In Colombia, wonders generally appear where you least expect them. Exceptional hand-made cigars in the heart of Santander, a beautiful mosque in the Wayuu Guajira or an astronomical observatory an hour away from Neiva.
Driving northwards away from San Augustín and its famous statues, I remember thinking that there was probably not much more to see in the Huila department in southern Colombia. Quite a wonder in itself, this world-renowned archeological capital has earned its place among the must-sees of Colombia and attracts large quantities of national and international tourists every year, sometimes in a quest for mystical enlightenment in the unchanging gazes of the millennial stone giants.
As seems to happen in many other places around Colombia, the aura of San Augustin has managed to bury into forgetfulness the Tatacoa astronomical observatory, located just a few hours north. Amused by what sounded like a joke, I ventured out of the main road into an even more unexpected landscape. There I was, in the middle of the desert.
The Tatacoa is actually not a desert but, as I found out later, a dry tropical forest. With its wide patches of dry earth and Colorado red tones, this 330 km sq microclimate, a short drive away from the vast wet plains of neighbouring Tolima, looks absolutely extraterrestrial. And what if it were?
Feet in the desert…
Javier Fernando Rua seems to believe it might be. This dynamic Antioqueño, in his shorts and spotless white polo shirt and socks, does not have the typical Einstein-like looks you would expect from the director of an observatory. Passionate and eager to share his celestial knowledge, Javier dedicated his life to astronomy and now calls this inhospitable desert a home. After all, the starry skies that light up the Tatacoa almost every night are any astronomer’s dream.
Ideally located between the central and oriental cordilleras of the Andes mountains, the Tatacoa receives barely any rain due to the almost complete absence of clouds over its plains, to such an extent that locals tend to consider that ‘un dia bonito’ is actually a cloudy day. This is probably because the unforgiving tropical sun makes life tough and somewhat unreal in the region.
The few thorny bushes that manage to survive the climate do not last long with the many goats and sheep roaming the hills, suddenly appearing out of nowhere in ghostly herds. Stories of people lost among the eroded columns and cacti abound in the region. All said they felt like the desert was expanding as they moved, as if willing to take them somewhere unexpected.
As in other desert parts of the world, this hostile environment is a perfect setting to explore the Milky Way. Far enough from any major source of light, the Tatacoa sky is absolutely pristine. A fond traveler, I had seldom had the chance to witness such impeccable clarity and depth of vision into the infinite.
… head in the stars
The Tatacoa Observatory is one of six astronomical observatories in Colombia. Universities manage the other five. Built almost a decade ago by the departmental government of Huila, it was recently refurbished and better equipped. The 10-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope installed under the spherical roof now delights visitors of all ages and origins every night starting at 6:30.
Guided by Javier’s expertise, I learnt, along with other visitors, about astronomic mythology and constellations. I found out how stars are born and die. There we were in the dark, silent night, gathered like a group of worshippers witnessing our new gods in the magic of their expansion: Gemini, Leo, Aries, Virgo, Scorpio and Southern Cross. I still see them today, clear as drawings.
After a cold night under the stars, I continued northwards into Tolima and to Bogotá. Driving along the generous curves of the Magdalena – which is born not far from the Tatacoa – it felt like this desert was nothing but a dream. Maybe it was. But I recalled having spent a few hours in space, and for only $5,000 pesos, it seems a far better deal than Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic fantasy.