March 17, 2018
Another well-rested morning, the chatter in the hallway and noise from the parking lot below me not loud enough to be irritating. But out of habit I drag myself out of bed to check the news, my Facebook feed, write content for my blog, and so the early morning passes, before heading upstairs for the modest breakfast the hotel included in the nightly rate. I review the maps of the attractions in Huila, Valle de Cauca, Cauca, and Tolima, to at least get a better sense as to how I could be spending my last few weeks in Colombia.
No unwarranted digressions today: a trip to the Supermercado Superior Hoy on Carrera 2 to buy some water, a coffee at La Catedral, where the older gentlemen sitting at the next table absolutely have to know more about me and my plans. Where to visit in the area of Neiva, they ponder? One of the men emphatically recommends Rivera, which not far away, but climbs up in elevation, and offers hot and cold thermal baths. It sounds fabulous – except that I don’t like the idea of thermal baths at all. I do not like getting too hot …
Researching the accommodation options in San Augustin, I deliberate on the listings in booking.com as well as in the Lonely Planet. There are two essential choices: places that are in town or in the country. In the country seems romantic, but also means you are dependent on the accommodation, isolated, and ultimately paying more for everything. Now if the setting was really so idyllic, but that seems unlikely …
I arrive at the bus station in the late morning, a major mistake, given the amount of time and exposure to the sun involved in taking in the desierto de Tatacoa. The bus to Villavieja is packed with people, and there are only a few seats left on the bus, the one I take next to a local who is as tall as I am. And shockingly, both of us fit into the seats.
I look around and ask: ‘Who are all these people? Where are they from? Are you on a tour?’ ‘No’, he tells me, ‘they are all locals, from different parts of the country. Many people are traveling today as it is a long weekend.’ I am somewhat flabbergasted, since in two months of traveling I have not seen numbers of young Colombians traveling anywhere. And so it will be a unique experience.
Jan is from Medellin, a logistics specialist working for Renault whose work involve optimizing the distribution of vehicles in the country.
Now in the possession of a good job but the concomitant lack of time off, Jan has visited a number of the prime attractions in the country, although is seemingly drawn more to pristine spaces, rather than the most commercial propositions.
For example, the idea of spending the long weekend camping in the desert and then going to San Augustin with a backpack is hardly in line with what most people envision as being a good time on a beach near Santa Marta. Then again, as he currently is staying in capital, the destinations in Huila are relatively close by, although he is also very familiar with the attractions of the region around Medellin where he normally lives.
I tell him about the wonders of the Cañón del Chicamocha, which he listens to with rapt attention, since he will be spending a future weekend there. In fact, every one of his weekends seems to involve travel plans to some other part of the country, if not travel abroad, a lot better than spending one’s time vegetating at home in despair.
The landscape that unfolds around us isn’t much different from that which sped by with greater speed approaching Neiva the other day, only that there are small traces of settlement that line the road as we proceed more slowly on the narrow country road. But desert there is none to be seen here, only more brush and small copses of trees.
Villavieja is a small, charming, colonial-style town that I would have loved to stay in, except that I only found expensive hotels on booking.com with. Certainly, there would be more choices, but I would rather explore the lay of the land before making a jump here. And then it is not clear to me as to how far the actual desert is from town. If I am taken by the desert, I could always decamp to Villavieja on one of the subsequent days.
Confusion reigns as the young locals troop off the bus to buy beer, water and chips at the store we stop in front of. They are obviously unclear as to what they should be doing or how they should be preparing for their trip to the desert, which is somewhere fairly amusing, although hardly inappropriate, considering that the visit to the Tatacoa is somewhat of a farce to begin with.
The desert-like environment finally emerges around us, including a few landmarks such a small observatory used to study the skies from this clean environment. One motive for coming here is to watch the skies at night, which seems very romantic as it also does boring. Looking around, there are scattered ramshackle buildings that appear to provide food and accommodation, but upon superficial inspection it becomes apparent that I would be much better off staying anywhere but.
There could be more promising options further along the road, but Jan himself is somewhat unclear as to what he wants to do, although it seems he does need a place to stay, since he wants to spend the night here.
