Colombia: Disierto De La Tatacoa & San Agustín

Disierto De La Tatacoa

Friday, 13 June 2008, Ibarra, Ecuador
Sometimes we thought it would never happen, but we have eventually left Bogotá for the last time. Now we are in Ecuador, but this report will cover our last 2 weeks in Colombia. There was still so much to see in this amazing country, and I'm sure we missed some great parts, but you just can't see everything, especially when you spend more than 2 months in and out of workshops. We hope that is behind us now, but we are not so sure as there are a couple of things concerning us at the moment with the truck. I am not going to go into that now, because we have had enough reports full of truck trouble lately. Let me just bring the highlights of our time in Southern Colombia on the way to Ecuador.
The first of these was the Tatacoa Desert. Juergen and Eli had told us of this place when we met them in Bogotá, and we are glad they did. To reach the desert we had to drive through Neiva - a town which seems to have some sort of beautification project happening, with numerous large pieces of artwork placed on specially designed paved terraces. It must cost quite a bit of money to set these things up, and therefore the roads in the town are absolutely terrible! When we got out of the truck to look for an office, to send a fax, and a supermarket, the over-riding impression was of a 'red-neck' (as we like to say at home) frontier town.
From Neiva it is necessary to drive north again along the River Magdalena, which we had been following from Girardot and would continue to follow until San Agustín. We were headed toward Villavieja, a sleepy little colonial town, which is the gateway to the desert. It is possible to take a guide from there into the desert, and a couple approached us, but when we let it be known that we weren't interested in hiring, they stayed and talked to us about the desert, passing on some useful information.
The desert is a bit of an anomaly, but geography, and the resulting meteorology, is not my strong point - something to do with the mountains stopping the rain from falling in any quantity here, or something like that. (I'm sure Google or Wikipedia will lead you to a very clear explanation if you are interested!) It has an area less than Bogotá, but is definitely worth the visit. The initial view on entering was of red eroded structures, not dissimilar to what we had experienced in Utah, particularly at Bryce Canyon, although it looks like it will need a few centuries to be as spectacular as we found that to be. At the entrance there is also an observatory. Originally we had thought to stay there but it was early afternoon and we continued on into the desert. It changes from red to grey a few kilometres in, but still similar eroded structures. The road is narrow and dirt but not in bad condition, and it was by far preferable to us than the multi-lane highways full of smelly buses, aggressive taxis and unconcerned motorbike riders, we had been experiencing for far too long!
Cacti are in plentiful supply and of a wide variety. One of our favourites was a ball shaped one that sits on the ground and produces the most beautiful and delicate pink flowers. At the campsite we chose we were surprised to find a large cactus that was host to a plethora of bromeliads, usually found in host trees in the rainforest - seemed a bit of a contradiction, but then it must rain here sometimes to produce the eroded scenery. Our campsite had a great outlook and was so quiet and dark at night that we both slept better than we had in a very long time. There were a few cows, goats and horses wandering around but their quiet grazing wasn't a disturbance. On the second day we went to a swimming pool that, it is claimed, is full of water that takes 100 years to rise to the surface of the earth and is supposed to be very healthy, if not a 'fountain of youth'. It was very pleasant to lie around in, but I don't feel the years dropping off as a result. We also drove back to the observatory, to get a closer look at the eroded, red area, and thinking we might stay the night to take the opportunity to look at the stars through the telescope. Unfortunately we had arrived on a long weekend and most of the available space at the observatory and across the road at the lookout was full with tent campers. Since we enjoyed our sleep so much the first night, we returned to our campsite and spent another blissful night. The sky was very clear that night and we were content to see the stars without the assistance of a telescope. It would have been nice to spend longer in this desert, but our time in Colombia was running out and there were still some places we wanted to visit.
