Trail of the unexpected: Colombia's secret shore

Colombia's La Guajira Peninsula is a world apart, says  Anna Maria Espsäter

"You should go to La Guajira," my friend in Cartagena had told me, all smiles. He'd made it sound so exotic, unspoilt and beautiful. Still, I couldn't help but curse him and his smiles as my bottom took another battering in the 4x4, along the non-existent road to this northernmost corner of South America. What could possibly be worth such a long, arduous journey?

La Guajira Peninsula lies in Colombia's far north-east, bordering Venezuela. It feels like a world of its own – and in many ways it is, retaining a semi-autonomous status. The indigenous Wayúu, an Amerindian people, are the main ethnic group. They hold dual Colombian and Venezuelan citizenship, freely crossing the border, as their ancestral territory straddles both countries.

As is natural in any frontier zone, smuggling used to be widespread – and with it, violent crime. Less than a decade ago, parts of the peninsula were too dangerous to visit. But a previous Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe, helped disarm the population during his 2003-06 demobilisation campaign. He encouraged people to find alternative sources of income, including tourism.

I set out with a group of intrepid travellers from Riohacha – the charming, sleepy-looking capital of La Guajira. The driver raced down the road like a man possessed; later it dawned on me that he was simply appreciating what may be the best bit of asphalt on the whole peninsula.

The road soon came to an abrupt end and we pushed on along a dirt track. After bouncing to the local vallenato music for several hours, we reached Cabo de la Vela (Candle Cape), on the west coast. The cape has a beautiful beach and is La Guajira's tourism hot spot. Almost every Wayúu family here runs a hostel, yet it doesn't feel too touristy.

We arrived after dark and were immediately assigned beds. Sadly there weren't enough to go around, so a few of us opted for the brightly coloured chinchorros – large "wrap-around hammocks" – hanging outside. It turned out to be a cold, itchy, uncomfortable night, but was still worth it for the spectacular blanket of stars twinkling high above me.

Cabo de la Vela is a good halfway point on the peninsula. After spending a night there, enjoying a brief morning tour of the scenic lookouts by the sea, it was time for the "real" adventure. While most tours go no further than Cabo de la Vela, ours was taking us right up to the very northernmost tip of the South American mainland: Punta Gallinas.

It was January and the rainy season had recently ended, leaving the dirt track impassable. Instead, we undertook the last part of the journey in a small boat. After three hours we finally arrived at the top end of South America, and the middle of nowhere: a beautiful, ghostly quiet and windswept wilderness.

We were met by our guide, Francisco. He's the man who'd dared to start running tours to Punta Gallinas despite its location.

"I've worked with the Wayúu and community tourism for over a decade now," he said as we walked up to Luz Mila, the only hostel and restaurant for miles – in fact the only buildings in sight. It is run by one of the 50 families he works with. Many of them run hostels, restaurants or benefit from tourism.

The next couple of days were spent roaming in nature, starting with Taroa Sands – enormous dunes running down to the Caribbean. It's the landscape that gives the area its touch of magic. There are sweeping vistas across vast dunes near the crashing ocean, but no habitation as far as the eye can see.

I walked along the mudflats and felt a long way from civilisation. Here there are no mobiles or televisions. Instead, evenings were spent listening to tales from the local Wayúu, many of whom had worked as sailors, or smugglers.

I asked if they missed the adventure. "No," said one man, called Quique. "I prefer to make a decent living without having to leave my family, or break the law."

Colombia facts

Population: 45,000,000|
Capital: Bogotá
Area: 55 times the size of Wales
Year of independence: 1810
Opening lines of national anthem: Cesó la horrible noche, la libertad sublime derrama. (The horrible night has ceased, sublime freedom shines)

Travel essentials: Colombia

Getting there

* The closest airport to La Guajira is Maracaibo, across the Venezuelan border. On the Colombian side, Santa Marta is closest. Both involve at least two changes of plane from the UK. Cartagena, accessible via Miami, is an easier prospect. Journey Latin America (020-3432 9274; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) can arrange flights and tours to La Guajira from the UK.

Getting around

* Independent travel around La Guajira is difficult as a result of the lack of public transport and good roads.

* Local agents Aventure Colombia (00 57 314 588 2378; aventurecolombia.com) based in Cartagena and Bogotá, and Kai Eco Travel (00 57 311 436 2830; kaiecotravel.com), run by Francisco Huérfano Paez, based in Riohacha, both run good tours.

More information

* Colombia Tourist Board: colombia.travel

* Latin American Travel Association: 020-8715 2913; lata.org.

Suggested Topics
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Exhibition Content Developer

    £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in South Kensington, this prestigi...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - major leisure brand

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Partner

    £25000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Partner is required to ...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn