After two and a half weeks travelling by myself, my mum came out to join me! I had decided we would spend our first weekend together in the Desierto de la Tatacoa and so we met at Bogota airport to catch a small flight to Neiva (I had flown in from Medellin).
I had planned to go to Desierto de la Tatacoa solely on the basis of the wonderful, other-worldly pictures I had seen on Pinterest and on Instagram. Its technically not a desert, despite the name and the way it looks, but a dry tropical forest that has dried up over the centuries. It is surrounded by high mountains, which you can see vaguely on the horizon, and so all the rain is attracted by the mountains and very little reaches the internal area, the Tatacoa.
But it turned out it was a hard place to figure out. I knew we would go to Neiva and take a bus from there towards Villavieja, asking it to go on to the desert, but accounts of the length of the journey varied from half an hour to an hour and a half, and I had no idea how to get back from the desert.
It was also difficult to find out about accommodation – none of the places in the desert seemed to have websites, be on TripAdvisor or on Booking.com. I found a phone number for a few places and called each several times but nobody picked up. Just a few days before we were due to go to the desert, I discovered on Instagram a hotel that looked absolutely stunning, a properly luxurious hotel. I found them on Facebook and spent several hours facebook messaging them in Spanish trying to arrange a reservation… They were full on the Saturday night but I managed to book for Sunday so figured we would just have to wing our first night!
We arrived in Neiva late on Friday night, mum exhausted after over 20 hours awake and travelling. We booked a stay in the GHL Hotel Neiva – a wonderfully comfortable if slightly businessy hotel very close to the airport. Then the next morning we woke up early and caught a taxi to the bus station.
There were no signs as to where to buy tickets to Desierto de la Tatacoa so we had to ask and were shown out the back of the bus station and around a corner where a driver was waiting with a truck. I had researched how much the bus should cost and so knew we weren’t being ripped off when he said it was 15,000 pesos each. We had half an hour to wait before the bus left, and just before, two other tourists turned up – a young Spanish couple.
We climbed in the back of the truck, thinking that there wasn’t very much room, and having to keep our necks slightly bent so our heads didn’t hit the roof. The truck left and jolted down the road, stopping after about ten minutes, where a guy came over looking for space to put a bag in the back of the truck… And then five other people, two more hanging off the back! The front of the truck was absolutely full as well. We continued on our way, so cramped we couldn’t see anything but the sweaty sides of the people next to us and the black tarpaulin of the top of the truck bed.
After about half an hour we were pulled over at an army checkpoint and all got out so the army could check our ID and the men could be searched. My mum gets bad travel sickness and claustrophobia and was stuck in the very deepest corner so I asked if she could swap and sit in the front, which she did. She shared the front seat with the driver and another passenger and told me later that the doors of the truck had to be held together with a string that went out of the windows and across the front of the windowshield – otherwise the doors wouldn’t stay shut!
Eventually – it couldn’t come soon enough – we made it to the desert after close to an hour and a half. The driver dropped us off at Posada de Noches Saturnos, a Posada I had read about that was apparently big enough so that there was no need to book. And we were shown to a room no problem. It was very basic but very clean with two beds, the biggest issue was a lack of a fan or any air conditioning. The desert regularly gets to 50 degrees C so I was already expecting a difficult night….
We arranged a tour for the next morning that would take us all around the different parts of the desert and then went for a short explore, marvelling at the incredible landscape laid out before us and trying to get used to the heat.
We had lunch at the Posada – fried chicken and chips but it really wasn’t very good and then relaxed in the shade and in their little pool all afternoon, slowly breast-stroking from one end to the other as we chatted and then back again. When it cooled off slightly, just before 5pm, we went for a walk in the last of the daylight.
The desert really was incredible – it was everything I had imagined it would be from the pictures I had seen and also so much more. The pictures will really do it so much more justice than words can, but imagine the red earth towering above you, huge cacti, the fissures in the earth stretching on and on…. And then in the distance, a blue haze of the mountains that surround the desert and make it what it is (all the rain falls on the mountains and so the desert gets less than 1 litre of rain on average a year).
As it got dark, we had dinner at our Posada – also not particularly nice! – and then we headed out to the Observatory.
Every night at 7pm the Observatory opens to the public. We queued for a minute or so, paid 10,000 pesos (£2) each and then walked into a fenced off part of the garden behind the Observatory where five huge telescopes were set up. The astronomer gave a short talk in Spanish about what we would be able to see through the telescopes which I tried to translate for mum but had to give up on as it turns out star vocab isn’t really something I know anything about! The talk lasted less than five minutes though and then everyone began to queue up behind the telescopes.
