Guajira Desert in Colombia: what you need to know before you go

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Before heading off to the Guajira desert, we think it’s important to prepare yourself for the shock that awaits you: dreamlike landscapes, but also a hostile territory, the most arid climate in the country, and above all, the poorest department in Colombia, with very specific problems.

On an organized tour of the Guajira desert, you’re confronted with situations for which you’re not necessarily prepared. Agencies don’t really educate travellers about the specificities of the territory and what’s going to happen during the tour.

In this post, we’ve therefore decided to give you some information we feel is important before visiting the Guajira Desert, a territory from which one rarely returns unscathed, both for its beauty and for the very contradictory feelings one may experience during the tour.

Disclaimer: we apologize in advance for any grammatical or syntactic errors, as our native language is not English (we're a Colombian-French couple), so we hope you'll forgive us and still enjoy the information we share with you! Please note that all the information on our blog is based on our own experience, and is checked and updated regularly.

Preparing for the shock of Guajira

Guajira Desert Tour in Colombia

Guajira Desert in Colombia: what you need to know before you go

Car breakdowns

You can expect some surprises when you set off in a 4×4 in the Guajira desert. There are no roads, and each driver navigates by sight, by experience, following existing tracks or sometimes even opening up new ones.

Vehicles are put to the test and breakdowns are frequent. We had to stop many times, the air-conditioning broke down, the 4×4 had to be pushed to start, etc., etc.

Children at the toll booths

Wayuus communities live in extreme poverty. Tourism has developed, but the benefits are not felt throughout the territory. It’s also a department that has been largely forgotten by the government. With tourism on the rise, families seeing the 4x4s passing by have decided to ask for a sort of “right of way”.

It’s the children who stop the convoys as they pass by their rancheria. They stretch a simple rope across the track and wait to be given something (often water or food) to let the vehicles pass.

Four years ago, we encountered over thirty tollbooths on our route; now we’re told there are around eighty!

What to do about this begging?

In Cabo de la Vela, posters encourage tourists not to give or encourage begging. But what else can you do? Pass over it without stopping? How can you blame them? How would we deal with it if we saw daily convoys of 4×4s full of tourists passing over our territory with money we wouldn’t see a penny of?

Admittedly, this is not the solution, and it’s a very complex situation that can be shocking when you’re not prepared for it.

Guajira Desert in Colombia: what you need to know before you go
Tolls in the Guajira desert, Colombia

Plastic pollution

In the Guajira desert, there’s no such thing as selective sorting. Waste collection here is ineffective. Here, as elsewhere in Colombia, environmental education needs to be built, a gamble on the future.

Before plastic was invented, waste didn’t exist; it simply returned to the earth. Today, in villages and on farms, aggravated by the wind that blows hard in the desert, waste ends up in nature, for want of a better word. The sight around the villages and rancherias is particularly sad.

Poverty in Guajira

Guajira is the poorest department in Colombia. Living conditions in the desert are particularly precarious: the country’s most arid climate, difficult access to water, pollution from the Cerrejon coal mine, difficulties in organizing public services on the ground, the corruption of local elected officials, the complexity of Wayuu society..

All this, and more, means that you may be confronted with scenes that will make your heart ache (begging children, collecting water in puddles, children asking you to finish the leftovers on your plate, etc.)

Contact Responsible Local Agency

It’s essential to go into the desert with a serious agency. Paola’s agency is one of the few in Riohacha to have developed responsible tourism in the Guajira desert. You can go with your eyes closed!

Rethinking tourism in Guajira

Before heading to the Guajira desert

Guajira Desert in Colombia: what you need to know before you go
Sunset at Cabo de la Vela in the Guajira Desert, Colombia

A 4×4 photo safari

If there’s one leitmotif of our 4 days in the Guajira Desert, it’s the time we spent in the car. Not that we’re complaining: the 4×4s are really comfortable for these conditions, and we came out relatively unscathed.

