The Tatacoa Desert

After Bogota, the first point of interest is, as ever in Colombia, a fair drive. We wanted to spend the majority of our remaining time in the Tatacoa desert, to the south.

By the time we got out of Mauro’s, thanks to Aimee’s escapades, it was now the afternoon. This was not ideal for a day of driving. To add to the inconvenience, the huge bag of filthy dust covered garage clothes we had given to the laundrette had not been washed. We were told to wait until 6pm or collected them unwashed, even though they’d had them for about 24hrs already. That was also kind of annoying, especially as we were heading to a desert where there would be an obvious lack of water to wash them ourselves. Despite the drawbacks, we ploughed on to the city to collect our inverter.

The repair guy wasn’t there, but his wife came and gave us back our inverter. She said we could test it if we wanted, but that wasn’t a quick thing to do and so we hoped for the best, we had seen a video of it running but who knew if it would last or if it would handle the load of our appliances. Now we had no reason to be in the capital and despite it being the end of the afternoon we decided we would keep going and try to put a couple of hours between us and the city. That meant that hopefully we could reach Tatacoa the following night. We headed for a free spot just a little way off the main road, a couple of hours away.

It turned out, as we had feared that the free spot was incredibly close to the main road. It was also just by a hill, so you could really appreciate the engine braking of all the many trucks that passed by. As it was the main road to the capital, we didn’t have much chance of getting a lot quieter later either. There was one more spot marked, a finca set further back up into the hills. It was on the pricey side, but we thought as we were late maybe we could negotiate and as I have learnt the hard way, sometimes it is worth paying for your sleep.

We reached the finca gates, which were shut initially but then soon opened up for us. An employee said we could camp and phoned the owners on our behalf when we asked if we could have a discount as we were late and would not be using the pool. Unfortunately, they weren’t having it and we ending up paying in full as it was already dark and we didn’t have any choice. On the plus side, the Wi-Fi reached the camper. A rare treat.

It rained all night and it was a good job we had parked on the gravel rather than the field as I think we would have struggled to get out otherwise, despite the fact it was perfectly flat. At least it had been a quiet night, although unfortunately our big bag of washing had got wet, not ideal. Still, we had a big drive to do as we headed out on the last section of tarmacked road to the desert. Our plan was to arrive at one of the first desert spots from the north and then head further in the following day, hopefully to drive a circular route through the Valley of Constellations.

It was a good road south and we drove at a fair pace until we reached our turn off which would divert us through the back roads. Now we hit a potholed dirt road in the afternoon drizzle. Not my favourite driving conditions and while the road was definitely passable, it was very slow going. The sat nav optimistically stated half an hour, it wasn’t a long way after all. We figured at this rate of progress it would take over two hours and we would once again be driving in the night, not something I fancied on this road.

It is possible to continue further down on the main road, but then you not only have to get a ferry across the huge Magdalena river to get back out into the desert, but you also miss out on a rather scenic bridge. Therefore we had planned to take this road, once a former train track, to access the desert. After a bumpy and slippery drive, we reached the train tunnels, a slightly worrying experience on a rough dirt road with our terrible headlights. As we drove through, bats shrieked around us and I was incredibly glad our front LED’s were working.

There are two tunnels before you reach the bridge. This isn’t a problem to cross, especially for a small and relatively lightweight camper like us. It would perhaps be a little scarier in something else, especially something with low clearance as some of the metal panels were bent up, just waiting to rip something off the bottom of your car.

created by dji camera

Luckily for us, once we had crossed the bridge the road conditions drastically improved. We were now on a good solid dirt road and we clawed back some lost time. We passed through the last village, La Victoria and were now close to reaching the desert, the state of the roads confirmed it.

It is possible to drive a circular route here, with some of the best wild camping options. Some other overlanders had expressed their doubts whether Ruby would make it and so we headed for a nice quiet spot, not far down the entry road to the valley. We planned to stay here the night and then scout out the road ahead the next day and see if we could pass. There seemed to be one questionable river crossing we would have to make a call on.

For now, we turned off and headed into the desert, now on a smaller and rougher track again. As it had steadily rained most of the day some of the muddy sections were a little challenging for us, but they were relatively short and so we slithered through and onwards, with the light beginning to fade. After a few kilometres we made it to our spot. It was simply a flat spot slightly above the road that boast a great view out over the desert. Even though it was right by the road, there were no cars in sight. Perfect for the night.

After our first tranquil night, we hoped to drive further on. We spent our morning enjoying the sunshine, as did the cats. The views were beautiful and it was great to be back in nature after two weeks in a big city.

The question was whether we could complete the loop through the desert or whether we would have to drive back out and round. We had been told that if we could make it across the river crossing a few kilometres ahead, then the rest of the route was easier. After it had rained heavily most of the night, I wasn’t particularly optimistic about it but now the sun was out and things were drying out fast. We decided to walk down and see if it was worth trying to drive.

