Wednesday, June 27, 2012

2012, 16th - 19th June: Neiva & Desierto de la Tatacoa, Colombia

Getting There

The majority of my time in Colombia has been spent at a degree of altitude – either mountain walking, in coffee growing districts or in cities which are situated in mountain valleys (such as Bogotá and Medellín). As a result, is has been easy to forget at times that I am not that far from the equator. Well that all changed with a visit to Desierto de la Tatocoa which is approximately 40 km north of the city of Neiva (desierto means desert and Tatocoa is a type of snake). While I was there, in the early afternoons the temperatures reached more than 40 Celsius.

For the full complement of photos that accompany this blog entry, use the following link to the corresponding set in my Flickr account:

I did hope to complete the journey in one day from Salento (via the cities of Armenia and Neiva) to the pueblo (small town) of Villa Vieja which is on the edge of the desert. Alas, as some of my other blog entries have already evidenced, South American bus journeys do not always go to plan. The delay in this one though was not due to landslides but a cycle race, which was apparently important enough to close the only route across the mountains from Armenia to Neiva for four hours. These days when travelling I keep Spanish language notes in my day bag to allow me to do something useful during the inevitable delays. Being stuck for four hours at some random road junction (fortunately near some shops and cafes) was another of those South American WTF (What The ****) moments, but I soon shrugged it off and passed some moments being amused by the fact that if it happened in Western Europe it would kick-off for sure, but here no one seems too bothered. All that malarkey meant that I arrived in Neiva an hour after the last collectivo to Villa Vieja had left (collectivos are jeeps or cars that run along a designated route, waiting until they are full before heading off). As a result, I was forced to find a hotel in Neiva.

During the last few weeks of June there are a series of festivities in Neiva, with some sort of street procession every day. I thought, hey I can stay an extra night and soak up the fun. Alas, the procession on my extra day in town was limited to some women in regular clothes riding some horses down the street – rather unexciting (though I´m sure that the processions on other days were more colourful).

The next day, upon arriving at Villa Vieja I found a guide with a moto-taxi (realistically the desert is too large and too hot to be seen in its entirety by foot). This meant that during my tour I could call by some of the posadas and select one I liked – allowing me to spend my nights in the middle of the desert which was a great way to soak up the beautiful environment.

The Desert

The desert is not a classic sand dune affair, rather more like a miniature version of the hot landscapes found in some parts of the South West of the USA – with land forms carved into strange statuesque shapes by the elements with cacti scattered amongst them.

Water-Sculptured Earth in Numerous Shades

The Reds & Browns of Cuzco in Desierto de la Tatacoa

The land itself is rather fragile as it is a mix of earth and compacted sand. It is however this fragility that has resulted in the carving of the land by the rains which fall approximately every three months. Across the desert one can find a wonderful colour palette, with browns, reds, creams and greys (with the browns, reds and creams closer to the region of the desert called Cuzco and the greys in the area called Los Hoyos). In places sedimentary material from different geological times is layered in the earth, which once exposed by the effects of the rains reveals a layering of colours. The wonder of the landscape is furthered by the finger-like shapes spreading out from layered ridges in the earth, which create three-dimensional creations in all directions.

A Stunning Colour Palette in the Evening Sun

Cacti & Vast Desert Skies 

Grey Earth Forms in Los Hoyos in Desierto de la Tatacoa

Water-Sculptured Grey Earth in Los Hoyos in Desierto de la Tatacoa

Cacti Near Cuzco in Desierto de la Tatacoa

The desert views are framed by mountains to the east and west (the Orientall and Central cordilleras respectively – where cordillera means mountain range). During the day the rising air currents above these mountain ridges create vast cloud forms, creating a beautiful backdrop to the array of colours in the desert foregrounds. As the sun descends at the end of the day the clouds are lit by a soft yellow backlight set against an electric blue canvas.

I visited the observatory in the middle of the desert which gives lectures after sunset. The resident astrologer uses a powerful laser-pointer to highlight many of the constellations and also uses some telescopes for a closer look at star clusters and planets such as Saturn (its rings were visible).

My early morning departure from the desert gave me a further display of its colours in the morning light, with the cordilleras in different hues too.

Cactus Silhouetted Against an Electric Blue Sky

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