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Sunday, 01 July 2018

Colombia's Tatacoa Desert: The Ochre Valley of Sorrows

Written by Yuri Drobkov
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Have you ever been drenched by a desert rain? The Tatacoa Desert is the place to find one, with its reddish arid expanse stretching from one wall of mountains to another, riddled with sudden drops and numerous cacti.

“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams...”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

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The Tatacoa Desert, or the Valley of Sorrows, as it was called in XVI century by a Spanish conquistador, is a massive swath of arid land in the South of Colombia. Located between two Andes ridges – 330 square kilometers filled with incredible vistas and landscapes – and also renowned for its fossils and clear night skies. It doesn’t look like a typical desert one tends to imagine – an endless sea of yellow sand dunes. Depending on the particular location, the dominant color of the place is either ochre or gray, always with a dash of green as it has plenty of plants, too. Despite being a desert, the Tatacoa has a lot of flora and fauna that will be of interest to a curious explorer willing to leave the beaten trail and tread the dusty silence alone.

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An empty remote wasteland where eagles and vultures rule the sky, devoid of human pollution and far from the big city lights, it’s a great place to observe the vastness of the universe at night. There are multiple observatories, at least one of them is free for everyone to visit and stargaze after sundown. Be advised, however, that things may go south if the rain clouds come.

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I usually imagine deserts as hot and parched fields of sand, but the Tatacoa is not as dry as it might seem, I even encountered a small pool of water while following a dry riverbed. Admittedly, it was shallow and muddy, but it was water. It’s hard to believe an information board at the entrance which says that the local precipitation is only 1.078 mm per year. Apparently, this is enough to support the many trees, bushes, and cacti that cover the eroded cavernous landscape. Not only are plants thriving – numerous insects and animals are also supported by this habitat. I encountered lizards, spiders, moths, butterflies, vultures, eagles and even goats while out there. There is also a chance to spot snakes, scorpions, and turtles.

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Needless to say, this place has no hotels. Besides the observatories, there are only a few private houses and hostels, and camping. So in order to spend a night there, it’s better to take a tent and other camping gear, along with water of course, as it gets expensive to buy in the desert. Electricity is hard to come by, as it can only be generated locally, and internet connection is an even rarer luxury. A part of the serenity of the Tatacoa is being offline, a tête-à-tête with nature and yourself. This is uncommon these days and it might be boring, or maybe even disturbing, to some.

I found the transportation here is quite easy – the closest settlement called Villavieja is about 6 km to the west. From there people take mototaxis to bring them into the desert, the way out is to stop one of them on the way back. I came to Villavieja from Neiva in a colectivo, a shared local transport. That’s one way to do it and the drivers of the obviously overpriced mototaxis will try to convince you that it’s the only one. However, there is a quicker, cheaper and more exciting way to get out – it includes taking a ferry from Villavieja across the uneasy waters of Magdalena river, to the city of Aipe. A short countryside hike from the coast and then the streets of Aipe will bring the adventurous souls to a major highway going from Neiva to Bogotá.

If you’re a fan of astronomy, archeology, nature or just exotic off-the-grid places, the Tatacoa Desert is a place worth visiting at least once in your lifetime. Be sure to bring water, camping gear, sunscreen, a raincoat and your favorite camera!

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©Yuri Drobkov

Last modified on Monday, 02 July 2018