I have always defended the idea that to love Colombia we must travel through it. Looking for new hidden jewels to explore was how I came to Huila. This department known by its rice production is much more than just that.
Its location between the Cordilleras and the Magdalena River valley, along with its cultural history make Huila a mix of unique places and adventures.
To get Huila from Bogotá you can choose between 2 routes: one via ‘La Mesa’ and the other via Fusagasugá.
Both roads are in Cundinamarca and meet near Girardot where you must follow a road that crosses the department of Tolima and finally reach Huila. For me one of the best reasons to travel through Colombia are its roads.
Winding in a small metal box you can admire the imposing mountains of the Andes in all its splendor and if you pay close attention on this road to Huila you can see green parrots observing them from a nearby tree.
It’s no pleasure to run into a traffic jam on the road. However, don’t freak out and take the opportunity to appreciate the landscape that you have at your sides.
After a few hours of walking, you will begin to notice that the steep mountains begin to give way to wide pastures and the asphalt curves become so straight that seem endless. This for me marks the arrival to the valley of the Magdalena River and the entrance to Tolima.
At this point you will surely want something to eat, a breakfast, a morning snack or even a lunch.
I recommend that you stop in a municipality called Espinal, take a moment to walk its main square and eat some fried delight accompanied with oatmeal.
Like in any municipal plaza in Colombia, there is never a shortage of dogs looking with cravings at the food of the visitors of their city.
Finally we started to see some signs on the road calling us to our first destination Opita (gentilicio del Huila): the Tatacoa Desert.
Then, we left the main paved road towards a slightly more rugged and dusty road.
TRAVEL TIP #1- VISIT THE DESERT
If you are traveling in a 4 × 4 truck, turn off the road to Neiva in any warning you get from the Tatacoa Desert. I assure you that you will enjoy the quiet side of the road and you will pass your truck through incredible and hidden places.
If you travel in a low-rise car and are not willing to dig your car out of the mud or run the risk of leaving some part of it along the road, follow the paved road until you reach Neiva and then exit towards Villavieja «the municipality of Tatacoa». Your mechanic will thank you for it.
Not knowing well the roads of Huila, we ventured on this road through flooded tunnels, flocks of goats on the road and small hamlets that seemed straight out of a Gabo book: a single street of houses where groups of yellow butterflies are seen flying in front of the porticoes where all the inhabitants watch the cars go by.
After 4 hours of walking through what the locals call The Ring to the Desert “in the Nissan AD Wagon of ’98 ‘where we were going and which of course was not equipped» we managed to reach the
Here I leave you my recommendations:
WHAT TO DO IN THE TATACOA DESERT?
What I mostly recommend is that you hire a guide that shows you all the points of interest in the desert. He will very friendly explain you everything about its geology, history and nature. These guides charge between $ 80,000 and $ 120,000 COP per group.
The full tour lasts between 4 and 5 hours.
Another plan is to go to the observatory at night, between 7 and 9 p.m. every night, for a great explanation about the stars and the night sky, with a cost of $ 10,000 COP per person.
Visit the quiet town of Villavieja along the side of the Magdalena River, half an hour from the desert on the way to Neiva. A great place to hang out and eat an ice cream.
WHERE TO STAY?
You can find hosting service in places that include food or bring your own, usually people are very warm and friendly when providing the service.
In case you are interested, some lodgings have a swimming pool, the price range ranges from $ 8,000 COP in camping area to $ 30,000 COP per person per night.
WHAT TO EAT ON THE DESERT?
You can’t leave the desert without trying a portion of roasted goat, a refreshing cholupa slush and the juices made with nopal cactus.
TRAVEL TIP #2- NAVIGATE THE MAGDALENA
Ask locals for directions to the river. There you will find a concrete ramp with small blue boats that for $ 8,000 COP will take you for a walk along the rushing Magdalena river, and they will help you to see the iguanas sunbathing on the branches near the shore.
Three hours from Villavieja, the municipality of Paicol was waiting for us, one of the oldest in Colombia. Here there are plans for all tastes, from rafting to swimming in a paradisiacal waterfall.
If you decide to go to Paicol, contact Yamileth de Brisas de la Motilona the day before, her cell phone number is 314 2574 863. She will give you all the information you need and will accompany you on a tour through the Cueva caja de agua, the waterfall La Motilona and rafting on the river.
TRAVEL TRIP #3- VISIT BETANIA AND SAN AGUSTÍN
Watch out the signs that indicate the Mirador de Betania. It is a stop with a sensational view of the mountains and the Betania Dam.
We started our way again, this time with an eye on a destination I had wanted to go to since childhood: San Agustín. The road is long but it’s worth it.
In San Agustín I recommend you to stay at the Hotel Casa de Nelly, a small hotel founded by a French traveler almost three decades ago in the midst of colorful fruit and bamboo gardens.
There, they also will offer you all the tourist information and guides so you can get to know the ancestral statues of the San Agustín culture in the Archaeological Park and in the Alto de los Ídolos.
On the outskirts of San Agustín on the road that connects with San José de Isnos is located the Magdalena Strait. It is here where the wide and rushing river that we navigate near Villavieja is compressed to a width of only two meters.
I suggest you to visit it, it is a must for all those who go to San Agustín.
Our departure from San Agustín marked the conclusion of this adventure.
After traveling Huila we leave in love with its landscapes, its people and its roads. This department is full of small jewels and nooks waiting to be discovered by travelers and adventurers who dare to give it a chance that they will not regret.
OTHER RECOMMENDED DESTINATIONS NEAR THE HUILA
Tomás Pinzón es un amante de los viajes y la fotografía. Es apasionado por los destinos Colombianos y todo el potencial natural y cultural que tienen por ofrecer.
Es un firme creedor que para amar a Colombia hay que recorrerla y aprovecha cada día para mostrar lo mejor del país en su blog de Instagram @tompinzon