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Colombia's Wild East, The Guajira Desert (PHOTOS)

The desert is caked on our windscreen and I can make out the obstacle in front. It looks like a bike security chain, fastened in the middle with a padlock and strung between two cacti.
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The sudden thud and heave of the 4x4 sounds like the end. Our mechanical beast has lurched forward and out of a dry river bed, kicking up plentiful clouds of sand, only to shudder to an sudden stop. Emilio is leaning heavily on the brakes. The desert is caked on our windscreen and I can make out the obstacle in front. It looks like a bike security chain, fastened in the middle with a padlock and strung between two cacti.

There is no one to be seen.

A young Wayuu boy appears from behind the scrub. He is no more than 10 years old and he approaches the passenger side window. Emilio reaches into the black plastic bag by my side, grabs two rolls in plastic and hands them past me over to the keeper of the key. The boy smiles, hands one roll to his recently materialized sister and opens the padlock. We pass.

"The cheapest toll booth in all of the Colombia," says Emilio with a big grin. He takes his foot off the brake.

We are in the Guajira region of Colombia, located up in the north-eastern corner bordering Venezuela and the Caribbean, an unforgiving and parched area of thorn-trees, cacti, snakes, iguanas and goats.

The Guajira may seem resolutely monochrome at first with everything in shades of desert beige and thorn-tree grey but the sunsets paint the sea a remarkable blood red in the Wayuu rancheria or settlement of Cabo de la Vela and during our expedition the flashes of the repeatedly seen vermilion cardinal put paid to the drab desert monotony.

The ill-informed in Bogota will paint this as a burning sandy vastness bereft of law and order thick with contrabandists bootlegging anything from counterfeit whisky, cheap gasoline or televisions over the border from Venezuela representing a sort of Colombian wild east.

And while there are the ubiquitous illicit industries in the Guajira, this tip of Colombia has its own laws, the Wayuu - the most numerous ethnic group in both Colombia and Venezuela - are self-governing and have been carefully grooming tourism in their ancestral homeland to ensure that all tourism is low impact and under their control.

For these reasons the Guajira is gradually becoming famous for the right reasons amongst the brave new travellers making the effort to include the area to enjoy its sunsets, long stretches of deserted beaches, desert scenery and as a new route for ethno-tourism in Colombia. It is the Wayuu themselves and their rich culture that add the color to the Guajira. A Wayuu girl seated nearby, her face blacked out with a blended mix of goat fat used as a natural sunblock, eyes us wearily and no one dares point a camera.

As our bones and bodies grew accustomed to jarring turns and clatters along the rocky surfaces I could gaze more frequently out at the mean flora that stretched out as far as the eye could see. From a distance the land seemed opulent in verdant expression but upon closer inspection you could see the avarice of nature as the green offered no shade and only cruel and snarled thorns. This is a merciless land and on more than one occasion Emilio would inform us of a forced detour to come to the aid of someone stranded in the wasteland.

Emilio's phone rang at every opportunity when cell-phone access was possible and on one occasion leaving the indigenous capital of Uribia, with its array of knitted Wayuu bags called mochilas and bootlegged Venezuelan goods, we found time to pick up seven lunches to drive out to a party of French tourists whose 4x4 had become bogged down in what was thought to be a dry river bed.

By the time we arrived the sun was just about directly overhead and the temperature could easily have been tipping 38 degrees. Emilio sped through the unstable ground, only just making it out the other side, and set up the Toyota to try and pull the stranded vehicle free.

His plans did not work and the chord broke under strain on two occasions and we were obliged to move on, but only after we had received assurances that further cars were coming with poles. We later found out that the French voyageurs had their car extracted at around midnight. But as Emilio added:
"They were drunk by then, and so they were happy!"

Emilio too was happy. He was to take us to Punta Gallinas, the northern most point of all of South America, his home and where he would be spending his birthday the following day. It was during this next portion of the journey that he began to recount some of his traditions as a Wayuu.

Emilio spoke with pride of his people and of how the Wayuu had never been dominated by any invading force and for this reason of having beaten back the Spanish and reclaimed their ancestral lands they were recognized by the creoles as uncivilized and warlike. But this is misleading since the Wayuu has a strong tradition of resolving disputes internally and only go to the "formal" Colombian authorities as a last resort. The Wayuus have their palabreros.

Literally a palabrero is "he who carries the word" and it is this individual who resolves disputes of any kind. For example a bar fight between two Wayuu can be settled by the offending faction paying a sum of goats to the injured party and that this payment can be made in installments. Emilio has unwittingly answered our question as to why the extreme prevalence of goats in the Guajira. We also learn that goats are also offered as dowry payment for marriage in addition to jewellery. This tradition and system of the palabrero is so strong that in 2010 it was declared as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.

As we roll into Punta Gallinas with its scattered population of under a hundred spread between rancherias all constructed from the yotojoro wood from the cactus plant, we are privy to the reality that the Wayuu culture is incredibly matriarchal. Emilio is cowed as his mother berates him for not having warned her that the number of tourists was going to increase substantially and this in turn would require more food. We are not worried as a huge red snapper is placed before each of us for lunch.

Neither do we quibble when we each get an enormous whole lobster for dinner that evening.
Perhaps relishing the prospect of being out of his mother's sight, Emilio drives us to the furthest point of Punta Gallinas to witness the sunset there and toast his birthday with some traditional chirrinchi liquor.

"Today I am 37 years old, 30 years in the Guajira and 7 years drunk!" declares Emilio in a state that makes us worry about our planned early departure tomorrow. We shouldn't have been worried: People from the Guajira are known for keeping their word. Early the next morning, Emilio claimed he wasn't even hungover.

We swing past Puerto Bolivar on our return south from the Alta Guajira and a security guard waves away my camera. It is an open secret that an overwhelming percentage of all contraband entering and leaving through this region passes through here and it is also the exit port for the coal from El Cerrejon, the world's largest open pit coal mine.

It is this coal mine and its massive production that has the Wayuu residents of the Guajira worried. They fear that progress may come faster than can be managed. How can these people who have their backgrounds in small scale farming, pearl fishing and hunting prevail in the face of the El Cerrejon business model and its annual haul of 32 million tons of coal?

Sitting on the broken shells and sand of the Playa Honda seemingly alone in this extraordinary wilderness a small shrimp fishing boat passes close by manned by two Wayuu evoking an image of a sturdy culture confident in its place. In this inhospitable land the Wayuu have flourished, they come and go as they please through the porous border with Venezuela and go about life as they know it.

Theirs is a land out of the reach of Bogota and Medellin.

Emilio laughs thinking of a group from the interior who wished to drive their own 4x4 through the Guajira desert. "I can do it, I've done a course," said Emilio mimicking the culprit from Medellin's accent and grinning. "Then, like always, we get a phone call and I have to come and rescue them."

On the map the Guajira belongs to Colombia but clearly the people here are Wayuu first and their resilience in the face of marauding outsiders has been their greatest asset along with their respect for the ruthless terrain they inhabit. There is talk of roads being paved and schools being built to "civilize" the Wayuu but the likelihood of this is a long way off. For now the civilization remains in the traditions of the Wayuu rancherias, the gated communities 150km away of the El Cerrejon mine and in the departmental capital Riohacha. The Wayuu and their environment remain untouchable, for now.