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Colombia's Tatacoa Desert

A weekend trekking, cycling and sleeping under the stars. (Or: get ready for a looong post)


I have to admit I'm a (very) heavy sleeper, so honestly I didn't feel the "bumpiness" of the overnight bus ride from Bogota to Neiva, a small city (pop. 350, 000) well known here in Colombia for its yearly San Pedro festival and even more popular due to its closeness to a certain Colombia destination I was dying to travel to for a long time: el Desierto de la Tatacoa (The Tatacoa Desert). There I was at Neiva's main square at 7 AM breathing pure unpolluted morning air, enjoying the morning silence while all local stores were closed on that sunny Saturday (its always sunny over there) and even at that early time, the temperature was quiet high.

After a nice local breakfast with scrumbled eggs, fresh bread and a hot chocolate at the same place were all truck drivers stop for an arepa and a hot cofee, we got on the bus and started a short drive towards Tello, the first stop on my journey to Tatacoa. Now, before I start with my story for real, you have to know Tatacoa isn't really a desert (althought it really feels like one if you ask me) because it does rain from time to time - so its considered a semi arid zone (and for more details, is also located in the municipality of Villavieja just north of Huila, about 38 km from Neiva and between the eastern andean mountain range and the Magdalena river).

At Tello, which is basically a crossroad, we got off the bus , got our bikes ready and started a 35k bike ride through a beautifully wavy road towards Villavieja .... 4 hours later we were there, ad portas of starting the "immersion" to the legendary Tatacoa Desert.....

OK...time to stop ... yes, I know, I'm getting ahead again ... I missed to tell you how exactly did I ended up on the verge of entering this paleontologist's dream land in Colombia. Its all my friend Claudia's fault, Claudia is one of those people that like me got bitten by the travelling bug a few years ago and has never stoped travelling. She sent an email inviting me and some other friends to join her on a trip to Tatacoa, I dont have to tell you that I clicked on the "reply" button as fast as I could after typing "Count me in!".

We booked the trip with a small company called Travesias Tierra Luna , which is almost single handed by a Colombian guy that decided to leave everything behind and dedicate his life to show his fellow country-people - and some foreigners that slowly start to pop in - the beauty of the Colombian sceneries in an extreme sports kind of way. A couple of days later after I replied that email, we met with the whole group in place a called Cafe y Crepes in Bogota (Highly recommended eatery by the way!), where our guide Carlos briefed us on what to expect, what to take, payments and all relevant details. Three days later my friend Claudia and I where loading our bikes on a huge bus and leaving Bogota towards Neiva.... and that's how I ended up sleeping in that bus, having breakfast in Neiva, riding another bus to Tello, and riding my bike through Villavieja towards el Desierto de la Tatacoa.

Phew! enough catching up with my story, so lets continue: Villavieja is a tiny town in the middle of no where with colonial houses and a beautiful scuare with a church and police station and the alcaldia (the mayors office). We stoped there for about 40 min to catch our breath and to visit the arqueological museum, buy some local wine and sweets. It was a great feeling to know that the town is so safe and tranquilo that you can just leave your bikes outside the front door.

After the break, we decided it was time to start heading towards the desert so we took the only road that leaves Villavieja and croses the desert. With 330 square km, the Tatacoa desert has two very special types of scenery, the first is a dry and very red soil with cool erosion formations full of cactus that has been named El Cuzco. The second, is known as Los Hoyos, consisting on dry greyish soil canions that have been tilth by strong currents formed during the rainy season.

After about an hour we entered the Cuzco area and headed to the observatory. From there and after a light lunch and loads of water we did a small walk through the arid red soil formations. I have no words to describe the scenery, you can get the most amazing contrast between the blue sky and the redish rock formations. There are enourmous arches and small paths is something like being a bug..... ah! is exactly like being a character of Disney's movie Bug's Life. Anyhow, after taking the most Amazing photos it was time to head to our next destination and campsite, Los Hoyos. We had two options, we could get on our bikes and ride an extra 6k or we could get on our aircon confortable bus and take photos of our hardcore fellow travellers... guess which one I took.... yeap, after all the effort a bus ride was just what we needed.

