Following gorgeous Salento, Nathan and I were back in Bogotá for less than 24 hours before continuing our travels with five days in Popayán, Tierradentro, and the Tatacoa Desert. With all of the travel time on planes and buses and vans and pickup trucks, one of our main goals was to avoid getting sick. Fortunately, we were successful… at least for that week.
First up: a quick propeller plane to colonial Popayán, known as the “white city”, in southwest Colombia. The plan was to fly to the farthest destination and make our way back to Bogotá by bus.
I have a Fulbright friend, Angie, living in Popayán and she was a great resource to us as we spent our only day there wandering amongst churches, the old town, and watching the sunset on a hillside lookout spot. That evening, I went out with Angie and some of her gringo friends to a salsa bar. We had such a great time, and the locals (who were so shocked to see tourists in Popayán that they literally asked us why we were there) were incredibly accepting of us and our… interesting salsa moves.
The following morning, we caught the one daily, direct bus from Popayán to Tierradentro. The road was bumpy for all five hours (thank goodness for downloadable podcasts) and super dusty. Even sitting next to a closed window left my lap and purse covered in a layer of dust by the time we reached Tierradentro.
We checked into our B&B, and walked around the “town”, which was (at the time) the most remote place I’d ever been. I asked our sweet B&B host, Eva, if she accepted credit card and she responded that no, as the closest ATM is two hours away. By car. Woof.
Our walk around town would have been maybe 15 minutes in total, if we walked at a leisurely pace. But, we ended up stopping at a soccer game between two neighboring towns. As this was Superbowl Sunday, it made sense that we’d end up at some sort of sporting event. To Nathan’s dismay, a couple of stray dogs followed us everywhere we went, including to watch the game.
The following morning was the main event: a hike to the tombs of Tierradentro! Tierradentro is not a frequently traveled place in Colombia, and we both really enjoyed it. Honestly, the hike alone would have been worth it, just for the lush beauty of the area. It seems like Colombia is attempting to build up that area a bit to attract more visitors. Over the last few years, they’ve put up signs in English, and while we hiked, we could see they were working to build paved roads, which would be a huge step up from the current dirt roads.
The hike is about 8 hours in total, and it’s suggested that you split it over two days. Nathan made it farther than I did, but neither of us could do the whole thing in one afternoon. It was hot, and much of the hike is in the direct sun. Also, because the area is so quiet, there’s nowhere to buy water while you walk. You start at a museum to get some background on the indigenous people of the area, and their tombs from the 5th – 7th century. Nevertheless, there’s still so much that we don’t know about this community and why they conducted burials as they did.
On a side note, we talked for a bit with a security guard at the museum who was our age and rarely meets people from the US. He asked where we were from and then asked how I could be the US… if I had skin my color. It reminded me a bit of Mean Girls (“How are you from Africa… if you’re white?”), but it’s not the first time I’ve gotten this question. The security guard traces his heritage to the indigenous Colombians of the Tierradentro region, and he had never met a black person from the US. He continued his two-part question by asking why my skin didn’t look like Nathan’s! As Nathan doesn’t speak Spanish, I was on my own in my response. I explained that people from the US have all different skin colors, but that unfortunately we’re not represented proportionally in Hollywood. Not that the “Hollywood” bit entirely mattered, because Tierradentro doesn’t have a movie theater and we only saw one television.
Once I translated the conversation for Nathan, we told our security guard friend that he could also be from the US, and that plenty of US citizens were Spanish-speakers too. He couldn’t fathom it! He literally laughed thinking someone could mistake him for a US citizen. I really enjoyed this conversation, because no one was judgmental or pointing fingers (I’m looking at you, Buenos Aires); he was kind and genuinely curious. He didn’t know black Americans existed… kind of like a lot of US citizens may not realize how many black Colombians exist?
From the museum, we hiked quite a bit, visiting just a handful of the 90+ underground tombs scattered over miles and miles in Tierradentro. Some weren’t discovered until the 1980s and don’t appear to have been looted at any point over the last 15 centuries so, miraculously, much of the red and black paintings are still intact. The gold jewelry found in the tombs have been moved to the Museo de Oro in Bogotá.
El Desierto de Tatacoa
Going from Tierradentro to Tatacoa Desert wasn’t the easiest trip in the world, but we managed. We caught a truck from Tierradentro to a bus terminal, then took a van, and then another truck to get to the desert. Overall, it took us about 6 hours, which was a little better than we expected.
Oh, and if we thought Tierradentro was hot… we were so, so very wrong. Tatacoa isn’t actually a real desert, it’s technically a huge arid zone. But, the 100+ degree temperatures would make you think otherwise.
We had our second pick-up truck drop us off at a hostel I had heard about on some blogs and, lucky for us, they had a vacancy. It’s a no frills place– we stayed in a concrete room with no windows, no wifi, where you definitely don’t drink the tap water, and you can only charge your phone from 7-9PM. But, also lucky for us, a couple Americans who we had met in Tierradentro happened to be staying at the same hostel. We hung out in the shade of our hostel for a bit, then went with them and a girl from The Netherlands to a labyrinth within walking distance.
It was like walking through… the Grand Canyon on Mars? A really cool, really rare experience. After a gorgeous sunset, we made our way back to the hostel for dinner. We thought about going to the planetarium next door but, unfortunately, with a near-full moon, not many stars were visible. So, we opted to hang out by the hostel’s pool. The moon ended up being so bright that we were able to walk around without flashlights.
After a night of not-sleeping (the room was unbelievably hot), I was pretty ready to make the 5 hour trek back to Bogotá, but Nathan stayed in the desert with our hostel friends for another night.
Eventually, he and I met back up in Bogotá with our friend, Sarah, also visiting from college! But more on that later.