5 reasons why you should visit the Tatacoa Desert
by Ine Vandenwyngaert
The Tatacoa desert is a hidden gem located 280km (174 miles) to the south of Bógota. With its interesting history, lunar and dramatic landscapes, incredible stargazing, and various activities, adding this destination to your Colombia itinerary is a must! Here is a little background, 5 reasons why should visit this place, and some tips.
The Tatacoa desert is named after a reptilian creature similar to a rattlesnake, which used to inhabit the area when the Spanish conquistadors discovered the site. Unfortunately (or not!), the tatacoa does not exist anymore, but you can find many scorpions, snakes, spiders, lizards, turtles, wildcats, cacti and more than 70 species of birds in the area. The desert covers about 330km² of land and is considered an important geological site. Technically, the Tatacoa Desert is not a “desert”, but a “dry forest” as locals call it. Evidence confirms that Tatacoa was once a tropical rainforest, home to several rivers and a freshwater lake. In some parts, multiple lines of evidence of the water flows can still be observed. In spite of this fact, in the eye of the “un-expert”, this dry and dramatic landscape definitely resembles a desert.
Why visit the Tatacoa Desert?
1. Well-kept secret
The Tatacoa desert is a well-kept secret in the region of Huila in the heart of Colombia. Travelers are drawn to the dreamlike desert landscapes and outstanding stargazing, away from the hustle and bustle of the big, well-known cities. As such, a visit to the Tatacoa desert is a truly magical experience where you can find peace in your natural surroundings. The area receives some tourists, but these are nothing compared to the highly-tourist ridden parts of Colombia. Accommodation and tours around the desert are very affordable, which makes it an ideal place for the budget traveler!
2. Unique & distinct landscapes
The Tatacoa desert is unique as it has two distinct zones: the Grey and the Red Desert. Both look very different and are especially appealing to nature and outdoors enthusiasts who will dig exploring the various landscapes and rock formations. The Red desert features intense red and orange scenery which is absolutely stunning. There are several jaw-dropping vistas which offer gorgeous sunset views. You can also follow a trail on foot between the rocky slopes of the eroded landscape. The trails are well-marked with different colors and can usually be walked within two hours. On the way, you will encounter many goats, birds, cacti and sometimes even snakes!
In contrast, the Grey Desert is more like a moon-like, surreal landscape. This area is much bigger and therefore home to more diverse activities. In addition to several short and longer hiking trails between the grey rock formations, you can also find various “natural swimming pools”. The water in these pools directly comes from the springs and is therefore very fresh and refreshing! Sitting in the grey desert hills, the natural swimming pool of Los Hoyos is the most popular one. However, there are plenty of others to explore which are less crowded and at least as beautiful! For example, the natural pool of Piscilodo is surrounded by banana trees and other vegetation. Besides, it is also possible to take a mud-bath at Piscilodo, making it a peaceful and perfect retreat.
3. Plenty of activities on offer
There are several activities offered to explore the distinct desert landscapes. For the less-active traveler, travel agencies and hotels provide guided tours by “tuk-tuk”. The benefit of such a guided tour is that you will become more knowledgeable about the history, geology, and flora and fauna of the area. In addition, you can tailor the tour to your own needs and interests.
Another fun activity and an excellent way to explore Tatacoa is to take a horse riding tour. On a horseback you can go deeper into the desert, exploring the changing colors and rolling hills. You do not need any experience as the horses are well-trained and tranquil. You can also pay by the hour (only 20,000 COP per hour), which allows you to spend more time on different activities.
For the more active traveler, it is also possible to rent bikes in the town of Villavieja or from the hostels/hotels in the desert. The bike gives you more freedom to explore on your own. However, it is important to keep in mind that it can get extremely hot during the day (temperatures sometimes reach 40°C!) and the roads are sometimes sandy and hilly.
4. Incredible stargazing
Being the astronomical capital of Colombia, the Tatacoa Desert is the best place in Colombia for observing the night sky. In the Astronomical Observatory Tatacoa (OATA) you can enjoy incredible stargazing through telescopes as well as learn more about the stars from the observatory’s astronomer. The Observatory opens around 7 pm, which is also the start of the presentation and telescope observation. Make sure to go when there is a new moon as the light pollution will be minimized!
5. Easily accessible
Many buses that are headed in the direction of the Tatacoa Desert depart from Bógota on a daily basis. The easiest way to get there is to catch a bus to Neiva (approximately 6 hours), which leaves about every hour. From the city of Neiva, you can either take a “colectivo” or a taxi to the small town of Villavieja (approximately 45 minutes). This charming town is the gateway to the desert and hosts several cheaper hotels and restaurants. The Tatacoa Desert can be easily reached within 15 minutes, where more hotels can be found and where the true outdoor junkie can also opt to camp!
- Even though it is possible to visit the Tatacoa Desert in one day, it is recommended to stay at least 2 to 3 days. This allows you to plan in the different activities and to truly enjoy the surrounding area. The majority of the hotels also have a pool, which is perfect to cool off during the hottest hours of the day.
- Various hotels are located in the desert area, which is more isolated. This means that you will be limited in terms of facilities like restaurants and bars (usually more expensive too). The nearby town of Villavieja is, therefore, an ideal alternative. The town is home to several bars, restaurants, minimarkets, shops, and hotels.
- If you decide to stay in the town of Villavieja, it is also worth to visit the paleontology museum before exploring the desert. Here you can find important fossils which were excavated in the Tatacoa desert and around the town.