabo de la Vela is a fishing village on the Colombian-Caribbean coast. It is small, has no electricity and no running water.
Electricity is usually produced in the evening by generators operated by cheap Venezuelan gasoline. Although there is a wind farm nearby and power lines, the power grid is not in operation.
Water is regularly supplied with tanker trucks. In some hotels you have to use a bucket shower, in others, there are showers, which are only in use at certain times.
Getting to Cabo de la Vela
It is easy to get to Cabo de la Vela from Riohacha or Santa Marta. Either with a tour provider or via Uribia.
I have been there many times, with my own vehicle or the Colectivo. However, if you arrive with your own vehicle, you have to be very careful during and after rain, otherwise, the journey is quickly over. In fact, a stuck vehicle in the sand can be difficult to recover. Anyway, with the Colectivo you will visit almost every house on the way, which of course makes the trip enormously longer.
There are many simple accommodations. I had the best sleep in a hammock because the climate is relatively hot. Nevertheless, it can cool down a lot during the night.
In Cabo de la Vela you get chicken, pork, goat and of course everything from the sea, although not everything is always available.
It may also take a long time (> 1h) for a meal to be prepared because everything is always freshly made. As soon as the people knew me there, I had the privilege of being able to pre-order each day in the morning and had a wider choice and no waiting before eating.
Cabo de la Vela is located at almost the same latitude as Aruba and is the perfect spot for kite surfing. The mostly offshore wind and the shallow water offer ideal conditions.
Various providers compete for customers and the instructors are mostly young Wayuu. If you happen to catch a 10-year-old child as an instructor, just reaching for your hips, do not be alarmed. They know exactly how to handle the kite, that’s what I had to experience. There is only a lack of concentration among local instructors and you should not be surprised to see your instructor training on the water, even though you have paid for this lesson.
From Cabo de la Vela, the easiest way to get to this fantastic vantage point is by taking a moto-taxi, which takes about 20 minutes. This hill is not difficult to climb and you will be rewarded with incredible views over the whole area.
There is also a beautiful beach with pleasant waves, the perfect place for a refreshing swim.
This point near Cabo de la Vela is known for its spectacular sunsets. You can either walk or ride the moto-taxi.
In general, La Guajira is very cheap and you will not be ripped off. However, you should always ask for the price beforehand. Haggling is not only there but always allowed throughout Colombia.
Below are some guideline prices, which may differ up or down.
- Food: 15,000-30,000 pesos
- 1 hour kiting: 90,000 pesos
- Moto-taxi Pilon: 10,000-15,000 pesos
- Collectivo from Uribia to Cabo de la Vela: 20,000 pesos
I would like to anticipate that the trip to Punta Gallinas is not for everyone. I personally love it, but other visitors describe it as the worst journey of their lives. It is and remains an adventure.
One question that always arises is whether to do the journey yourself or to go on a tour. I would never try to go alone to Punta Gallinas. Once I was there by boat and once with my own car, but in convoy with some Wayuu. However, I have heard that lonely travelers in the area have disappeared and I strongly recommend an organized tour.
In Punta Gallinas, you visit the lighthouse “El Faro” and Hondita Bay. For me, however, the absolute highlight is the beach time at the Taroa dunes, where you can walk down the dune directly into the water, just spectacular! If you are lucky, you will find large flamingo populations in the area during the visit, which you can also visit.
Arrival by boat
Due to rain, the desert was not passable with vehicles on one of my journeys. So my dad (70 years old) and I chose the boat. From Cabo de la Vela it takes about 40 minutes to a small “harbor” with fishing boats. Our journey took about 3 hours and was comfortable because the sea was very nice to us. Arrived, we visited different destinations with an on-site vehicle.
For the fishing boats, the engine and condition can vary a lot. If you are unlucky, you drive 5 hours on high seas with the corresponding side effects. Or the boat does not drive due to high waves or has an engine failure, a leak or whatever. But maybe everything is perfect like mine.
Arrival by 4×4
Due to the rain in previous weeks, it was discussed in the briefing for the convoy that the trip might take a little longer.
We started early in the morning in Cabo de la Vela at around 5 am with 3 vehicles, all Toyota Land Cruiser. The other vehicles had a higher chassis and larger tires than mine. After about an hour’s drive, there was no road. However, the Wayuu know how to navigate in this zone. We had to stop several times and pay local Wayuu a toll in the form of food. The ride was very quick and incredibly exciting, the scenery just spectacular.
We reached a muddy section where two more vehicles from other tour operators were waiting. The Wayuu walked the entire area on foot, evaluated and discussed the way forward. A vehicle was then unloaded and made the crossing after 3 failed attempts, and then pulled the remaining vehicles over with a towing strap.
