FARC, Firefights, and Burial Sites – Tierradentro, Colombia

The Tierradentro National Archaeological Park is home to what is believed to be the greatest number of cave tombs in Latin America. There are dozens of them, some dating back 1,400 years. It’s a highlight for many travelers to Colombia and the place is unlike any other archaeological site in the country. However, we were a little distracted by the firefights between Colombian soldiers and FARC rebels in the surrounding foothills when we were there…

San Andres de Pisimbala, Colombia Tierradentro Archaeological park

The foothills around the Tierradentro Archaeological Park in Southern Colombia are usually peaceful.

FARC guerrillas near Tierradentro

During the more than 18 months we spent traveling in Colombia we heard many personal stories about the FARC and the ongoing violence associated with the rebel group which has been operating in the country for decades. These stories brought the grim reality of living in a country that’s been essentially fighting a civil war with guerrillas into stark relief.

But nothing prepared us for our one and only firsthand encounter with the FARC as we arrived in San Andres de Pisimbala, the village in southern Colombia which is the gateway town to the nearby Tierradentro site.

Soldiers San Andres de Pisimbala Tierradento Colombia

NOT what you want to see when you rock into town: Colombian soldiers in the streets of San Andres de Pisimbala after FARC guerrillas booby-trapped the local school with land mines.

And when we say “first hand” we mean the town’s school, just one block from our guesthouse, was booby-trapped with land mines, Colombian soldiers were in the streets, and FARC rebels were in the hills. When those opposing groups began shooting at and shelling each other, we hid in the kitchen of our guesthouse (La Portada Hospedaje) numbly trying to process the tense, powerless reality of being caught in the crossfire. 

The two-day saga is chronicled in our Breakfast with the FARC story for New Worlder. 

Tierradentro Archaeological Park Colombia

Structures protecting entrances to the elaborately painted and carved underground tombs at the Tierradentro Archaeological Park.

Exploring Tierradentro (finally)

Once the FARC and the Colombian soldiers had moved on, things returned to normal remarkably quickly in sleepy San Andres de Pisimbala. The Tierradentro Archaeological Park (20,000 COP or about US$7 per person for a ticket that’s good for two days) also opened up again so we finally had a chance to explore what we’d come to see in the first place.

Tierradentro hypogeas cave tombs

The decorated interior of one of the man-made underground tombs at Tierradentro.

As we said, Tierradentro is unlike any other archaeological site in Colombia because it’s home to a very high concentration of elaborate cave tombs – more than 160 of them. The area has been excavated since the 1930s and experts say some of the tombs date back up to 1,400 years.

Tierradentro tombs Colombia

Geometric shapes in red or black pigment are the main motifs inside the tombs at Tierradentro.

The tombs exist inside man-made “caves” called hypogeas which were dug into the ground. These are accessed via hand cut steps that form steep, curved staircases that take you from ground level directly down into the dug out space – like entering a crude cellar.

Step entrance Tierradentro tombs

Hand-cut staircases like this descend steeply into each tomb.

Once inside, the spaces are impressively large. Big enough to stand up in and walk around. There is lighting inside, but bring a flashlight to be sure you can really see the tomb decorations.

UNESCO Tierradentro tombs Colombia

Tomb painting at Tierradentro.

Almost every interior surface is painted using red or black pigment to create geometric shapes, animals and human faces. Niches are also dug into the walls of the tombs along with carvings.

Tombs Tierradentro Colombia

Human figures and carved niches inside a tomb at Tierradentro.

There are also two small museums on the site, but it’s the tombs, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, that are the highlight. They’re spread out over a fairly large distance on sloping hillsides, so be prepared to do some walking. And, as we said, bring a flashlight. If you have a tripod, bring that too to assist with your shots inside the tombs.

In addition to the underground tombs, the El Tablón area of the site also has carved volcanic stone statues which you can hike to when FARC rebels and Colombian soldiers aren’t trying to kill each other in the hills, which we hope has stopped since both sides signed a peace treaty in 2017.

 

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Where We’ve Been: July 2017 Road Trip Driving Route in Peru & Bolivia

We started the month of July 2017 in the small town of Huancavelica high (and cold) in the Peruvian Andes. From there our road trip crossed Southern Peru to Lake Titicaca and then traveled into Bolivia where we spent time in La Paz, drove Bolivia’s infamous “Death Road,” then headed down to the Uyuni Salt Flats where we ended the month. In total, our road trip traveled 1,794 miles (2,887 km) in July and you can see the same spectacular scenery that we saw through the windshield of our truck via the drive-lapse video at the end of this post.

