Starstruck in Tatacoa dessert

I used to live to work, now i work to live. (Bernhard, Lille, France)

Today I had no hiking or other activities involving hills on my agenda, but a trip to Tatacoa dessert. From Neiva its an hours jeep ride to the closest village (Villaveija) and then another 20mins onwards (the former is COP7,000 while the latter COP8,000). On the trip i met a German & Dutch guy travelling together (both a little awquard) and a french girl (Justine) with her dad (Bernhard) from Lille. these two are great (although i have to admit i had mistaken them for a couple at first with a rather large age gap … never make hasty assumptions ;o).


Justine spends a year in colombia on a work & travel visa. She lived a month in Guatape near medellin, spent time with venezuelan refugees in medellin (and donated all her selfmade bracelets for them to sell & ultimately survive) and, partly together with dad bernhard, two month in the amazon region working with an organsartion looking after endangered monkeys. she abolutely adores the country and her dad thinks a year is nowhere near enough for her.

Bernhard, a trucker by trade, has its own story. job loss and separation have hit him in the past few years. but not to no avail … he changed his life too. he said “I used to live to work, now i work to live.  for my employer i am just a number. completely replaceable.”. I couldn’t agree more. with bernhard I had generally some great conversations about his reflections on colombia. how easy we have it in europe, how old people still have to  make a living here (but on the flipsiude don’t sit at home alone all the time like often in europe), how people sell single cigarettes or sweets just to get by and a lot more. 

Great people both of them. Real pleasure to meet and travel with a tiny bit. 


the three of us went straight into tatacoa and to the hostel le bleues had booked (‘noches de saturno’). great news – it had a pool. i mean, how many deserts offer that. no question, i was swimming right after i had put up my tent (not carrying the thing for nothing all through colombia!). with me in the pool was maria – the only other german in the camp. that means something, since germans are the largest group of travellers judging by my guts so far. she is from Mainz (east germans remain elusive so far) and interns at a travel company in bogota for six month. she came to tatacoa to get some warmer weather given relaltively cold temperatures in 2,600m high Bogota.

Tatacoa dessert: its not really a dessert by scientific definition, but rather a semi-arid zone of 330sqkm or in other words a dry troipcal forest.

she mentioned a short dessert circular walk nearby, which I hilked once the post lunch heat had settled down a bit. breathtaking sand and rock formations, supersized cactusses and all sorts of pastel, sand colours you can imagine. great walk round and best rounded off with a sunset and a cold lager in your hand, which i enjoyed with a polish & a colombian traveller. by then it got dark quickly (abouyt 5.50pm), but in tatacoa that doesn’t mean the end (or the sign to get changed for a hot salsa night out) …

Given its low light pollution, the dessert is used as an obersavortory and offers great views of the stars. We joined one of the (Spanish) presentations at the observatory (COP10,000 pP). I wished I had understood more of this seemingly entertaining presentation on the planets of our universe, zodiac signs, the relativity theory, how everything is created etc. Anyway, I got my first ever view of saturn, saw my own zodiac sign (saggitarious) and figured out that the blinking, bright star I have so often seen is vega. Bernhard invited me to a snack and a beer after, which i welcomed since I had run out of cash and card payments are a no go in this part of colombia (I literally just use it to get cash from the bank).

Off to my night in the tent. While it had cooled off a bit, i still didnt need much of a cover. Nite,  nite Tatacoa …

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Puracé National Park: Up the volcano

Given my late arrival in Popayan i cut short on the sightseeing, mainly a few colonial buildings. In any case it was not the city i was here for, but the nearby national park with its 4,650m Puracé volcano (not 4,750m as often misquoted).

The journey to the park is pretty straightforward. For a day trip you need to grab an early bus from terminal (4.30am / 5am) and asked to be dropped off at Cruce de la Mina. Takes 1h15 or so (and busses hardly leave on time. I paid COP20,000.

 

Once there just head uphill to the park office at 3500m (takes 35min) where you can acquire a park permit (COP40,000 weekdays, COP50,000 weekends) and get a guide that is supposedly mandatory by now. There is also a cafe with food & drink.

Are you fit enough for this? The ascent is pretty rapid. Most like you arrive unacclimatised from Cali at 900m, stayed a night in Popayan (1,800m) and are about to climb to 4,650m. Invites headaches at the minimum and risks altitude sickness. Consider at staying the night before near the park office (tent or cabin).

I arrived too early for any ranger to be on site and went up by myself. Cost me a little extra walking as i went off trail pretty early on and ended up fighting my way through a jungle of trees back to the path. You should plan for 5h hike up, but keep in mind that weather is often wet in the park and the trail can be very muddy, as was the case for me.

The views of the park are breathtaking as is the vegetation. Happy cows & calves grase all the way up to 4,200m. The often foggy weather only adds mystery.

