From Metropolis to the Moon… El Desierto Tatacoa

One of the things I have found most empowering as a cyclist in the America’s is just how quickly it’s possible to move between completely different environments and ecosystems. With just the energy in my legs and my incredible bike Shermy, I have discovered the ability to move between more than just places. Sometimes it almost feels as if I’m transporting myself between worlds. Descending down from the snows of the Californian Sierra Nevada into my first experience of desert remains one of my most enduring memories on the road. Such opportunities to quickly move from one extreme landscape and climate to another are far from rare in the United States and a major reason why the country holds a special place in my heart. In that time I learnt just how small the world can be and just how big the bicycle is. I have long adored mountains and since that first escapade in the U.S. I have grown incredibly fond of the desert environment. So when taking my tour back on the road after Bogotá, the Tatacoa desert was the obvious direction in which to head.

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The Moon as seen from the observatory in the Tatacoa desert

Cycling out of Bogotá was a chore made infinitely more bearable due to the companionship of my Bogotá host Javier. Being able to follow Javier’s wheel freed me up to concentrate on avoiding other vehicles and the inordinate amount of broken glass all over the place. We rode fifteen miles before the city released us into a dramatic deep canyon. There the heavily polluted Bogotá River tumbled over a hundred feet down through the low clouds. My route followed the river for a distance and as it fell I fell too, descending thousands of feet in no time. After Javier turned back towards Bogotá I snaked down through the towns of El Colegio, Viota and Tocaima before coming to rest in the heat of Agua de Dios. From there it was hot flat mainly highway riding until I turned off towards Pata. A lancha (boat) across the Rio Magdalena and things suddenly got a whole lot more interesting. A dirt road took me through La Victoria and gradually into the Tatacoa Desert.

Map - Bogota to Neivac

My route from Bogotá in the north to Neiva in the south

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Elevation profile from Bogotá to Neiva

The Tatacoa desert is reportedly about 330 square kilometers in area. It’s dry climate comes from a combination of low altitude and the surrounding mountains that pull rain their way. But rain does come (I know, it rained on me) and when it does the water cuts into the clay soil, carving out a network of gullies. Although not on any grand scale, these gullies are still quite distinctive, combining with the cacti to create a typical desert landscape. At this time of year (December) there is still quite a lot of greenery around so the feeling of being marooned in the desert never really materialized for me. Still, that is all part of the charm of Tatacoa, the Valley of Sadness. Another very distinctive charm is the Astrological observatory. Being so close to the equator and free from light pollution, the desert is ideally positioned for star-gazing. Every night between 7 and 9 there are talks given in Spanish and the chance to look through three large telescopes. Unfortunately my group only got ten minutes of clear sky before the clouds rolled in but that was plenty long enough to get some great photos of the moon and take a closer look as Venus among other things.

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About 20 miles out of Bogotá I found myself riding a large cloud filled canyon, complete with tumbling waterfalls

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As the road dropped the land became flatter and flatter, and greener and greener

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My name is Nathan Haley… I stayed here in Agua de Dios

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Leaving Agua de Dios in the rain the road was in some places more river than road

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The epitome of cycling drudgery… flat, straight, hot, highway riding… still it gets you places

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Turning off highway 45 towards Pata things suddenly looked a little more interesting

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Crossing the river to reach La Victoria is a boat not bridge affair

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And here’s the friendly and stylish lancha pilot

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A muddy push from the banks of the river and I’m finally back on dirt

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Joining the main road into La Victoria

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In La Victoria I feast on helado as flies feast on me

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Then as the road leaves La Victoria things start looking increasingly deserted

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The ground starts to do weird and wonderful things…

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… the road bobs and weaves… and I’m in the Tatacoa desert

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Before reaching Villavieja the dirt road intersects with pavement… a left turn and a few miles and the true glory of Tatacoa starts to reveal itself

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About three miles from the intersection the landscape starts getting a little more adventurous

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A couple of miles past the observatory and the desert changes character again

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I choose to stay at Constantino… about 2.5 miles past the observatory and down a dirt track this secluded spot boasts a natural (chemical free) pool

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Preparing for rain and hoping for shade I pitch up under cover

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In the evening I enjoy the 2.5 mile dirt road ride back to the observatory in the dark

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Where I’m treated to some breathtaking views of the moon before the clouds take the fun away

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After a nighttime skinny dip in the pool and a slow morning, it’s time to make the 6.5 miles trip back to Villavieja

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Classic desert soon gives way to very undesert like greenery…

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… then the river reappears…

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… and Villavieja emerges from the greenery

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It seems no trip to a town or village is complete without snapping its church… they are often the only feature that set one town apart from another

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Then from Villavieja its about 35 km of pavement to reach the department capital of Neiva… there are few ups and downs and some interesting features to brighten the hot ride

I had planned to venture west up into the mountains from Neiva where I know there is some quite special riding to be done. However, in the last hour my plans have changed. I’ll have to make do with Cass Gilbert’s fantastic account of that route  as I’ll be taking the main road to San Agustin. My old riding partner Jens has wound up living in Popayan and we’ve arranged to meet in San Agustin in few days time. It’s always a hard decision to pass up amazing routes but I figure that is something a cyclist does everyday in South America. I also know that this week I’ll have forging quickly south on the main roads is going to buy me some time to explore the dirt roads of northern Ecuador before my sister arrives in January. There are definitely some exciting times ahead as the road now promises old friends as well as new.

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