From big city Bogota to star-soaked Tatacoa (little Arizona)

In this chapter, Arnaud is mistaken for Japanese and I’m likened to Jesus (by someone who’d had a revelation that the saviour would return to his town, no less), as we leave Bogota and make our way to the star-soaked Desierto de la Tatacoa, en route to the Ecuadorian border.

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Finally escaping the clutches of Bogota after a hearty departing lunch with our hosts, we battled through the capital's sprawling fringes for a couple of polluted hours. That evening, our campspot was perched on the lip of a seemingly never ending descent, with this cloud inversion as our end-of-day view. It was good to be back on the road...

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Gone were the flash BMWs of the big city (I even saw an Aston Martin), replaced by my favourite quirky, colourful jeeps. I like the matching wheel hubs on this one, and the strategic, colour co-ordinated parking.

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Peligro! Danger! Thankfully, Colombia has proved to be quite the opposite. A country of overwhelming hospitality, we've camped almost every night of the trip - generally on the land of a ranch or finca - and been welcomed in at every moment.

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People love to stop for a chat, and finding out our stories. Like Horatio, who flagged us down in the street and took us to eat fruit and meet his family. Drawing us aside, he also informed us the end of the Earth was scheduled for December 24th 2017. According to his three vivid dreams, Europe would unfortunately not be faring well. Christ would be returning to his village, Agua de Dios, a former leprosy colony.

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More tasty roadside treats. A fresh catch, strung up like a wiggling pendulum.

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Leaving paved backroads behind, we picked up a dirt road towards Suarez. It ran parallel to the main highway on the other side of the Magdalena, Colombia's longest river and the source of all the flooding back in Mompos.

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Although was good to be traffic-free again, our track turned out to be hotter, rockier, dustier and more rolling than we'd hoped for. Across the Magdanela, it looked temptingly flat.

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Still, our bone-rattling route led us to the little community of Ato Viejo, where we pitched our tents in the football field.

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A group of villagers had soon gathered, including Raul, who brought eggs and a spring onion to add to our meagre supplies. We chatted for much of the evening, learning about the FARC (the leftist revolutionary army that still pocks the mountains), and his stint as a coco leaf picker. The next morning, he appeared bearing yet more gifts: 'tinto' (coffee), delicious lentils with rice and juicy and a couple of plump, organic mangos.

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Just as we were leaving, Arnaud was asked for one last glimpse of the contents of the Pod, namely the Marvellous Primus Multi Fuel stove. This device has been the source of much interest, and no doubt envy, wherever we set up home for the night.

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Even though it meant leaving dirt behind, we were advised to cross the river at Ato Viejo and rejoin the main road, as the area we were heading for was a Zona Roja - a Red Zone. Guerilla strongholds are constantly shifting, so it's hard to know whether or not it would have been an issue. We decided to heed their advice.

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Luckily, traffic on the highway was light, and there was a shoulder to protect us from the ancient Ford and Chevy trucks that clattered by. I'm no fan of counting down the miles on a strip of pavement, though at least we could make up some 'lost' time in backroad investigation.

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It also offered to benefits of Ride By fruit stands that promise endless refreshments. The two massive, baby-head sized mangos we bought were even peeled and chopped up for us. The contents seemed to almost half fill a carrier bag. It was culinary bliss. Every piece was a taste sensation. At the risk of sounding obsessional, I need to stress how amazing these mangos were...

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Another new fruit, Anon. When they're ripe, they almost fall open in your hand. Sweet, but a little fiddly to eat with their black seeds that need to be spat out. Raul had already given us half a dozen (set to rippen at different times over the ensuing days), so our supplies did not need to be replenished quite yet.

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Nor did we need the spikeyness that is the Guanaban, which makes a lovely fruit drink.

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Had we been in the market for a druids hat, however, this would have been the lady to see.

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Once more, Colombian hospitality has proved to be overwhelming. These (brakeless) bicycle riding kids directed us to the football pitch in dusty La Victoria, where we camped for the night. By the time darkness had fallen and we were cooking, I counted 35 faces, gathered in a tight knot around us, transfixed by our every move. Ice cold beakers of juice and a mango were our gifts for the evening.

