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It’s dusk by the time the deluge of rainwater has finally ceased in Colombia’s northernmost department (state) of La Guajira, the sunset’s pink, purple and orange palette reflected in the vast puddles of mud that stretch toward the horizon.
There are no visible roads ahead as our truck makes its way through the sticky, red clay, rocking seismically from side to side as each of us backseat passengers reach for grab handles above the windows—what my friend Becky Hickson informed me were unofficially the “oh shit” handles—to avoid colliding with one another as we ride.
Our driver tells our guide in Spanish that his four-wheel drive is failing, an especially concerning fact as we pass a truck of locals coaxing their marooned vehicle from the mud, currently refusing to budge under the hefty load of groceries and oversized boxes.
“This is why we tell people not to travel here without guides,” our guide Sebastian “Sebas” Fergusson tells us later. “It’s easy to become lost.”
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Cabo de la Vela
We’re headed to Cabo de la Vela, a small fishing village where desert meets sea along Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast. Named “cape of sails” for the desert terrain and bluffs that reminded Spanish conquistadors of a sailboat, it’s a popular beach destination and one of the country’s most coveted kitesurfing spots.
It’s also the sacred land of the Wayúu (wah-you), Colombia’s largest indigenous group that makes up nearly 40 percent of the department’s population. (Their tribal lands also stretch into the northwestern region of Venezuela.)
“It is known by Colombians that the landscapes that they will find on this trip are unparalleled, and it is the dream of many to go and enjoy the views and the beaches, which are among the best in Colombia,” Fergusson says. “Because it is a place of difficult access, (the trek) requires you to be a person with an adventurous spirit.”
It’s a fitting description for this group of travel journalists and photographers, plus my up-for-anything friend Hickson, who will stay for two nights in this rugged outpost at Rancheria Utta. A rustic spot that’s modeled after the indigenous “rancheria” Wayúu settlements, comprising a handful of simple houses for several family members clustered together on a plot of land, it’s as upscale as any lodging offered here in “El Cabo.”
We arrive by nightfall, the sound of crashing waves nearby the only clue it’s situated near water.
We find our room among a double row of thatched-roofed cabins set just steps from the beach, complete with a private bathroom, modest furnishings that includes two simple beds, and lighting and a fan powered by generators.
There is no electricity or running water in the village, so generators shut off for a few hours per night to keep up with demand. (We didn’t notice.) The shower water streams from an artless PVC pipe that I’m all too happy to discover is warm.
The Wayúu People
Our first glimpse into the life of the Wayúu, the “people of the sun, sand, and wind,” came earlier in the day with a stop in Manaure (mah-now-ray) and its famous salt flats, Salinas de Manaure, which produces about 70 percent of Colombia’s total salt production.
The Guajira peninsula boasts some of the most ideal conditions for salt extraction, with sun-parched lands and plenty of strong winds, making it a fundamental industry for Wayúu since long before 15th-century Spaniards attempted to colonize the area. (They were unsuccessful, as the tribe never ceded their homeland.)
Water pumps instead of chemicals are used in salt extraction here, says our second guide Leiner Pinto, whose father is Wayúu. The rest is done by Mother Nature.
“It’s a natural process where we receive the help from the sunlight,” he says. “Because in this part, the land has special characteristics: You can put the water (on it), and it’s not going to disappear in the ground. So the sun evaporates the water, and after that, we get the salt.”
We began with a tour of the salt museum, Museo de la Sal “Ichi” (“salt” in the Wayúu language, Wayuunaiki), admiring the two golden statues that greet us just past the entrance, glistening in the midday sun: a man shoveling the salt flats; a few feet ahead of him, a woman carrying an oppressive load of salt on her back, its handle affixed around her forehead.
It’s a tribute to the work of the families from the “magical Guajira,” a nearby plaque explains in Spanish, who were “attracted by the economic benefits derived from the artisanal production of sea-salt crystals.”
Showing the man cutting the salt flats, turning them into crystals and piling them up and then filling the sacks that were carried by the women, it says, the sculptures honor the “continuous ritual at dawn and dusk.”
We walk around to the side of the museum’s building to view a mural depicting the grueling work of salt extraction as the Wayúu would have practiced for centuries. On the left side of the painting, men scoop salt from a pile with a handmade bowl into an upside-down turtle shell that would be pulled to an endpoint by a fibrous rope; women carry loads of salt on their backs, their faces concealed under a dark-brown mask made of mushroom spores and goat fat that’s still used today for sunscreen and ceremonial makeup.
At the far right, the mural shows the modern practice of extraction, which includes the use of shovels, picks, and wheelbarrows. For Wayúu, using the latter for transporting salt was “like walking then using a car.”
White Stone Beach
Our group heads across the street toward the beach known as Ipatu’u or Piedras Blancas, “White Stone Beach.” The mystical Wayúu legend says in ancient times, the sea turtles who came to shore each day tried to return to the water too long after sunset, which turned them to stone. Hence the white-sand beach that lies before us, some colorful fishing boats rocking at its shore, a collection of green beach chairs and matching umbrellas beckoning us to sit.
