Wayuu community in Alta Guajira.

The Wayuu amerindians are descendants of the Arawak who most likely emerged from the Amazon. Different Arawak groups spread over the Caribbean Sea (e.g. the Tainos of Cuba), the Guianas, and parts of the Amazon until Bolivia and Brasil. Around 900AD several Arawak groups arrived at the Guajira peninsula. The descendants of the Arawak share a common root of their languages.


The Wayuu society uses a matrilinear hierarchy to determine who is part of a clan. All family members that are relatives via their mother’s branch are considered part of the same casta (clan). Each clan is identified by a symbol and an animal. For example, the symbol is used to mark animals. The entire Guajira peninsula is split-up into territories. A territory belongs to one clan and usually provides enough resources for the families that live there. Members of the same clan are often referred to as “primo” (cousin), even if they are not biological cousins.

The Wayuu don’t have a common representative who stands-up for their interests (e.g. against the Colombian state, big companies, etc.). Besides the common cultural background the Wayuu from different regions do not know much about each other. Conflicts inside a clan and between neighboring clans are solved by a so called palabrero (speaker). Sometimes, problems can also lead to armed conflicts among Wayuu families. This is the case until today. For example, there are armed conflicts around Tawaira and also at the border to Venezuela where indigenous families are fighting for smuggling routes for Venezuelan gasoline.

Colombian law is not strictly enforced north of Uribia and the Wayuu see it as their natural right to handle their problems on their own. Sometimes, this can lead to situations that are hard to understand for “civilized” people. The word “civilisado” (civilized person) is a common term used in the Guajira. The term “paisano” (farmer) is often used by the Wayuu to refer to other Wayuu. For example: “This paisano is really crazy”.

A typical Wayuu ranch. In remote regions are similar to this historic drawing.

The Wayuu live in so called rancherias (ranches). Every territory hosts several ranches that belong to different branches of a clan. The central hut of a ranch is certainly the kitchen where the family spends most of the day. Usually, there are two to four more huts. This also includes a shelter where visitors can pitch their hammocks. Each ranch has several so called corrales (enclosure) where sheep and goats are kept during night. Many ranches also have a water tank where the family keeps rain water or water that is brought by truck. Usually, families in remote regions don’t have access to clean water or can’t afford it. They have to switch to traditional water sources which are often salty and/or contaminated.

In reports and documentaries about the Wayuu it is often pronounced in a positive way that the Wayuu live in a matrilinear society. If you drop your western romanticize glasses you will realize that this concept is not as positive as some want to see it. In day-to-day life there is a lot of machismo and women are often the ones who stay at home and do most of the work. There are strong women in the Wayuu society and also man who support their wife but in general it is certainly not as “romantic” or advanced as some westerners like to interpret it.


Life and death are very close on the Guajira peninsula. Due to the heat and the difficult access to clean water, diarrhea can be easily a  death sentence for a Wayuu child. During the El Nino weather phenomena there might be several years in a row without rain. The majority of animals die and humans suffer, too. During rainy season life recovers. The Wayuu are used to this cycle of life and death. It has always been like this on their peninsula. You should always have this in mind when you see Wayuu being brutal to animals like goats from a western point of view. Life is hard to the Wayuu and they are hard to life. In the rural regions there is no room for vegetarians or goat huggers. It is about survival.

Every family has a cemetery with a shelter where visitors can pitch their hammocks. Usually, there is also a kitchen where guests can cook and celebrate. If a family is wealthy the cemetery might even look like a small palace. When a family member dies the relatives from far away will sleep and celebrate close to the tombs.

When a Wayuu dies his body is put into an over ground tomb where it stays several years. After time has passed on day the close relatives decide to invite family and friends to celebrate. During the festivities the women open the tomb and put the remains into a wooden urn. Afterwards, the urn is brought to the family’s house where the celebration begins. At the end of the festivities the urn is put into a special tomb with urns of other family members. The Wayuu associate nothing negative with cemeteries.

In the Wayuu mythology the souls of the dead travel to a place called Jepira. Jepira is a hill at Cabo de la Vela. Due to its shape and color the hill is also known as Pan de Azucar (sugar loaf). Today, it is a famous tourist destination. There is also a Maria statue on top of the Jepira hill. It is a good example of how Wayuu culture gets sapped. A sign on the bottom of the hill tells tourists to respect the place. Pure sarcasm.


As of today, the Wayuu society is between past and present. About 60 to 70 years ago they stopped practicing several ancestral traditions like a ceremony that was performed when a girl become a woman. Other practices like the funerals still survived. The Wayuu resisted the western conquest for many centuries. However, the foundation of Uribia and Nazareth was certainly a turning point. The seeds of the Capuchin frails are growing and inevitably extruding the ancient beliefs and culture. The Guajira peninsula is a perfect place to observe how religion and settlements are used to gain control over people. The untamable Wayuu are getting domesticated step by step.

Capuchin monks at the end of the 19th century in Alta Guajira.

The settlements divide the Wayuu into two groups: (i) westernized villagers and (ii) the others who live at their ranches under very hard conditions. For example, there is an upper-class in Nazareth that refuses to speak their ancestral language and stopped practicing their culture. Some Wayuu grab their chance to social ascent by becoming priest and converting other Wayuu. Tourism also influences the Wayuu culture. Cabo de la Vela is the place where you can observe the effects of this process best. The original inhabitants built small restaurants or accommodations and moved to Maicao or Riohacha to enjoy a better life-style. The workers at Cabo de la Vela are not connected to the territory anymore. They can’t even answer simple questions about their territory or culture. This is very sad to see.

The situation and dynamics on the Guajira peninsula are very complex. It is almost impossible to grasp this during a couple of days with a tourist agency. We hope this Chapter gave you a better understanding of this fascinating micro-cosmos.