Not much to Neiva. It’s a town comprised of rows and rows of dilapidated buildings, few of them from Colombia’s colonial period or of any historic significance.
Neiva is a stopover on the way to another place. For me, that other place would be the Tatacoa Desert – an amazing natural expanse of sand, rock, and red clay formations sculpted by wind, water and time. For this desert journey I would be joined by Yannis Claude, who is from Bern, Switzerland, but is also from Santa Marta, Colombia. Yannis holds dual citizenship in Colombia and Switzerland because he was born in Switzerland to a Colombian mother.
I met Yannis in Miami through couchsurfing. He surfed my couch late last year and it was during that time that I learned he was on his way to Colombia to spend a year with his grandmother and great-grandmother and other family members in Santa Marta. So it was destined we would meet up again Besides, Yannis – a huge fan of Tennessee Williams – had ordered a book by the prolific playwright and it was delivered to my place in Miami. By the time the book arrived, Yannis was already in Colombia. So it was left to me to deliver the precious collection of the author’s works to Yannis in Santa Marta. It didn’t quite work out that way as I actually met up with Yannis in Bogota. He was on a trip around the country and it was great timing for both of us. We would meet in Bogota then again in Santa Marta.
Life, however, takes its course. I wasn’t supposed to meet Yannis in Bogota until several days after my arrival, but as I was making my way around the Candelaria – the historic colonial center where Bogota was born – I heard someone call out “small world” and yes, it was Yannis. He was staying in the Candelaria at a hostel. I just happen to be exploring the area. We didn’t spend much time together as he had to meet a friend and I had to return to the home of my host for dinner. We bid farewell and agreed to meet at a later date and time – me with the book he so eagerly wanted to have and to hold.
When Yannis and I met days later, we exchanged travel plans for Colombia. I was intrigued by his planned trip to the Tatacoa. The more he talked about it, the more I wanted to tag along. And so I did, despite the fact it was in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go – north – toward the Colombian Caribbean coast. What the heck, what’s another thousand miles added to my trip, I thought. The Tatacoa sounded completely worth it. There was just one thing Yannis neglected to tell me.
The buses from Bogota largely don’t stop in the nearest village to the Tatacoa – Villavieja – so you are forced to travel an hour south of the Tatacoa to Neiva then catch whatever transportation you can – usually a smaller bus, van or a pickup truck – to get to Villavieja. From Villavieja you can then hop on a motor taxi – a three-wheeled motorcycle rigged with passenger seats – to finally reach the Tatacoa. But the smart thing to do is stay put in Neiva for a night or two before heading to the desert. Neiva is extremely hot and the Tatacoa even hotter, so nice to be able to relax, acclimate, purchase needed supplies, before leaving civilization behind. Except for a few posadas where you can hang a hammock, an observatory and a few makeshift watering holes, there’s nothing in the Tatacoa. There is no Internet, no electricity and unless you have a cell phone, no way to communicate with the rest of the world. You get your last glimpse of creature comforts – a hotel bed, for one – in Neiva. Now about Neiva and what Yannis neglected to tell me: that it is right inside the “red zone” – so designated by the Colombian government because it is guerilla country.
When I arrived in Colombia I had made a decision to avoid areas that are strongholds to paramilitary and guerilla forces. Neiva remains guerilla country. Yannis said he knew this, but there had not been a guerilla attack or incident in the town for months. Not quite so, we learned from locals. Turns out the guerillas had made several attempts to bomb local businesses that refused to pay them a fee imposed by the rebel fighters – extortion plain and simple. One target of the guerilla was an Exito grocery store, which is a large chain. According to locals, the Exito refused to pay the guerilla tax, known in Colombia as “la vacuna” and some weeks later, a bomb was found in the store. Authorities deactivated the bomb and carted it away. Since that incident two months ago, security at the store has been significantly beefed up. More recently, a hotel was the target of an attempted bombing, our taxi driver and others told us, because it also refused to pay the rebels. When we returned to our hotel, Yannis asked the hotel manager if he had paid the rebels (we were now just a bit concerned for our safety). The hotel manager’s response was to just smile. I can’t blame him for not answering. More importantly, Yannis and I realized we shouldn’t be asking such impertinent questions. Talking about payments to rebels – especially such questions coming from outsiders – could bring a knock on the door. Fortunately, we would be leaving for Tatacoa the next day. And I will admit here and now that for the first time since arriving in Colombia, it was the only time I felt nervous about being in Colombia. Foreigners, especially Americans, should not go around asking local businesses if they had or not given money to rebel forces.
