La Guajira: Colombia's great unknown Caribbean desert

Nicol Nicolson, CNNPublished 8th December 2015
(CNN) — The notion of a bona fide desert lapped by the waves of the Caribbean Sea seems so far-fetched that Google automatically changes most searches for "Caribbean desert" to "Caribbean dessert."
Delightful as the ensuing search results might be, they deny netizens the glory of the La Guajira Desert.
Here, at the northernmost tip of South America, sand extends far beyond the spotless beaches, and cacti dominate a parched landscape.
Colombia's wild northeast is slowly making its way onto the tourist map. But patience and a fair dose of discomfort are required to enjoy this barren outpost. Accommodation is basic and extremely limited.
Transportation is by boat or four-wheel-drive only, and even the sturdiest vehicles can run into trouble. (Click through the gallery above for an example.)

Locals and newbies

In La Guajira, desert dunes tumble straight down into the Caribbean.
In La Guajira, desert dunes tumble straight down into the Caribbean.
Nicol Nicolson/CNN
This is the land of the Wayuu people, indigenous South Americans who eke out an existence in this harsh environment by herding, weaving and generally hanging on by any means they can.
The arrival of international visitors has prompted a cottage industry in makeshift road tolls.
Adults let down their ropes that block passage on roads for a couple of thousand pesos (about 60 cents). Children let them down for candy -- their teeth betray their diet.
Barely more than a hundred miles from the world's highest coastal mountain range, where glaciers cap 18,000-foot peaks just 25 miles from the sea, the La Guajira Desert receives just a handful of days of rain each year.
But the blazing sun accentuates stark contrasts of orange sand against turquoise sea. And clear night skies offer stargazers glorious cosmic shows from their beach-side hammocks.
La Guajira's only vacation spot per se is the kitesurfing mecca of Cabo de la Vela.
Just a couple of tour companies with strong ties to the Wayuu currently make the long journey to bleak Punta Gallinas and the neighboring Taroa Dunes, more than half a day's drive to the north.
Smart travelers bring a sense of adventure, a bagful of gummy bears and a cushion for the car.
For those who have done it, the trip to a geographical extremity most people have probably never heard of is well worth the rough ride.