Tatacoa Desert – Huila, Colombia

The diversity of landscapes in Colombia is amazing, and one of those unique gems is the Tatacoa Desert, not too far from Bogotá, in Huila.

All within 32,000 hectares, the desert-like landscapes are filled with more than 100 varieties of cactus, petrified wood, and other-worldly rock formations.

While the majority of the area is dominated by grey-ish colored rock formations, the Tatacoa makes a sudden drastic change to red rock formations, and so is referred to by its two parts – the red desert and the grey desert.

Desierto Gris (Grey Desert)

Desierto Rojo (Red Desert)

The intense sun and extreme heat is something that the locals try to avoid by relaxing in the shade at mid day, and with long sleeves and brimmed hats the rest of the day.

Fun fact: Despite it’s heat, sand, and cactus, the Tatacoa Desert isn’t actually categorized as a desert; it’s technically a “dry forest” climate zone. (Though it’s what a lay person would call a “desert”.)

It was here in the Tatacoa desert that I discovered my favorite berry in the world – the Chichatop. I have never tasted a more delicious fruit (and I LOVE strawberries and blueberries… but this one topped them all!)
Sorry, I didn’t get a photo of my favorite berry, but I did get a photo of this edible fruit that grows in a cactus.

The desert is just a few minutes drive from the nice little town of Villavieja.* You can stay in the town and do a day trip to the desert, or you can spend the night at one of the hospedajes in the desert.

Many of them have pools (and even if you don’t stay in the desert, you an always pay to enter one of the pools for a much-needed cool-off).

On clear days you can see the faraway snow-capped mountains near Manizales, but these days you can’t see the white peaks. Due to global warming, the size of the snow caps has been diminishing over the years and they are too small to see now.

While a guide isn’t necessary to appreciate the desert, it is quite helpful to not get lost in the heat and to maximize your time seeing some of the highlights. I would recommend it especially in support of eco-tourism…it supports the local economy in a positive way, giving value to the preservation of the land and creating green jobs for the locals. Our guide specifically mentioned that he really loved the training he received to be a guide, learning about the landscapes and the history, and he hoped that he could continue to learn more to continue getting better at his job.

The Tatacoa is home to two observatories and they give viewing sessions every night where you can learn a few night sky fun facts and see a few highlights through a telescope and binoculars. I was super impressed to learn that the half moon is a C or a D shape in the US, but it’s more like a smile or frown shape here. (In other words, the we see the lit-up side from different angles so it seems to be rotated between the two hemispheres). Similarly, Casiopia is a “W” in the US but an “M” here (something I had noticed but just thought it was related to the time of the year I was looking at it!)

We looked at stars being born (in the Orion Nebula). And looking at the cloud of the andromeda galaxy, we saw more stars at one time than one sees in the entire sky. With a basic high powered telescope, binoculars, and a really knowledgeable star guide, it was interesting and entertaining, and I loved it! It was a perfect way to appreciate the desert night.

Famous Footnotes/Bonus Content:

*On the way back to Neiva, the largest city near Villavieja, I took a colectivo, which is like a taxi van that waits until all the seats are filled to leave. (I got lucky and was the last one so didn’t have to wait.) In the colectivo there was a couple from Bogotá, another backpacker from Europe, and two women from Villavieja. The women were quiet at first, but as we started chatting, they each had a fun sense of humor, and were very chill and friendly. They confirmed that the town is a pretty quiet and relaxed town, that lives off tourism and some farming and raising animals. That weekend was going to be less quiet than usual – the town was going to have a big celebration all weekend with a concert sponsored by the mayor.

Visiting the Motherland

I hadn’t stepped foot in the US for almost three years, and I was not sure what to expect. A lot had changed since I left. I felt very lucky to even be entering the US; as I stood in the customs line at 3am with my US passport, I couldn’t help thinking about the unfortunate situation for refugees seeking asylum, those people trying to escape dangerous living situations in their homeland or inflation where they can’t even buy the basics to live.

I was also incredibly thirsty but annoyed at the thought that I would need to buy overpriced (and Earth un-friendly) bottled water to quench my thirst.  And then I saw something magical…

A public water fountain with potable water! Something I hadn’t seen in 3 years!!!

“Welcome to the US! Let me satisfy your thirst! Don’t you miss the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, and well-monitored public water systems?” The public water fountain said to me. (Don’t judge, I had just gotten off a red-eye flight; I might have been a little delirious).