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Then we were back on dirt and heading for the Tatacoa desert. This location, as our guidebook informed us, is the best places in Colombia for star gazing, and the backdrop for one of Shakira's early music videos.

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Back to the land of parched plains and pointy-fingered saguaros, a world away from the high altitude, pine covered topography of the last couple of weeks. From beaches to Amazon to desert to mountains, Colombia is a country of incredibly diverse ecosystems.

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It was like being on the Great Divide mountain bike ride again. And that's a good thing.

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Traffic...

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A local diner. Love the decor.

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On offer were these banana-leaf wrapped Tamales (rice, corn, peas and lumps of chicken). A heartily filling meal for less than a dollar.

Breakfast came served with this fresh lemon juice.

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Temptation... All those dirt roads...

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Big skies.

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Arnaud opens it up as we head into the Desierto de la Tatacoa - the Valley of Sorrows.

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I could have been back in Arizona, looking out towards giant, termite-like mounds of sculpted ocher sand and rock, within which sprouted islands of cacti.

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Close to the observatory (where we later watched a ringed Saturn glide across the sky), we met these two Colombian bike tourers, who told us about a cool hangout, El Penon de Constantino. Just few kilometres away down a dirt road and across a rickey bridge, it was worth checking out despite the baking heat.

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The dirt road...

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The rickety bridge.

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And the hangout. My 5000 pesos (less than three dollars) covered a spot for the tent, a tasty guayabana juice on arrival and use of this refeshing pool. We even had the fine company of footloose and fancyfree hitchiker Gabrielle, who had travelled down from Canada.

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With more romantic company than Arnaud, and I might have upgraded to one of these groovy little huts dotted about the land.

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Not a bad spot for a dorm.

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Perched up on stilts, it was simple and open plan.

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I'd have been delighted to spend the night here, looking straight out into the desert upon opening my eyes.

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But the alternative was even better. A finer camping spot I could not have hoped for...

Route thoughts:

There are two roads out of Bogota. We took the older one, via La Mesa, which we were told would be quieter. Then we cut away from the main road via Agua de Dios, picking up a dirt track parallel to the main road towards Suarez. This proved to be rough going and potentially sketchy security wise, so we took a boat (1000 pesos/50c) across the Magdalena and hopped back on the highway. Before Neiva, we turned off onto a dirt road, via La Victoria, to El Desierto de la Tatacoa. It’s well worth the detour for peace, tranquility and star gazing. From there, a paved backroad lead all the way to Neiva.

13 thoughts on “From big city Bogota to star-soaked Tatacoa (little Arizona)

  1. Susis Moberly

    Great photographs and words as always… I am amazed by the hospitality since I heard Colombia IS such a hostile place. You have proved all those rumours wrong… keep the stories coming as I enjoy every bit of your dirt track adventures… and GOOD LUCK X

    Reply
  2. Eric

    I guess the only question I have is: did you like the mangoes?

    Also, if you’d like I will return with you one day to El Penon for romanticism purposes.

    Reply
  3. bpdlr

    Hi Cass,

    I watched a great film about Colombia the other day, “The 2 Escobars” – it deals with the drug trafficking and how drug money got into football, created an amazing national team which then went to the ’94 World Cup. Do you remember at the time how news reports said that some Colombian players had been threatened with death unless they won? And then Andres Escobar scored an own goal…

    A very revealing and touching film, I hope you get to see it sometime. Pablo Escobar was – and still is – vilified as a “drug baron”, but also did a lot to help the community – a lot of those football fields you see dotted around small, poor towns were built by him.

    Also, that fruit – oh, memories! These are the same fruit I was brought up on – big Julie mangoes, Sugar Apples (what you call “Anon”) and Soursops (“Guanaban”). In fact, some of the most envy-inducing photos you take are of all the food you come across!

    Keep it up dude!

    Reply
    1. otbiking Post author

      I{d love to see that documentary – I{d heard about Escobar{s projects in Medellin. He still did some pretty dark stuff though… I was talking about the famous own goal to a Colombian the other day, and the unfortunate ensuing retribution. Everyone is very curious about the European perception of Colombia. They know they live in an incredible, beautiful country, tainted by its reputation to outsiders. Hollywood probably doesn{t help…

      Reply

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