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Thu Mar 06 2014: Jedi Nights in the Tatacoa Desert

North again. Our aimless wanderings are revealing a distinct aversion to the southern hemisphere...

From a rainy morning's start in La Plata, we are going to descend from the foothills of the Central Andes (Cordillera Central) down through the valley of the Magdalena River through the city of Neiva and finally end up in the desert outpost town of Villavieja.

Our ride to Neiva follows the Magdalena River

Across the river we see the foothills of the Andes in the distance, lush green velour carpeting the mountainsides like an EcoElvis has gone crazy decorating the landscape.

Neda is trying her best to ignore the mud on her moto

Neda likes things clean. Clean clothing. Clean motorcycle. It's just a personal pet peeve with her. So when we rode through yesterday's mud bog, it was really bugging her to be carrying all this excess weight. So as we approached the city of Neiva, I spotted a gas station where a truck was being washed. Our bikes and luggage got the royal treatment as they were power-hosed and detailed while we had a snack break.

So clean and sparkly! Neda is happy once again! I forgot how good (um, less ugly) the R12GS looks without luggage...

Villavieja is on the outskirts of the Tatacoa desert. It's one of the most distinctive areas of a country that is dominated by the colour green. We booked into a hostel that was not as comfortable for the pricetag. The actual town was not that interesting as well, so after one night, we decided to ride out into the desert itself (only 15 minutes away) and rough it.

Riding out to Tatacoa: grass becomes less green, air becomes much warmer

I've really begun paying attention to the elevations of where we are and where we ride through. You'd think being this far south in the northern hemisphere everything would be muy caliente, but the effects of riding up and down the Andes have us alternately shivering in the clouds and boiling in the valley. The Tatacoa Desert is at 500m (1600 feet) above sea level and it is hot, hot, hot!

One of the first sights that greet us. Astounding!

Neda is loving both the colours and the heat!

Riding around, trying to find a place to stay

There are several farms doubling as hostels as we ride into the Tatacoa. We find one that's gotten good reviews and booked a few nights to explore and live the desert life.

Our hostel is a goat farm called Noches de Saturno (Nights of Saturn)

We rented a little rustic cabin sheltered by a hot tin roof

Our first day we didn't do much exploring, just caught up on a little light reading on the porch of our cabin and really savored the dry desert heat after all the cold and rain we'd been experiencing lately. The desert is wedged between two mountain ranges which rob it of most of the rainfall passing through. Or so we've been told. Because this is one of the area's two rainy seasons, we listened to the smattering sounds of a thunderstorm hurling huge drops of rain on our tin roof in the darkness (no electricity) of our first night there.

Under the mosquito net, hiding from desert bitey-bugs

In the morning, we awake with the rising sun and peer outside. The water on the ground is quickly evaporating and if we had woken up any later, the only evidence that it had ever rained would be the memory of the sound of rain pattering in the darkness just a few hours ago. A sweaty, little stroll outside in the increasing heat quickly evaporates that memory as well...

Goats being herded through the desert

Young goat herder on horseback

Aloe vera therapy. No, we didn't get sunburnt, Neda has really itchy mosquito bites

These parrots kept us entertained for a good long time! :)

In the evening, we headed out to the Tatacoa Observatory, which is less than 10 minutes walk away from our farm. On the way, a scooter passed us and these girls stopped in front of us. They had recognized us from the farm because they were using its swimming pool during the day, so they pulled over and chatted with us. It turns out all they really wanted was a picture of us (of me, I suspect).

We've been getting many, many requests for pictures, so what I'm going to do is also ask that they take one with our cameras as well from now on! :)

Tatacoan Celebrities

Tatacoa Observatory

This observatory is situated in the desert because of the clear sightlines around the horizon, almost 170 degrees of skyline! In the non-rainy season, the skies are free of clouds and the dry desert air gives amazing clarity to the constellations and other heavenly bodies.

Did I mention we were here during rainy season?

This is actually our second time visiting the observatory. Last night it was too cloudy to see anything so we postponed our trip till tonight...

So tonight, we paid our admission fee and were slightly disappointed because:

We didn't actually get to go inside the observatory (in the background)
They wheeled out these smaller telescopes on the roof of the adjoining building...

Our astronomer/guide gave us a seminar on astronomy and the constellations of the night sky. In Spanish. Great.

The telescopes weren't bad though, through the lens you could get great captures
with an iPhone or other point+shoot camera

Saturn! The capture didn't quite get the rings but we did eventually get to see them. Very cool!

I've got quite an interest in astronomy from ever since I was a little kid, so with my limited Spanish vocabulary, I could piece together what our guide was telling our group by certain words that were the same in English. However, doing this kind of hurt my brain, so at one point I gave up pseudo-translating and just stared up into the sky in wonder.

Every once in a while, Neda would translate an interesting fact I did not know like:

  • Subaru is the name of a 6-star configuration in the Taurus constellation. The car company Subaru's has these 6 stars in it's logo. Neat!
  • The Southern Cross constellation was pointed out to us for the first time. You can actually see it anywhere south of the Tropic of Capricorn at any hour of the night very easily.

This is when my concentration just snapped...

All this time my focus was pretty good, trying to glean any additional information I could from our guide's Spanish seminar.

And then he brought out his laser pointer, shooting it up in he sky like a green lightsaber, slashing away at the stars...

All of a sudden his Spanish words sounded like the excited natterings of a Jawa who's just captured a droid wandering in the middle of the desert. I was so focused on the green beam slashing back and forth across the sky that my ears were instantly filled with John Williams' regal trumpets and the sharp electric hum of lightsabers cutting through the air.

I wanted that lightsaber.

In my mind, the guide and I were locked in mortal Jedi combat, his green weapon inches from my face as I tried to wrest the deadly sword from his clutches. The beam danced back and forth in front of my eyes and I could hear Princess Leia's voice inquire out of the darkness, "Gene, are you okay? You look kinda spaced out and bored..."

Perhaps it was time to leave and explore the rest of Tatooine the next day.

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