Desert Dwellers

A writer ponders the benefits of tourism to La Guajira, Colombia's northeastern desert.

by Rachel Sims

The dry wind sweeps desert dirt and endless trash across long and lonely miles, twisting around cacti and through yotojoro huts. Barefoot children sit alongside dusty roads waiting for the next tourist truck, hanging string across the path to impose a candy toll: intruders must either stop to pay the toll or drive through the barricade, ignoring the outstretched hands. Days are spent waiting in hammocks or squatting by the road, looking for the benevolent visitor in a big 4×4 coming from another world. Indigenous schools exist, but the region seems to be in endless summer.

This is La Guajira, a vast desert in northeast Colombia, and home to 20% of the country’s Amerindian population — the Wayuu. They have lived in arid northwest Venezuela and northern Colombia since 150 A.D., originally separated into remote clans to keep their goat herds from mixing. Their rancherias are made from yotojoro — mud, hay, and dried canes — and wood from the inside of the yosú, also known as the dagger cactus.

Numerous conflicts with the Spanish erupted in the 17th century, and the Wayuu defended their land and their people, as they had when faced with  previous intruders, aided by knowledge and resources from Dutch and British invaders. During Colombia and Venezuela’s struggle for independence from Spain, the Wayuu again fought for their right to the peninsula. Since then, they have struggled against discrimination and extraction of their land’s resources.

The Cerrejón train transports coal from Colombia’s largest coal mine to Puerto Bolívar, the largest coal-export port in Latin America (at the tip of the Guajira peninsula). Silhouettes of children waver by the tracks on the horizon — waver because it is getting hotter; waver because life can be as difficult to attain and equally unforgiving as a desert mirage. In 2013, guerrillas blew up one of Cerrejón’s railway lines. The neglected region has been an easy route for drug smuggling through the flat lands.

Historically the Wayuu communities farmed the arid land, raised goatherds, and wove artisan handicrafts. Recent droughts and higher temperatures have diminished crops and increased malnutrition throughout Wayuu communities, threatening their way of life and pushing them well below the poverty line. Goats seem to be the only livestock able to survive the climate, journeying miles to nibble thorny plants.

Several years ago there were no sand dunes by Pilon de Azúcar, the giant rock that rises out of the sea near Cabo de la Vela. Tourism has started shaping the culture like the incessant wind shapes and shifts the landscape. It has been a few years since the Wayuu opened their lands to “adventure tourism,” and life started changing for a desperate and malnourished people. Children have learned to leverage candy tolls in place of school attendance, and are visibly outraged if the tax is not paid. Bootlegged Venezuelan gas in reused soda bottles hang from roadside stands (impromptu petrol stations), strengthening the Wayuu’s ties to—and exploitation by—organized crime networks, and making it easier for the traveler to venture deeper into the Colombian outback. Traditions and cultural rituals morph into consumable, on-demand performances for curious visitors.

And yet, tourism has brought much-needed money to the region. The beautiful traditionally woven Wayuu mochila bag is generating income for Wayuu women, and becoming a hot new trend for spenders beyond the desert. Adventure tourism brings money to select Wayuu hotels, like Rancheria Utta, as well as to clans that open their homes to indigenous tourism, educating outsiders on traditional dress, dance, and culture. It is an almost invisible transformation, this slow morph into the demands of wealthy outsiders.

The adventure tourism advertisements beckon the curious traveler forward, promising a beautiful Caribbean coastal paradise in stark contrast to desert lands. Select entrepreneurs benefit from the income, but the largest benefits seem to evade the Wayuu people themselves.

How interesting to venture into a region new to tourism, still so largely untamed. How distressing to contribute to candy tolls and shifting cultural landscapes, not knowing if our tourism brings aid or further distress to the people that live there.

In some ways, we feel swindled by the tourism peddlers; we were originally there for research into the Venezuelan refugee crisis, but decided to extend our travels into the desert given all the recent hype about the peninsula. Spending hours bumping along in an SUV dizzied my gaze at the endless movie of cacti, dirt, desperation and trash.

So much trash. Conveniently obscured by marketing, but so potent a smear on the once pristine landscape. Plastic bags fly through the wind and stick like flags on cactus, waving banners of change in a forgotten region. Crumpled food wrappers congregate in windblown piles along miles and miles of dirt road; plastic bottles stick up through the dirt like modern cacti. Trash suffocates the region, chokes the people who live there. Who did this horrible thing, I wonder? The tour guide says it is Colombian tourists visiting the region. I’m sure tourism has contributed, but this must be years upon years of trash, and I wonder at her version of truth. Poverty is an innate sifter of need, and people who struggle to survive day-to-day due to lack of water and food have no capacity to travel miles to dispose of their trash in the ‘proper’ locations. A hundred years ago plastic bags and packaged goods did not exist; now they accumulate in the desert, a very visible representation of what happens when a consumerist world meets desperate need. The salt flats in Manaure are an example of the endless cycle of this influence, with mountains of your future table salt piled next to scattered refuse. I cannot help but think that this problem is also my problem, as part of a society that consumes and then disposes of the most trash in the world. The difference is only that in poverty — in Guajira — you can see it.

Truthfully, I am but a five-day traveler in the region, a tourist ferrying in and out like the Cerrejón train ferries coal to the coast. Am I here to extract an experience, a sense of adventure from the difficult lives of the Wayuu and the stark beauty of their waterless land?

I seek not to be a merchant selling you poverty porn, but to ask questions about the purpose and benefit of travel, and of travel into a very desperate region. I know the Wayuu people must be immensely strong to survive so many years in this land. Their beauty is expressed in woven chinchorros (hammocks) and mochilas (bags), in their traditions and dedication to their clans. But as a participating tourist, I wonder how much benefit our presence brings to the outstretched hands of Wayuu children; how much good our money contributes to the betterment of the people. Tourism’s myriad moral merits and drawbacks are too complex to fully decipher. However, one thing is certain: in a powerful way it shifts the landscape, like the dry wind shapes the land.


Rachel Sims

Rachel Duarte Sims is a writer, photographer and mental-health professional currently traveling through South America. She has produced creative work for The World Bank, International Justice Mission, William & Mary, and Compassion International. Rachel is interested in combining her background in the arts with her training as a family therapist to advocate for the world’s vulnerable.

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