Astronomy Lessons in Desierto Tatacoa, Colombia
There’s something magical about Colombia that I am hesitant to share with the rest of the world. Against better judgement, I feel compelled to give away this little secret I’ve been sharing verbally amongst friends and travelers when the topic of discussion turns to travel. I bestow this to you, the reader, today. This photo essay will hopefully shed light on how diverse, amazing, and unbridled the natural setting of Colombia truly is. For anyone who has the time and ambition to seek out this treasure I’ve been illustrating with my images and conveying with my words I say this to you; hop on a bus in Colombia, and pick any place on the map roughly 8-12 hours distance from your position and the truth will be revealed.
Just one bus ride away from the fertile, green mountainous region of the Zona Cafetera exists Desierto Tatacoa. Wanderlust, along with the primal need to continue, helped us to leave behind the supremely relaxing vibe of our hillside farm hostel and go straight into the dry, hot air of Colombia’s 2nd largest arid region (the 1st being the Guajira Peninsula). This region behaves by any normal standards as a desert, but is technically a tropical dry forest. Fossils have helped geologists realize that the area used to be home to plants, flowers, and trees that have gradually been dried out, giving way to cacti and other desert plants that can survive in the extreme heat and lack of natural precipitation. This change in the climate was noticed immediately as we descended down from the cool, temperate mountains and found ourselves in vast flat, rust colored valleys with silent red and gray mountain peaks on the horizon.
We had been hopping on and off small van buses from Salento and made the mistake of asking our driver for his opinion on where we should get off to grab a connection to Tatacoa. Our route had us heading past Tatacoa on the main road and then getting off at a hub in a small village to catch a collectivo back to the Tatacoa. Our driver stated we could get off at a small town before our intended destination and shave about an hour off the trip. At that point the sun was sinking slowly in the dry desert sky, and we decided to go with the drivers advice to save a little time. We watched the van pull away and disappear into the distance while we started walking with our bags into a tiny little town literally in the middle of nowhere. Tiendas appeared here and there, people gave us passing smiles partnered with looks of curiosity, certainly because of our presence. In the middle of the town there was a loud demonstration, with what looked like the entire village in attendance. We silently scanned the scene, looking specifically for the collectivo van that our bus driver led us to believe would be there. After asking a few questions to the right people we found out that collectivo route doesn’t exist because a bridge collapsed during a recent flood. So there we were again; stuck in a tiny Colombian town with no accommodations, heavy backpacks weighing our backs down towards the cruel cobblestone streets, with our destination apparently just out of reach. Then, like magic, a stranger appeared that was some sort of town official and said there was a solution to our problem. According to him, there is 1 boat that leaves at sundown along the river, which was a short hike through fields on the edge of the town. He told us that it was not safe for us to walk alone on this route with our gigantic tourist bulls eyes on each of our backs. He mentioned there was a woman who was in town selling bread and that she always takes the boat back in the evening to Tatacoa at sundown. We faithfully followed the man through side streets and small plazas, watching him as he greeted people he knew along the way. Then the town ended, and nature was in front of us. We wandered along a path that cut through fields, fences, and streams complete with bridges on the brink of collapsing. After a while we arrived at a large meandering river that separates Tatacoa from the main road. Waiting patiently by the smooth, rounded stones was an elderly Colombian man donning a cowboy hat and a toothy grin inside his little fishing boat. Magico. We paid him a dollar or two and waited until the lady selling bread appeared. We set off on the river while the sunset was turning orange and red, whisked downstream by a fragile motor on a handmade wooden boat, chatting with the bread lady. The boat pulled up to the edge of the river, and our food bag tipped over exposing a few Granadias. Our driver asked for one as part of his payment, which we were more than happy to give.
As fate would have it, the bread lady knew the astronomer which we sought out, and also knew where we could hang our hats for the night. She dropped us off at a family friend’s house, which was a beautiful colonial complex with the quintessential large, leafy garden in the middle of the premises. We were shown our room, and then they gave us directions to get to the astronomer’s house. The family pulled us into their home and their hearts. They pulled out family albums and proudly showed us every picture they had of every birthday celebration for each of the children and grandchildren. We got to look right through their eyes and into their souls, getting an idea of what life would be like growing up in this isolated community. Afterwards, we wandered around the tiny cobble streets of this dimly lit, sleepy desert town on a warm, soft night until we found the home we were after. His wife answered the door and kindly told us that her husband was at the observatory in the desert giving one of his infamous astronomy lessons in the crisp, cloudless sky. The natural beauty of the desert and the lure of the astronomer were the main reasons we sought this destination. Our friends Bob and Rebecca had told us it was one of their favorite memories of Colombia, and we had to find this man and see the stars with him. We made plans to return in the morning to meet this internationally known interstellar guru and gave way to the slow pace of a hot summer night in the main plaza watching kids play soccer.