Confusion reigns again as the young locals descend the bus, unsure as to what to do. The hospedaje with restaurant we stop in front of corresponds to the business card I was handed by the belligerent driver when I arrived. Hordes of people are already milling around the rudimentary dirt terrace, as well as chowing down on their almuerzo of goat meat and sundry additional dishes in the restaurant portion, the appointed guides blaring on assertively about the merits of the area and its attractions.
I waste valuable time coaxing him to make some sort of decision as to where to stay, not that it should be any of my affair. Frankly, I wouldn’t stay in any of these dumps, I think to myself, but I don’t think that is any of my business. He opts to stay at the original establishment, that has nothing more than a bunch of dormitory beds available in a somewhat decrepit state in a tiny, overheated room.
Once that saga is over, he decides he wants the almuerzo the restaurant offers, which is another misguided notion, considering that the confused, disorganized family members take the better part of another valuable hour of our time to produce a paltry, poor quality almuerzo for a hefty COP $15,000, another clear cut example of locals on the fringes of the hospitality industry intent on cashing in, but having little concept of the concomitant quality required. And surveying the number of people that have passed through this afternoon, the profiteering is truly staggering. So tell me: so why exactly do the buses stop in front of your establishment?
With lunch finally over, the hordes have dissipated from the eatery, the workers must be happy to have gotten rid of everyone, and the owner gloating over the wads of cash he has pocketed over the last few hours. It is 2 pm, and the last bus to Neiva apparently leaves at 4 pm, which now leaves me precious little time to explore very much of anything here, not that I particularly care, as you can stand along the roadside and see what the area looks like. I should have been here in the morning and not floundered in indecision as to where to stay, where to eat, etc., but what is done is done.
We walk up towards what is the presumptive entrance to the trail going through the Zona Rosa, so named due to the terracotta earth tones that contrast with the grey-coloured earth in the Zona Gris. Trudging along the road back towards the tiny observatory and one of a number of alternate accommodations (which Jan should have taken some more effort to research), we broach the lip of the shallow canyon, traversing the ledge peering into the shallow canyon, and then descending along the dried mud ridges towards the bottom.
Ridges emanate from the buttes, turrets and slender wafers of earth created by sudden washes of the rare rains that plummet onto this otherwise parched territory. The floor of the labyrinthine valley is dotted with saguaro, nopal, the diminutive cabeza de indio and other cacti, as well as dryland deciduous trees enveloped in thorns, a testimony to the harshness and need for survival of such parched lands.
Jan’s maps.me app allows us to follow the designated trail through the canyon, ensuring that we don’t get too lost. On one hand, the area in question is not that big, but then much of what lies around us looks fairly similar, and veering further away in this parched desert environment could prove to be a major mistake. And most importantly, I want to be back on the road no later than 4 pm, when the last bus is supposed to leave.
Weaving around the vegetation, we attempt not to get impaled by the razor-sharp thorns. Despite originally being from the tropics, Jan is exhausted from the intense heat. It is certainly easy to get used to not being in the extreme heat! We come across unusual features, such as a porthole set in a wall, although the most powerful effect is achieved by the spindly narrow outcroppings crowned with some lone tree, set in clusters across this surreal landscape. A sequence of attractions are apparently intended to occur on the designated walk through the Zona Rosa, although I am not sure we will have seen everything by the time we finish.
Resting in the shade of a ravine, the eroded arms of the narrow embankments extending outwards towards us, I can see the observatory on the distant ledge, imagining us to not be that far away. The observatory is situated along the road to Villavieja, which means that once I am there, it will not be possible to miss the bus. We climb up one ridge, but his map seems to be wrong, and each of the channels leading to the lip of the canyon above us seems to be filled with tumbleweed. Back down, and along another path, and now the path to the top unfolds before us, one tour group following the other proceeding before us and into the miniature canyon.
We decide to not proceed to the observatory, rather, just trudge along the dusty road back towards the hostel where Jan decided to hang his hat and we originally disembarked. Asking as to the state of the last bus back to Neiva, we are told repeatedly to probably not bother waiting, to simply take a collective taxi or motorcycle taxi back to Villavieja and hope for the best.