After that, we were traveling in a convoy of 5 vehicles. The vehicle now in front of me opened the driver’s door from time to time and it turned out that the air conditioner was defective. The inmates suffered therefore not only the outside temperature of 40° C but also a regular sand shower.
On the way back we had to stop several times to revise the engine of one of the vehicles. Another vehicle had a radiator problem and consumed all the water reserves of the participants. It was pure adventure.
The Cerrejon coal mine is considered one of the largest open coal mines in the world and is operated by BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Glencore. The mine has its own railway line to the coast, which has a length of 150 kilometers. There are three trains, each with 109 cars, which continuously transport coal to the coast for loading onto cargo ships.
The mine can be visited with prior registration and there are organized tours. The size of the mine is impressive and the machines and vehicles used are huge and make you look very small.
Since the founding of the mine, there have been various conflicts. Seemingly to the local population were made promises that never have been fulfilled. Low water levels of the local rivers and problems with the water supply are also connected to the mine.
During my visit, they proudly presented the renaturalization of the zone and stated that the mine is pursuing a sustainable policy in this regard. However, as a biologist with a doctorate, my colleague immediately identified the plants used as invasive and was referred to as an environmental activist on closer inquiry. The strategy seems to be to make everything look green fast. It seems to be accepted that the invasive species used directly threaten the local flora.
From Riohacha you can reach this natural park in less than 30 minutes. Birdwatchers traveling to this area are required to visit. You can see the local fauna and flora and with a little luck also the flamingos.
Many tour operators run this destination in their programs. However, you only go there and see the large pools where salt is extracted. You generally get no detailed information and do not leave the vehicle. Not worth a visit for me.
Rancherias can be visited in different regions of La Guajira. These are villages of the Wayuu, these villages are usually just a collection of different huts. The life of Wayuu is very simple and they actually do not possess anything. Income is generated in part by the production of hammocks and bags as well as other crafts.
It is best to bring food and buy something from them. The hammocks (Chinchorros) are by far the best in the world.
Recommended accommodations in La Guajira
La Guajira is one of my favorites, but tourism is still in its infancy. However, I can recommend accommodations for various destinations.
Hostal Pavo Real, Palomino
Fabian is also Swiss and recently built the Pavo Real. In a short time, he was able to make a name for himself thanks to the good quality and excellent cuisine.
Rancheria Utta, Cabo de la Vela
Rancheria Utta is by far the best place to stay in Cabo de la Vela. Although it is not in the village, it is only a 10-minute walk. If you want a little comfort, you should stay there.
In La Guajira there is actually no very exciting nightlife, therefore, here is just a sentence.
- Dividivi festival: June-July
- Festival of the Wayuu culture (Uribia): May
- Cuna de Acordeones Festival (Villanueva): September
- Festival of the Coal (Barrancas): October
- Francisco el Hombre festival (Riohacha): January
As mentioned several times, La Guajira produces handicrafts. The colored bags and hammocks are of excellent quality. You should shop directly with the producing Wayuu and not at middlemen.
Food in La Guajira
In La Guajira, you can eat excellent seafood. In addition, goat is also a specialty, although I do not personally like this.
Best travel time
If you also want to combine your trip to La Guajira with other destinations in Colombia, I advise you to study our Colombia travel guide.
Airport in La Guajira
Riohacha Airport has national air connections as well as an international connection to Aruba.
The department of La Guajira has direct bus services with Santa Marta and Cartagena as well as Cesar and Venezuela. Accordingly, all national destinations can be reached by bus.
Within La Guajira, there are not only local buses because of the scenic features, but also 4×4 collectives and shared taxis.
It is possible to travel from Cabo de La Vela to Cartagena the same day, but you have to get up early.
What I like about La Guajira and what I don’t like
For me, La Guajira is a magical place and I recommend every traveler who is a bit of an adventurer to visit this fantastic travel destination. The landscapes, the food, the local culture and the activities are tailor-made for me. The high temperatures do not bother me, because the climate is very dry.
La Guajira is considered one of the poorest and most corrupt departments in Colombia. This is reflected in the high infant mortality rate and the low level of education of the local population. The proximity to Venezuela with the current and ongoing difficult situation also worsens the security situation in general.
More Colombia Travel Guides
- Bogotá Travel Guide
- Medellin Travel Guide
- Santa Marta Travel Guide
- Cartagena Travel Guide
- Llanos Travel Guide
- Providencia Travel Guide
- Coffee Triangle Travel Guide
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