Travel Guide to Macuira: The Cloud Forest Oasis in La Guajira Desert


Macuira is a National Natural Park of Colombia considered an oasis in the desert of Alta Guajira, in the Caribbean region of Colombia. It is a very special place because it has the contrast between sea, desert and jungle.

The park, with 25,000 ha, was declared in 1977 to protect and conserve the Serrania de la Macuira, which reaches 864 meters above sea level. It is not as high as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, but it has a very special particularity which is the presence of cloud forest very close to the Colombian Caribbean coast and surrounded by a vast desert.

This is why being in the Macuira you can go from the blue of the ocean, through the yellow of the desert, to the green of the jungle. Among the most important characteristics of the Serranía de Macuira is the presence of forested mountains which are the only source of fresh water in the dessert.

Find here why you should visit this beautiful destination in Colombia, the Macuira National Natural Park in La Guajira.

Discovering Macuira National Natural Park

In 1977 and by means of Executive Resolution Nº 149, the National Government created the Macuira National Park, located northeast of the Guajira Peninsula, in the mountain range of the same name.

In practice, it covers an area of 24,103 hectares, corresponding to a mountainous massif that forms the northernmost mountain range in South America, with elevations ranging from 100 to 867 meters above sea level approximately, the Serranía de la Macuira.

This national park, located in Nazareth, in the municipality of Uribia, is ideal for birdwatching, as some 140 bird species have been recorded there, 17 of which are endemic. In addition, the reserve has several forest ecosystems.

The Serranía de Macuira

Serranía de Macuira is composed of three main mountains: Cerro Palúa (865 m), Cerro Huaresh (852 m) and Cerro Jihouone (753 m), which rise from the desert plain. Another isolated hill within the park is Cerro Oriore. There are several freshwater streams, which disappear when they reach the sand dunes at the eastern base of the Sierra.

Picture of Serrania de la Macuira by Luis Pérez, Flickr Creative commons Licence

The main characteristic of the Macuira, which makes it unique in the world, is that it has an evergreen dwarf cloud forest, an ecosystem very similar to the Andean forests located in the páramos. It is an area of great environmental importance because this unique cloud forest ecosystem functions as a water regulator for the region.

The cloud forests themselves are located at altitudes above 2,700 meters above sea level, but in Macuira National Natural Park they can be seen at only 550 meters above sea level and very close to the sea. Definitely, this is a must to see scenery in the world.  It is an oasis in the middle of aridity that supports a great diversity of fauna and flora, especially adapted to survive, grow and reproduce in this type of environment.

Why is there a cloud forest in the Macuira?

The Serrania de la Macuira forms a geological barrier where humidity from the Caribbean Sea condenses, causing the formation of fog that penetrates the forest and creates a humid enclave in the middle of the desert.

This is because the region has a low rainfall and high temperatures, which when combined with the trade winds from the sea and saturated with moisture, rise to meet the barrier of the Serrania, which is why it forms cumulus clouds in the day and nimbostratus in the afternoon.

Traveling to Macuira, Alta Guajira, Colombia

Characteristics of the Macuira Park

Macuira NNP has a territorial area of 250 km², and is located in the extreme north of the department of La Guajira, northwest of the municipality of Uribia, neighboring the small villages of Puerto Estrella, Nazareth, Waretpa, Punta Espada, Siapana and Tawaira.

The are four ecosystems in the park: Dwarf Cloud Forest, Dry Evergreen Forest, Dry Deciduous Forest and Tropical Dry Forest. As mentioned before, this is the most significant rarity of the park, because it has similar conditions to those present below the Andean paramo line around 2,700 meters above sea level. The presence of a cloud forest amidst the desert makes it a unique landscape, a real oasis in La Guajira dessert.

Regarding the dry evergreen forest, It is located at an altitude between 250 and 550 meters above sea level, this allows trees to keep their leaves (foliage) despite possible climate changes. At lower altitudes, there is the Dry Deciduous Forest, located at an altitude between 50 and 400 meters above sea level.

Finally, the Tropical Dry Forest, in the desert plains, is an ecosystem with unparalleled diversity of plants and animals that are adapted to extreme conditions. This ecosystem contains the largest number of endemic species of flora and fauna in the park.

Macuira as an Important Bird Area (IBA)

The entire IBA corresponds to Macuira National Natural Park, created in 1977. The park safeguards endemic and migratory bird species, with a record of 140 bird species, seven of which are endemic subspecies. This is why it was declared an Important Bird Area (IBA), or AICA in Spanish, in Colombia and the world in 2003.

The park is also an especially important scenario within the cosmogony, mythology, social and cultural order of the Wayuu ethnic group.

Presence of Indigenous Communities in Macuira

The indigenous communities present in the department of Guajira are the Wayuú, of the Arawak linguistic family, who have occupied this sector for centuries. They are distributed in communities throughout Guajira, but the most important settlement are in Nazareth or Akuwai, northeast of Guarece Hill.

@Colombiafrank Sharing time with the Wayuu people in Alta Guajira, Colombia

The economy of these communities is based on grazing activities, artisanal fishing, handicrafts and seasonal agriculture. In addition, the organization of National Natural Parks offers work on an annual basis to a representative of each clan.

