How to spend two nights in the Desierto de la Tatacoa, Colombia

After a couple of days chasing an invisible waterfall and laughing our asses off with Ale’s funny faces in the National Park, it was time to move on to the next spot. No waiting until a Mexican arrives, exhausted after a couple of days sweating on his bike, but instead taking the bus together to Neiva and further into the Desierto de la Tatacoa.

First views of the desert and its only road.
Goat friends and the showers of a hostel.

First of all, buses depend on a certain timetable, so I had to drag the Mexican out of his bed and into the shower, in order to be on time for the bus direction Pitalito and further to Neiva, Villavieja and Tatacoa. This time, luckily, we’d already packed our bags in advance and left most of our stuff in the hostel, together with Ale’s bike. We would pick it up three days later and enjoy two nights in the Colombian desert. Since I’m quite Belgian and my sense of timing is also quite Belgian, we arrived well on time at the street corner, where the buses direction Neiva departed, at 8 o’clock in the morning. Some 10 minutes too early of course – rather too early than too late – which meant we had extra time to score some breakfast. Hurray for plastic bags of yoghurt and chocolate chip cookies in Christmas packaging! Once in the minivan – taking a ‘bus’ could mean anything in South America, from a normal bus with 56 seats to a minivan or a truck with some extra seats in the back, I’ve seen them all – we took off direction Pitalito, only to have a half hour break and switch to another minivan headed to Neiva. On the way chatting a bit with Ale, when he wasn’t annoyed with being stuck on a bus – or sleeping -, watching other villages pass by. By the time we reached Neiva’s bus terminal, we were lucky enough to have a collectivo to Villavieja waiting for us. Ignoring my growling stomach, we were in for a not-so-comfortable ride to our last stop. Last stop with a normal ‘bus’ at least.

Once in Villavieja, a bunch of moto-taxi’s and other vehicles where eagerly waiting for us to transport us into the jungle. None of it quite ‘cheap’, in comparison with the price we paid for the bus, knowing it would only be 15 – 20 minutes while we were already traveling for 6 hours. Anyhow, we didn’t have any other options, which the drivers knew as well. We jumped onto the last tuk-tuk – by lack of other words, I need to call it a motorized tricycle with space for three in the back and two in the front, each with one butt-cheek on the front seat, but tuk-tuk is easier – and while Ale as the only native Spanish speaker chatted away with the driver in the front, I was chatting in French with the couple in the back of the tuk-tuk. I let Ale do the negotiating in the first place, since he’s the Macho Alfa of the two of us, but this time it really came in handy. While the guy mentioned his price before we stepped inside, Ale managed to get us a discount and to let the driver drop us off at a hostel right in front of the Observatory. Yup, the desert has also something to offer at night… If you’re lucky enough to have a clear sky, of course.

Evening walk between the cacti
The Mexican kept on following me. All the way to Tatacoa. He even left his bike!
Goats everywhere.

1. GO ON AN EVENING WALK

The first thing we did when arriving was, of course, book a room. We didn’t want to sleep outside in the open in the middle of nowhere and we read that accommodation could run out fast…only not when we were there. Almost the only ones in the hostel – called ‘La Tranquilidad‘, only the French couple decided to stay there as well – we had plenty of rooms to choose from. For solo travelers reading this, I would go for the hamaca-option if I were you, plenty of hammocks to sleep in, which we also tested later that evening. But we were hungry, especially since it was past 3 pm. After installing our stuff in the room, we went to the owners who cooked us a meal with the usual ingredients: chicken, rice, platanos. Soup as a starter, juice with the meal. The typically ‘menu del dia’ dishes, but delicious because I was already starving the moment we left Neiva. During the meal we got to know Sr. Sebas the Second – named after his apparent twin Sebas I, Ale’s cat in Mexico – and the Cannibalistic Chicken. The chicken seemed a bit crazy – think about the chicken in Disney’s Moana and you’ll get what I mean – and was quite eager, as in running for it, to eat all the scraps of chicken we threw on the ground for the cat. Maybe even eating her own sisters. Hmpf. Anyway, after our late lunch, it was time to explore a bit. Too early to see the stars but too late to go for a hike, we opted for a little exploring walk in the Desierto.

More cacti..we were in a desert after all.
We stumbled upon some baby goats.
Too cute not to take a picture.
Ahem…I guess I still need to work on my posing skills.

