The Tatacoa Desert is an arid region located in the Huila region of Colombia. Despite it’s name the Tatacoa Desert isn’t actually a desert, locals will tell you that it’s a dry tropical forest. Images of sand dunes should be banished, Tatacoa more resembles areas like Utah or New Mexico in the United States, dry but strikingly beautiful. The desert isn’t on the Gringo Trail, many foreigners give it a miss, but it was one of our favourite destinations in Colombia!
What to expect in Tatacoa – beauty!
How to get to the Tatacoa Desert
All roads point to Neiva for getting to the desert. Neiva is the capital of the Huila region and is about 40km from Tatacoa. We needed to get to Neiva from Popayan (50,000COP per person), a trip that took us through some quite scary roads, with massive drops inches away from the bus. After leaving at 10am we reached Neiva at about 5.30pm.
There is some greenery in the desert!
The next step is to get to Villavieja, which is the closest town to the desert. Collectivos to Villavieja run from 6am until 6pm everyday and cost 7,000COP. Some collectivos will continue on to the desert and drop you off at your accomodation (this will cost 15,000COP). We were lucky enough to catch the last collectivo when we arrived to Neiva and he brought us and some others tourists straight to our accomodation.
If the collectivo does not take you directly to the desert you can catch a tuk tuk instead. The tuk tuk costs 15,000COP but the price can be shared among 3 people.
How much did I love Tatacoa? This much!
Where to stay
We stayed in Noches de Saturno which is located extremely close to the Red Desert. The private rooms were more expensive than other locations (70,000COP for a double, 40,000COP for a single) but the location made it worth the extra price! Each room has a fan aswell, which makes the nights alot cooler! You can also stay in a hammock for 12,000COP (Note: No mosquito net), bring your own tent or rent one for 15,000COP.
Stay in Noches de Saturno and be a stones throw from the Red Desert!
You can also get breakfast, lunch and dinner at Noches de Saturno. Although the food is basic, it was also the best we had in the Desert (we tried some cold and overpriced dinner in another hostal).
Goat is a staple of the diet in the desert!
You don’t have any electrical outlets in the room (which is normal for the desert) but they do allow you to charge some stuff in the restaurant between 5 and 9pm. Also there is no WiFi, embrace the desert life!
What to do
The most photogenic part of the Tatacoa desert and only a stone’s throw away from Noches de Saturno (as good a reason as any to stay here). There is a circular route which leads through many different parts of the red desert. You can start by looking over the red desert and admiring its beauty from afar before climbing down and wandering among the gigantic cactus and rock formations. The red desert can be done with a guide but we didn’t think it was necessary to do so, it was easy to follow the markers and find our way around. Just be careful exploring if it has been raining, the ground turns into a red sludge (we found this out the hard way!).
Some Red Desert highlights!
This was the desert floor after the rain – you can see where the rain passed through
The grey desert is located quite far from all the hostels in Tatacoa which means that it is abit of a struggle to get to. You can walk (2 hours) but in the desert heat it is not recommended. You could also hire a tuk tuk driver (about 15,000COP) and ask him to wait but we decided to go on a tour with our hostel for 25,000COP each. Like the red desert there is a loop you can follow which takes you through different rock formations. Our favourite part was the section that look like ghosts!
A striking tree in the middle of the grey desert
Check out the “ghosts”
Some grey desert highlights
The grey desert also oddly has a swimming pool in the middle of it, costing 8,000COP per person. Strange, but when are you ever going to get the chance to swim in a pool in the middle of a desert?
The Tatacoa Desert is also well known for stargazing, due to the lack of light pollution in the surrounding area. Every night at 7pm there is an educational talk in the observatory. Although completely in Spanish we could understand the majority of what was going on. We were there during a full moon but we saw enough stars to keep us happy. The guide points out all the major constellations and explains how the zodiac calendar was created. He has a really good pointer so that you know exactly what star he is talking about! At the end we got the chance to look through a telescope and view Mercury and the Moon up close. Overall it was a fun talk but we didn’t see as many stars as we thought we would (probably due to the moon).
Aoife with the moon in her hands!
Villavieja is the nearest town and not usually worth a visit but as it rained ALL DAY on one of our days in the desert we decided to pay it a visit. We first went to the Fossil Museum where we had read there was a Giant Sloth fossil. The entrance cost 2,500COP each but the museum is really small and alot of the fossils are taped up with sellotape and hard to distinguish anything from them, definitely worth missing but it kept us occupied on a horrendous day! The tuk tuk to Villavieja costs 15,000COP each way!
- Bring insect repellent! I cannot emphasize it enough, there are so many mosquito/sand flies everywhere and you will get bit, so stock up!
- Stay in the desert – do not stay in Villavieja, its too far away from the action and is just a standard Colombian town.
- You are in the desert so this may sound obvious but – bring suncream and a hat, or at least something to cover your head!
- Don’t climb on any of the rock formations, no matter how great your photo may look, you could damage it!
- There is no ATM or cards accepted in Tatacoa so bring all your cash with you!