But it’s this way of traveling that we questioned throughout the trip. The tours are nothing more than photo safaris, disconnected from a truly complex territory, the Guajira and Wayuu culture.

Yet most tours are organized by Wayuu families or Guajiros who know the desert and Wayuu communities well. We’ll always be wary of the tourism practised there.

Beautiful memories

That said, this region is one of the most beautiful in the world. The landscapes are magnificent, so impressive in view of the living conditions of the local populations that they send shivers down your spine.

And thanks to our visit to Nazareth and the Macuira National Park, we were finally able to exchange ideas and learn a little more about the Wayuu culture. We were finally able to open a few doors on this mysterious region of Colombia.

Rethinking tourism

Tourism in Guajira has reached a kind of dead end, with many agencies focusing on volume. Everything is done to accept as many requests as possible, whatever the cost, including the quality of service offered.

To meet demand at all costs, many local agencies in Riohacha pass on customers to each other, contracting independent drivers paid on a per-ride basis whose sole job is to take tourists from point A to point B.

This inevitably leads to a totally random quality of service, with the luck or otherwise of finding a good driver.

Contact Responsible Local Agency

It’s essential to go into the desert with a serious agency. Paola’s agency is one of the few in Riohacha to have developed responsible tourism in the Guajira desert. You can go with your eyes closed!

Responsible agencies to visit Guajira

GUAJIRA DESERT TOUR, Colombia

Guajira Desert in Colombia: what you need to know before you go

The Guajira desert is a region where, from our point of view, it’s best to be accompanied, for practical and safety reasons. But there aren’t really any agencies that practice truly responsible tourism.

Difficulty finding a good local agency

Even before discovering La Guajira, we knew all about the problems of this region, the poorest in Colombia. We weren’t totally convinced by the classic tours offered by local agencies.

We had a hard time finding an agency that could provide us with quality service on classic desert tours. We had also tried to find an agency that would take us away from the traditional tours and give us a better understanding of the Wayuu culture, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t really exist at the moment.

Responsible local agency

As you’ll have understood, it’s essential to go into the desert with a serious local agency. After a mixed experience, we decided to look for an agency offering a different kind of tourism.

Paola’s agency is one of the few in Riohacha to develop responsible tourism in the Guajira desert.

Even if the tour basics are the same as the other agencies (Manaure, Cabo de la vela, Punta Gallinas, Macuira), the difference is in the details:

  • Safety and reliability (mandatory breathalyzer test for all drivers and 4×4 inspection before each departure)
  • More interaction with your Wayuu driver (they are not guides, but they are trained to answer your questions and interact with you)
  • Maximum 5 people in 4x4s
  • Visit to a Wayuu weaving workshop
  • Share with locals around the sacred fire
  • Share with the children of Nazareth (if you go to La Macuira)
  • Turtle liberation (program to protect endangered Careta turtles)
  • Swimming in luminescent plankton
  • Community contribution (all services are provided by the community)
  • Offers the Macuira Natural Park (and many other destinations in the department)

If you add to this the fact that Paola has been setting up social-interest projects throughout the department for many years, there’s nothing more to think about. Do you think her prices are a little more expensive than elsewhere? Now you know why, and more importantly, you know where your money is going.

We’d advise anyone who wants to do the classic Guajira Desert tour, including Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas, to put in the budget and push on to Parc de la Macuira.

Contact for a responsible local agency

History Guajira (#46)

To contact Paola, our local partner in Riohacha, you can use the form below. You won’t pay more, but it will let him know you’re from us.

IMPORTANT: If you don’t hear back from our partner within 72 hours, please check your SPAMS first before contacting us.

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Authors

Angélica & Samuel

We are Angélica and Samuel, a French-Colombian couple, professional photographers and web editors specializing in travel to Colombia. We created this blog to change the image of the country, help you prepare your trip and inspire you to discover Colombia in a different way!

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