And I call it desert all the time, after the Spanish ‘Desierto’, but technically the Desierto de la Tatacoa is a ‘semi-arid dry tropical forest’, slowly becoming a desert. When the Spanish arrived a couple of centuries before, you could find fields of flowers and a reptilian creature called ‘Tatacoa’, which went extinct already ages ago. Now you can find reddish and greyish canyons – the desert, I’m still calling it that, is divided in two parts with different colours – and plenty of cacti, goats, snakes, scorpions and other animals in the area. Luckily I only got to witness the cacti and the goats. Phew. Anyhow, we decided to have a little walk in the desert. Now, I’m somebody what they call an ‘over-thinker’. I think too much about everything that could happen – when I’m not busy making impulsive decisions and decide to follow a Mexican stranger on a bike, through Colombia – and I was thinking too much when walking in the Tatacoa as well. Okay, it was fine. The landscapes where amazing, the cacti huge and the baby goats we encountered were the cutest ever. But then I’m thinking about not getting out of the desert when the sun goes down and we will lose the path back – sun was still shining high and brightly, Ale taught me then how to roughly calculate with your fingers the time you have until the sun sets -, what about snakes and how about not bringing any drinks? After Ale promised me to take me out of the desert alive, I did take some time to enjoy my surroundings. The beautiful colours reflected on the stone pilars around us. The reddish glow of a sun setting. Baby goats. Following a strange bird, which wasn’t the Cannibalistic Chicken. The overall feeling of happiness of being outside. In nature. Somewhere new. With someone I liked. In the meantime I taught that same person I liked some things in Dutch, which sounds really funny with a Spanish accent. Who then repeatedly said the same words over and over again, screaming as loud as he could. – I’m so glad Dutch is not such a common language – After all that worrying for nothing, during our walk, we had a great time after all. Until we decided to go back and got chased by a dog again – remember our waterfall adventure in San Augustin? – A small one this time. For only the last 20 meters. Which wasn’t scary at all, actually.

Moon. Taken through a telescope.
Beware of the donkeys after dark.

2. STARGAZE AT THE OBSERVATORIO ASTRONOMICO ASTROSUR

After arriving back at the hostel, we relaxed in the hamacas the last half hour before the sun was really gone and we could cross the road to the Observatory. One of the reasons why I really liked this hostel is because it’s so close to both the red desert and the grey desert PLUS the Observatory is only a 2-second walk crossing the road. We saw some tiny lights blinking in the observatory and paid the fee, ready to be amazed by the wondrous mysteries of the sky. Which was without a cloud, lucky us. We had to be quick though, since we had the chance to see Saturn through a telescope, which would be gone within the hour after sunset. Quite amazing actually, how a simple instrument made by man can let you see a planet lightyears away from you. Yes, we could see the ring around Saturn. No, I couldn’t take a picture of it. – sad emoticon – I did take a nice picture of the moon, with its white shiny surface and all its craters so detailed as if it was hanging next to my head. We saw some pulsing stars in different colours – I saw the pulsing, the others saw the colours…I think I’m nightblind – and we spent quite some time at the telescopes, seeing planets and constellations, before the big presentation started. In Spanish. Which is okay for me, since I speak Spanish and have been speaking it all the time when travelling with Ale, but after a while my brain just shut down and I relaxed, laying down on the soft floor – they put some rubbery cover on the floor, so you can lay down comfortably – next to Ale, content with watching the clear skies and tons of stars. Doing my best not to fall asleep – I was pretty comfy after all – while the Mexican was listening attentively to everything said by our guides.

Another great experience to add to the list. Happy, we went back to our hostel and straight to our room, only to discover we had two pets waiting for us, which we named Mike and Eduardo. Mike, named after the lizard Ale once had in his room in Mexico and Eduardo, named after the lizard I once had in my room in Croatia. Basically, Mike II and Eduardo II were waiting for us on the wall and decided to take off once we got too close, ready to let us sleep – well… – in peace, so we would be well rested for the next day in the desert.

Pink cap on a horse. That’s me.
Grey desert.
More grey desert. In the morning light. Sounds more poetic.

3. EXPLORE THE GREY DESERT ON THE BACK OF A HORSE

Our first and only full day in the Tatacoa desert started with breakfast followed by a tour through the grey desert. On a horse. I know, there are plenty of other ways to discover the grey part of the desert, going from renting bicycles or motorcycles to driving around in a hired tuk-tuk. Nevertheless, the only way to really make the most out of your desert trip is on a horse. You simply can get to places where there are no roads and not reachable on foot. – At least when you don’t want to die a painfull death lost in the desert. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. – That said, I’m not very fond of sitting on top of a horse. Ale and me talked about it the day before and decided that discovering the desert by horse would be our best option, but I still think we both had our doubts, even though we never mentioned them to each other. Anyway, Ale arranged a tour with the owner of the hostel and we took off as soon as the Cannibalistic chicken and Sebas the II ate the scraps of our breakfast.

