Traveling along the Magdalena river, through the green coffee plantations and rice fields of Huila, it’s hard to imagine the Tatacoa desert just up ahead. The 150 square mile desert is wedged between two mountain ranges: the Central and Oriental Cordilleras. These mountain ranges absorb all the region’s rainfall, starving the valley of moisture.
Tatacoa is always hot, around 100 during the day, cooling down little at night. During their quest for El Dorado, the Spanish called it “the valley of sorrows”.
Later, Tatacoa, the name of a rattlesnake, now extinct, which was once very common in the desert. The snake’s demise is blamed on poachers who sold the snake’s hide and medicinally valuable poison.
Tatacoa is the second largest arid zone in Colombia. La Guijara*, located in the north of Colombia by the Venezuelan border, is the largest.
Tatacoa is an unusually beautiful and magical place known for its beautiful red desert and clear sky which explodes with stars and meteor showers at night. With no light or air pollution, this desert is one of the best places in the world to see the stars. And being near the equator allows simultaneous observation of both northern and southern skies.
There’s an observatory in desert called Observatorio Astronomico de la Tatacoa run by Fernando Rua Restrepo, a resident professor of astronomy. He gives a laid back star gazing show every night, letting attendees gaze through several telescopes aimed at the stars and moon. He points out constellations with a laser beam flashlight while everyone lays on their backs on a large green carpet rolled out over the desert floor taking in the night sky. (cost 10,000 COP per person)
The observatory is in the red desert, 5 miles outside of the village of Villavieja. Better lodging is available in the Villavieja. In the red desert there are a number of basic, make-shift, corrugated roof hotels with accommodations ranging from tents and hammocks to rooms with beds and fans. It’s cooler sleeping in the hammocks as the rooms stay stifling hot. But one night spent here, in the middle of the desert, is worth the small sacrifice.
Though the grey desert is the most sizeable and isolated, the red desert is the most beautiful. It’s a maze of red rock formations carved with dry canyons, tall, candelabra and prickly pear cacti.
The guides point out edible plants and prehistoric fossils imprints of turtles, armadillos and giant sloths. Early in the morning the desert is filled with the cacophony of birds: canaries, parrots, parakeets, falcons and buzzards who all disappear as the sun grows stronger in the sky.
Around 350 families live in the desert belonging to 3 different indigenous tribes. Local guides give half-day tours (40,000 COP per person). They pick you up at your hotel at the crack of dawn ending the tours before the sting of the mean, mid-day heat.
Hundreds of goats roam the countryside eating cactus shoots and whatever plants they can find. Most of the families live off their goat herds making cheese, sweets and of course the main dish – goat meat. Most hotels offer home cooked meals upon request. And goat, roasted in a wood burning oven, is as good as it gets.
They say the dessert is expanding several yards every year due to climate change. This desert sports green trees and plants because while there is water below the ground, residents can only sparingly extract it using hand pumps on wells 40 feet deep thereby insuring there is enough water for everyone.
Three miles up the road is an area called ‘Los Hoyos’ or the grey desert with a similar topography to the red desert but the sedimentary soil is grey. Here enterprising locals have built a swimming pool and filled it with water from an artesian desert spring. The tour ends at the swimming pool which also serves up cold beer and drinks (entrance to the pool 8,000 COP).
Peeling off your sweaty clothes, anticipating a dip, you’ve found what you hope isn’t just another desert oasis.
To get there – take a bus to Nieva which is a couple hours North from La Plata (18,000 COP) or a couple hours by bus south from El Espinal. At the bus terminal in La Nieva you get a jeep to the main square, Parque Principal, of Villavieja (7,000 COP). From there get a tuk tuk to take you into the desert. It’s a slow bumpy ride which takes less than an hour (7,000 COP). Tuk tuks are a custom made motorcycles with passenger seats which are owned and operated by the local guides. The guides have recommendations on inns to stay at in the desert. Usually it’s the hotel of a cousin. And you can book a morning desert tour with the same driver. Guides are also found in the Parque Principal of Villavieja.
*See travel destination post: La Guaijara desert
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