Villavieja and the Tatacoa Desert

It’s only 40km or so from Neiva to Villavieja so I didn’t leave Neiva’till 8am after a leisurely breakfast of bread, coffee and a jug of strwberry juice mixed with milk (yum). Finding the right road out of the city was easy, I mentioned to a truck driver at a stop light where I was headed and he yelled directions at me across the highway as the traffic slowly moved out of the city! The 40km was harder than I expected, it’s really hot out there and the landscape is kind of lumpy so it is a just a succession of short steep climbs and descents… I also had two flat tyres.. the first from a twisted piece of metal, the second when the patch on the first failed… both were out in the baked scrublands with no shade whatesover… the sweat was dripping off the end of my nose as I fixed the flats.

(Tatacoa Desert)

Villavieja is a nice little place, just a  very sleepy collection of cottages with a network of mostly dirt streets and lots of shade trees. It was when I stopped at a cafe in the village centre that I completely lost control of my day… A tip, if you vist Villavieja, your Spanish isn’t too bad and you want to make the most of the day then you could do a lot worse than track down a fellow called Nelson Martinez…. as it happened he found me over coffee…. Within minutes I was installed with a local family for the night, had been shown around the village and had lunch at his house… oh, and been taken to his friend’s house where he makes various edible and drinkable goodies out of cactus. The edible part was actually very delicious but I can’t say the ‘cactus wine’ was a particularly fine vintage…. unless perhaps talking of paintstripper.

My original plan was simply to cycle out to the desert on my bike, have a wander around the canyons and stuff and then cycle back for dinner… Nelson however had other ideas… what I was thinking when I agreed to a walking tour of the most interesting areas I have no idea… it turned into a sweltering hot 12km romp through bush and arid desert in the hottest part of the day and only making it back to the village at dusk, not ideal in the middle of a long week of cycling… To be fair though Nelson is a funny guy and does know the area incredibly well… and I did experience a lot more than if I had simply cycled out there, like sucking the honey out of wild honey combs pulled out of a dead tree. The desert is a beautiful area, very much a mini-version of Bryce Canyon in the US. Well worth a look if you are in the area. Mid-afternoon we stopped at farm for water and I got to meet a couple of the non-human residents, one of whom insisted on sharing my water…

That night was a toughie … the heat again… and a mattress more akin to a large sack of potatoes but hey ho, such is life on a bike! The family that looked after me though were wonderful. Leaving town in the morning was funny, at 8am folk were already installed in their chairs under the trees outside their houses where they would likely spend all the ensuing hours of daylight…

(leaving Villavieja)

From Villavieja I had planned to take the road along the east side of the Rio Magdalena to the town of Natagaima, 50km north, where there is a bridge to get across back to the main Neiva – Bogota road. The Natagaima road though turned out to be a nightmare of roughstuff that I didn’t really fancy with an already knackered trailer and with no shade from the sun… I had asked directions from a chap in the village how to get to Natagaima… he thought I was crazy and said I should go to Aipe instead which is Villavieja´s twin on the opposite bank of the river… I knew there was no bridge so thought he meant I should go back to Neiva first (the nearest crossing point) but when I saw the road to Natagaima it occurred to me that there must be a way for people to get across the river… a footbridge perhaps… so I asked… there is no footbridge the chap said, but there is a man with a canoe…so I followed his directions to the river and sure enough there was a man with a canoe…

(I really need to work on my bike parking skills..)

we stuffed the bike in and he ferried me across the wide river to Aipe where I was able to join the decent road north (after dragging the bike along a kilometre or so of overgrown footpath from the river bank. The looks on the locals faces when I emerged into Aipe were priceless.

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