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.
José Prudencio Padilla, better known as Almirante Padilla (Admiral Padilla), is one of those personalities with a unique life history. Born in Riohacha in 1778 as a son of a black constructor of canoes and a Wayuu woman, José Prudencio joined the Spanish Royal Navy with 14 years. He served on the warship San Juan Nepomuceno. In 1805 he participated in the battle of Trafalgar where he was taken prisoner by the English. After his release in 1808, José Prudencio returned to Spain and later to Cartagena, Colombia.
In 1811 he joined the independence movement. Under the command of Simon Bolivar, José Prudencio helps to free Cartagena from a besiege of the Spaniards. He fought several more battles and got promoted. In 1823 he led the navy of Simon Bolivar into the Battle of Lake Maracaibo where he defeated the Spanish Royal Navy. Some say it was the last decisive victory against the Spaniards since it prevented an invasion.
In 1828 Padilla got accused of conspiracy against Simon Bolivar. He got executed at Plaza Bolivar, Bogota. A short time after his death, Admiral Padilla got rehabilitated.
Admiral Padilla is probably the most shiny person in the history of La Guajira. The navy shool of Cartagena Escuela Naval de Cadetes “Almirante Padilla” is named after him. Also the airport the airport of Riohacha is called after the city’s probably most famous son. There is also a Colombian battleship with the name Almirante Padilla. The main square of Riohacha also has a statue of José Prudencio. Outside of La Guajira the history of the Admiral is less remembered.
There is an awesome documentary series about Colombia’s forgotten heroes on Youtube. One episode is about Almirante Padia – unfortunately only in Spanish:
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.