Half way through the hike and well past the tree line is a weather station (c4,050m) and some shelter in case of need. Weather can get reasonably nasty up there with strong winds, low temperature and snowfall.

From there its another 350m up until you reach the final ascent up to the crater. While walking up, smoke rising from the volcano reminds us you what you are hiking up. The crater is pretty large be it unspectacular if you are looking for red glowing lava. What was spectacular was two extremely loud bangs akin to the thunderstorm last night … just this time i was on 4,600m altitude. Well, it remain two bangs.

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Anyway, I didn’t hang about too much. It was 1pm and the last bus from my drop-off leaves 4.30pm. Downhill was fun be it tricky. It had started to rain (well, snow further up) and made for a slippery trail. Very glad i brought both hiking poles.

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Past the ranger station a indigenous man gave me a life on his moped. I told him i need to get to popayan and so he took me with him well past my drop off point. I figured there must be some grand plan behind it only to be dropped off somewhere on the road back home. I walked 2-3km until a cab driver offered a ride to Popayan (COP12,000). I gladly accepted. We picked up a woman & child on the way (they got away with COP5,000) and off we went.

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Sadly he didn’t take me back to terminal nor my hostel, so i walked with the woman until i had some idea where i was. Mobile was dead. Took another 30min, but was no problem. Back home i was pretty exhausted. No going out for me. Time to sleep. Its been a long and beautiful day out.

Extremadura road trip: Monfragüe National Park

We left it to 11am before we eventually checked out from the hervas bungalows and hit the road without much of a plan. Not very German, I know. Turns out that you don’t really need much planning in a region full with beautiful spots. We decided to follow some public signposts for an old tower near hervas (can’t even recall the name) and enjoyed the beautiful forest that surrounds it as well as the view from its top. Game of thrones style (in fact, quite a few scenes were filmed in Extremadura).

Once we finished the tower visit we continued towards our next destination – Caceres. On the way there we encountered signposts for Monfrague national park. I had the park on my list of things to see, so why not right now. It was again a beautiful day (we had yet to see a single cloud in the sky since arrival) and hungry for a bit more outdoor activity. So off we went … what a great park it tourney out to be! Roman bridges, preying brids all over the sky, blue/green rivers carving their way through rock and stone. Hard to describe – gotta see it! Extremadura.

After a long day out we finally made it to our hotel. 5 star for a change and with in and outdoor swimming pools – much to the delight of Alex! We had arrived in Caceres. Yet another beautiful town as we would see later …

Extremadura road trip: Garganta de los Infiernos & Plasencia

Our first outdoor activity of the holiday took us to Garganta de los Infiernos (‘throats of hell’). On the maps it’s not far away from the bungalows in hervas. In reality, they are located in the next valley, the jerte valley, and require a good hour worth of driving over the hills on narrow serpentine roads. There is a visitor center where you can leave the car and pick a route to your liking.

We arrived around midday and had packed lunch and plenty of water with us. Alex seemingly felt strong when he picked the 16km circular route. He changed his mind quickly though and we ended up hiking to a place called los pilones – a bunch of natural pools formed as the river carved its way through the stone. Beautiful to see and plenty of animals and plants to discuss given there were frequent info boards. Instead of 16km it turned out to be just under 6km. Still a great achievement for my little hiker given 27degress and pure sunshine all the way.

Alex usually doesn’t cope too well with windy roads and already on the way in we had to stop as he felt a little uncomfortable. Hence I picked our return route around the hills and through Plasencia, one of the larger cities in Extremadura. Yet again we were blown away by the beautiful old town (a result of the city’s position along the historic silver route or ruta de la plata). Pictures speak for themselves. We had a little walk around, rested over a tasty ice cream and went shopping before we headed home. No problems sleeping that night ;o)

A few days in Chitwan National Park … good bye Nepal

My journey from Bhaktapur was easy. I hired a local driver for the 20min ride to Sauraha for USD12 and picked out the royal park hotel for the coming days. I certainly earned my upgrade in accommodation. I got the room for USD27/night. It was magnificent. Large bathroom, nice large bed and balcony overlooking the green and well nursed gardens of the hotel. Around chitwan, all looked very indian (which indeed is only a stone throw away) and Hindu religion dominates in stark contrast to the Buddhist sherpa settlements in the khumbu valley.

Having a shower (i think i only had a handful proper ones in the 8 weeks i was in nepal now) was great. My selection of change clothing was limited though. While i carried my down jacket – utterly useless – i thankfully also had shorts and sandals. Freedom for my feet that had been trapped in heavy boots for weeks.