“Oh yes I do! You have no idea!!” I responded, as a WASH volunteer that has spent the last 3 years living in a place where I have to boil water before drinking it and where I spend all my days trying so hard to figure out how to make rural water systems just come close to providing potable water.

My honeymoon phase of being back in the US was soon brought down to Earth when I learned that the bus from the Baltimore airport to the city (DC) had actually decreased its frequency of service, (a real disappointment after having experienced such great public transportation in Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador).

But I was quickly enamored again with my homeland after being able to get around the city (Washington, DC) on a bike share, (and later learning about the car-share service Turo).

My amazement escalated as I was introduced to tide pods (dissolvable and non-toxic polyvinyl alcohol film was really intriguing for this chemical engineer), but then my fascination was interrupted as I learned of the trend of eating tide pods. (Facepalm.)

Eating delicious vegetarian plates of locally-grown food at my favorite restaurants and seeing wonderful friends and family made me feel right at home, and again very pleased by and proud of my homeland…

Until… I realized that people were actually buying and eating jellybeans that taste like vomit and rotten eggs.

Between tide pods and rotten fish, I was thinking I might have avoided great disaster by staying out of the country for the last three years…(Or maybe my country really needed me these last three years?)

I was surprised that in my short stay in the suburbs of Denver, I found two different opportunities to keep my language skills sharp, talking with native Mexican-speakers. (Yes, that is a reference to the misleadingly-named entertainment channel Fox “News”.)

 

Tongue-in-cheek aside, I really surprised at how cheap I felt during my visit. Having lived on a tight budget, pinching my centavos for the last three years, I suddenly felt that while visiting friends and family, they (and me, prior to Peace Corps service) lived very comfortable lives of abundance, spending relatively freely, compared to how I (and those around me) have been living for the last three years.

This ability to pay for certain things is something I think we don’t even notice, especially if all the people around us have a similar ability to pay for certain things. It also really stood out to me how this then leads to certain expectations of neighbors and others around us to also pay for certain things, almost as an obligation. An obvious example is the HOA where everyone has to make sure their house and yard look a certain way (which implies a certain investment).

When I went out to eat, I had serious sticker shock with prices of food, and really had to make an effort to change my penny-pinching mindset, and it made me realize why it would be hard for people of different economic situations to be friends – it’s a real social barrier and cause of anxiety if you can’t afford the same social activities of your friends or family.

While I was in the US, busy being amazed by how things had changed since I had been gone, and how things felt different since I had been living in a different context for a few years, meanwhile, back in Oxapampa, the region was experiencing rains like never before – and landslides and floods like never before.

I received photos of entire roads and bridges completely wiped out. A friend returning to Oxapampa from Lima had to walk a total of seven hours to cross the places where roads had been wiped out to be able to arrive home. I wondered if I would be able to get back and was thankful that I still had a few weeks before I was due home.

The government of Peru has always been amazingly good at cleaning up the road after a landslide within the same day, so that traffic can pass. But they had not had a disaster of this scale before. However, they impressed me and had it the bridge repaired and the road to a passable state within a few weeks, and I was able to arrive home without any problems, and in record time.

I also learned that in my district alone, 4 different water capture points were destroyed because of landslides, leaving communities without water for a few days. Luckily, the government has policies and plans in place for emergencies and are often good at improvising. The local government (the team that I work with) was able to locate new, temporary water sources for the communities to have running water, in the interim. And upon my return, I learned they are able to access emergency funds to rebuild those affected sites.

While I was in Colorado, I had hoped to hike a 14-er to complement my hiking adventures in the Andes mountains of Peru (which I’ll be sharing in blog post coming soon), but ironically, Colorado was having an unusually high incidence of avalanches, with their own stories of blocked roads. Turns out both of my “homes”, the US and Peru, are being affected by climate change, (which isn’t a real thing if you have a lot of money and investments in petroleum and think that having a lot of money can save you from anything.)

It’s not easy living in two different cultures, two different worlds, two different languages, having a home and also not having a home in two different countries. But it is an incredible and enriching experience, and I feel wealthier than I ever have, (despite what my bank account may say), thanks to the amazing people I have in my life, the beauty that surrounds me, memories I carry, and the wonderful experiences and opportunities that have shaped who I am. And despite vomit jelly beans and non-potable water, I love both of these places and I am inspired by and thankful for of all the people in both cultures that have taught me so much and made me who I am today.

 

*** Geek-out reflection on the scale of the disasters in the region where I live in Peru…

There are usually a complex variety of forces that come together that make disasters worse or not as bad as they could have been. In this case, deforestation is the biggest human controlled factor that led to the extreme scale of landslides in our region. Unfortunately, the ecosystem service provided by forests of holding the soil together does not have monetary value for the landowners in this global economy, but planting food for our growing population does bring income to someone trying to feed their family.