We left for the bus terminal the next day to catch the bus for Villavieja. Our “bus” was actually a small van that would be crammed with passengers and sacks of produce. I sat in the back of the van flanked by two women and whatever goods they were transporting in large white sacks. Yannis sat in the front, jammed between two other passengers. Fortunately, our ride to Villavieja would last just an hour, unlike our seven-hour bus ride from Bogota to Neiva, the van packed to the hilt with people, produce and livestock. Smaller buses in Colombia can be annoying. They stop all along the route to pick up passengers just to make sure every inch of the bus is full to maximize profit. The bus service is supposed to be direct, but it’s really left to the bus driver’s discretion. Each time we stopped, peddlers got on the bus trying to sell all manner of food and other products, shoving them in your face. It was quite a scene.
On the van from Neiva to Villavieja we met a man and a woman who said they could get us a good deal on the motortaxi if we simply said we were friends of theirs. It would only cost us 10,000 pesos, about $5 USD, if went along with them. A lot more if we didn’t, because the price is jacked up for foreigners.
When you are traveling and meeting strangers you have to make snap decision who to trust and whom not to trust. In this instance, we trusted the couple, even leaving our backpacks at the home of one of their relatives while we waited for the motortaxi to arrive and we went off to find lunch. It all worked out fine, but I made sure to keep my money and my passport with me. Anything in the backpack could be easily replaced.
When we made it to the Tatacoa, it must have been 122 degrees! It was extremely hot, a big difference from Bogota, where its high elevation brings cooler temperatures daily. We took a quick tour of the posada, met the caretakers and surveyed the area to decide where we would sleep. I brought a tent and hammock. Yannis only a hammock. I pitched my tent and hung my hammock. Nice to have an alternative.
That day, my brand new cell phone was stolen; I’m not sure by whom. It was my carelessness that led to the phone – with lots of pre-paid minutes – going missing. I asked around but the phone never turned up. Great! Now I’m really not able to be in touch with the outside world. We would spend two to three days here. Let’s just hope nothing crazy happens. The next day, out and about for a desert tour, something did. I fell so hard as we descended into a canyon that I felt my head snap backwards as I hit the dirt flat on my back. I lay there for a moment, quickly assessing if I was hurt. Luckily, nothing broken or bruised, just a minor scrape to my right hand. We continued on the trek. And what an amazing trek it was. The Tatacoa landscape looked like something out of a sci-fi movie; a distant planet from Star Trek. Our guide, Herman, stopped to show us various species of plants and edible fruit from a particular cactus the locals call “cabeza negra” or black head because the top of the prickly plant turns black before it dries up and dies.
Right from the plant, I pulled and ate a bunch of the reddish fruit with white flesh and tiny black seeds. It was sweet, but not overly so.
In the desert there were swimming pools built by locals, fed by natural springs. For just under $3, you could go for a swim. Tempting, but we passed on the offer. We didn’t bring along our swimwear and fact is we really wanted to get back for lunch and a siesta.
Yannis and I had the place to ourselves – no other tourists around – and watched in amazement as day gave way to night and billions of stars emerged in the night sky. I kept looking skyward, taking in the spectacular view, catching a glimpse of a shooting star and the planets in our solar system. Every human should experience this at least once in their lifetime, I thought. A place with no city lights that keep these stars hidden. A place of such peace and beauty and yet so deadly, teeming with rattlesnakes and other things that can hurt you if you’re not really careful.
I left the desert – with a few insect bites – feeling a renewed sense of respect for nature and the creator. We live on an incredible planet. We should all go out and experience it.