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In the hotel i quickly booked up for the elephant safari next morning and jeep safari in the afternoon and headed out. Not far from the hotel on the riverbank is the chitwan bar & restaurant. Its run by a nepali guy for 13y now and his 6 month austrian girlfriend. I met two Catalan girls, who departed for Kathmandu next morning and a guy from seattle. Fun conversations over a beer watching the sunset about each others travel experiences ensued until a monsoon like heavy rain shower forced a relocation. We rescued ourselves temporarily under a small shelter on the beach before heading for dinner. after some sweet nepali wine, more discussions about life itself kept the discussion going. We were joined by kamal who runs Ever Wild Trek & Tours and my jungle walk guide to be. I was home before midnight, still tired and with a 6am breakfast to look forward to.


The elephant safari wasnt far away and outside the official national park. It looked promising initially. Mahood’s (7y trained elephant riders) were waiting for guests and i enjoyed a good coffee while waiting. Then came the shock. Once a three people jndian family and i were sitting on the back of the elephant, the mahood hit the poor animal frequently with an iron stick to make him obey. The elephant even started bleeding. Unacceptable and clearly not a recommended activity. I hear some European operators have already taken this offer off their programs. I salite that decision. Wildlife wise, it was a productive ride. Crocodiles, bambi / deer, two rhino’s, many birds and other elephants (with people riding them).


After 2,5hours i was back at the hotel and caught up with blogging and emails leaving me just enough time for a chicken curry lunch before joining the jeep safari. it was boiling hot as we took little ferry boats to cross the river and hop on the cars. We would see nothing bar jungle forest and a crocodile. Again, not an activity i would recommend. On the other hand, conversations with a danish and a columbian couple reduced my boredom substantially. Towards the end of the journey we all got a good rain shower. Heavens had opened, we had no roof until a cover was handed out. No animals, but some action at least. Besides, it is reasonably enjoyable to drive through the jungle.

Back in sauraha i booked my two day walking & canoe trip with kamal who was already waiting for me looking for business. Some USD200 was the price (so there were extras …). Since we would stay at a local village (madi) near the park, i check out of the hotel early. Then i headed back to the chitwan bar for some local riverfish (technically forbidden to be caught) and a bit of party and chatter with the locals and the austrian girl. Was fun. Not sure what her parents make out of this development … she had come here for few weeks holiday having quit her job to do so. Then her friends travelled home without her. Now she wants to get married to her nepali boy after 6 month or so. Partly visa related (hers has already expired as i write this). Her parents dont like it, but i guess love had its own mind. 

Cruising down the river in not yet too hot morning weather was fun. We had kamal, another guide, the skipper and myself onboard. A bathing rhino and several crocodile spottings were the result. I was slightly disappointed that the trip, which i had booked for 3 hrs, only last a little longer than two hours. It seemed like a two hour trip was just stretched a little longer. Then we started walking and kicked off with another rhino we had seen from the boat when we landed. Some good shots. We continued trough the jungle seeing a lizard, birds, deer … but no bears or tigers.



Just before lunchtime heavens opened again and we got soaking wet. I also slipped off a footbridge and filled my boots with fresh river water. We rescued ourselfes to a nearby army post and had lunch. In the afternoon we took a long and boring road to get to a watch tower to spot tigers. We managed a deer in three hours waiting or more before we aborted and continued on the long road towards a larger street (well, dirt road).



The bus we stopped took us to the park entrance. The ride was ahort but fun. A bus full with people, decorated in typical style inside with loud Indian/nepali type music playing. From there we crossed the river and followed it to the village madi (30mins walk).


We arrived just before sunset. Nice house with more than 10 rooms and a roof terrace overlooking the river and its surrounding  flatlands. There were a few people speaking english, we had some beer and the local rice wine (roxy) and the guides had some jungly weed to smoke. Good fun and great to get the feet up. Highlight were the freshly made potato fries – absolutely excellent. 


We got up 5.30am to get to the tiger spot early. There we met a french couple that shared our tiger spot already the day before. We would wait six hours during which we saw a rhino & baby crossing the river, a slosh bear running the other direction, a wild boar family and some hunting birds. Just the tiger remained elusive.


We tried at a deserted tourist resort nearby (tiger tops) and saw more rhinos near/in a water hole. No tiger. Still, a stunning place though my guide violated any cient safety rules there is by going there. Rotten staircases and paltforms. I didnt mind. We beiefly returned to the former spot without luck until i called it quits. It was my son’s 7th birthday and i needed network coverage – back to the village for another, bigger night at rewa river view lodge. Great time.


Then it was time to leave. Back to kathmandu, see rory, jon and Tim and have a little party and some souvenir shopping. The last night i spent talking for a long to to Lyn from brisbane. Really good chat of two people that love hiking. The reggae bar for some great live music. Time in nepal for me was up … now i just need to get my luggage checked in (well over my allowance again!)