A Weekend in the Desert of Tatacoa
It’s about to be midnight and I’m cold. Even though I’ve chosen Bogotá because of its mild climate, I tend to forget about it from time to time. I cross one of the city’s main highways on the pedestrian bridge and finally find the others. Together with other students, we are travelling to the Desert of Tatacoa with Outlanders Colombia.
The night bus to Tatacoa
At the beginning of my semester here in Colombia, I marked all sites and places in my Lonely Planet that I wanted to visit during the semester. I started planning. And many, many times I was astounded to learn that distances have a different meaning in Colombia. From Bogotá to Tatacoa it’s only 200 km air-line distance, on the actual road it’s 281 km. Thinking of the quality and speed limits of Austria, I estimated 2-3 hours on the bus. How wrong I was!
One cannot compare Austria and Colombia – not even road-wise. Google Maps estimated the trip and told me that it would take about 6 hours. Having that in mind, the night bus is way more interesting than travelling during the day. But then that is great too because Colombia’s landscapes are stunningly beautiful. But let’s get back to our story:
We leave Bogotá behind – delayed because we are in Colombia – and the bus drives along the snake-like roads through the night. I’ve packed my sleeping bag so I wouldn’t freeze to death on the bus, but most of my travel companions haven’t thought of that. Buses in Colombia (and most of Latin America) only know two settings when it comes to air conditioning: off and ice age mode. In between there is nothing. Therefore I freeze or sweat whenever the ac is turned on or turned off until we make it to the desert.
Day 1 – The Desert of Tatacoa
I get off the bus and try to get my muscles to work by stretching. I’m surprised: the temperatures are mild and there’s surely no heat. It’s probably too early in the morning anyway, but so I can prepare myself mentally for 40°C that are not uncommon in this area – but we would be lucky and we wouldn’t hit those.
Our accommodation is quite simple, but who needs more than a roof right? Some opted for “real” beds and four walls, some for mats and tents and I chose a hammock and a simple roof and no walls.
While the others start preparing their beds and tents I simply enjoy the views from the breakfast table.
Hiking in the Desert of Tatacoa – Sendero Valle de los Xilópalos
After a wonderful breakfast, we meet our guide that will show us some trails in the desert. Ever since I’ve read in the programme that there will be a hike, I was looking forward to this even more. (I still wonder how some Colombians thought that flip-flops and sandals were appropriate footwear^^).
When we finally leave and start to wander the scraggy landscapes, the temperatures rise every the minute. At least that’s how it feels.
Tatacoa is usually called the Desert of Tatacoa, but many say that it’s not a real desert and more of a dry tropical forest.
No matter where I look, everything appears to be dry and dusty. Yet there are some plants that survive in this rough terrain. We make our way through a small canyon, walk across flat and scraggy grasslands. I have to stop every once in a while to comprehend the beauty that surrounds me. (Also to drink some water.) Most of the times I fall behind on purpose to have some me-time and enjoy the silence.
When I get back to the group I hear some already moaning (those wearing flip-flops). I have to admit I don’t function well in heat either. Our guide calms us by letting us know that we’ll be at the pool – the end of our hike – soon.
The Pool – my Salvation
I gather my forces and make it to the pool as the first of the group. In the middle of this rough place, there’s this little oasis. I’m happy to take off my sweaty clothes and jump in the refreshing pool.
The view on the pool is quite spectacular as well:
Campfire and a Sky full of Stars
At night we gather around the campfire next to the tents. We grill marshmallows and enjoy the cool temperatures. But then I just need some time alone and I grab my camera and play with the setting until I get those results:
Day 2 – Desert of Tatacoa
Every time I sleep in a hammock it feels like I’ve been asleep for three nights in a row. I’ve hardly ever slept that well in my bed in Bogotá. I didn’t even mind the thunderstorm and watched the flashes of lightning hit the ground all across the desert. How happy I was not having stayed in the tent.
Horseback riding through the desert
We had planned to do some horseback riding in Tatacoa, but the weather remains unstable and it is still raining when we finish breakfast. The temperatures are also nice thanks to the rain. But then it finally stops and we get to ride on the horses until way past noon. I really enjoy the feeling on the back of the horse – of the second horse actually because the first one was too bullish and I couldn’t handle it.
Just before we leave behind the desert, we drive for a short while and stop again. It’s not more than a quick photo stop, but I’m just happy with it. If you’ve seen photos of the desert of Tatacoa, in guide books or on the internet, they will usually show a bright red landscape with pyramid-like formations. I’ve seen those formations yesterday and today, but the colour didn’t quite match. But here it was – the landscape that looks like a blanket covering whatever lays underneath:
Travel Tips for the Desert of Tatacoa in Colombia
- Take enough water with you, while you can buy them there as well, it will be more expensive
- bring sunscreen and a hat, the red fireball on the sky is merciless
- pack your bathing suit
- if you plan on taking picture of the night sky, take a little tripod
- If you plan on travelling to the desert of Tatacoa on your own, take the bus from Bogotá to Neiva and then a colectivo to your accommodation. Most of the times they will help you book tours to discover Tatacoa. You can also choose to fly to Neiva – flights within Colombia are usually cheap and you’ll be there faster than taking one of those ice-cold buses.
About Outlanders Colombia
Outlanders Colombia organizes a lot of weekend trips and some longer trips to places within Colombia. Most of the places they go are not that easy to reach on your own. I jointed them on trips to Varsana and Chingaza National Park and would’ve taken more trips with them, if it would’ve fit my schedule.
If you’ll be in Colombia for a while, make sure to check their website and sign up for one of their trips.
Note: Huge thanks to Outlanders Colombia for taking me on this trip and showing me this unique place in Colombia.
This post is also available in: German