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Right up in the north-eastern corner of Colombia, bordering Venezuela and the Caribbean lies the Guajira peninsula. This is a region that nominally belongs to Colombia but remains sparsely populated and out of touch with the rest of the country due in part to its hostile yet intriguing desert environment. Make the trip here now as it is slowly becoming a travel destination for the more intrepid visitor.
This is a land of desert contrasts, snarled thorn-trees, cacti, towering dunes and the Caribbean ocean that survives on fishing, pearls, salt harvesting, the world’s largest open pit coal mine and contraband and is presided over by the Wayuu people. With their strong traditions and matriarchal society the Wayuu are first from the Guajira and Colombian a distant second.
The sudden thud and heave of the 4x4 sounds like the end for our mechanical beast as we lurch forward and up out of the dry river bed kicking up plentiful clouds of desert sand and dust before shuddering to an immediate stop. Emilio is leaning heavily on the brakes. The clouds settle layering a thick cake of desert on our windscreen and I can make out the obstacle in front, what looks like a bike security chain, fastened in the middle with a padlock and strung between two cacti.
There is no one to be seen.
A young Wayuu boy appears from behind the scrub. He can be no more than 10 years old and he approaches the passenger side window. Emilio reaches into the black plastic bag by my side, grabs two rolls in plastic and hands them past me over to the keeper of the key. The boy smiles, hands one roll to his recently materialized sister and opens the padlock. We pass.
“The cheapest toll booth in all of the Colombia,” says Emilio with a big grin and we are off once more.
This unforgiving and parched area home to snakes, iguanas and goats may seem resolutely monochrome at first with everything in shades of desert beige and thorn-tree grey. But this image is banished as the sunset paints the sea a remarkable blood red in the Wayuu Rancheria or settlement of Cabo de la Vela. The only other bright colour during our expedition was the flashes of the repeatedly seen vermilion cardinal that put paid to the drab desert monotony.
Stepping out of my yotojoro cactus wood cabana the next morning, sore from being bounced around in the 4x4 over these harsh dry river beds I reflected upon how lucky we were to have Emilio as our driver as we receive an SOS from some French tourists stranded in the desert.
We arrived brandishing lunch for the unfortunate voyageurs and expected to have to scooch up on the seats to give these guys a lift out.
Arriving at South America’s most northerly point of Punta Gallinas and Emilio’s home, he is immediately set upon by his irate mother who berates him furiously for failing to advise her on how many would be arriving for dinner. Not to worry though, there was a whole lobster for each of us.
Perhaps relishing the prospect of being out of his mother’s sight, Emilio drives us to the furthest point of Punta Gallinas to witness the sunset there and toast his birthday with some more of the traditional chirrinchi liquor.
This is a land of legends, tribal practices and Colombia’s most incredible sunsets. And not one for the foolhardy, there are no maps, few roads but a cornucopia of signs….none of which are written down as to come here is to understand the harsh mistress that is the desert and the unforgiving Wayuu sun.
Emilio laughs thinking of a group from the interior who wished to drive their own 4x4 through the Guajira desert. “I can do it, I’ve done a course,” said Emilio mimicking the culprit from Medellin’s accent and grinning. “Then, like always, we get a phone call and I have to come and rescue them.”