The fact that I have to question the integrity of the advice given by the locals hellbent on selling me their services places the value of the entire experience of being here increasingly in doubt. It is also quite apparent that I will be missing one of the major attractions of the desierto, namely, the Zona Gris as well as the piscinas, but at this point I just want to get out of here and back to civilization.
I subject Jan to a lengthy exposition on traveling while waiting for the buseta to Neiva to leave, but should have bid the young man farewell a long time ago, time to recover, make friends here amongst the crowd of Colombian and European backpackers, make sense of the decrepit hostel’s dormitory he will be staying in, cool off with the barely functional fan and trickling shower, prior to taking in the brilliant stars of the hopefully cooler night.
The chatter continues, and it becomes patently obvious that the driver has no intention of leaving, certainly not at 4 pm, which comes and goes. We wait and wait, the driver finally collecting some more backpackers and easing the buseta from in front of the restaurant at 5:30 pm. I could have seen a lot more here, having known that the driver would leave so late …
The couple from Bogotá seated behind me are somewhat shocked by my brazen dismissal of the desierto de Tatacoa, although I am actually being polite as to my assessment of a paltry version of a desert canyon with a gaudy window dressing. I compensate by extolling the virtues of the rest of the little bit of Colombia I am familiar with, not that I haven’t spent last week in a confined urban conflagration called Bogotá.
Authenticity is important for me, and this place has little to offer on that front. I switch my attentions to the young Dutch woman from Utrecht, who is amazed that I not only have heard of her town, but will heading there in the summer. On the subject of synchronicity, she actually saw Jane Bunnett play with her group play at the Dutch women’s rooftop hotel in Havana, without actually knowing who Bunnett is, or for that matter, having little idea about jazz of any sort. She referred to a female flute player playing Latin jazz, who seemed to be very good, Bunnett’s name immediately slipping out of my mouth.
So what about the vaunted Zona Gris that I missed? She tells me that it was nice, similar to the Zona Rosa that I did visit, but more ample, less touristed, although the whole experience seemed to be inherently challenged, given the poor quality accommodation experience, including a tent that was too small, too hot, with no mattress, and other issues that don’t at all seem surprising, given the shabbiness in evidence at the various hostels I visited earlier on with Jan.
The desert is already gone behind us, and now rolling scrub appears, the more conventional environment of Huila, the departing sun’s glow imbued with hues of ochre over the olive green, the colour deepening with the approaching evening. I pay little attention to the world sliding by us, too engrossed in the conversation with the young woman humorously recounting her personal travel challenges.
Block upon block of brightly-lit storefronts slide by us in the last push to the bus station, but no, it does not seem as if this is El Antico – but where could it be? The driver insists we are on Carrera 7, but it cannot be. And the receptionist at the hotel later also seems to have no idea. How unusual!
I am exhausted and want to lie down, and will inevitably want to rehydrate as well as rest, but it occurs to me that the Supermercado Superior Hoy on Carrera 2 is closing at 8 pm, and I need to go before that happens. What was it that I wanted there again? I am no longer clear.
Vallenato is blaring at the small bar next door, and around the corner as well, the men seated in front of what appears to be a club of sorts calling ‘girls, girls!’ to me, some more bedraggled spaces featuring a few tables and chairs both inside the tiny spaces as well as outside on the broken sidewalk, variants on the same music blaring in neighboring locales.
I am happy to be in my hotel room, what with the cool air, the huge bed, modern setting, clean facilities, the stash of drinks, the writing desk with laptop, the Latin jazz … what more could a person ask for! I had been thinking of finally spending a Saturday night in a more appropriate manner, rather than hunched over my computer, dancing salsa with feral beauties into the wee hours of the morning, but such a romantic notion is impeded by the realities of age and the equally daunting notion of Neiva’s shortcomings …
I feel exhausted, perhaps as doing the traveling thing is getting old … or maybe it’s just the heat. Or maybe Neiva really isn’t worth the effort. I have been debating whether to spend an additional day here, but the town is a bit of a tough love. Really the worst aspect is being in the centre of town, when the places that warrant visiting are elsewhere.