Colombia: Tatacoa Desert

Time to hit the dirt! The highway debacle outside of Ibague sent us scurrying for roads that were more lightly traveled.

So we headed for a desert that isn’t technically a desert and at various times over the millennia has been a tropical rain forest, a prairie grassland, and several hundred feet underwater. For our two days in the area, it was blisteringly hot with occasional clouds and rain(!), which turned everything a bit swampy.


For the record, one of our most valuable tools has been the portable air compressor. We can air down when we hit dirt or sand, but always re-inflate once we meet asphalt. Here we are gettin’ ready for some tricky roads. 

 

Brahman cattle seems to be the preferred type of cows in this particular region of Colombia. We saw them everywhere, in addition to free ranging goat herds. 

 

A yellow-headed caracara. Very good at posing, yes?

And now for the back…


We elected to do a route through Tatacoa called the Valle de Constallationes, which wasn’t yet on Google Maps but (sort of) appeared on our OpenSource Maps (Garmin). Here’s quick map to give you a general idea. We turned off the 45 highway (3.471671, -75.150474) and immediately hit dirt. The roads winds through pleasant farmland and a few small towns before crossing a sketchy bridge and going through a tunnel. It’s a nice drive on a decent road.

The turnoff to the Valley of the Constellations (shown in orange, below, and also marked on iOverlander) is also dirt and rougher.

There are a few unlocked gates that you’ll pass through. We saw a single person riding a horse – no other people or vehicles.  It’s definitely off the beaten track but far more enjoyable than the rest of the main Tatacoa route. Our truck is 4wd and high clearance; it had no problem with the road. There were a couple small streams that were easily forded (Sept 2017) but could be slightly trickier during other times of the year. 

The only other occupant in the backcountry, besides a few herds of goats, cows and random donkey. 

Despite being a short route (3-4 hours) it was one of my favorite off-road drives to date. Nothing too tricky but a nice respite for the crazy traffic of Colombia.

We got permission from a landowner to camp on her land. We woke up in the morning surrounding by mounted cowboys trying to catch a wayward herd of horses.

Welcome to life on the road; privacy is non-existent. 

 

Dinner prep. Camper top is popped, the folding chairs and table are out, the water jug is at the ready and the fire is lit on the camp stove. And the kids are off exploring somewhere – hopefully not falling off cliffs or meeting any dangerous animals. 

One thing we’ve learned about South America: everything comes in bags, not cans, jars, or cartons. So far we’ve sampled jam, pasta sauce, milk, yogurt, mayo, and salsa. Final verdict? Not bad. Here is Ben whipping up a little pasta with camp toast. 

Emma approves of the pasta. 

The more dramatic scenery is definitely down on the southern edge of the desert, east of Villavieja. Suddenly there were cars, hotels, and people flying drones directly past the NO DRONES sign. Welcome back to civilization. 

Mirador El Cuzco is free and offers a short walking trail. There is also an observatory (with limited hours). The stars at night are spectacular! 

It rained on us and the next morning the trail was six inches deep the reddest, gloopest mud you’d ever seen. The kids reveled in their inner dirt-bagging selves; by some magical miracle the entire inside of the camper remained unscathed. #campingwin!

 


Recommendations – Tatacoa Desert

Campsites

I’m not going to give any campsite recommendations. There are a few listed on iOverlander, including the one we stayed at; however, it was on private property and we asked first before camping. There are several campgrounds available.

 

Activities

Do the Valle de Constallationes drive! It was fun driving with pretty scenery. Bring all food and water as there are zero facilities. There are a few spots listed on iOverlander for camping (the stars at night are incredible) but be aware that it’s mostly private land so pick your spot responsibly. Look on iOverlander for specific entrance/exit points for the drive; it’s hard to get lost once you’ve started.

Mirador El Cuzco
A short walk with crazy red dirt. Don’t be a jerk and fly your drone (they’re not allowed). There is a snack shop at the parking lot. Free.

Things we didn’t do but wish we did

The Desert Swimming Pool (more information here). We were a bit cranky and in need of dinner after our desert adventures so we skipped the pool. Big mistake as it looks lovely, provided it isn’t packed with 200 of your new friends from Bogota.

The Observatory. If it’s clear, the stars at Tatacoa are spectacular and this observatory is one of the most important astronomical facilities in Colombia. Nightly tours are offered in spanish.

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