By Joanna MarracelliIf you’ve been keeping up with my Travel pieces in Colombia, you undoubtedly have realized by now just how richly diverse this country is. From the sipping coco locos at the beach in the Caribbean Sea to piranha fishing in the Amazon jungle to discovering how coffee is made in the Colombian mountains, this country has an infinite number of different landscapes. But even I was surprised to learn that Colombia also has its very own desert. We’re not talking Sahara here or even Sonoran desert. The Tatacoa Desert is relatively small, occupying a space of just 330 square kilometers. It’s a semi-arid desert and a tropical dry forest all in one, which means it isn’t as dry as what you picture when you think of a normal, arid desert. Rain falls here and diverse flora and fauna thrive here. They have adapted to the high temperature, low humid, dry environment and in addition to the large cacti and spectacular colors found here, it is what helps shape this place and make it so unique.
Located in the northern part of the Huila department on the Magdelena River’s Eastern banks, Desierto Tatacoa makes an ideal stopover for those traveling from Bogotá heading south towards popular destinations like San Agustin or Tierradentro. The steamy city of Neiva is the main entry point to get into the desert and a bus trip from Bogotá to here is just a mere five hours away (pretty tame for Colombia standards). From Neiva, you can take one of the many shared transports departing from the main bus terminal heading either into the nearby small village of Villavieja or to Tatacoa itself (see below for pricing information). There’s not much to see or do in this town, apart from the Archeological Museum which contains a small number of fossils found in the area.
Unless you are really into paleontology, I suggest telling your driver to drop you off directly at your accommodation in Tatacoa (see below for recommendations). The ride via pick-up truck should take about 45 minutes and will pass by some spectacular scenery which abruptly changes as you near the desert. I recommend you skip Neiva entirely in favor of spending more time in the desert. Neiva is a fine enough city but the heat can be overbearing and there is little to do for a tourist. Ideally you should plan on two or three days total to fully appreciate the desert but if you only have one day to spare, you can do and see a lot in just a day too.
Tatacoa is not an action packed destination and given the small size and scale of the place, your primary reason should be coming here to just rest, relax and enjoy the nature. This desert is a prime place for stargazing, due to the small amount of pollution it receives (both light and environmental). There is even an observatory open to the public built here. If you are a photographer, there are endless photo-making opportunities. It’s ideal for camping and if you have your own vehicle or can withstand long walks in the desert heat, you can find a secluded spot to pitch your tent easily. There are a handful of basic, rustic accommodations available, typically in local’s homes which have been renovated to receive guests. Facilities are primitive with cold showers (which you will be thankful for, given the heat) but you will likely be warmly greeted by your host family. They can cook simple, wood-fired meals for you and help organize your time in the desert. Sleeping in hammocks is also offered as is camping spots. Keep in mind it is a desert and therefore, hot. Try to do most of your activities in the early morning and at the sunset time (great for lighting at these times too). Stay hydrated and bring some bug repellent, there are quite a few biting insects, especially at sundown. You can request a mosquito net for you bed or hammock, quite a good idea.
There are four main places to visit in the desert. If you enjoy learning more about the stars, a visit to the observatory is obligatory. The observatory is located in an area known as ‘Cusco’ and this is where many accommodations are centered around (although it is possible to stay in other places). Every night around 7 pm til about 9, a narrative is given on the rooftop about the planets,stars and their position in the sky. The cost is 10,000 COP (US $4) per person and includes planetary viewings (such as the rings on Jupiter) and also the moon. The Southern Cross is visible and impressive on a clear night. You can arrive late to the observatory and just catch the last part of the narration. This is especially recommended if your Spanish is not up to snuff because the lecture is given in Spanish only. If you speak the language, the lecture is informative and interactive (he takes questions). Don’t miss stargazing on your own, even if you go to the observatory. Tatacoa is a great place to contemplate the universe at large within the confines of your own thoughts.
Typically you can get a tour to the other three main places to visit which include Cusco, where the rocks are red and orange in color (referred to as ochre), Los Hoyos, which is an area where the rocks are grey in color and boasts a natural swimming pool. You can use the small pool for a nominal fee and refreshments such as beer or sodas can also be purchased. The final place is known as Las Ventanas. Here you can see rocks in the shapes of different animals, including a tortoise and a crocodile. It’s the least spectacular part of the desert but it makes a good stopover on the way to Los Hoyos.
