During my stay in Colombia I did research on the history of the Guajira and the Wayuu indigenous. I encountered a reference to a historic travel report of the French explorer Héliodore Candeliere. He traveled the Guajira peninsula 125 years ago. It took me quiet some effort to get access to a physical copy of the book. On my last day before I returned to Germany I was able to take a copy of it. Since I liked the book so much I thought it would be worth to make this document accessible in English. So, the book got translated from French to English and can now be downloaded as ebook. I payed attention that the historic characteristic is maintained as good as possible in the electronic version. I also improved the quality of the figures.
In his mid-thirties, Héliodore is a successful solicitor, the founder of the national shooting society, and a loving family father. Despite his traditional life style, deep in his heart, he is an explorer who always wanted to travel the world. His family pushed him into a traditional life style and as he got older he gave up on his dreams.
One day, Héliodore meets an old school friend who reports him from his time in Panama and at the Colombian Caribbean coast. This encounter triggers something in Héliodore. He gets obsessed with the idea of organizing an expedition to the Guajira peninsula – the home of the Wayuu indigenous. One day, he and his family decide that he will go on a three year expedition for the Société de Géographie de Paris to South America.
In his travel report, Héliodore describes how it was like to travel from Europe to Colombia at the end of the 19th century. Riohacha was still a small town and the last outpost before the untamed Guajira peninsula. Diseases like paludian fever were a common threat threre. During his stay at the Guajira peninsula, Héliodore studies the customs, language, and laws of the Wayuu indigenous. His book is also a testimony of the conflicts between the “civilized” and “uncivilized” world.
After 125 years, Héliodore’s travel report is available for the first time in English.
The Wayuu culture can be quiet different to the western culture. One example is an incident happened in 2017 where suddenly almost all donkeys of Alta Guajira disappeared.
Beside goats, donkeys are probably the second most important animals for the Wayuu: they are used to carry water. One donkey carries about 60-70kg of water. The Wayuu all over the La Guajira peninsula tell the same story: Suddenly, in 2017 the donkeys disappeared. One after the other. The locals report always the same: somebody came during night and slaughtered the donkeys that were outside the ranch. Only the leather was taken and the meat was left behind. This went on for about six months until almost all donkeys had been killed.
Who was it?
If you ask the locals who killed their donkeys the answers are often very vague. Most say they don’t know. This is hardly imaginable. There are eyes behind every Yosu cactus. Nothing happens without somebody noticing it. Especially, when it goes on over months. It is said the leather got sold on the markets in Uribia and Maicao. But nobody knows where it went to afterwards.
For the victims the loss of the donkeys is very serious. For example, in Nueva York the locals spend about four hours daily for getting water. They have only one donkey left, two got killed. Without the two donkey they have to walk twice instead of once a day. If you ask enough people someone will tell you who it was. In Nueva York they are convinced that the neighbors to the north west committed the crime. However, they don’t do much about it.
In the Wayuu culture, when they catch the suspect while killing the donkey the local “palabrero” (speaker) will tell the attackers to pay a compensation to the victims. For example, a donkey is worth 400.000 COP and this is payed as compensation. But the damage is much bigger than the donkey. It takes years to breed new donkeys that are necessary for carrying water. The suspect has almost nothing to lose. In the worst case he only pays what he earned on the market. There is almost no police in Alta Guajira and the Wayuu prefer the traditional way of handling problems anyway.
If you ask why the neighbors killed the donkeys the victims tell you something like “Well, they needed money”. For many, even the victims, this seems to be a good reason. During my time in Alta Guajira I asked many Wayuu about this problem to better understand their reasoning. They take it like something caused by force of nature. For westerners it is hard to understand why they don’t do more against the suspects. It is one of the things where you notice that they have a completely different mindset and cultural background.
Backpacking to Cabo de la Vela can be easily done on your own. Cabo de la Vela is one of the most spectacular places of Alta Guajira. It offers various accommodations, beautiful beaches, and unique landscapes. You don’t need a travel agency for getting there. Actually, it is very easy and cheap to get from Riohacha to Cabo de la Vela.
The itinerary looks as follows:
Riohacha: Go to Mercado Viejo and take a shared taxi to Uribia. Tell the driver to drop you just outside Uribia at the crossroads called “4 Via de Uribia”.
Uribia: As soon as you hop-off the taxi at 4 Via de Uribia locals will offer you transportation to Cabo de la Vela. Usually, transport is done by pick-up trucks. The driver might try to impress the foreigners with his driving skills.
Cabo de la Vela: Just get off somewhere in the village. There are more than enough accommodations. The village consists of one long road.
Cash: You have to bring all cash that you need for your stay north of Uribia. There are ATMs in Uribia, Maicao, and Riohacha.
4 Via: There are two crossroads called “4 Via”. 4 Via de Uribia is just outside Uribia while 4 Via de Uribia is in between Riohacha and Maicao. Make sure you don’t confuse both crossroads.
Day Time: Traveling with shared taxis after 4pm can be more difficult as the cars might not fill-up. If you want to get around without problems leave early.