Well, I had already seen the coasts, the forests, the rivers and the meadows full of sky-high palms, so why not see what the Colombian desert had to offer? This was essentially my reasoning when I decided to head down to Desierto de la Tatacoa on my way to Ecuador. It was a short, hot, dry, dusty trip, but the sunset and sunrise over the red desert lands alone were worth it.
While traveling in Tierra Dentro I had met a swiss couple and they had spoken very highly of Desierto de la Tatacoa, so when I noticed it was en route towards the southern boarder I thought it would make a good pit-stop. I took a Magdalena night bus from Medellin to Neiva, leaving the city around 7pm and pulling in to the desert-like region around 6am. I caught a struck of luck as I walked through the station and found a van “camioneta” filling up outside of the station. I was the last seat, and for 15,000 pesos I loaded my bags into the back and sat down next to two other female travelers, one from Spain, the other from France.
“Where did you two meet?” I asked. They both looked at me and laughed. They had only just met. We were all solo female travelers, embarking into the great unknown of the harsh, hot, desert. The 40kms flew by as the French traveler shelled out details on places to go in Ecuador, my next destination.
Our Cootrana van driver stopped at a convenience store, where he told us it was a good idea to buy supplies, especially water because we couldn’t drink it in the desert. I hadn’t heard this, but it didn’t surprise me. The French girl had recently had her debit card stolen while on a bus, so she was short on cash and she opted out of buying water, but I took his word and bought a few big bottles. This turned out to be a lie. The water is available and absolutely drinkable in the desert.
As we arrived to Desierto de la Tatacoa I caught my first glimpse of the red rainbow ridges of dry, crumbling earth which make up the labyrinth-like desert. It was so beautiful it gave me goosebumps. There was a flurry of excitement in the van. We were here!
The driver took us to a place called Hostal Noches de Saturno, which he proudly told us “had a swimming pool”. The owner was kind, and after trying to charge us triple what we were willing to pay, he reduced his prices to 10,000 pesos each for a tent, and 6,000 pesos for me with my personal hammock. I ended up sleeping slung up under a roof nearby all the goats and pigs and whatever other animals were there. The food was not great, but it was not bad, and it was reasonably priced, considering we were in the middle of nowhere. We paid 5,000 pesos for a breakfast of eggs, arepa, coffee, hot chocolate and bread.
After eating, the five of us from the van set off to explore the desert. We embarked on what we thought was the trail into the red desert, but it wasn’t the correct trail, and we ended up getting extremely lost, walking through a field full of cows and cattle, and asking a farmer for directions back to civilization. The two girls who did the talking started to lead us, but immediately they diverted from his directions. Being as Spanish isn’t my native language, and the other two were fluent, I figured maybe I had heard wrong, but I was nearly 100% sure the farmer had told us to stay left after crossing the stream, and that if we went right we were goners. When I voiced my opinion the girls shrugged it off. I decided it was better to stick together than to separate. Two hours later we were still doing circles in nasty desert brush, full of cactus spikes and thorny plants.
The only saving grace was that the sun wasn’t fully out. As we finally saw the beacon Observatory glimmering in the distance I again started to enjoy the walk, knowing that we were kind of close to where we needed to be. The landscape was indeed beautiful, full of pink blooms on small round cactus plants, and we even startled two wolf-like creatures, black, gray and white, with bushy tails that reminded me of a raccoon.
Walking in the desert is intense. I was happy I had both a hat and sunglasses, and I smothered on 30spf before taking off, so thankfully I was not burned. I used my hiking sandals, and because we went off the beaten path I had to be extra careful for thorns and debris. For anyone embarking on this hike I would recommend close-toed shoes with a thick sole. One of the girls stepped on a cactus spine and it lodged right through her shoe and into her heel. As you can imagine it was not pleasant.
When we emerged onto the road, we came out through a very simple restaurant and hostel called El Tigre, and they kindly filled our water bottles before we continued. We had emerged about a 30 minute walk up the road from Saturno, and we ended up stopping at another hostel El Cabrito to refill our bottles again. The owner was making sweet arrequipe balls, and offered us one each to try. This place was totally chill, with plants and birds and a hammock for each private room.
When we came back to Saturno, we all crashed. I slept so hard that when a dust storm brutally blew through I could barely be bothered to lift my head. After a solid afternoon nap, I woke up to take a blissfully cold shower, and got dressed to set out for sunset.
The same group from the morning set off towards the Observatory, and this time we found the “Cusco Loop” as it is called, which was located by an apparently nameless restaurant on the side of the road, with plentiful outdoor seating and a “parqueador”. This is the true path through the exquisite red desert. We sat above it all, soaking in the view and letting the warm desert breeze caress our skin.
The sunset was magnificent, playing with shadows and light on the already diverse shades of red which stretched out before us. The dark blue shadows of mountains floated in the distance, and the silhouettes of cactus speckled the skyline.
For dinner, we ate at the lone white restaurant across from the Observatory. Your options were chicken (pollo), beef (res) or vegetarian (vegetariano), and it came with salad, rice, fried potatoes, fried yuca, and juice. It was delicious, and cost 12,000 pesos with meat, or 8,000 pesos without. There was ice cold beer for 3,000 and it was a treat to be savored.
We heard the Observatory was absolutely worth a visit, if the sky was clear, but unfortunately it was mostly cloudy. After dinner we spread out and marveled at the stars we could see, until the clouds swallowed them up. I did, however, happen to turn my head just at right time to catch an amazing shooting star as it soared across the sky. I’ll let you know how the wish turns out.
We called it an early night, and as I settled into my hammock I was hot, but was so tired I fell asleep instantly. The next morning I woke with the noises of the animals, before the sun, around 5am.
I decided to get up and considered walking to the “Gray Desert” which was located 8km in the opposite direction of the “Red Desert” which we had seen the night before. A small group from Saturno was planning to go there by motorbike, a 30,000 peso tour offered by the hostel, but in the end I decided to go back to the beautiful red desert on my own. Two skinny dogs accompanied me, and were playful companions throughout my morning sunrise walk.
The Cusco Loop was absolutely beautiful and I was happy I was able to experience it. I took my time, exploring off the beaten path, but always coming back to it, as I had learned the day before that I have zero sense of direction in the lands of the desert.
On my way back to Saturno’s I decided to have breakfast at a hostel called El Posada del Sol Verano or Doña Lilia’s place. It was delicious, and the place was gorgeous. I would definitely recommend staying there. Doña Lilia was a sweetheart.
When I finally walked back up to Saturno’s I arrived at the same time as two police officers on 4-wheelers. They were rolling up to take a police report. The Spanish girl had taken a morning walk to the Gray Desert and had been robbed at knifepoint by a young kid on a motorcycle. He had stolen her money and her cell phone. I was instantly grateful for my four legged companions who had stayed by my side the whole morning, barking at every motorcycle or bicycle or car that approached us. Apparently robberies are not common, but you just never know.
All in all, I was happy to visit Desierto de la Taticoa as it was beautiful, and the one-day, one-night time frame was just right. If you have visited Arizona, New Mexico or Utah in the United States you have had the opportunity to see some spectacular red deserts, but if you have never experienced a desert, or if you love the hot, dry, deserted landscape that comes with a desert, then a trip to Desierto de la Tatacoa is recommended.