We sip an iced cocktail made of passion-fruit juice and indigenous liquor rimmed with salt and pepper called a Mitologico or “mythological” as Pinto translates for our Wayúu guide Gertrudis Maria while she speaks Spanish.
“In here,” he says, gesturing to the open-air structure under which we sit. “This place is completely made with all the things that we find in the same land.” Like the roof, made from the heart of a cactus called “yotojoro,” the walls and fences created from the trupillo tree that’s endemic to several Central and South American countries.
Gertrudis Maria continues, pointing to one of our mochila, the colorful, woven bags found throughout Colombia.
“The spider teaches us about ‘kaanás,’” she says, or the art of weaving. Colorful purses found throughout Colombia, they’re handwoven using wool, cotton, and other fibers. Only done by women—who also craft bags, hammocks, and other handmade items—the spider, Wale’ Kerü, is said to be the one who taught them.
The process begins after a girl’s first menstruation, Pinto says, after which she is kept in “confinement” with only female relatives, who teach her about weaving, crocheting, cooking, and leading in the matriarchal community.
“They have to spend all this time to learn the (to make the) handmades, how to cook, how to prepare all the foods,” he says. Traditionally lasting a year or more, modern-day confinements are shorter because most Wayúu children attend school. “After that, when they go out, they are considered women and are ready to get married.”
The Wayúu Afterlife
Gertrudis Maria finishes the tour by telling us about the Wayúu afterlife.
“All these mountains together, they call it Jepirra (he-peer-ah),” Pinto translates. “It’s a holy place for the indigenous; it’s sacred. So all these mountains together for them are holy because (Wayúu) think that when they pass away…no matter where they are, their soul is going to make a trip to come to here to pass to another life.”
Our group would set eyes on that very spot the following morning, taking a short drive from the village to a hill known as El Pilón de Azúcar (Sugar Pylon). Named Kama’aichi in Wayuunaiki, it’s one of the area’s most popular tourist destinations and also the last place a soul visits before heading to the afterlife with ancestors, according to the tribe.
A mildly steep, 15-minute trek along a gravelly dirt path, the summit features an altar to the Virgin of Fatima that honors the Portuguese town of Fátima, renowned for the miraculous 1917 appearance of the Blessed Virgin to three young shepherds. We stop at the rocky outcropping, bracing against blustery winds while taking in wide-sweeping vistas of the turquoise seas. If this was my last view before entering the afterlife, I say to myself, I would die happily.
Shopping for Traditional Crafts
We descend the hill toward the beach, passing rows of Wayúu women and girls selling mochilas, hammocks, and traditional Wayúu dresses that resemble muumuus. I buy the latter from one woman as a swimsuit cover; I purchase a cold Colombian Cerveza Aguila from another who’s wearing the signature dark-brown sunscreen as two younger girls weave bags behind her. She allows me to snap a photo, a hint of a smile revealing the white contrast of her teeth.
That afternoon, we walk through the sleepy Cabo de la Vela village, its uncrowded beaches littered with fishermen cleaning fish on their boats after their morning outing, a few kite surfers trying to negotiate wind and water from the shore.
We bargain for more mochila bags, works of art that can take five to 15 days complete, so I understand why the women stand firm on their prices that typically started around $180,000 Colombian pesos (about $46 U.S.). But we must hurry to the trucks for what would be our clearest glimpse into Wayúu life: a visit to a rancheria.
Visiting a Rancheria
“This is what you will see everywhere in La Guajira: a lot of these little communities,” Fergusson translates for our female Wayúu guide. “Every Wayúu family has to have their own rancheria.”
We are each given a traditional goat stew known as “friche” that’s served in a gourd-like bowl with a long, dried seed pod for a utensil. The Wayúu have always lived with their herds of goats, which are easy to raise in the arid climate and serve as a good source of protein, so it’s a common dish served in gatherings and celebrations. A self-described picky eater, I discreetly return my bowl to the serving area as a young boy begins pounding a drum, signaling the start of a performance.
Three Wayúu dancers, one young man and two young women, begin stepping to the beat, a shock of red ceremonial dresses billowing in the strong winds set against bright-blue sky. He faces the two females, leading them in a winding path of choreographed steps until the drum stops.
“It’s a powerful dance in the culture,” Pinto says. “Normally it’s only played to bring rains, to celebrate that a child became a woman (majayut), or for a funeral of a family member.”
Our visit is a final snapshot into this isolated culture that few travelers get to experience, Pinto says, even among Colombians.
“It is important for people to know that in Colombia still exists the only indigenous group who (stood) against the Spanish conquerors: so brave, so powerful…connected to the Mother Earth,” he says. “Here they are.”
If You Go:
The easiest way to visit La Guajira is by flying to its capital city, Riohacha, and driving via guided tour about 3.5 hours to Cabo de la Vela. (The indigenous capital is Uribia, “ooh-rib-ee-ah.”)
Our group toured with Solera Travels (https://soleratravels.com), located in Riohacha’s Hotel Gimaura (https://www.hotelgimaura.com).