Desierto de Tatacoa

Driving through the lush plains and mountains of Huila it might be difficult to imagine that a desert sits just around the corner. But just 50 km north of Neiva is the Tatacoa desert, a 370-sq-km area of scrub and surreal rock formations dotted with Candelabra and Prickly Pear cacti. Named after a snake that used to thrive in its unforgiving conditions, it is wedged between two mountain ranges that absorb the region's rainfall, starving it of moisture.

It presented a challenging obstacle to the Spanish conquistador Juan Alonso on his quest for El Dorado. He was following the Magdalena river and looking for a route to Popayán when he stumbled across the desert, which he subsequently named El Valle de las Tristezas (The Valley of Sorrow). In 1550 he founded a town on the site on the desert's edge and named it San Juan de Nepomuceno. It was later razed to the ground by the indigenous locals but was rebuilt by Diego de Ospina y Medinilla in 1562 and renamed
Villavieja
. The town played an important role in the 1000-Day War at the turn of the 20th century when a battle between the Liberals and Conservatives was fought nearby.

Villavieja has a particularly charming parque principal, surrounded on all sides by 18th-century colonial buildings and with a replica of a Megatherium, an elephant-sized sloth that existed here in the Pleistocene epoch, in the centre. The
Capilla de Santa Bárbara
was built by Jesuit priests in 1630, making it the oldest church in Hulia. It was recently restored, although the local priest keeps it under lock and key and it is difficult to gain access. Next to the church is the
Palaeontological Museum
, with displays of fossils of armadillos, turtles and crocodiles found in the desert, mainly from the Miocene period. Also worth visiting is the railway station, decommissioned since 1975, a reminder of Villavieja's former role as an important staging post on the Bogotá-Neiva line.

The
desert
itself begins 10 km outside Villavieja. On top of a small incline some 15 minutes' drive from Villavieja is the
Observatorio Astronómico de la Tatacoa
, www.tatacoa-astronomia.com
, run by stellar enthusiast Javier Fernando Rua. Tatacoa's clear skies and almost non-existent light pollution make it perhaps the best place in Colombia for star gazing and Javier gives an excellent talk every evening at 1830 on the observatory roof, with telescopes and a laser to point out individual constellations. Camping is permitted next to the observatory.

Opposite the observatory is a viewpoint looking out over El Cuzco, a labyrinthine landscape of ochre red hillocks and plateaus that would not look out of place in a Star Trek episode, and where pop star Shakira filmed one of her early music videos. You can walk down into the miniature valley; it is particularly spectacular at sundown.

Some 8 km beyond El Cuzco, is Los Hoyos with similar topography only the earth is grey here. Enterprising locals have built a swimming pool amongst the rock formations, fed by water from a natural spring.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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