We were there on the night of the full moon so that was the main thing to see, and it was absolutely incredible. It was so huge in the telescopes. The astronomer was great, continually adjusting telescopes when they moved – I always seemed to be in the queue in front of a small boy who leant on the back of the telescopes, moving them – and helping us take photos of the moon through the telescopes.
Then a moonlit (and headtorch lit) walk back to our hot, airless room for an uncomfortable night of sweating / sleeping. The alarm at 5.40am was a relief.
Posada de las Noches Saturnos had a walking tour every morning for its guests which I think was around 20,000-30,000 pesos (I can’t remember exactly). A group of weary travellers met, bleary-eyed and we set off into the red desert, descending into its depths as the sun rose over its ridges. We had a lovely walk through the desert, with the guide telling us lots of information about how it was formed, the ecology, and the people that lived in the area originally.
On the way back to the hotel for breakfast we stopped at a small cafe where a guy was making a local juice, crushing sugar cane to extract the liquid and then adding in lime juice from fresh limes right in front of us – it was wonderfully refreshing in the heat of the morning.
After breakfast we were taken in a minibus to the grey part of the desert – similar striking rock formations but a less striking colour. A different guide took us down, deeper into the desert, and led us through for an hour or so, pointing out the various plants and describing how they were used by the indigenous people as medicines until we reached a small public swimming pool in the middle of the desert. It was so hot by this time, we were so glad to take a break from walking and soak ourselves in the cold water of the pool!
Next, we were off to our second hotel in the desert, Bethel Bio Luxury Hotel. Posada de las Noches Saturnos provided us with transport but it was expensive – I can’t remember exactly how much but it was more than the cost of the entire journey from Neiva to the desert. Bethel Bio turned out to be deep in the grey desert and I could tell our driver was intrigued to see it, asking us how much our stay cost (about £35 a night each – expensive by Colombian standards but not bank breaking!), and insisting on bringing our bags right into the hotel so he could look around.
And it was really, really lovely – like a luxury safari camp. The main area was all outside with a huge, beautiful old wooden table, an infinity swimming pool overlooking the desert and lots of comfortable places to sit.
When we were shown to our “room”, it was completely open to the elements, a roof disguised with branches so it fitted in completely with nature. In the middle of our little deck was a white tee-pee style tent, with a light, a fan and a wonderful soft white blanket. The bathroom was down some steps in a little hideaway, again blending into the desert with the use of branches from plants from the desert. It was really wonderful.
We passed a brilliant afternoon swimming, reading and just enjoying the beauty of the views, before a sunset cocktail. As it got dark, a blood red moon rose over the mountains on the horizon, and then the wind began to increase… And increase.
By dinner it was absolutely howling and I had to hold onto my glass to make sure it didn’t blow over. I was worried I was going to blow over as I walked back to our tent! The wind was incredible as we fell asleep, so loud and rocking the sides of the tent. It reminded me of being on a boat and I slept like a baby until waking at 3am to a complete stillness, the moon high in the sky and lighting the desert, the wind blown itself out.
The next morning a taxi arranged by the hotel came to pick us up and took us to the airport, for a flight to Bogota and then a connection to Santa Marta.
Need to know:
To get in: bus from Neiva bus station for around 15,000 pesos. Just tell the bus driver the name of the place you want to stay.
Where to stay: Posada de los Noches Saturnos for the swimming pool and to be close to the Observatory. The food is rubbish but it’s quite big so, from what I’ve heard, it’s unlikely that you’d have a problem up turning without booking. A double room cost 30,000 pesos.
What to do: a tour is a great idea as it includes transport between the two different parts of the desert. But you can easily wander around in the red desert (El Cusco) for a few hours without a tour.
A tip: one night in the desert is definately enough, unless you want to do as we did and spend one night in the Posadas and one night in Bethel Bio Luxury! Although Bethel Bio was wonderful, I wouldn’t recommend it for your only night in the desert as it is a long way from the red part of the desert, the most stunning in my opinion, and it would be impossible to visit the Observatory at night. It was a strange “luxury” hotel, stunningly beautiful and with very friendly staff, trying very hard but not quite managing the full luxury experience! One example – when we asked about transport back to the airport, we were initially told that the only way was for mum and I to go on the back of motorbikes with our rucksacks. Mum had never been on a motorbike before and was understandably very reluctant – I pushed back and spoke to a different member of staff and a private car was easily sorted! Niggles aside, it was an incredible hotel and was certainly worth the experience of going there.
Getting out of the desert: If you chose just to stay in one of the Posadas near the Observatory, the same tour that had taken us around the desert would have also taken us back to Neiva for lunch time (at an extra cost).