New Year’s Eve in Riohacha

After a very productive month in Santa Marta I figured it was time to take a little break. Well, not quite a “break” but a temporary change of scenery. See, I’m not the biggest fan of NYE celebrations and whenever I get the chance to escape to some remote place, I do it. Pyongyang? Check. Somewhere in Cabo Verde? Check. Timisoara? Check. Vietnamese jungle? Yeah, check. The list goes on! 

This time around I picked a small coastal town called Riohacha on the assumption it would be a lot quieter than Santa Marta, a popular party place. Riohacha is the capital of La Guajira district and mostly known for being the gateway to Alta Guajira, the northern part of the region, where you can step foot on the northernmost point in both Colombia and South America – the main reason for my visit.

Welcome to Riohacha!

To get there I took one of the many buses that depart regularly from the bus terminal in Santa Marta. It wasn’t the most pleasant 3-hour ride of my life but the bus did have an entertainment system similar to those you find in airplanes, which meant I was able to watch the very average The Emoji Movie. Dubbed in Spanish! I know, don’t ask. The views out the window were occasionally quite nice though, we saw plenty of jungle and even got the odd glimpse of the Caribbean Sea. 

When I arrived in Riohacha I was a little disappointed with the hostel I’d booked, a place called Bona Vida Hostel. It wasn’t terrible but it certainly didn’t get close to what I now considered my “home away from home” in Santa Marta. Still, since I was only staying for a week it would have to do. Would it hamper my productivity? Well, I’d soon find out. The first impression of the city wasn’t great either – it was small and there wasn’t much going on, but that much I’d at least expected.

The centre of Riohacha, as busy as it gets.

Truth is the town sort of grew on me. While I spent most of the time working in the hostel, every once in a while I’d sneak out and do a bit of exploring. The city’s life revolves around a main square (that obviously had a huge artificial Christmas tree planted right in the middle) usually occupied by fruit sellers, kids playing football and older folks sitting around having a chat while watching life go by. The square also features a large, colonial church with very loud bells that can often be heard echoing throughout the city.

Main square, the heart of the town.

From the square you can easily reach the malecón and the beach – by far the biggest highlights in the city. One thing I found odd about Riohacha was that despite clearly being a beach town it lacked the sort of vibes I’ve grown used to expect from beach towns. For example, you won’t find a single shop selling chairs, towels, plastic buckets and all that sort of beach stuff. There were some restaurants and A LOT of Wayuu (the native people of La Guajira) selling handicrafts but not much else. 

The malecón and the sellers of Wayuu handicrafts.

The beach itself was wide and had plenty of palm trees but was far from the Caribbean dream of crystal clear water and white sand I had imagined. Could have a been a seasonal thing, but the water was murky and the sea a bit wild. Not to mention the relentless wind that is so characteristic of this part of the country! That obviously didn’t stop a small number of locals from enjoying themselves but… it certainly wasn’t for me. I’m not much of a beach person unless I’m somewhere that looks taken out of a postcard. Go on, judge me. 😁

Locals having a jolly good time.

What really surprised me was walking to the end of the muelle (or pier) – which was not a lot of fun owing to the high winds, holy guacamole! – only to find a sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of Fátima, a very Portuguese saint. My brain froze for a second as I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. It was very unexpected. How did this even happen? I asked around afterwards but no one seemed to know the actual story, only a legend that didn’t honestly make much sense. 

A walk down the very windy muelle…
…and an unexpected familiar encounter!

All in all, Riohacha turned out to be much more interesting than I had expected. Towards the end of my stay I was taking daily walks around the malecón (where someone would invariably call me Resu, or Jesus!) just soaking up the vibes. Even at night that part of town seemed to be booming with good energy, there were a few nicer restaurants and good movement of people – something that doesn’t happen very often in Colombia (and most of Latin America) after dark. It was nice to see.

As for New Year’s celebrations, I didn’t even bother going out. Jan, the friendly receptionist, had told me there wouldn’t be anything going on as most people just celebrated at home with friends so I spent it in bed watching The Dark Knight – one of my favourite action movies – in the company of some half-decent popcorn I’d bought in the supermarket earlier that day. It was great, and exactly what I’d been looking for!

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