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.
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.
Torotoro was an unplanned surprise adventure that I stumbled across in Bolivia and now I can’t imagine my journey without it.
I had never heard of Torotoro until I arrived in La Paz, where two different people recommend it to me within my first day there. My friend Gabriela said I HAD to see because, as a person that likes outdoors adventures, it was a must-see while in Bolivia.
I decided to do the 2-bus journey from La Paz in one day, leaving at 7am and arriving around midnight (due to some bad luck in my layover).*
Heading out of the densely-packed, busy La Paz towards Cochabamba**, the road soon turned into wide open spaces, with a mix of adobe and brick houses, often many kilometers apart. The landscapes were reminiscent of the Peruvian Andes highlands (sierra), from plains to red rock mountains, and then winding through the hills above a valley, with short little bushes dotting the yellow brown hills.
Torotoro is at an altitude of 2,800 meters (9,000 ft) with a rocky mountainous landscape, but also has a very unique look and feel. The colorful and pointy, oddly shaped hills and rock formations may remind an American of the Southwest, especially South Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and also parts of the Rocky Mountains. While the temperature is cool, the days were mostly sunny, and it is noticeably 1,000 meters lower than La Paz, giving one a relief from the cold and altitude of La Paz.
In the tiny town of Torotoro, most people wear the typical rural Bolivian dress- women in colorful skirts, and men in pants and a vest. Most people wear brimmed hats (sombreros), though there are different types between the men and women. But there are two unique things I see here that I haven’t seen in other parts of Bolivia (or Peru):
First, a good proportion of people have official work vests, signaling that many people are employed in the tourism industry, working either for the government or a tourism business.
The other, which I absolutely love, is that there are many guys (mostly older men) that wear the typical Andean “chullo” hat with ear flaps, but these chullos have a long pointy top, like an elf hat…and they wear the pointy part standing up! (Sorry, I don’t have photos of the local dress styles.)
Torotoro is such a tiny town, that even though the tourists stay in hotels around the middle of town, integrated with the houses of the locals, tourist activities feel very separate from local activities, and so it has a bit of a tourist town feel.
The locals have a kind of wary-ness towards me, surely from having had many a varying experience with tourists, and it takes a few minutes of conversation for them to relax and feel more comfortable conversing. I tried to chat with a street food vendor who was also serving some locals, and she was really hesitant to talk. Finally, remembering that I was in a Quechua-speaking region, I tried to speak with the little bit of Quechua I had learned in the northern Lake Titicaca island Amantani. “Soma pollo,” (delicious chicken), I told her. “Yosparasunki,” (thank you)! When she realized I was trying to speak Quechua she smiled (half laughing at me) and then taught me to say “Reposa” (bye).
Torotoro is also a national park, and due to the efforts to protect it, they have recently implemented a strict system for visiting the park, where you always have to go with a guide. (You pay 100 Bolivian Pesos for a park entry fee and then you pay separately for each guided tour.)
The system of contracting a guide is interesting because there is a set cost for each guide and you can have up to 6 people in a group with a guide. That means that most people come just before the office opens in the morning and afternoon to look for other people that want to do the same tour so they can form a group of six to split the cost. Sometimes it works out beautifully and sometimes no one shows up to do the tour you want to do. (But for the two most popular tours, even in low season, there were always people in the early morning looking to form a group. The afternoons had fewer people, though I did get lucky my first day and found a couple late in the afternoon to go see dinosaur tracks and the canyon.)
That’s right…dinosaur tracks! Who knew that in the middle of Bolivia, there are dinosaur tracks!???!?
The area used to be swampy area and over the millennia it dried up and turned to rock, preserving tracks of those massive herbivores and vicious carnivores that roamed the area thousands of years ago.
All in one tour (“El Vergal”), you pass dinosaur tracks and walk along an historic river with amazing geologic formations, leading to the majestic Chiflón canyon.
Just when we were about to leave the rim to begin our descent into the canyon, we caught sight of a graceful condor soaring above the canyon…and then another…and then another. They had emerged just in time to paint the already amazing landscape with their graceful flight paths.
We then climbed down into the canyon, passing a lemon-mint smell of the bodje tree, and later transversing the boulder-filled base for about a kilometer until we arrived at some beautiful waterfall cascades with green-blue pools below.
What a refreshing swim in that beautiful canyon pool!
The next day I successfully formed a group of 6 with my two French neighbors and a group of 3 other French tourists wanting to do a full day tour of the “Ciudad de Itas” and the Umajalanta Caverns.
We first took a 4×4 out to the grand rock formations of the City of Itas, and on the 40-minute drive climbing into the mountains, there were four different languages buzzing about in the vehicle – the guides speaking Quechua in the front, the three tourists in the back speaking French, my French neighbors and I speaking in Spanish in the middle, and the tourists in the back speaking to me in English.
The “Ciudad de Itas” was a hike through incredible rock formations and mountains.
Among many cool highlights were an almost completely dark cave-like space with just a tiny slot of light filtering through from above called “cueva del diablo”, and ancient drawings of llamas and the sun and earth goddess/god preserved in the rock in some cave-like spaces.
