The Wayuu indigenous tribe, known as the people of the sun, sand and wind, arrived in La Guajira from the Amazon rainforest nearly 2000 years ago to escape hostile environments and find a new home. Since then the Wayuus have battled the Spanish Conquistadores, the Colombian Government and, currently, climate change to keep their traditions alive. Contraband, conflicts, scarcity, exploitation, and misgovernments: the daily life of the Wayuu tribes surviving their land.

Located on the northernmost tip of South America, the harsh and arid Guajira Peninsula straddles the border of Venezuela and Colombia. Until recently, it was rarely visited by outsiders, due in part to its Wild West reputation as a hub for trafficking in humans, drugs, and other items, and as the home of the strong-willed Wayuu.

For 500 years, the Wayuu people have resisted all who have come to take their land or resources, from Spanish settlers in search of pearls to English pirates looking for treasure. The discovery of coal, oil, salt and gas, however, has succeeded in altering the equation, and rapacious multinational energy companies now threaten not only La Guajira but also the culture and way of life of the Wayuu.

In addition to drug smuggling, the paramilitaries have sought to assume control over the lucrative trade in gasoline and products from Venezuela that has traditionally been managed by the Wayuu, who are able to travel freely between the two countries and to bring goods into Colombia almost duty-free.
— Ken Kelley

According to UNICEF, the Guajira ranks second among the poorest places in Latin America after Haiti. Big mining companies occupy the Wayuu-land, yet despite the wealth of natural resources, two-thirds of the province’s population still lives in poverty, taking into account the total transformation that La Guajira has undergone, wherein less than 30 years the main water sources have been contaminated, captured, stripped and controlled by the mining and agricultural industries.

The Colombian National Indigenous Organization has issued alerts about the famine affecting 130.000 Wayuu people in La Guajira. Over the last few years, the already precarious situation has been exacerbated by a severe drought that has hit the subsistence agriculture and livestock upon which many people depend, sharpening the dependence of food from Venezuela.

Global warming and climate change have affected the tribe’s ability to create sustainable farming, with droughts threatening crops and animals dying of dehydration as a result. Before families were relatively wealthy as their wealth is measured in goats and cows. The tribe heavily relied on the subsidized groceries by the Venezuelan government to survive and buy rice, sugar and coffee. But due to recent geopolitical events, the closing borders and the consequential migrant crisis, this has become impossible, causing malnutrition throughout communities who don’t have the means to buy products from Colombia.
The drought has had many other effects, from children dying of malnutrition to a depressed male population who generally barely received a first-grade education. Many men simply don’t know anything else rather than herding, farming and fishing, their original way of life, only speak Wayuunaiki, and are very limited in other skills.

This has caused a number of problems including their resorting to pretty crimes and men turning to alcohol, bringing some people to believe that the Wayuu tribe, also as many other tribes in the world, is due to these issues, a deadweight of modern society.

All these are devastating consequences of the misgovernment of both countries. If social, human rights and environmental activists do not work united, the Wayuu tribe will disappear as La Guajira is a forgotten land, completely out of the national and world media radar.


The Wayuu say that when mankind misbehaves, the God of Rain punishes La Guajira.

They were created by Juya (god of rain) they called themselves Wayuu (people). Speaking both Spanish and their ancestral language Wayuunaiki, the Wayuu are polytheistic and most of their gods or spirits come from nature. Their culture combines legends, myths, stories, traditions and customs. The Dream World, the most important part of their spiritual philosophy, teaches that there is a thin line between reality and dreams.

Wayuu society is based on matrilineal clans, whose semi-nomadic lifestyle has traditionally revolved around hunting, fishing, and animal herding.
— Ken Kelley

They live in communities called rancherias, made up of branches, corrals and mud houses were 20 to 60 families belonging to the same matrilineal clan live. The clans are identified with a kanash that symbolizes the last name and the animal that represents them. Each rancheria is named after a plant, animal or geographic place. The Wayuu never congregate to form larger settlements, instead of forming these small, isolated settlements to prevent mixing of their goat herds. Houses or huts are furnished with little more than rope hammocks called chinchorros, and a fire pit for cooking.

The identity of the wayuus is related to blood or territorial elements: they’re uterine kinship, their clan, their community and their cemetery.

The woman is the pillar of the Wayuu culture and the center of the family and the community. The obligation of a person with the mother and maternal relatives are abysmally superior than with the father and his relatives. Wayúu children bear their mother’s last name.

Men herd goats, which are not only a source of food, but also a source of power. They are the currency of exchange during wakes, they are used as a dowry for marriages, and to resolve questions of honor.

Women through their weavings are main supporters of their families. The knowledge passed from generation to generation take amazing shape in hands of Wayuu women. They weave numerous patterns in a variety of techniques, forms and colors. Weaving is the Wayuu way to tell their story and describe their dreams. It is also the hand-woven reflection of their daily lives. Knowing the art of weaving patterns is highly respected within the community. Owning many fine woven accessories symbols the authority and causes great respect within the community.


They have their own ancestral laws, which are based on the compensation system: the most serious problems are solved through the intervention of a Palabrero, a man of great wisdom whose job is to achieve a compensation agreement to prevent conflict between the parties. El Palabrero is a Cultural Heritage of the Colombian nation.

Wayuu, contraband, desert, gas, and sea salt blend to shape this peculiar environment. Among the locations of my photographs, the salinas of Manaure, Uribia the Wayuu capital, the sacred area of Cabo de la Vela, the Desert of the Alta Guajira, Riohacha and the infamous border town of Maicao, and Cuestecita that lives on gasoline contraband.

I was focusing on some themes to represent the Wayuu’s economic, cultural and social existence such as: salt workers, contraband (mostly gasoline), communities, family relationships, relationship with the territory, goats herding and commerce.


click to view the complete set of images in the archive