The next of these was San Agustín and, against our expectations, we arrived there in one day from the desert. There is only one reason to visit this town, and that is to check out the archaeological finds. In the area around San Agustín they have discovered hundreds of carved stone statues, often connected in some way with elaborate tombs, some of which date back to 3300 BC. We visited the Parque Arqueologico just outside the town, and were most impressed. There are several sites, in the main part of the park, which are comprised of tombs and statues, displayed where they were discovered. From there you walk down to the Fuente de Lavapatas, where you find some very intricate carvings in the stone stream bed. Nobody seems to know the purpose of this artwork, but the water appears to have been channelled through it. Now they have it diverted around to preserve the carvings. Then we walked - well I walked and Juergen stopped part way - to the top of a hill called Alto de Lavapatas, another site preserved where it was found. The statues were not that impressive and there were only a few of them, but the 360° view of the surrounding countryside was really spectacular.
But in particular we really liked the 'Bosque de las Estatuas', where found statues have been relocated to a path through a small rain forest. Since it was so late in the day when we first saw them, we went back a couple of days later around midday to have a better look and try for some better photos. When we had arrived at the park on the first visit, we had been advised to go to the museum first, then to the rest of the park and finally to the Bosque, which is right next to the museum. Since we were held up for close to an hour waiting out a rain storm, it was after 5.00 when we arrived back at the Bosque. Our advice for anyone going to the park would be to visit the Bosque in the middle of the day because the trees make it quite dark, so you will get a better view and much better photos with the midday light. Juergen also took his tripod on our second visit, which helped to improve the quality of our photos. We still had our tickets from our first visit and the guards happily let us in for free to re-visit the Bosque.
There are other archaeological sites near to San Agustín, as well as some spectacular scenery, including waterfalls and the narrows of the Rio Magdalena, somewhere close to its source. We kept waiting for the promise of a fine day to book a tour with a jeep so that we didn't have to drive the roads. Unfortunately the rain was fairly persistent and, after 5 days in San Agustín, we decided it was time to leave. The next phase of our journey would take us along a very poor road to Popayán, where we would join the Pan-American Highway for the first time in Colombia to drive to the border of Ecuador. We had heard that the road was so bad that even though it only covered somewhere around 120 kilometres it would take the locals 5-6 hours to complete. So we left San Agustín last Friday afternoon and travelled the first 20-something kilometres to Isnos.
This allowed us to first of all see one of the local waterfalls - Salto del Mortiño - and then go on to another of the local archaeological sites - Alto de los Idolos. The waterfall is actually quite impressive - it drops 300m - and the locals, who charge 1000 pesos per person to enter, have constructed a small viewing platform as well as some benches to sit and take in the view. This was a pleasant little detour. We arrived at Alto de los Idolos at around 3:40. I asked the guard what time they closed for the day and how long it would take to view everything at the site. The answer was that it would take an hour and that they close at 4:30, but he waved us in and welcomed us. We were the only visitors to sign into the park that day. It is a bit of a walk, almost straight up, to reach the site. It consists mostly of excavated tombs and the stone statues guarding them. We were most impressed by this site, maybe even more so than the Park in San Agustín, since the excavations, some being quite recent, are largely intact and it is possible to see how the tombs really would have been.
When we arrived we had asked if it was ok to park and sleep in front of the gate and when we returned from walking around the site, a whole group of people gathered at the camper, among them the boss of the park. He made us feel very welcome and told us to just ask if there was something we needed. We spent a very pleasant half hour or so chatting with these people about our journey and ourselves. Our Spanish must be getting a bit better because they were making jokes a lot of the time and sometimes we could understand them.
It was a reasonably quiet night but it finished early with a never ending parade of Chivas and motorbikes passing along the road by the camper. When we took a look we realised that it must be market day in Isnos, seeing how the Chivas were loaded up. (Up until we left Bogotá towards the south we had only known Chivas as tourist buses, but more and more we see them on country roads as the basis of the public transport system. Since then we have also seen them doubling as transporters of goods, passing more than one which is absolutely packed with boxes and sacks rather than passengers.) There were also a number of horses passing by, carting sugar cane to the local mill which was just down the road.

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