tatacoa

Cacti protrude from blood-red soil sculpted over millions of years beneath the unforgiving glare of the midday sun. A nest– an anomaly here – stands among the arid, flat landscape.

It’s the work of Frank Corredor, a Colombian architect, who first came to the Tatacoa Desert more than 10 years ago. His vision was to build a refuge, far away from the bright lights and loud noises of the city. So he built Bethel Bio Hotel. “I didn’t choose Tatacoa,” Frank recalls. “Tatacoa chose me.” Despite the cacti, red sands and dusty earth, Tatacoa, in the department of Huila in southwest of Colombia, is not a desert. It’s a dry tropical forest; one of the few remaining forests in the world and one of Earth’s most threatened ecosystems.

There is no traditional electricity in Tatacoa; everything (including Bethel) runs on solar power and residents are required to adhere to light curfews so as not to pollute the sky. The area has become a world-renowned destination for stargazing, a pull for many of the region’s visitors. The desert sits in a unique position thanks to perching atop the equator, at the highest point of the Earth’s curvature. This means viewers can see the whole sky, not just the north or south. The result is a humbling, magical and awe-inspiring experience.

Tatacoa is 130 square miles of former seabed, and Bethel occupies nearly 1.5 miles of the Mars-esque landscape. Promoting the preservation of the surrounding environment is at the heart of Bethel, and the inspiration for much of the hotel’s architecture and design. Originally opened with six adobe rooms, built using manure and straw, it now sports six styles of bedrooms – everything from “bio eggs” and “ecocavs” to sleeping on beds underneath the stars. “I wanted everyone to experience the stars. The beauty of Tatacoa,” the hotel owner muses. “This represents the wonder of our culture, the magical realism of Colombia.”

Frank was fixed on his vision of building an eco-friendly hotel which complemented the landscape and the local culture, rather than detracting from it. “Caring for our Earth is the responsibility of all human beings. I wanted to build a place where people could learn how to live with nature in harmony. I wanted people to realise they can live off the earth sustainably.”

The entire wooden structure of the hotel – and the metres upon metres of path decking which winds its way around the hotel – is built from recycled wood. Frank and his team searched the Magdalena River to find driftwood which they treated and shaped into supporting pillars, walkways and beds. Coarse bracken was collected and fashioned into a rough, brambled thatched roof. All the furniture in Bethel is bought second hand and upcycled and guests are given an environment talk when they arrive.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Bethel is a hideaway for hippies and eco warriors. Far from it. Although it’s a safe haven for astrologers to come and geek out, it’s also where Bogotá’s young and rich come to hang out and party (no children are allowed), and where older gentlemen bring their mistresses. It’s a strange, unsettling clash of worlds and the effect is unnerving.

Driving up a higgedly-piggedly, bone-rattling track, guests have time to adjust to the arid landscape, interspersed with jutting rocks, red canyons and lush green cacti. Then suddenly, a gold-painted ritzy sign announces the hotel, seemingly out of odds with the rest of the landscape. Guests are led along a raised walkway flanked by tall, outdoor torches and into a man-made cave where cut-out swimsuits, crystal-studded sunglasses and floaty kaftans are for sale.

It’s 3PM and the music is throbbing. Girls in barely-there bikinis and heels gyrate around the pool, sipping from overpriced cocktails and posing for selfie after selfie despite not being able to post them; phone signal in Tatacoa is almost non-existent. An eerily large full moon looms over the red earth and watches over the revellers, who soak up the hot, dry sun on orange and white loungers and dip their pedicured feet into the still, silky water of the pool. It’s a surreal scene; Miami in the middle of the desert.

Suddenly, the plains fall quiet. But it’s not a power cut – the music shuts off at 7PM sharp. Frank doesn’t want to disturb the desert. It’s a sudden, disorientating hush compared to the thumping, pulsating vibes that vibrated around Bethel just moments before. The silence envelops the hotel. All gazes are drawn toward the sky: the moon shines brighter than the sun, while shimmering stars compete for attention in the crisp midnight-blue sky.

Uber, whose grandmother used to own the land Bethel is built on, owns nearby stables, and is contracted to take guests out on horseback. He arrives sat atop his own mare, the reins of two other horses loosely gathered in his left hand. He sports a cowboy hat, a plaid shirt, jeans and boots and diligently chews gum throughout the ride. He knows the landscape inside out, pointing to his favourite gnarled cactus as he leads the small pack through a near-dry riverbed, up craggy paths, through spiky thickets and along canyon precipices. Finally, the horses reach the pueblo of Tatacoa, the tiny settlement which recently has expanded to accommodate the growing number of tourists visiting the region and where most backpackers camp out in locals’ backyards or front porches.

Despite having few facilities, the pueblo boasts not one but two observatories to choose from. One is a public, government-owned building, the other a small establishment, set up by Colombian astronomer Javier Fernando Rua Restrepo. Such was the pull of Tatacoa’s stars, Javier camped out for two years and worked in the government-run institution until he could afford to set up his own.

“There is nowhere else in the world where you can see the whole sky – the stars in Tatacoa are simply extraordinary,” he gushes. “It’s hard to explain the feeling it gives you. You look up at that sky and realise that problems that seem so large are actually so small in the universe. The stars make you feel tiny as you attempt to comprehend how great the universe truly is.”Despite riding for three hours, Uber never once glances at a compass or map; he is led by the stars.

By daybreak, the sun is peeping over the horizon, painting the dusty plains a dusky pink. Guests breakfast on the wooden veranda with piping hot coffee – tinto as Colombia dictates – fresh fruit and eggs with arepa. The morning’s schedule is a whizz across the desert on quad bikes, kicking up billowing trails of dust, whipping past more cacti and coarse thickets.

Unless guests bring their own cars, there’s no way to leave Bethel, which only serves to add to the remoteness. It’s a hotel with many faces, and Bethel is whatever you want it to be. A rich kids’ playground or a wondrous, phenomenon of nature. Party by the pool, cocktail in one hand and selfie stick in the other, or hike, ride and bike through the dramatic terrain and soak up the stars by night, marvelling in the at the insignificance and fleeting nature of humankind.

 

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