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Tatacoa Desert, Huila: Traipsing In the Valley of Sorrows In Colombia

What is the difference between sand dunes and a desert? I found myself wondering about the differences, as I trudged along the somewhat barren land of Tatacoa in the Huila department of Colombia. Memories of catching the sunrise at Mui Ne red sand dunes in Vietnam and sandboarding off the giant Te Paki in New Zealand prompted curiosity, and once again, I felt like ‘an idiot abroad’. Are sand dunes considered desert?!

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My contemplations of sand dunes and desert soon fled, as the elusive beauty of Tatacoa commanded my full attention. Well-defined lines resembling tree roots imprinted the ocher valleys, creating a sense of wild magic. These intriguing labyrinthine gullies also reminded me of the lines of destiny on one’s palm and what lies beneath might be the secrets of the Earth, hidden to the naked eye. I was mesmerised.

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Interestingly, Tatacoa is not just a desert but a semi-dry tropical forest. Located in the southwestern region of Colombia, the Tatacoa Desert is also known as the Valley of Sorrows (for good reasons). With an altitude between 386 and 900 meters above sea level, this arid land should have higher precipitation and be more fertile. However, due to its surrounding hills and climate changes, Tatacoa has been drying up gradually since the Tertiary Period. In case you are wondering about those lines in the valleys, they are called gullies and formed by the flow of rainwater.

“Sadly, it’s much easier to create a desert than a forest”. James Lovelock

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The name ‘Tatacoa’ also refers to an extinct species of rattlesnakes and indicates the presence of snakes along with other scary life-forms such as spiders, scorpions, lizards and more than 70 species of birds. While I did not encounter any snakes or scorpions (thanks god!), lizards are aplenty and the excited chirping of birds including roosters that crowed at 4am can be heard – the latter eliminating my limited views of a desert being almost lifeless.

I have no idea why anyone would want to venture into a desert, but if you have a sense of adventure and would like to explore the different landscapes and nature that the world has in store, Tatacoa in Colombia might just be the place for you. From swimming in a pool of natural spring water in the middle of the desert to sleeping under a blanket of stars in a hammock, the ~300km2 Tatacoa Desert presents a great opportunity to get some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Here’s sharing some experiences:

Things To Do in Tatacoa Desert in Huila, Colombia

Trek in the desert and learn the essentials

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El Cusco (red desert)
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Travel in a jeep to get around the desert!

While it is possible to navigate the Tatacoa desert on your own (especially if you have a car), it is recommended to hire a guide. We were having breakfast in the town of Villavieja, the gateway to Tatacoa, when we found our guide or rather he found us. Transportation was included in our tour, and my only gripe would be my inadequate level of the Spanish language (no English speaking guide at that time). Still, we managed to learn about the formation of the desert and some of plants and their uses. Even when one is in a barren land, there is life to be found if only you know where to look for it.

Desert fact #1: Did you know that around one third of the Earth’s surface is covered in deserts?

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Los Hoyos (grey desert)

Three of the best known sites in Tatacoa are the red desert named El Cusco, the grey desert – Los Hoyos – whose name means ‘holes’, and Valle Xilopagos. It is possible to trek El Cusco within an hour and it is located near some of the accommodations.

Swim in the middle of Tatacoa desert!

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Somewhere in the middle of the desert lies a pool with natural spring water! Between the midday sun and trekking, it was difficult to resist a dip in the pool and that was precisely what we did! Located at Los Hoyos, entry to the pool costs 5,000 COP/~2.50 USD. Should you decide not to swim, you can also trek around the area, which can be covered in less than an hour. 

Desert fact #2: Shallow, salty lakes can form temporarily from time to time in deserts.

Explore astronomy in the Astronomical Observatory

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Low light pollution in Tatacoa makes it great to take astronomy photos. – Photo by Iris CFH

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What is the colour of Mars? Well, if you have never seen Mars through a telescope, you might not know that the planet is actually yellow-orange instead of red. And you can confirm this doubt at the Astronomical Observatory located not far from El Cusco, the red desert. An hour session in the observatory will impart knowledge of the blanket of stars above, if you do not doze off in the darkness! Entry to the Astronomical Observatory costs 10,000 COP (~3.30 USD).

On the other hand, just being outdoors and walking to the Astronomical Observatory with my friends was a great visual treat. It was a moonless night, which gave the stars a chance to twinkle. Be it an avid photographer or pensive person, the captivating night sky of Tatacoa will draw you in and keep you mesmerised.

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Milky Way in Tatacoa – Photo by Iris CFH

Sleep in a hammock and fall asleep to the sight of stars

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Night sky of Tatacoa – Photo taken by Iris CFH

There are 3 main sleeping options (that I know of) in the Tatacoa Desert, namely private en-suite, camping in a tent or the hammock! I have never slept in a hammock anywhere else except on a beach, so this was a unique experience. A blanket was provided and I was rolled up like a mummy in a sack, while swinging gently from side to side moments before I fell asleep to stars in a distance. For a budget option such as this (only 12,000 COP/~4USD), the value of the experience far exceeds the cost!

The only thing to note would be the inconvenience of storing bags and personal belongings. You can put your belongings in a ‘locker’ or deposit it with friends who are staying in the en-suite (should you be lucky enough to be travelling with friends).

Desert fact #3: Deserts can be good locations to farm solar energy.

Important note: Bring an extra power bank and charge your gears before you arrive. Most of the facilities are powered by solar energy and charging of devices are limited to the earlier part of the day.

Try the region’s typical food!

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Chivo plato (Goat platter with flavored rice and fries)

The Tatacoa Desert, being a desert, has limited resources and one should not have too high expectations of food. Nevertheless, should you be a foodie like me, you should try some of the typical fare such as the Chivo plato (goat meat with side dishes or/and rice) or Tamales (rice with meat, potato, eggs and other ingredients cooked in banana leaves). In case you have strict dietary restrictions or high standards for your meals, feel free to bring along your own food or ingredients. Most accommodations allow free use of the kitchen.

Food for thought in the Tatacoa Desert

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In my opinion, a night or two stay in the Tatacoa Desert is sufficient. Amidst the enjoyable activities that one can find in this almost barren land, the desert imparts a sobering knowledge in subtle ways.

According to the United Nations, “about 46,000 square miles of arable land turn to desert every year due to climate change and practices such as forest clear-cutting”. Aptly named the Valley of Sorrows, the trees and flowers that are slowly drying up in Tatacoa serves as an environmental reminder.

If we do not treasure our natural resources, we will lose them. And perhaps, we will not be affected but our later generation will face the consequences.

-End-

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At the beginning of this year, my resolution (or rather new life motto) was ‘to live life vivaciously’ and to gain new and fulfilling experiences. Unwittingly, life happened. It has been three months since I first stepped foot into Colombia and every day, I count my blessings for being given the opportunity to live, learn and explore this beautiful South American country and her people.

The above information is based on the author’s own experience and should only be used as a reference. For more information on the destination, do check out:  http://www.colombia.travel

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