Driving the Bolivian death road

Where we’ve been: July 2017 in Peru & Bolivia

From damp and cold Huancavelica, one of the highest cities in the world at 12,060 feet (3,676 meters), we continued across the Peruvian Andes to historic Ayacucho (watch  our snowy July 4th morning drive leaving Huancavelica at 0:50 in our video at the end of this post).

From Ayacucho we made a beeline to the city of Puno on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca near the border with Bolivia. We then crossed into Bolivia, our 59th border crossing of the Journey so far, from Yunguyo, Peru to Copacabana, Bolivia (see this very tranquil border crossing on the shores of Lake Titicaca at 15:06 in our video at the end of this post). 

Once in Bolivia, we drove to the world’s highest capital city: La Paz. From there we took a side trip to the Yungas region, a forested area between the high Andes and the lowland, Amazonian forest. In a mere 40 miles (65 km) the highway drops more than 11,000 feet (3,000 meters) from a 15,500 foot (4,724 meter) pass to the lowlands below. Although there is a now modern highway heading down to the Yungas, we couldn’t pass up the chance to drive Bolivia’s infamous Death Road.

Once considered “the world’s most dangerous road,” this dirt “highway” no longer lives up to that moniker. Yes, it’s still a narrow, one-lane road clinging to a sheer cliff that at times drops many thousands of feet into the ravine below. However, since the new highway was opened there is very little traffic along the dirt route save for a daily onslaught of tourist bicyclers making the descent and a few adventurous foreigners who want to drive this famed road. This means there is no longer the need to cling to the cliff’s edge while passing oncoming trucks.

Judge for yourself in the Death Road footage starting at 17:07 in our video at the end of this post). 

After conquering Bolivia’s Death Road we headed south across the country’s high Altiplano to the city of Oruro. From there we made a side trip to the village of Orinoca, the hometown of Bolivian President Evo Morales, to visit the newly opened Museo de la Revolución Democrática y Cultura. Sometimes called the Evo Museum, many consider it to be a very expensive ($7.5 million US dollars), very large, and very remote homage to Evo himself.

From there, we drove south to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, where we ended the month.

Our complete road trip driving route map for July 2017 is below.

And don’t miss the chance to see what we saw out there on the road in Peru and Bolivia in July of 2017 via our drive-lapse video, below. It was, as always, shot by our Brinno camera which is attached to our dashboard.

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Is this Colombia’s Next World Heritage Site? – Tatacoa Desert, Colombia

Colombia offers a wide variety of landscapes full of unexpected beauty including the Tatacoa Desert, a place that could be Colombia’s next UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Desierto de Tatacoa Colombia

The Tatacao Desert in Colombia may not be a real desert, but it’s still beautiful.

Landscapes and logistics in the Tatacoa Desert

Spanish conquistadors called this 128 square mile (330 square km) area “The Valley of Sorrows,” which seems unnecessarily harsh. The Tatacoa Desert isn’t really a desert at all but a dry tropical forest just a few miles from Colombia’s mighty Magdalena River. The area actually gets measurable rainfall. In fact, water is what sculpted many of the area’s most beautiful landscapes and gullies.

Erosion patterns Tatacoa desert Colombia

Erosion left behind from an era when the Tatacoa Desert was lush and filled with water.

Experts say the area is full of fossils too, left over from an era when this land was lush and filled with life. The area also delivers world-class stargazing and is home to an observatory that you can visit. In 2012 the Tatacoa Desert was submitted for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s currently on the “tentative” list.

Tatacoa desert landscape

Apart from geographic beauty, the Tatacoa Desert in Colombia is known for fossils and some great star gazing.

You will be as surprised as we were that there is no entry booth, entry fee, or visible sign of any type of management of the land. We just drove in and began exploring the area via the decent dirt road that runs through it.

driving Tatacoa desert Colombia

On the road through the Tatacoa Desert. This sign is the most official thing about this place which has no formal entrance and no entry fee.

We drove past a few basic eateries and camping areas, and locals are allowed to live in the desert so you’ll see their herds of goats eking out a living in the arid landscape like only goats can. Mostly we saw cactus, dramatic gullies, quite a few falcon-like birds (which turned out to be American kestrels, we believe), and towers of eroded land that reminded us of hoodoos in the US southwest.