We were also led through a maze of rock to a secret hiding place that was a kind of hidden canyon between rocks where the natives would hide stolen cattle during the 18th and 19th centuries, before the land reform times. This was when the Spanish had taken over large swaths of land, and a wealthy, well-connected Spanish “patron” would run an agricultural businesses on “haciendas” (large farms), often practically enslaving the locals while making profits exporting products across the country or abroad. (Again I was grateful for having read Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits” to have a sense of the history around this time period.)
Another point of interest amidst the rocks was a large opening in a cave-live space in the rocks called the “cathedral” where the locals during Incan times held a gathering to celebrate the gods and goddesses of the earth (Pachamama) and the sun (Tatainti). They would have a type of pot-luck called “A’tapi”, and they would give an offering to Pachamama called “Tcha’lla”.
We also saw photo-luminescent bacteria that glows this green color from one angle but up close it just looks like brown slime on the rocks.
After having climbed to the highest part of the Torotoro area, we then descended below the surface of the earth, to explore the Umajalanta Caverns. While not the most beautiful cave I’ve ever seen, it was definitely the most fun!
Hiking, climbing, repelling, crawling, and scootching through this cave was a fun adventure (and led by an experienced guide and plenty of ropes, it was not as hard or scary as it sounds.) Unfortunately, many of the beautiful formations had been damaged in the decades before it became a protected part of the national park, (due mostly to people not knowing that touching the formations would damage them but also due to some vandalism).
However, there were also signs of hope where the stalagmites and stalactites had started growing again since the cave has been protected for two decades now (since 1989).
I was so happy to have found this little gem in the middle of Bolivia, to explore such a beautiful place, and to support the protection of some natural areas.***
*While I arrived smoothly from La Paz to Cochabamba (other than a hot bus), I had bad luck catching a ride to Torotoro. The buses go “colectivo” style which means they wait until enough passengers come to fill them and then they leave. I waited 3 hours and then it was getting dark and no more passengers were coming so the company passed me off to another company that was supposedly leaving soon but still didn’t actually leave for another hour. I arrived at midnight in Torotoro and needed the next morning to recover from travels.
** Many people told me to “be careful” in Cochabamba. Luckily I had nothing but good experiences with the people there. When I asked at the terminal how to get to the vans for Torotoro, the woman didn’t know so asked a coworker who not only told me which car to take, he flagged down the car and ran the half block to where it stopped to explain to the driver where I was going and to ask him to let me know when we arrived!
***While I would definitely call this an “eco-tourism” experience, the jury is still out on whether it counts as “community-based tourism”. While on the surface it seems to bring some income to many locals, there were rumors that the government actually gets most of the proceeds and that there was a wealthy and foreign family somehow making most of the profits. I wasn’t there long enough to find out to what extent these were true, but even if the government was making profit, they were also employing quite a few people (remember all the vests?)
Side note: There were a few other short tours that I didn’t make it to (like a huge fossilized turtle), so while you can see the biggest attractions in 2 days, it is definitely a place one could stay 3-4 days, especially just to relax in a calm and quiet little village in a beautiful place with a great climate, (though there aren’t tourist attractions outside of the guided tours).
Since I wasn’t able to hike to the Yungas (the lower altitude, subtropical side of the Bolivian Andes) from the mountains, I decided to bike there. In bicycle you can really see the scenery, feel the change in climate, and really experience each moment along the way with all your senses. Sometimes you can even see the change in wildlife along the way.
Since I didn’t know where and how to rent a bike, the easiest and quickest way was to go along with one of the touristy tours that rent you the bike, gear, guide, support van, and transportation to a starting point and back and that advertise the route as Death Road or “the world’s most dangerous road”. Actually called “North Yungus Road” or “Coroico Road”, the route is a windy, steep downhill dirt road that used to be the primary route to Coroico, before they built a new paved route that is supposed to be a little less windy and steep and therefore has fewer incidences of cars going too fast and finding themselves flying off the cliff. (An estimated 300 travelers were killed annually when this was the primary route to Coroico).
As a mountain bike route, it’s not too dangerous since it was designed for cars and so is actually fairly wide. That said, it would be dangerous for someone that isn’t used to biking and tried to ride like a crazy person. I found it to be a challenging but not too unlike many rides I did regularly in Oxapampa. Going with the tour had its pros and cons*, but overall it was awesome, and definitely a great way to get to the lower jungle town of Coroico where I wanted to go.
To get to Coroico from La Paz, you first have to pass over the mountains, so the van drove us a few hours to the starting point in the mountains at 4,700 meters (15,400 ft) above sea level. We would then ride down to 1,100 meters (3,600 ft) above sealevel. It had snowed the night before which complicated our arrival to the starting point but made for a beautiful, of very cold, starting point.
From white mountains, freezing fingers, and multiple layers, we quickly descended to green hills, greeted by the smell of the moisture and vegetation characteristic of the tropical jungle, (and making me nostalgic for Oxapampa). The views of the hills and valleys, and the river cutting through the valley below (way below), were indescribable. (Sorry, don’t have photos.)
Arriving in the valley, one perk of going with the tour is that we had access to a beautiful little resort with an all-you-can-eat buffet, rustic showers, and even a pool.
