The La Guajira department of Colombia, an arid strip of desert on the northernmost tip of South America, is an unlikely mix of an emerging tourism industry, mining multinationals, indigenous tribes, and, in recent years, caravans of Venezuelan refugees. In some ways, La Guajira is Colombia’s last frontier — a space that’s still very much off the now-well-trodden backpacker path but has yet to establish a name for itself in commercialized tourism. For these reasons, we highly recommend visiting and making some sense of it before the rest of the world does. Here are some safety and travel tips you should know before booking your excursion to La Guajira, Colombia.
Theft, Robbery, and Scams
The most common threats facing travelers heading to La Guajira are theft and petty crimes. Thieves often work in pairs with one distracting while the other does the deed. They often begin by making friends with tourists and then asking for their possessions. The same rules of thumb apply here as anywhere else in the world. Never retaliate, only comply, and consider diversifying where you keep your belongings. Some cash can go in a shirt pocket, a card in your wallet, your passport in your money belt — you get the idea. Most of this kind of crime happens in the urban centers like Cabo de la Vela and Riohacha. Give a read through Safe Travels: Tips to Stay Smart on the Road for some more helpful tips.
La Guajira is known to have heavy rainstorms and strong currents. Rain can cause flash flooding which jeopardizes the region’s sketchy infrastructure. Also, if you go to La Guajira, you will most likely be visiting the beach. It’s important to know that the Caribbean coast in these regions has strong currents with rocks that aren’t always visible. Even if you’re an experienced swimmer, be on the lookout for signs warning against strong currents. Also, feel free to ask a local using these Common Colombian Phrases for the inside scoop.
La Guajira is known to have a fair amount of mosquitos during specific seasons. Make sure you’re up to date on all shots and that you buy repellent from a nearby city like Santa Marta or Palomino. Finally, the overall heat in La Guajira is a force to be reckoned with. The heat seems to blanket the entire region and leave visitors (and natives) a bit slow-moving and congregating around what little shade there is.
Punto de Gallinas is one of the largest attractions in La Guajira (as the northernmost point of South America) and can be done with either an organized tour or independently. It’s safer to visit the area with a tour group, although it’s definitely more expensive. Also, if you plan on visiting the Wayuu, one of the region’s most prominent indigenous groups, be sure to sign up with an agency that has an established rapport with the community. Another popular destination in La Guajira is the Macuira National Park, a huge swath of sand dunes which makes for one of Colombia’s best places to visit. With this as well, be sure to go with a legitimate tour company. If you’re avid about doing things independently, check out Off the Beaten Track Travel: Things to do in Pasto, Colombia.
For much of recent history, La Guajira has seen its fair share of armed, politically-charged conflicts. Local politics has changed hands between rival political clans a dizzying number of times since the 80s and 90s, so much of the region is hotly contested. Up until recent waves of tourism begin in 2011 and the peace treaty was enacted by the previous president in 2016, La Guajira was a stomping ground for both right-wing paramilitary groups and left-wing guerrilla armies.
While much of the violent conflict has quelled, travelers should be wary of heading off the beaten track in La Guajira. Adventure travelers — no matter how confident they are — should err on the side of hiring a tour guide to get to the more remote areas.
Driving and Travel
Perhaps the gravest danger involved in exploring La Guajira is getting yourself into trouble. The region is an expansive desert with resources and stopping points few and far between. If you plan on driving in the region, be sure to do so with an extra gallon of gas, and be extra aware of speed bumps (which are criminally high), and pack snacks and water. Be careful driving after sunset, and keep your eyes peeled for the kilometer signs that are sometimes hard to read.
A factor that can correlate with poverty is pollution, and such is the case in La Guajira. While it doesn’t have the crippling permanent pollution of the world’s large metropolises like Beijing or Dehli, much of the region is littered with garbage. Riohacha is firmly on the tourist trail, but it lacks much of the public resources that benefit the rest of Colombia. Because of this, be sure to be extra diligent about sanitizing and extra aware of your surroundings.
As in other parts of Colombia, cocaine and marijuana are cheap and widely available in La Guajira. However, if you’re visiting Colombia for these reasons, it’s best to get up to speed on the current situation. Most Colombians find drug tourism extremely offensive, and the vast majority of them don’t use drugs, as they associate it with decades of violent internal conflict. If you’re offered drugs at a club or on the street (which will happen, as vendors perceive foreigners as wealthy people looking for a good time), politely turn them down.