The sudden thud of the 4×4 sounds like the end for our mechanical beast as we lurch forward and up, out of the dry riverbed kicking up clouds of desert sand and dust before shuddering to an immediate stop. Emilio leans heavily on the brakes. The clouds settle, layering a thick cake of desert on our windscreen and I can make out the obstacle in front – what 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 Wayúu boy appears from behind the scrub. Emilio reaches into the black plastic bag by my side, grabs two bread rolls 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.

We are in the Guajira region, located in the northeastern corner of Colombia, bordering Venezuela and the Caribbean. It’s an unforgiving and parched area of thorn trees, cacti, iguanas and goats. The Guajira may seem resolutely monochrome with everything in shades of desert beige and grey, but the sunsets paint the sea a remarkable blood red in the Wayúu rancherias and settlements of Cabo de la Vela.

The ill-informed will describe La Guajira as a burning sandy vastness bereft of law and order, thick with contrabandists bootlegging counterfeit whisky, gasoline and televisions over the border from Venezuela – a sort of Colombian wild east.

While illicit industry is ubiquitous in La Guajira, this tip of Colombia has its own laws. The Wayúu, the largest indigenous ethnic group in Colombia and Venezuela, are self-governing and have been carefully grooming tourism in their ancestral lands to ensure that it remains under their control.

The region is gradually becoming famous for the right reasons amongst brave new travelers who make the effort to enjoy the sunsets, long stretches of deserted beaches and unique ethno-tourism, but it is the Wayúu and their rich culture that add the colour of the Guajira. An indigenous 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 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 the green offered only cruel and snarled thorns. This is a merciless land and on more than one occasion, Emilio informed us of a forced detour to come to the aid of someone stranded in the wasteland.

We head to Punta Gallinas on the northern most point of South America. The town was our guide’s 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 Wayúu.

Emilio spoke with pride of his people and of how they had never been dominated by any invading force. Having beaten back the Spanish to reclaim their ancestral lands, they were recognized by the creoles as uncivilized and warlike. But this is misleading since the Wayúu have a strong tradition of resolving disputes internally and only go to the official Colombian authorities as a last resort.

The palabrero is “he who carries the word” and this individual resolves all disputes. For example, a bar fight between two Wayúu can be settled by the offending faction paying a sum of goats, a typical bartering unit, to the injured party. This payment can be made in installments. The tradition and system of the palabrero is so strong that UNESCO declared it Intangible Cultural Heritage.

We roll into Punta Gallinas with its scattered population spread between rancherías constructed from yotojoro cactus wood. As the Wayúu culture is matriarchal, Emilio is cowed as his mother berates him for not having warned her that the number of guests was going to increase and this in turn, would require the family to fetch more food. We are not worried though, as a huge red snapper is placed before us for lunch. We do not quibble either, when we each get an enormous 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 and toast his birthday with the traditional chirrinchi liquor. “Today I am 37 years old. Thirty years in La Guajira and 7 years drunk!” declares Emilio, in a state that makes us worry for our planned early departure tomorrow. As it was, we shouldn’t have, as the Wayúu are known for living by their word.

We swing past Puerto Bolívar on our return south from the Alta Guajira and view Colombia’s main port for coal exported from the Cerrejón mine. Sitting on the broken shells and sand of the Playa Honda in this extraordinary wilderness, a small shrimp fishing boat passes by, evoking an image of a sturdy, confident culture. In this inhospitable land, the Wayúu have flourished. They come and go as they please, living life as they know it.

Although La Guajira belongs to Colombia on the map, the locals are Wayúu first, and their resilience to an encroaching “civilization” has been a historical asset. In this desert world, civilization exists in the traditions of the local rancherías, the gated communities of the Cerrejón mine and in the capital Riohacha. The Wayúu and their environment, for now, remain untouchable.