Before the arrival of the white man, the territory now occupied by the Guajira peninsula was populated by various aboriginal cultures, including the Macuiras, Cocinas, Onotos, Eneales, Anates, Coanaos and Guanebucanes, whose means of subsistence was the collection of fruits, hunting, fishing, agriculture and trade.

The geographic isolation, the climatic conditions of the place and the bravery of the aborigines were factors that determined the disinterest of the Spanish conquest for those prodigious lands. The natives, with a certain degree of astuteness, managed to maintain their independence within their territory, adapting cultural elements and economic patterns of the newcomers to their idiosyncrasy in order to form a new society. The first Spanish navigator who had the privilege of admiring the Guajira coasts was Alonso de Ojeda; in 1499 in his company was the geographer Juan De La Cosa, who did not avoid the temptation of returning to this mysterious land to found the first hamlet, called Santa Cruz on May 3, 1502.

The main interest of the Spanish conquerors for this region were the pearl banks along the coast, especially between Cabo de la Vela and Riohacha. The exploitation of pearls was initiated by the commercial houses that were settled in Nueva Cadiz de Cubagua (Venezuela) whose owners were Spanish Jewish-converts coming from Lower Andalusia, the commercial elite of Spain.

Later, these lands full of mirages and hot summers became the preferred scenario for filibusters such as the English Sir Francis Drake and the Frenchmen Nau and La Fitte. Guajira princesses and hardened chiefs fought valiantly to defend their riches.

Unlike the conquistadors, men of sword and arquebus, fortune hunters and gold diggers; the pearl merchants were also bankers, ship owners and large suppliers of inputs and goods for the Americas, and organized enterprises that included the entire labor and commercial chain, from the European business to the supply of diving slaves for the extraction of pearls.

Pearls were the basis of the economy of the Hispanic colonists in the peninsula until the 17th century, when the cattle trade, of a good part of the indigenous herds, gained momentum, as did the trade in wood such as Brazilwood. At the same time, the Indians created their own commercial networks with the Dutch, English and French, but the colonial government declared them illegal. They traded pearls, salt and cattle for weapons and gunpowder, which they used for resistance against the invaders.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, several towns founded by the Spaniards were burned down by the indigenous people. The Spanish, in their attempt to colonize and subdue this region, formed dozens of military expeditions to conquer La Guajira, but they always failed. The human and economic losses were very high. The Republic allowed a great development for the region. For this, immigrants from England, France, Holland and especially from Curaçao arrived to create commercial houses and boost business. They expanded the exploitation of the land.

In the mid-19th century, the economic trends of the subregions or commercial strongholds began to become evident. In the south, towns such as Barrancas, Fonseca, San Juan and Villanueva had a clear agricultural and cattle-raising vocation. In the Media Guajira, rural area of Riohacha, settlements had been created for the exploitation of dividivi, palo de brasil and other woods, while Riohacha was consolidating as a port and commercial city. At the same time, the indigenous people maintained their economy based on herding cattle and goats, and the coastal towns continued to fish, collect pearls, harvest seafood and sell salt.

In the twentieth century, La Guajira continued to be commercial in the north and agricultural and livestock in the south. The corregimiento of Puerto López, in Alta Guajira, was declared a free port, doing justice to the long commercial tradition of both the indigenous people and the Creoles. Merchandise from Aruba, Curacao and Panama was taken to Riohacha and Maicao, a town that began to develop on the border with Venezuela. But the next government abolished the free port status and a Navy ship took Puerto López, thus ruining dozens of merchants.

On July 1, 1965, the Department of La Guajira was created, separating it from Magdalena, the department to which it had been linked for nearly 80 years.

Related Articles


  • 1499. The conquistador Alonso de Ojeda traveled along the coast of La Guajira and arrived at Cabo de la Vela with the geographer and cosmographer Juan De la Cosa.
  • 1769. Indigenous uprising to protect their territory and trade.
  • 1820. The Guajira territory gained independence from Spanish rule.
  • 1846-1870. Great boom in the exploitation of brazilwood and dividivi wood to North America and Europe.
  • 1871. Until that year, the Guajira territory belonged to the department of Magdalena, year in which it passed to the Nation to be administered directly.
  • 1911. The Special Commissioner of La Guajira was created.
  • 1954. The National Intendancy of La Guajira was installed, with its capital in Riohacha, and the town of Uribia became the center of indigenous affairs.
  • 1960-1970
  • Massive arrival of immigrants from the Middle East to settle in Maicao.
  • 1964. The department of La Guajira was created, segregating from the department of Magdalena
  • 1976. Natural gas wells are discovered in El Pájaro, corregimiento of Manaure
  • 1980. The El Cerrejón coal project begins.
  • 2003. The Jepirachi wind farm project begins.

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