Despite being only about half an hours walk, it was hot. We were used to the cold nights and rain of the higher altitude and to be back close to sea level and hot was a big difference. Before too long, we reach the questionable part. First there is a rather lumpy dried up stream to get over, and then the river itself.

The only challenging part was the opposite bank where to climb back out of the rived bed was very soft sand. The river itself was only a trickle still and we figured that if we laid some branches in the sand to give a bit more grip and stop us sinking, we could make it.

After walking back, we packed away the van ready to try and cross the river. It was near the end of the afternoon and we had given it as much time as possible to dry out. We set off. The first rough bit we went through fine, if a little sideways, before parking up to get ready for the second. We laid old branches across the sand and took the route to the right with the firmer sand. It was a steep bank to get in and I creeped down, not wanting to bury the front bumper in the sand. Lee was in charge of recording it all.

Once on the river bed it was a question of getting the speed just right. Too fast and we’d bounce around all over the place and hit the underneath on the floor. Too slow and we wouldn’t have enough momentum to climb the bank leaving us stuck in very soft sand with no one else around to pull us out. Still, we are pretty good with getting things like this right now.

We have had quite a lot of practice after all and I accelerated across the river bed, backing off the throttle at the last minute to let our speed carry us out through the sand. There was a slight moment when all the branches broke and one wheel dipped into the soft sand where I thought I’d lost it, but we had enough speed to see us through and we were out. Now I hoped our friends were right and that was the worst bit as I didn’t really fancy doing it again.

We headed onwards towards the Valley of Constellations where we planned to spend this night. The great thing about the desert is that you can pretty much just stop anywhere you like. The other great thing is that you don’t need to get away from the road, because no one passes by. Normally we like to tuck ourselves away out of sight, but here it feels so remote that it’s not necessary.

There are some places to stay and little restaurants or swimming pools out here, but we were clearly out of season. Everything was shut up and deserted. Nevertheless we drove on through the beautiful desert with a few more sketchy bits of road too.

A little way past the few buildings and pulled off to the side of the road. Not a single car passed, not even a bike.

We had hoped to see the stars, but we didn’t get the clear sky we had hoped for. Despite the fact that it didn’t rain again, it was a cloudy night and we were driven inside anyway at sunset by clouds of little black bugs that crawled through our hair and got into everything. As the bugs cleared later, we sat back outside, hopeful for a break in the clouds that never came. The cats were also loving it out here and once the heat of the day had dropped we went for a little walk down the road. Lizzie puffing away next to me and Aimee bounding ahead and rolling around in the dust. It was a long time since we had been somewhere suitable to take the cats for a walk and it was nice to see how much they enjoyed it.
We had only allowed to spend two nights here in the desert but we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave just yet. We reckoned we could get in one more night. The areas this desert are most famous for are on the other side of the loop we were driving. Specifically, there’s a grey desert and a red desert. The next day we headed on further down the washed out bumpy road and over perilous cattle grids until we reach a small hike into the grey desert.

We parked up on the roadside and paid 80p each to enter and set off on a little winding trail through the canyon. We were the only people there.

Hanno and Kikki had recommended that we try and eat the fruits of the Melo cactus. That’s the big round cactus that you would imagine if someone said, ‘draw a cactus’. I never knew it had fruits as such or how weirdly satisfying it was to pick them. On top of its fluffy head sprout little pink balls, you pull them out of their little fluffy cushion to reveal the rest of the fruit which tastes a bit like a mushy apple. It oddly fun and I browsed my way along the cacti as we walked on.

We got to a little canyon which was beautiful. A tiny little passageway winding through the rocks, which then opened out onto a big dry riverbed. Nearly dry anyway. While there was definitely no river, the clay mud stuck to your shoes turning them into huge heavy lumps of mud which you had try and scrape off whenever you saw a good rock. The signs too which were frequent at the start, had disappeared.

We wandered on a bit further, hoping we were going in vaguely the right direction. Out here there was no signal to load a route map. Then we spotted another sign and began to loop back around to the road. It’s only about an hour or so walk, but actually even more scenic than I expected.

Now we were getting into the more touristy part of the desert where supposedly wild camping is not permitted. To avoid paying for an unnecessary site, we drove on a little further before turning off down a small side road and once again parking up on a beautiful vista.

We took the cats for another walk around, this time in the dusk. I would be sad to leave the next day.

Before we left, we still needed to visit the most famous part. The red desert. This is only a ten minute drive away and we paid to park up amongst the restaurants that now surrounded us. It was a Saturday and we wanted to be in and out before the tourists arrived. We wandered along the edge, with these fantastic views out over a martian landscape.

It seemed like you were probably meant to have a pointless guide, but we found an open trail and went off by ourselves. Soon we were hidden from sight behind the great red monoliths as we wandered through them. It was a beautiful place and a big contrast to the rest of the desert we had visited.

I could have stayed, I love the desert and I always feel a bit cheated of time when we visit them. Hopefully Peru will make up for that. We needed to keep moving, we had 5 days left before we needed to cross the border and over 500km still to drive. That’s a lot on Colombian roads.

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