Last month, a stargazing festival was held in Colombia’s Tatacoa Desert for the second straight year. From November 10-13, people from all over the country gathered for this Astronomical Tourism Festival in one of the country’s driest areas, which is increasingly promoting its clear views of the cosmos as a reason to visit the natural marvel.
For four days, the festival was celebrated in Villavieja in the picturesque Tatacoa Desert region by organizing groups including the Astronomers Association of Colombia (ASASAC). Fontur, a federal tourism promotion agency, and the Colombian Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Tourism (MinCIT) also supported the festival.
“Tatacoa and Villavieja are locations that we want to show as main tourism venues not only for Colombia but for the world,” said Mary Amália Vázquez, director of quality and development for MinCIT.
In addition to the lack of rainfall, and thus minimal cloud cover on many nights, Tatacoa’s proximity to the Equator gives stargazers the ability to view all the 88 constellations visible from Earth. Villavieja’s geographical location, sitting just 3.17 degrees north of the Equator, also mean it is very well positioned to show off an array of meteors, star showers, and eclipses.
The desert’s relative isolation away from large cities is another blessing for astronomy. There is very little light pollution, and many tourists enjoy camping in the area rather than demanding large built-up hotels and other artificially lit structures.
“Villavieja is sincerely thankful for this invaluable gift,” said town Mayor Yordan Aris Pacheco while applauding the national government for its assistance during the inauguration ceremony of the event.
Going forward, the annual event will begin taking place in August, an important month for astronomers because of the presence of the so-called Perseids showers, one of the most active meteor showers that can been seen witness from Earth. According to ASASAC, coordinating the festival with this phenomenon will add to its popularity and draw more interest.
“Thanks to government efforts and other entities, we can declare now that the festival will take place every year on the second weekend of August from 2018 on,” said Guillermo García, director of the Astronomical Observatory of Tatacoa (OATA).
Vázquez noted that the festival was not only an effort to advance scientific tourism in Colombia but to promote sustainable tourism in what is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, a global campaign created from United Nations.
On top of promoting sustainable tourism, Tatacoa Desert is now seeking “Starlight” certification from the Spanish Fundación Starlight. This formal international recognition is awarded to spots where high-level astronomical observation is possible, and, if it received the Starlight honor, Tatacoa would be the first location to have such title in Colombia or any other tropical country.
Ángela Pérez, member of ASASAC, was part of the team that organized activities to support such astronomical and scientific studies for students of Villavieja. She stressed that education is important for economic develop in small regions and children are the organization’s priority.
Participants were able to attend all the activities for free. The agenda included talks, observation (at night and for daytime solar observation), rocket workshops, astrophotography, how to read a stars map, and sessions with Skyler, the biggest mobile planetarium of Colombia. The Skyler imaging capability includes 1.5 million megapixels of resolution, allowing anyone to very clearly see planets, satellites, constellations, other celestial bodies, and even foreign galaxies.
Tatacoa is located in the department of Huila, about 38 kilometers from its capital Neiva. The average temperature is around 30 degrees Celsius degrees throughout most of the year, but it can reach up to 43 degrees Celsuis at midday.
Villavieja is the second most important tourist destination in the department of Huila, after the Archaeological Zone of San Agustín, where mysterious and well-preserved pre-Columbian statues can be seen throughout a gorgeous natural landscape. According to the municipal council of Villavieja, the flow of travelers has grown significantly in recent years, jumping from around 100,000 in that 2012 to 172,000 in 2016.
The price for camping in the festival was 30,000 pesos ($10 USD) per person for the three days. The majority of festival attendees opted to camp out, although there are some hotels in Villavieja that were by astronomers and tourist from all over.
Buses from Bogotá go to Neiva everyday and the average price is 50,000 pesos ($17 USD) per person. A night in a hotels in Villavieja, or nearby, can cost as low as 40,000 pesos ($13 USD) per night or up to to 500,000 pesos ($170 USD) in five-star hotels. Of course, the best view is had when you sleep outdoors — in the cheapest accommodation of all on the 35,000-star desert floor.
Photo: The remarkable landscape of Tatacoa Desert in Colombia. (Credit: Karolynaroca)