So we got to Los Hoyos set camp had a shower and eat the most wonderfull sancocho (local chiken soup) with rice and a cold beer. After a nice chat with everybody and a brief about next day's activities we retired to our tents and turn our lanterns off. I have never seen so many stars in my life, since there is no electricity in 300 kms around us you can really see the stars. Its just a beautiful feeling being able to see the inmensity of the world and to listen to the night and fall asleep in such a magic an unpoluted place.

Next day, our second day of the trip, we got up at 7 am had breakfast and got together with the group. Our guide diveded the group in two, those that wanted to ride 17k to the river Cabrera or those who wanted a nice 9k trek to the same river and back. My friend and I decided we wanted to walk. So after filling our bottles with as much water as we can carry we started to walk. We crossed the desert throug an area called los Hoyos. It has such a diferent atmosphere, as opossed to Cuzco where the soil is red, this area is made of greyish and black stones. It was just like walking on the moon and then, after a 6 hour walk we kind of bumped into paradise, the whole scenery changed dramatically into a beautiful green garden. That can only mean that there was water around and that meant that we were close to the river... yeeeeepeeee. We walked a further half an hour and finally reached our destination, the River Cabrera. We sat by the river bank had a couple of sandwiches and then jumped into the water where we cool down and we even had a spa mud treatment for free!

When we got back to camp our guide had a well deserved treat for us. He invited us to see the sunset in the pool - we thought... "a pool?? in the middle of the desert?" Well, the answer is yes. We couldn't belive that there actually was a pool in the middle of no where and the best part is that it was complitely natural, fresh water with no chemicals. So, we watched the sunset, had a beer and relaxed in the pool for a couple of hours.

Next and final day of our travel in the Tatacoa desert, we packed and load everything onto the bus and headed to Pacande on our way back to Bogota. Pacande is a 3450 masl mountain which became very famous after Jorge Villamil - a local singer - wrote a song about it. We did a 5 hour walk to the top of the mountain and back. An optical ilusion made us think that we weren't far from the top but with every step the top seamed to move with us. We stoped to cath our breath and to enjoy the beautiful scenery, to the left we could see the magnificent and shiny Magdalena river and the always green rice plantations at the foot of two small mountain ranges. To the south we could see the Huila department, and further away we just managed to see Neiva where a couple of days ago and God nows how many KMs away we started this extreme, beautiful and enriching weekend.

So that's how I left Tatacoa ...for the first time , as I'm planning to go back soon, as the experience is truly amazing and at this point of my life I want experience it again with my special one... Tatacoa is an amazing place full of 12 million year old bird, fish and reptile fossils, some are as big as elephants. The experts say that originally Tatacoa must have been a very green area with lush vegetation and a huge diversity of species, today is refuge of owls, bats, foxes, snails and spiders. It gets its name from the Tatacoa, a local snake. During the day it gets so hot and dry that you can almost fry and egg on a rock but when the night falls you can feel the cool breeze that comes down from the mountains whilst looking at the infinty of the milky way, drinking a local beer and counting shooting stars.

The Tatacoa desert is a magic place, you could probably just stay in a hotel en Neiva and visit the desert during the day or - my favorite as you can imagine after this entry - camp under millions of stars and enjoy a cold natural pool after having trekked or cicled all day. You can only camp in Tatacoa,there are no hotels or hostels anywhere. What most people do is to camp near some of the little local houses. If you don't have any food to cook or just get bored of soggy sandwiches, most locals would be very happy to prepare some traditional food for you at a very reasonable price.

And that's it! I hope you enjoyed seeing Tatacoa through my eyes, and as always, if you have any question on how to get there, etc...just e-mail me!


Marcela - Travel Blog

Posted by MarColombi 17:59 Archived in Colombia Tagged ecotourism

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