American Kestrel Tatacoa desert Colombia

We saw many of these birds which, we believe, are American kestrels.

Whatever you do, get an early start. In the morning we enjoyed cloud cover and moderate temperatures around 70 degrees (21 C) but the afternoon was sweltering.

Tatacoa desert colors

While the Tatacoa isn’t, technically, a desert it still gets wicked hot by the afternoon. Arrive early in the morning for the most comfortable conditions.

Where to sleep and eat at the Tatacoa Desert

Unless you intend to camp in the desert (which is totally possible and allegedly awesome), the closest accommodations are in Villavieja about 2.5 miles (4km) from the desert. We stayed at Hotel Oasis de la Tatacoa where doubles are 120,000 COP (about US$40). We later walked past Yararaka Boutique Hotel which looked like a great option for anyone able to splurge a little more.

Eating was a bleak proposition. Avoid a place called Monterrey unless you like flies and terrible service. We got passable fare at Sol, Sombre y Sabor.

Tatacoa desert Colombia

There really is no other landscape in Colombia quite like the Tatacoa Desert.

 

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Travel Scam: Do Foreign Tourists Pay Hotel Tax in Bolivia?

Let’s get this straight once and for all. The law in Bolivia is clear: foreign tourists do not pay the 13% IVA hotel tax in Bolivia (we’d call this a VAT or Value Added Tax in English). However, every hostel we’ve stayed at in La Paz has slyly added this tax onto our bill. Because we’re allergic to any type of travel scam (and on a tight travel budget) we’ve argued the tax and managed to have it removed from our bills. But it’s no fun feeling ripped off and it’s no fun arguing, so we did a lot of leg work so you can easily avoid being overcharged at hotels and hostels when you travel to Bolivia.

Travel scam

Avoid this rip-off hotel tax in Bolivia

Foreign tourists are exempt from the IVA hotel tax in Bolivia because the hotels themselves are not required to pay the tax for foreign guests (only for Bolivian guests). So, every time a hotel incorrectly charges a foreign guest 13% on top of their hotel bill they can pocket that money which can add up to thousands of dollars a year at a busy hostel or hotel. Yeah, that makes us mad too.

We got sick of arguing about the tax law with hotel staff so we set out to get our hands on official Bolivian government documents that spell out the law which says foreign tourists are exempt from the IVA hotel tax. It wasn’t easy, but after asking reputable hoteliers, contacting the Bolivian Vice-Ministry of Tourism, and talking to the tourism police in La Paz we finally collected the necessary documents.

We’ve put together a PDF for you to download, printout, and show to any Bolivian hotelier that tries to charge you the tax.  The first two pages of this document are from the Bolivian Tax Authority and they were sent to us by the Bolivian Vice-Ministry of Tourism. These docs explain how hotels handle the foreign tourist tax exemption. The third page is a printout from the Bolivian Tax Authority’s website and it more clearly addresses the foreign tourist exemption. The fourth and final page is the relevant portion of the specific law that exempts foreign tourists from the tax.

So far we’ve only encountered problems with this tax in La Paz. Perhaps it’s less of an issue in other areas of Bolivia. But we still recommend that you use our link, print out these official documents, carry them with you, and show them to any hoteliers who insist on charging you this tax.

If you get any guff or are ultimately somehow forced to pay the tax, you can also denounce hotels by giving the hotel name and details of the interaction to the local tourist police office (though when we visited the tourist police office in La Paz to denounce Rendezvous Hostal and La Posada de la Abuela Obdulia for trying to charge us for the tax, we were referred to the nearby Camara de Hoteleras office). Just the threat of denouncing a hotel to the tourist police is usually enough to get the tax dropped from your bill.

Foreign tourists exempt from Bolivian Hotel tax

We’ve been using Booking.com a lot lately and the site has a statement on every Bolivian hotel listing that explains that foreign travelers are exempt from the IVA tax (see above), though we believe the in-country stay limit is under 183 days, not under 59 days as the Booking.com blurb states. Regardless of the Booking.com statement, both of the La Paz hostels we booked via the site tried to charge us the tax. If you use Booking.com, leave reviews of properties that try to charge you so that other travelers can be aware and so that Booking.com can be aware.

We just got off the phone with a Booking.com customer service rep who explained that every property on the site has an internal rep who is interested in tracking and resolving any habitual problems, like charging foreign guests for taxes they don’t have to pay. To be super diligent, send a message to the Booking.com customer service email address as well if a hotel or hostel tries to charge you this tax.

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