Valle del Cocora
Valle del Cocora
Wayuu Handicrafts, La Guajira, Colombia

Two clans out of 7 are selected annually to provide information and orientation to the sanctuary’s visitors with the support of a representative from the national natural parks in the city of Bogota.

Uribía, one of the nearest towns from Macuira, is the most important Wayuu town in La Guajira and is considered the indigenous capital of Colombia.

How to Get to Macuira National Natural Park

Macuira National Natural Park is located in the extreme north of the department of La Guajira, northwest of the municipality of Uribia, is adjacent to the villages of: Puerto Estrella, Nazareth, Waretpa, Punta Espada, Siapana and Tawaira. In addition, it is totally overlapped with the reservation of Alta and Media Guajira.

Traveling in La Guajira

To get to the park from Riohacha, you must go by land to the city of Maicao, then continue to the town of Uribia, and from there to Puerto Portete, a town located on the bay of the same name. From there, a dirt road leads to the town of Nazareth. This trip takes between 6 and 8 hours in a four-wheel drive vehicle, as long as the weather conditions are favorable.

From Bogotá

Take a 1-hour flight from El Dorado International Airport (BOG) Bogotá to Almirante Padilla International Airport (RCH) at Riohacha city. Once at the airport, take an approximately 1,5- hours ride to Uribia. Then, in Uribia you should take a 2-hours ride to Bahía Portete. Finally, once in Bahía Portete you should take an extra 6-hours ride to Nazareth.

What to do in Macuira National Natural Park

As a visitor to the park you can hike through the Serranía de Macuira, you can visit the indigenous Wayú cemeteries, or you can also find handicrafts made by the inhabitants of the region in the surrounding municipalities.

Hiking and Trekking

Hiking is the most exciting activity in Macuira National Natural Park. The park has hikes of different degrees of difficulty (low and medium), where you can appreciate dunes, natural pools and temporary streams.

If you want to make the ascent to the Macuira mountain range you must be clear that the degree of difficulty is high, so you must have good physical condition and endurance for long walks of 5 to 7 hours.

Birdwatching and Wildlife Observation

Within the 5 ecosystems of the park, there are 140 bird species recorded and that can be appreciated, 7 of which are endemic subspecies:

  • Scrub Greenlet (Hylophilus flavipes)
  • Pectoral sparrow (Arremon taciturnus fratruekis)
  • Blue-crowned Motmot (Momotus momota)
  • Pale-breasted Thrush (Turdus leucomelas)
  • Red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus)
  • Buff-breasted Wren (Cantorchilus leucotis)
  • Rufous-vented chachalaca (Ortalis ruficauda)

Additionally, 10 of the species are reported to be migratory.

Besides birds, there are a significant number of insects at the Park, as well as a notable presence of amphibians (toads and frogs), iguanas, snakes and mammals, such as the White-fronted capuchin (Cebus albifrons), ocelot (Felis pardalis) and Jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi).

Where to stay in Macuira National Natural Park

Macuira National Natural Park does not currently offer lodging for travelers. It is possible to stay in the nearby “rancheria” of Nazaret. In the rancheria of Nazaret there are 2 camping areas called Villa Inmaculada and Emerrare.

Rancherias in La Guajira

Moreover, if you wish to spend a night in a traditional Wayú ranchería, the village also offers a night full of tradition with the locals of the sector.

If you want to rest in a hotel we recommend: Hotel Mulamana

Best time to visit Macuira National Natural Park

Dry season starts at the beginning of December until late of March with weather around 30º C (86 ºF). In the higher parts of the Macuira mountain range there are persistent winds and in the lower parts the temperatures are higher and the humidity increases.

Macuira National Natural Park Entrance fees

The park does not currently charge admission fees, but visitors must register at the park’s facilities and stay for a defined period of time.

What to consider before visiting Macuira National Natural Park

  • Currently access to the cloud forest is not allowed, as it is a very fragile ecosystem and highly valued by the Wayuu people.
  • The ranchería of Pusheo is the only restaurant in the sector, since the distances are very long and it is necessary to buy enough food for the trips.
  • You should always travel accompanied by a Wayuu driver and/or guide with a good command of Wayunaiki and Spanish, as well as knowledge of the communities of Alta Guajira.
  • For tours inside Macuira National Park, a local Wayuu guide authorized by the park must be hired.
  • The use of flash when taking photographs is prohibited.
  • Use of binoculars to watch animals’ behavior.
  • Bring along valid identification documents and health insurance.
  • Be vaccinated against yellow fever, tetanus and covid-19.
  • If you take specific medications, take them with you a personal first aid kit.

Some prohibitions

Feeding, bothering or hunting animals, alcoholic drinks and drugs, throwing cigarette butts, burning garbage, felling, and capturing wildlife.

References
  • Colparques
  • Parques nacionales
About the authors

Sara Colmenares

The current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism-environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services, and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.

Luisa Martin

Engineer, world traveler, amateur photographer, traveling blogger, and foody.