This is the Tatacoa Desert: Surreal Scenes from Mars and Rohan
Surprisingly enough, Colombia’s Tatacoa Desert was once an ancient tropical forest. Today it’s home to the second largest arid region (desert) in Colombia, trailing only the Guajira Peninsula in size. Unlike Guajira whose rolling sand dunes reach all the way to the shores of the Caribbean Sea, Tatacoa is characterized by two distinct landscapes. On one side rests the “red desert,” lined with burnt vermillion canyons more reminiscent of a Martian landscape than Earth. On the other side lies the “gray desert,” decorated with ashen plains that look like the lands of Rohan in Lord of the Rings.
The juxtaposition between the two provides a striking setting for exploration of Tatacoa. I spent the first day navigating the labyrinths of the red desert canyons, imagining that we were like human editions. While on foot I felt like I was the Martian rover, traveling around the barren lands of an alien planet and documenting the extraterrestrial landscapes for other humans to see. After orbiting in an imagined outer space, the next day we splashed down in a “natural pool” (hose-filled) after a jaunt via horseback through the ash-colored flatlands of the gray desert. An afternoon siesta later the primo Raphael and I slogged nine kilometers on mountain bike to Los Hoyos Pool, which sits like an oasis in the middle of the gray desert and provides an uncanny escape to the desert heat. It was a few days realistically spent in the desert of Colombia, but felt more like an earthen Mars and the fantastical set of Rohan.
The landscape may be enchanting, in an alien sort of way which makes it easy to forget to look up. In addition to the stunning beauty, Tatacoa boasts one of the premier observatories in all of South America and unparalleled star gazing. Our first night we were even privileged enough to witness a yellow harvest full moon peering through the clouds and casting a warm light over the desert. Photos wouldn’t do it justice. While the full moon and clouds certainly limited visibility of the constellations, brave and bright Orion stood guard over the celestial skies, as per usual, and glimpses of the Southern Cross occasionally escaped the cloud cover.
Aside from the sweltering display of heat and humidity as well as the petulance of desert mosquitos, Tatacoa was one of the highlights of my time in Colombia. Between the otherworldly landscapes and constellation filled skies (plus the yellow harvest snow moon), Tatacoa proved to be a truly raw, beautiful display of Earth’s beauty.