Now. The horse. I was able to get on top of it, sit still and let the horse walk, while grabbing the saddle very firmly with one hand. Great! Luckily the horse knew where to go, we just needed to follow the guide. Off we went with two extra horses to pick up another couple in another hostel before heading into the grey part – the biggest part – of the desert. Ladies. Here it comes. One tip. Wear a good bra when sitting on a horse. I knew we were going to stop at a swimming pool – Los Hoyos – later on, so I prepared by wearing my bikini already, which is in no way as comfortable as a normal bra. Also, NO support. Which is kind of painfull when you have a horse that thinks a normal pace is too slow, no, galloping is the way we go. Having three hours of you boobs wobbling up and down is not something I wish upon my worst enemy. Anyhow, I learned my lesson the hard way.

Besides all my nagging about being scared on a horse and painfull boobs, visiting the desert on top of a horse is amazing and definitely worth it. You have the feeling of being completely alone in the middle of nowhere – besides the guide, Ale, the couple and the horses -, surrounded by grey canyons and cacti, only to be disturbed by a wild goat or two. The views are endless, but in no way boring. As I already mentioned, somebody had the genius idea to build a swimming pool in the middle of the desert, which is very refreshing after a while on a horse. In total our tour took about 3 hours, of which I took very little pictures, because I was too busy making sure my horse didn’t throw me of a cliff. Luckily, Ale filmed a lot with my GoPro – because I needed my two hands on the horse – so at least I have some funny, shaky videos to look back to.

The red part of the desert is the prettiest part. Clearly.
And you can walk all the way to the bottom…
…but we stayed on the top. Just looking over it is already quite amazing!
Poser.
More red desert.

4. DISCOVER THE RED DESERT ON FOOT

After our experience on a horse, our host asked us if we wanted to continue the trip around the red desert as well. Hardly feeling my butt anymore, both Ale and me said ‘no thanks’ and opted to have a little siesta in the hammocks before walking to the red desert and discover it on our own. I remember telling the Mexican I was very glad to have both feet on the ground again, showing him the blister on the palm of my hand where I was holding on to the saddle. Apparently, he was very surprised that I’d been scared at all, he thought I was looking very calm and composed on my horse. – while I was screaming mentally ‘they feel it when you’re scared, keep calm, breathe in, breathe out, just follow the group, don’t run, please, DON’T RUN THAT FAST,…’ – All the time I was thinking he was the calm one, looking like he had been born on a horse, while he wasn’t too comfortable over there either. A big relief for both of us.

Ready for a little siesta in the hamacas – playing with Sebas II – and with a bra on this time, we left for the red desert, only 10 minutes walking from our hostel and much much smaller than the grey desert. More photogenic as well and the best way to explore is just by foot. You have several paths going through it, well indicated and easy to follow. Or, if you’re like us, with a painfull butt and not really into a long walk after spending 3 full hours on a horse, you can look over the canyons while walking along the road, following the path and be surprised by the superb views upon the red desert.

Red desert. I’m getting out of inspiration for these captions…
A Mexican in the desert.
A Mexican and a Belgian in the desert.
More canyon and desert. Sometimes I can hardly believe this is Colombia.
Pretty view. Red desert. Again.
Giant cacti for a change!
Little cacti. With pink flowers, adding a bit more color to the desert.

One full day exploring Tatacoa and we were exhausted. We managed to have just enough energy to walk to the next hostel / restaurant to have diner and play with the cat of the house. And drink batida de Guanabana, my new favorite drink. The next day was going to be a hard one, leaving early in the morning just to go all the way back to San Augustin, where Ale’s bike was waiting for him and my backpack ready to be strapped on, because I would be exploring Tierradentro on my own! – No, I wasn’t yet ready to leave the Mexican behind, he just needed 4 full days to reach our next destination…which gave me the chance to go a bit off the beaten track and head to Tierradentro –

Still want to read more about my – and the Mexican’s – adventures in Colombia? Prepare yourself for the next blogpost: Off the beaten path: what to do in Tierradentro?

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HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?

Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in the Desierto de la Tatacoa, I wrote down how much things cost while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.

Transport

Bus San Augustin – Neiva: one way – 30.000 COP / 9,00€

Collectivo Neiva – Villavieja: one way – 7000 COP / 2,10€

Tuk-tuk Villavieja – Desierto de la Tatacoa: one way – 15.000 COP / 4,5€

Accommodation

2 nights in Hostel Tranquilidad, Desierto de la Tatacoa: private room – 50.000 COP per night / 15,00€ per night for two people

Activities

3 hours horse riding through the Grey Desert: 45.000 COP / 13,5€

Evening in Observatorio Astronomico Astrosur: 10.000 COP / 3€

Food

Diner in hostel: rice with chicken, platanos, etc. and a drink – 14.000 COP / 4,20€

Breakfast in hostel: 6.000 COP / 1,80€

Batido de Guanabana: 4.000 COP / 1,20€

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