Desierto de la Tatacoa

 

We already visited the Caribbean coast of Colombia, cloud forest and jungle, climbed up to mountains over 4 000 meter above sea level, visited many cities and experienced other highlights in this huge country. 

 

During the last 6 months we had never seen a desert. Therefore, it was time to see one. 

 

We visited the Desierto de la Tatacoa, a two-coloured stone desert in the middle of the country. 

 

Walking around at a place which can have temperatures over 50•C and watching stars without any light pollution  was a great experience! 

 

 

After a long bus drive, from Bogotá over Neiva, we arrived in the Tatacoa Desert, in the Huila department. The travel took more than 9 hours and descended from 2500 down to 450 meters over sea level. The desert Tatacoa is 3• north of the equator. 

We stayed for two nights.

 

The desert is extending over an area of 330km² and has two colours, ochre and gray. The ochre desert was only a short walkway from our hostel and easy to visit alone. Nevertheless, we visited both deserts with Juan, a local guide who lives in Villavieja. 

 

Thousands of years ago, during the Tertiary Period, this area was under water and a part of an ocean. There are still plenty of fossils in this region.

 

Afterwards, a forest with many flowers covered this area, before the region started to dry out.

 

Now, the vegetation has changed into a semi-dry tropical forest with cactuses.


Because of the special location of the desert, between two mountain ranges, this region lies in a rain shadow: there are only 1000 mm of rainfall per year.

 

The heat can reach temperatures over 50•C during noon. We are lucky that we visited this place in the Colombian winter, when the temperatures are lower. Anyway, we still felt the heat during noon.

 

The rare rainfall has created impressive formations and canyons which are more than 20m deep. Those canyons created a huge labyrinth in the desert which is fun to explore.

Besides the cactuses, other plants like trees and bushes still exist in the desert, an old relict of a time when the desert wasn't that dry. Those plants have 30m long horizontal and 15m long vertical roots. Their roots are protecting the underground from the erosion.

The main species of plants are cactuses. About three species exist in the desert. One species can reach a height over five meters and an age over 200 years (photos above).

They only grow 1cm per year and are perfectly adapted in this dry environment. Others of them had flowers and its chili-shaped fruit (photos below) are eatable. 


The roots holding on to the soil create huge walls, called "towers". When the plants die and disappear, the erosion is destroying the tower, washing out the soil and creating long colums, called "cathedrals" (see photo above).

 

The desert is the habitat of several species of snakes, turtles, spiders, scorpions, rodents and birds. Unfortunately, we only saw, besides the birds, some lizzards (photo below).

 

The only mammals we saw were groups of goats which were wandering in the desert and grazing on every bush. An adaptation of the plants to the grazing are thorns behind every leaf. 

The minerals which  get washed out by the rain, are colouring the Tatacoa desert in ochre, in the Cuzco zone (photos left) and the grey, in the Los Hoyos Zone (photos below).

 

Iron is the main mineral in the ochre desert and determine the colour. White stripes in the middle of the hills are Potassium. In the ground is Magnesium.


 

In the grey there is no iron anymore. Instead of that, sulfur and potassium are colouring the desert grey. Another difference between the grey and the red desert, besides the colour, is the influence of water.

 

The grey desert gets more affected by the rainfall and the underground water. During the rain season, it is possible that a river develops (photo right) and we found several places where water came out of the soil.

 

Some locals took advantage of this phenomen and had a creative buisness idea. In the middle of the grey desert, the built a pool which gets recharged by underground water. It was the end station of our trip: a refreshment in the pool.

For me, the highlight of our trip was the observatory in the evening.

The astronomer Javier F. gave us an introduction about what stars are and showed us how strong the light pollution is. We were hundreds of kilometers away from Bogotá, Popayán and Cali but we still saw the light pollution as orange balls on the horizon.

 

Afterwards, he explained where we can find the planets like Venus and Mars in our orbit, where the star signs are and told us the old story about them.

 

Unfortunately, clouds arrived and closed the starry sky at the end of the show. This also made it impossible for me to get a photo which I wanted a lot, the milky way in the desert. 

 

Summary

 

The desert Tatacoa was a nice experience!

 

I'm happy we came to this special place and visited a completely different landscape from those we had seen during the last six months.

 

The desert has very interesting forms and canyons which were perfect for nice photos.

It was good to have a guided tour, to get all the information and to see all the important places in the desert.

 

The only negative things about the desert is the heat and the complete silence in the middle of the desert during noon.

 

The highlight was the observatory in the desert, but unfortunately, clouds made it impossible to get any good photos of the desert with the milky way above.

 


 

Twitch Twitch

 

About 79 species of birds exist in the Tatacoa Desert and of course I was excited to see which species there are. The birds were using all the different biotopes. Most of them were hidden in bushes during the noon and only came out in the morning or evening when the temperature went down.

 

The most common species in the desert were falcons, caracaras and vultures. I observed as well many pigeons and flycatchers in the Tatacoa desert..

 

The american kestrel was breeding in the walls of the desert and the juveniles just came out of the nest. Plenty of them were hunting, screaming and sitting on every corner.

 

 

Of course there also exist some species of hummingbirds in the desert. I got some good photos, they just sat down in front of me. The brilliant shining feathers of the hummingbird in the desert sun  remembered me why I love them. 

 

 

 

Same same but different view