Bike Touring Colombia – Ibague to Neiva via the Tatacoa Desert
To make up some time, Janet and I had planned to ride a bus through the “boring” (as we perceived it) low, flatlands. Our perspective on the lower regions is that they are hot, bear a greater risk for contracting disease, and have a higher probability of encountering crime. Furthermore, we both love wondering “what’s around the next corner?” Mountain roads give us twists and turns – mysterious corners – whereas lowland roads are often straight lines.
Our plan changed when we met Scott and Sue. We found this cycling pair to be extremely compatible with our personalities and touring style. We like the same aspects of travel as they do, and they had lots of great stories to keep us entertained. They told us that there was something to see along the route from Ibague to Neiva – the Tatacoa Desert. I checked my Footprint brand guidebook again, and sure enough: a mere two lines had been dedicated to this destination. It did not even appear in the index.
We decided to go see the desert, and although it was hot and difficult, we’re absolutely glad we made the effort! The Tatacoa desert is named after the Tatacoa snake which is now extinct. This “desert” is really considered to be a dry tropical forest – though it sure looks like a desert to me.
There are two main routes coming from the North. The first route, which I call the “full desert” has you exit the main highway at a “town” called Pueblo Nuevo. Pueblo Nuevo is just before KM 65 (as you are heading South); you make a left turn off the highway onto a dirt road. At first, it looks like nothing but some brick buildings, but soon you are riding on a nice concrete road past some cool looking houses in the desert. There is at least one place to buy refreshments, and we stopped there. By the way, the road from Ibague all the way to Pueblo Nuevo is paved and well graded. The second route has you heading down the highway all the way to Aipe, where you can take a canoe with your bicycle across the river. From there, you can ride into Villavieja.
Heading South, the terrain becomes more rugged and difficult. It took us over 8 hours to cover the 58 miles from Saldaña to Villavieja. You will probably need to break the trip from Ibague to Tatacoa into 2 days. Note that there are plenty of accommodations in Natagaima. It would have made more sense to lodge there instead of Saldaña when coming from Ibague. Once you get on the dirt portion at Pueblo Nuevo, there are a few small towns where you can stop for a break and refreshments. The two towns we stopped at (one of them is named La Victoria) were both friendly and clean. Moreover, they both had shade giving tree-lined streets. It was very nice, and they were spaced perfectly for loaded bike tourists in the hot sun.
When you get into Villavieja, you’re faced with a decision: to lodge in the desert, or to lodge in Villavieja. In the desert, you can camp for free by the observatory – but keep in mind, this is the desert – it is VERY hot, even at night. You can also lodge at a couple of places in the Cuzco and Hoyos regions. Noches de Saturno (cel 312-411-8166) is one of these, offering basic accommodation only 400 meters from the observatory (Cuzco). Price is about 25,000 COP, but they only have two rooms that sleep 4. None of the hotels in the desert proper offered air conditioning. Also, you can lodge at Estadero Los Hoyos in the Hoyos area cel 311-536-5027. In Villavieja, we investigated hotels, and found them to be relatively pricey – but we did find a large room at the Hospedaje connected with a hardware store for 50,000 COP per night. It had good air conditioning as well as a refrigerator, fan, and laundry area. We were glad that we stayed in town because of the comfort. If you’re on bicycle, this may be the way you want to go. If you are taking transport, you may find it more economical and convenient to just stay overnight in the desert. There is food available at a few places in the desert (small outdoor stand across the street from the observatory, and also at the cabañas.)
From Villavieja, it is a short bike ride into the colorful portion of the desert. It took us about 30 minutes to ride into the desert on bikes – and it was well worth it, as many people cited a very significant expense in arranging transport the short distance (4 miles each way) in and out of the desert ($20US – $40US I’ve heard). Some people recommended taking a tour because by the time you put together the transport, you’ve already paid the price of a tour.
We were not too enamored with the observatory; upon arrival with our bicycles, we were asked to leave, somewhat rudely by Colombian standards. It seemed that they weren’t too fond of bicycles here. Of course, because of the clouds, we were also unable to do the observatory program. If there are clouds, they still do a talk, which also costs 10,000 COP. I did hear that if there are a lot of people, you might not get much telescope time.