The two guides were also cool. One guy was a medical student and was explaining that to be a doctor in Bolivia, one has to study for 5 years, then do a one year internship in a hospital where they don’t pay you anything, and then ANOTHER one-year unpaid “rural internship” where you work in a rural site in “provincia”. (Ok, so this one’s not completely unpaid – the interns receive 15 pesos bolivianos ($2) per day.) Just when I thought the US doctor training program was not ideal…
As the van then continued back to La Paz, I caught a car for a 15-minute ride to the little city of Coroico. I arrived just as it started to rain, so I spent the evening resting and cooking myself a meal in the hostel.
Coroico is a small town with the streets buzzing with activity. There are many little stores (tiendas) and restaurants on every street, vendors selling vegetables and fruits in the street during the mornings, and kids running to and from school in the mornings and afternoons. At night, kiosks open up selling fried chicken and fries – which seems to be the Bolivian evening meal choice, second only to Silpancho – rice, potatoes, carrots, beets, tomato, chicken fried steak, with a fried egg on top. (To avoid an early heart attack and to be able to sleep at night, I cooked a stir fry of vegetables and quinoa for my evening meals, with the bonus of spending less than I would have eating out.)
The town was small enough that I quickly felt at home there. People weren’t immediately warm – everyone was busy living their lives and didn’t even notice a random tourist walking the streets, which I kind of liked. Often they didn’t even hear me greet them, (or were so surprised at a tourist greeting them that they didn’t know what to do.) But when I did get a chance to chat with someone (like the woman who sold me juice or the guy managing the hotel), they were super nice, chill, and helpful.
I read that there were three main sights to see in Coroico – the stations of the cross that lead up to a chapel on a hill with a nice view, and then from the chapel there are two 4-ish-hour roundtrip hikes – one to a hill that overlooks the city and the other to three waterfalls.
I packed my bag with swim gear, asked a couple of people how to get to the waterfalls, and then headed off, running, following a trail that wound around the side of a few massive hills. I was pretty disappointed when I arrived about an hour later and only saw a tiny fall with nowhere to swim, and it seemed that it was just a water capture point for the city. Maybe an appropriate thing to find, since I’m a water engineer, but disappointing.
So I ran back to the chapel, arrived at 4pm and decided to try to climb the overlook hill. The hill started as an open, desert-like hill covered with rocks, dry grasses, and only short bushes.
After about 30 minutes I was surprised to suddenly enter what was like jungle – thick trees blocking the sky and the smell of moist soil and vegetation. After a few minutes, I emerged again from the jungle and the trail opened up again to less dense vegetation and dried grass, only to turn into jungle again a few minutes later.
When the vegetation cleared, there were incredible views of the valley and the towns down below, including the little city of Coroico, which appeared much bigger from above than it seemed being in the city.
Towards the top, the hill turned into pure jungle, and I was sweating even though it was getting chilly as the sun started going down. Jogging uphill, I was thankful for the extra lung power I had gained being at altitude for almost two weeks. I didn’t want to get caught in the night in the jungle, so I decided I would turn around at 5:45 even if I didn’t make it to the top. I kept thinking I was near the top but would find that there was still more climb. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it to the top, and then magically, at exactly 5:45 I arrived to the clearing at the top of the hill! Win!
The next day, I was just about to leave Coroico and I learned that the waterfall I went to was definitely not the waterfall that everyone goes to. I decided that I couldn’t leave without going to the waterfalls, so I started walking (this time the right direction), and then found a car to take me the rest of the way. When I got to the waterfall, I decided it had definitely been worth it! There was not much water in the cascade because I arrived just at the end of dry season, but there was a beautiful pool under the falls calling my name, (and two guys swimming there also calling me to join them).
The guys were from La Paz and had come out for the weekend just to enjoy this specific spot. With little hesitation, I was soon splashing around in the pool beneath the waterfall with them. Within a few minutes, another guy from La Paz showed up – he was showing around a friend from Quito, Ecuador who had come to visit Bolivia for a few weeks. We all became friends for the afternoon and I even ended up catching a bus back with the Ecuadorian woman and her Paceño friend.
Turns out that Coroico, and specifically the falls, are a nice little weekend escape for Paceños. With its warm climate and green hills, it’s a nice escape from the cold, altitude, and busy, tree-less city. I’m so glad I went off the beaten path to find this little gem (and to make a few more friends along the way)!
Famous Footnotes/Bonus Content
* The pros of going with the mountain bike tour were the sag wagon and the food included, but the cons were the cost (it was outside of my low budget but I gifted myself that day), and that it was so touristy that the group had to stop every few minutes so the guides could take photos of each person to later send us.
**I somehow lost my water bottle in the car that I took to the waterfalls, and I was pretty bummed, but then the driver showed up at the falls within 5 minutes, having noticed that I left it. Good, kind people in Coroico!
***Often when I mentioned that I went to Coroico, Bolivians asked me if I saw any black people. Actually, I didn’t. But Coroico is apparently part of the area where many African slaves were brought to work on haciendas and so many Afro-Bolivians live in the surrounding areas.