Your accommodation can organize this tour for you which usually starts very early in the morning at 7 am and costs anywhere from 30,000-50,000 (US $12-20) COP per person. Cusco contains a walk of about an hour plus some long that will take you on the edge and down inside the colored rocks. It is known as the Pasaje Rojo and it is easy enough to find the start to this trail and do it on your own but it is also usually included as part of the guided tour. Even if you do this at sunrise with your tour group, I recommend that you go again for the sunset time. The colors and lighting are very impressive during this time.
The tours will take you in vehicles (usually pick-up trucks) which are shared with other tourists but there are two more ways to explore the desert should you decide you want to explore in a more intimate fashion. The first way is to hire a horse. Horseback riding is a fine way to see the desert and although you still have to contend with the strong sun overhead, you won’t be working up a sweat walking along the dusty roads. Do bring a hat and sunscreen. Horses can be rented from your accommodation or just inquire around. Rates are usually around 40,000 COP (US $16) for 4 hours. I dare you not to start humming ‘Horse With No Name’ while roaming around Tatacoa while mounted on your horse! And indeed there are plants and birds and rocks and things.
Another option is to hire a guide who drives a motorcycle. Hopping on the back can give you great views and the guides usually stop anywhere you like for a photo opportunity. You basically get the same tour as the people in the pick-up truck plus more, only it’s more scenic and a tad adventurous on the back of a moto. These tours usually can longer and are catered to your preference of where you want to visit. It’s best to inquire at your accommodation but feel free to ask around. The going rate is around 80,000 COP (US $32) per day. On both of these tours, remember that the guides usually speak only Spanish and if you can at least understand a little, you will be rewarded. These locals know the area and the local plants (some of which are medicinal) like the back of their hand. They are also good at pointing out local fauna which includes goats, spiders, scorpions, turtles, alligators, eagles and various other birds. The cacti here can reach over 5 m tall and when they are flowering, it’s an unforgettable sight.
As far as food is concerned, there are no gourmet restaurants here in the desert. Goat and its milk are local food specialties and widely available. Goat stew is prepared by many families for a nominal fee and is prepared over an open fire. All accommodation will offer you food. Breakfast is often included in the price and consists of scrambled eggs with tomato and onion (very popular and known in Colombia as huevos perico). Lunch is on offer but is very similar to dinner. Goat, beef or chicken are typically served with the ubiquitous rice, potato and beans. It’s certainly not elegant dining but you won’t go hungry. Fresh pressed sugar cane which makes an extremely refreshing (albeit sweet) beverage in the desert sun. Normally lime is added in and you can find it by spotting the homes where ‘Guarapo’ is advertised.
One last word of caution (well, depending upon who you are and what you are seeking). Weekends and busy holiday weekends tend to be full of young Rolo/as (people from Bogotá) who prefer to unwind in the desert with loud music and partying all night. This is not especially conducive to those that are seeking solitude among the cacti or communing with nature. If you are of the latter type, try to plan your visit during the week when the desert returns to its quiet nature. Even though this area receives a fair amount of tourists, the infrastructure is not so vast and it remains off the more established ‘gringo trail’ (for now).
How to arrive: From Bogotá to Neiva take a bus from the main terminal (many companies make the trip-inquire around for best price and current time schedule). At the time of writing it cost between 20,000-30,000 COP (US $8-12). From the main terminal in Neiva to Tatacoa averages 15,000 COP per person (you can talk the driver down to 10,000 but not more than that). Just ask where the transport departs from when you arrive (it’s in the back of the terminal).
Where to stay: There isn’t really any luxury accommodation (yet!) in Tatacoa. We were pleased with Posada Noches de Saturno, a recommended, local family-run posada in Cusco (close to the observatory) offering decent cabanas or shared rooms (and even hammocks or large canvas tents) with an onsite swimming pool. Room for two including private bathroom cost us 60,000 COP (US $24) includes breakfast. Single and shared rooms are cheaper. Hammocks for 12,000 (US $5). Ask for mosquito net. No website but owner can be reached at: 313 30 558 98 or you can simply turn up (plenty of rooms). Other decent places are El Despertar del Cabrito and La Tranquilidad. It’s also possible to stay in Villavieja for those that don’t want to sleep in the desert.
Where to eat: Food is usually provided at your accommodation. Meals at Posada Noches de Saturno cost 9000 COP for lunch and 11,000 COP for dinner (around US $4). Typically the meals are chicken, beef or goat. Don’t miss the goat or the fresh goat’s milk. Campers planning to tent it should plan on bringing all the food they need in. Water and soft drinks are available but groceries are not. Nearby Villavieja has all the supplies you will need.