It was the middle of the slow season in a tiny town that survives on tourism. Needless to say, we stuck out like sore thumbs. We were approached by nearly every person with a motorcycle, taxi, or motorized golf cart about taking us on a desert tour. The prices were very high for what we heard transportation should cost, and we kindly told them all we had already made arrangements. After breakfast, we went back to the Astronomer’s house and finally met the man we were looking for. In traditional Colombian style, he quickly welcomed us into his home, gave us cold ice water, and introduced us to his family. His little home office boasted images of far off galaxies, pictures of him at different observatories around the world, all underneath a model of our solar system hanging from the ceiling complete with planets and moons. We made a deal to rent some camping gear, store our bags at his home, and got his friend to transport us out of town and into the desert for a quarter of the price we were getting from other guides. He was very interested in what we had to tell him, and we were reeling from his stories and kindness. It was obvious why he chose to live in such an isolated, tiny town; the arid, almost moisture free air allowed for a crystal clear look into the night skies. The closest city was Neiva, and, at almost 30 miles away, there is very little light pollution to artificially brighten up the night sky. He was also a professor at the university there, and gave night time lessons on the side.
A moto pulled up to his house about the time he said it would and an older Colombian with a baseball cap shook our hands. He took Elissa off into the distance and said he’d be back for me in 15 minutes. Like clockwork, he was back. There was only one road going out of town into the desert, and we quickly left the little town in the dust. Fields of cacti and very lean looking cattle hugged the road until the landscape began melting into oozing, mini canyons that the area is known for. It felt like a trick of the eye, massive mountains and valleys shrunk down to miniature portions, so small you could conquer each ridge with 2 or 3 steps upward. The scenery kept getting better as my moto sped through the hot, relentless afternoon glaze. He pulled up to a white washed building that behaved as the area’s visitor center run by a family who have lived in the desert their whole lives. Beyond the visitor’s center was the observatory, whose stout white washed walls rose from the rust colored landscape. A large metal dome that certainly housed a powerful research telescope sat proudly on top.
Elissa was already chatting up the owners of the visitor center and making friends with their children. They took us over to a vista across the road to watch the sunset over the strange world in front of us. The melted landscape turned pink as the sun sunk slowly over the parched, melted lands. We scuttled back to the observatory where we set up the tent we rented in an alcove under the stairs. The sky turned purple to black, and then became illuminated by some of the brightest burning suns I’ve ever seen. Everywhere in sight were twinkling, white lights with swirling masses of galaxies in the background. There wasn’t a single piece of light pollution from a building, car, or cell phone. It felt like we had found some more magic in this country.
The family that housed us passed us along to some of their relatives who were going to cook us up a hearty desert meal. We used flashlights to guide our way down the road, keeping an eye open for any sort of slithery creatures that might cross our path. The kids we made friends with walked us over to their cousin’s place, which was pitch black except for the main house in the kitchen area. The home was made of wooden posts buried beneath mud and earth, which acts as a natural insulator in the unrelentingly hot climate. The mother was preparing a meal for us using the 1 light that was turned on, powered by a gasoline generator. They brought us over to another dark earth built home, and we kept our lights on while waiting for a hot meal to come miraculously out of the middle of the desert. Then the 2nd generator came on, and all the kids of the house went wild with delight. They immediately turned the TV on and rejoiced at the gift of electricity. Hot papas y carne hit the table in front of us and we feasted with the kids.
Our astronomy lesson had finally arrived, and we were eager to hear about the celestial knowledge that the astronomer had to bestow upon us. A small class of high school students were waiting when we got back to the observatory and we were going to piggyback their lesson. The astronomer gave a brief introduction and began tracing constellations with a powerful green laser pointer that went all the way out into the cosmos. The lesson was totally in Spanish, but we picked up as much as we could (scientific language in Spanish es muy dificile) and watched as he danced around Orion’s belt, Leo the Lion, and the Big Dipper. Large telescopes were focused on the closest planets and interesting features of the night sky while each of us waited our turn to take a look. The lesson ended with a small speech about the vast night skies and their meaning for our existence.. at least I think it was.
It rained that night for the first time in about 5 months. We know this because it blew into our tent sideways and onto our foreheads on and off throughout the night. We tried moving the tent around but it was too hot to hide under the roof. I woke up at the crack of dawn, and walked into the muddy canyons to see them in the early light. I damn near lost my boots in some of the thick, gooey rivers of mud that melted off the landscape from the molded clay landscape. Foot prints in the muck before me let me know that others had the same idea. Signs warned visitors to not get lost, which was a stark reminder of the truths that living in a landscape like this has. I scrambled around the red, hardened clay cliffs, admiring the beautifully bizarre landscape from as many different vantage points as I could find.
We spent another afternoon in town, and returned back to the astronomer’s house to trade his camping gear for our backpacks. Him and his wife treated us well again, and the conversation turned from his own travels to mini Colombian church collections to earthquakes with only the ease that friendly Spanish can bring to the surface. Soft tongues mixed with kind smiles passed back and forth on that hot and steamy morning. It was surprisingly sad to say goodbye to the tiny, beautiful little town in the desert. In one of our last moments in the small town I spotted a poster that spelled out how small and connected Colombia truly felt. Right there in the middle of a “Travel Colombia” poster we saw the same farmer that we met deep in the mountains of El Cocuy, beaming on top of his horse in front of the very same setting we met him within. I couldn’t even begin to tell you the feelings this poster stirred in my heart. We left the desert thirsty, and satisfied that Colombia would take care of that need no matter where we landed.