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.
Birds of Passage (Pajaros del Verano) is the name of the new movie of Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra. The movie plays on the La Guajira peninsula and tells the story of the so called “Bonanza Marimbera“. The Bonanza Marimbera was a period during the 1960s and 1970s where drug trafficking with marijuana was booming in Colombia. The movie shows the involvement of the Wayuu indigenous in this business. The language of the movie is Wayuunaiki – the language of the Wayuu.
The La Guajira peninsula is a geographically isolated place. At the same time it has always been a gate to the Caribbean Sea. During colonial times the Wayuu used trade with English, Dutch, and French colonists to acquire weapons for the fight against the Spaniards and defend their independence. Until today, the department of La Guajira is a place where smuggling is partially tolerated by the Colombian government and laws are not applied as strict as in other parts of Colombia. During history, the Wayuu have been opportunistic. If there is an opportunity for business they jump on it.
Birds of Passage was the opening film at the Cannes film festival. Ciro Guerra was also the director of another movie called “Embrace of the Serpent” about a different indigenous tribe in Colombia.
I am already looking forward to seeing this movie!
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.
Many tourists traveling La Guajira like to buy Wayuu Bags, also called “Mochilas”. You can find many sellers at the seaside of Riohacha and at Cabo de la Vela. However, often the quality is not the best or the Wayuu sell the bags to a discount price that is not adequate to their good work.
The center for high-quality Wayuu bags of Alta Guajira is in Nazareth at a place called “Paraiso” (paradies). You can walk there in about 10-15min from the center of the village. Just ask the locals for “paraiso” and “mochila”. The bags are produced by a cooperative. There is another cooperative in Sipana. It is not uncommon that men also crochet Wayuu bags.
On his first trip to the Americas, Christopher Columbus took some notes where he describes for the first time the use of hammocks by Amerindians on Caribbean islands. As of today, on the entire La Guajira peninsula the use of hammocks is very wide-spread. The Wayuu call their hammocks “chinchorro”. The difference is that chinchorros are usually bigger more comfortable to sleep in as normal hammocks.
Alonso de Ojeda was the first one who sailed along the South American coast. During his expedition he also passed the La Guajira peninsula and Cabo de la Vela. That’s why Cabo de la Vela already appears on the first maps of South America.
During the 16th century, the early colonists discovered pearls along the coast between Cabo de la Vela and today’s Riohacha. In order to exploit those pearls the Spaniards founded a settlement at Cabo de la Vela, called Nuestra Señora Santa María de los Remedios del Cabo de la Vela. Due to continuous conflicts with the local indigenous Santa María got relocated to today’s Riohacha in 1544. As a result, Riohacha developed into a center for pearl trade.
Cabo de la Vela also plays a very important role in the mythology of the Wayuu amerindians. For them the hill Jepira is the place where the souls of the dead travel to after death. Jepira is also called Pan de Azucar in Spanish and is a famous tourist destination.
As of today, Cabo de la Vela is the most touristy place on the La Guajira peninsula. There are plenty of accommodations, you can do Kite surfing, visit the nearby lighthouse, and enjoy the beautiful beaches.
The salt mines of Manaure are located at Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The big basins are operated by a Venezuelan company while the small ones are run by local Wayuu families. The salt water passes a chain of basins. In each basin it stays several months to increase the saturation. Finally, it reaches a basin where the salt crystalizes. The salt crystals grow about 4cm per year. It depends on the owner and the demand when it gets harvested. The size of the salt mine only gets visible from an elevated position.
Close to the salt mines is the protected area where you can see flamingos. The place is similar to Santuario de los Flamencos close to Camarones.
The La Guajira peninsula hosts many places of Wayuu mythology. One of the most important places is the rock of Aalas. It is said that Maleiwa (god) sent the wise man Uuta to gather the different Wayuu families at Aalas to assign each of them a symbol (casta) and an animal. A lightning hit the rock of Aalas and burned the different castas into its surface. For example, the symbols are used to mark animals.
The rock is located in the remote mountain range Serrania Jarara. The living conditions in this region are very difficult. Trucks only drive along the coast and don’t reach Aalas. There is a nearby Jagüey that provides water. If the Jagüey is exhausted there is only permanent spring with salty water. The figure below shows the spring “ojo de agua” at Aalas. Donkeys are used to transport the water to the homes.
Most travelers on the way to Cabo de la Vela or Punta Gallinas just rush through Uribia. This is a real pity since there are a lot of hidden gems and quaint stories to discover. For example, the white elephant of Uribia.
On of those places to discover is the so called “white elephant” of Uribia. The white elephant denotes a terminal for long distance buses that was build because there was some leftover money that had to be spent. Since the terminal has been built with money of the government it can only be used by officially registered transport companies.
Unfortunately, there is none in Uribia and the locals don’t want non-Wayuu run bus companies to service the terminal. So, the terminal is waiting for the day to officially open its gates. Meanwhile, a couple of locals are living in the terminal.
The terminal is just outside of Uribia close to the 4-Via crossroads. You can also cross the rails of the Cerrejon train.