There is a clear need for an economic incentive sufficient to make it worth it to land owners to preserve key areas. The good news is that there are organizations working on reforestation and forest protection in the area. A local non-profit that I work with, Instituto del Bien Común, is working to provide small incentives and free native trees to property owners who sign agreements with the local government to preserve the forests on their land or to reforest on their land. Additionally, the national forest agency recently awarded a grant to the local government to do reforestation efforts in the zone. Unfortunately, the efforts are not enough to make a significant enough impact to prevent the escalating rates of deforestation, but we can only hope that the funding and programs grow and become more effective so they can make it more economically viable to conserve the forests.

Protecting Water Sources

Where does your water come from? A lake? A river? An aquifer? Do you know? In our busy lives, it is someone else’s job to think about that, to make sure we have clean water that is safe to drink. (Though in recent history the catastrophe in Flint, MI has made a few people think twice about the theme – even to the point of paranoia for some.)

I work with institutions whose responsibility is making sure people have clean water to drink, but they often only focus on building and repairing water systems. Unfortunately, a lot of times they forget that protecting the source of water, is just as important. So, as water systems get built by an outside entity, capturing water from rivers, streams, or springs, the people in the community start developing the land nearby and above these sources, within the watershed, cutting down trees, building houses (and therefore bathrooms), cultivating crops, using agrochemicals, and raising cattle or pigs that contaminate the water, not realizing the impact it will have on the water source.

We have the good fortune to have an NGO in our community (IBC) that has expertise in watershed protection (among other cool topic areas like native communities, stream health and others), and is a member of our group GTIFAS. Thanks to IBC, a very exciting part of our project is to work closely with five communities to identify risks to their water source and recommend ways they can eliminate risks and protect their watershed in the future – while respecting land rights and the need to have income generation from their land.

This involves strategies like reforestation with native plants, creating zones of protection, and creating zones for low-impact activities like raising bees or crops that use minimal agrochemicals.

Another important approach is a type of economic valuation of ecosystem services where, in this case, they the recommendation is to raise the water fee on the water bill to have some extra funds to help pay land owners for the environmental services the forests on their land provide in keeping the water clean – giving incentives to either not cut down forest, or to reforest areas near water sources.

While there are a lot of general recommendations we can give to each community, we wanted to make sure that we knew the situation on the ground and could give very concrete recommendations to each community, like which tree species could they plant and where, and what current activities are a risk to their water system. So, we planned to go visit the source of water for each community and to inspect the surrounding areas for risks.

It’s good to have friends that are experts in watersheds!

Just when I was heading to the office to do some planning for our first site visit, I saw two of my good friends, who work for the non-profit, taking a snack break. Since I have (finally) learned to slow down and take advantage of these breaks to converse with friends and co-workers, I followed them instead of diving right into my computer work. During the conversation, my friend pointed out that we should look at satellite images of the areas to help guide our inspection and give us an idea of what areas might have risks. What a brilliant idea, and I can’t believe I hadn’t talked to her sooner!

She helped me print out satellite images of each area, and showed me how to read them to have an idea of where land had been developed, where rivers might be, and how to show topography. It turned out to be a key tool in our analysis, in conjunction with using google maps on the phone to help track where we were during the inspections.

The next day, we headed out to climb to the water sources for three different water systems. Each time was a steep ascent through the high jungle hills, each taking between 30 minutes to an hour to reach the top. From there, we explored the surrounding areas, looking to identify the possible risks we saw from the satellite images, as well as any other risks we could identify on-the-ground.

Our tree expert from IBC

The day started out with good luck as we saw two wild monkeys – tiny rabbit-sized animals with a long tail – playing in the trees. My first experience ever seeing wild monkeys!

I know you can’t see them, but I swear there are two small monkeys in the tree across the highway.

Later we passed a tree that produces a cotton-like substance – my first time seeing cotton fall from a tree. Finally, it was the first time that plants stung me through my pants – who knew that plants could sting, and even through cloth?! I thought that only happened in Australia.

You can imagine that I was pretty hungry by lunch time, so I blame the low blood sugar for my slip of the tongue when I asked if anyone was “dying from the man” instead of dying of hunger (“alguien esta muriendo de hombre?”)!

Actually, I could write a whole blog entry on all my slips of the tongue in castellano… and maybe one day I will. Stay tuned…