Grassy hills of Tatacoa Desert

20 07 2011


Tatacoa Desert (El Desierto de la Tatacoa), southwest Colombia

Tucked away between verdant hills lies Colombia’s second largest desert. Tree-lined roads lead to the parched dust bowl of Tatacoa where rust and white sand dunes reach out across the bizarre landscape.

A cactus at twilight in Tatacoa Desert

My eyes drifted above the silhouetted rickshaw, past outlines of cacti to the studded sky. We were enveloped in darkness yet a million white lights kept us transfixed.

“That’s the Southern Cross,” Katie nodded as our gaze took in the twinkling canvas overhead. Although we were geographically in the northern hemisphere the sky still painted a southern picture.

Rust coloured ripples flow through the desert

It wasn’t long before we’d extinguished our astronomical knowledge. If things had gone to plan we would have been overwhelmed by star-gazing data at Tatacoa desert’s observatory (10,000 Colombian pesos – US$5 – phone: 310-465-6765). It was one of the highlights of a trip to Tatacoa desert. Unfortunately for us, it wasn’t going to happen.

“The professor’s tired, he’s cancelled tonight’s observation,” the handyman at the centre nonchalantly said, despite us enquiring about the observation three hours earlier. “He’s been up for four nights watching an unusual occurance in the sky.”

Coincidently, a four-day festival had just drawn to a beer-guzzling end in the nearby town of Villa Viaje.

Disappointed, we had asked our rickshaw driver to stop in the middle of the desert so we could lie down and take in the night sky. We were stretched out horizontally on a patch of scrub, our limbs reaching out to the sand beyond. The cool night air wrapped itself around us as we peered at the constellations above. After several midge bites we retreated to the rickshaw and wound back to the nearby town of Villa Viaje.

We’d spent four hours earlier in the day bumping through the aberrant landscape of this tawny-hued desert which is snuggled between flourishing hills. Scarlet and white sand waves washed over the desert floor depicting a scene from Mars. It was quite surreal to trundle through tree-lined avenues and grassy verges to reach the 330-square kilometre desert of Tatacoa.

During the tertiary period (65 to 2 million years ago) the arid area was a lush region with an abundance of brilliant flowers and trees. As the climate changed, these gradually dried up and the area now forms Colombia’s second-largest desert. Several families live in the desert and offer accommodation for 20,000 Colombian pesos (US$11). A few restaurants dot the scenery offering typical Colombian meals such as fried beef and potatoes, arepas – flat bread made from maize, and ironically, trout caught from the river near Villa Viaje.

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Juan, our amicable guide, pulled up at a site known as Cusco where carved cathedrals tower above the parched land. The area was once level but according to Juan, water slowly eroded the clay soil leaving solitary 20-metre high statues dominating the undualting dust bowl.

We wound past cracked soil, rich in zinc which dyes the barren scene a rich shade of rust. Only 20 minutes away the canvas morphed into a grey hue, brushstrokes creating a murky, rippled painting.

Dressed completely inappropriately in flip flops, the three of us stumbled behind Juan as we traversed crumbling ridges to reach the phantoms. Goulish shapes reached out from the grey sand, their topographical figures forming ghost-like statues. We were brought back to reality by shrieks piercing the muggy air. Once we rounded the corner, weaving between formidable looking cacti, we saw the culprits: over a dozen vacationing Colombians crowded into a natural pool, a small oasis tucked away between sandy outcrops.

It was the festival of San Pedro, a four-day holiday celebrated in the southern provinces of the country at the beginning of July. The main plaza in Villa Viaje had transformed into a music blaring centre-piece, with beer tents decorating the peripheries of the square. Cowboys in ponchos and brimmed hats slurped on rum. Elderly couples took to the streets, perching on plastic seats outside their front doors. Local men ogled scantily-clad women and children ran amok to the music.

Out in the desert, away from the crowds, tranquility prevailed.


Quick facts for a trip to Tatacoa Desert

  • The closest town to the desert is Villa Viaje, 9km away.
  • You can arrange tours with the rickshaw touts at Villa Viaje’s plaza. No taxi service runs there. Be sure to get a decent price – we were approached by a driver wanting 120,000 Colombian pesos per person (US$60) for a four-hour trip. The entire rickshaw should be no more than 80,000 pesos split between passengers.
  • It might be best to arrive in Villa Viaje in a group as we were the only three foreign tourists in town, and paying 80,000 pesos for one person is extremely expensive for what you get.
  • Alternatively, you could try your luck at hitching. However, females DO NOT get onto a car with a solo man or group of men. Go with a couple or a family.
  • Our guide was reliable and punctual – Juan Manuel. Tel. 310-301-9757
  • A trip to the observatory costs 40 pesos return (30 pesos if you book a 4-hour day trip as well).
  • Only one observation takes place per night from 7pm to 9pm. Arrive at 6.30pm.
  • Guides speak Spanish only.
  • It’s best to call ahead to ensure the astronomer is giving tours – Tel. 310-465-6765
  • Entrance to the observatory is 10,000 pesos

Hostel in Villa Viaje

  • La Casona, opposite the main plaza – Tel 8-879-7336
    Offers several 10-bed dorms for 15,000 pesos per night. Noisy due to street noise but it’s the only place in town. Kitchen available for guests’ use.

How to get to Villa Viaje

  • Take any long distance bus to Neiva, the closest city, and jump in a minibus from the bus station to Villa Viaje.
    5,000 pesos for a one-hour trip



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