Bite Size Travel: Tatacoa desert, Colombia


03 Dec 2015

Going off the beaten track and discovering Colombia’s spectacular Tatacoa Desert


Why should you go:

First of all you will need to bring a sense of adventure for this destination. Second, this place isn’t technically a desert, but officially a “tropical dry forest”. The Tatacoa desert lies 38 km north of the Huila department’s capital of Neiva, Colombia. The nearest village to the Tatacoa desert, called Villavieja, is another 6.5 kms from the spectacular desert setting. It’s remote, so there’s no shops, bars or ATM’s nor a lot of accommodation options and the ones available in the desert (or Villavieja) are basic. Many offer camping options and hammocks to sleep in, as stargazing is the other main reason people come here. A handful of places also offer basic cabins with bathrooms and comfortable enough beds to get you through a night or two. This is not a luxury destination!

The ochre desert of El Cusco

Tatacoa desert, Colombia

Eroded soil create this spectacular

Tatacoa desert, Colombia

The grey desert with natural spring pool

Tatacoa desert, Colombia

La Tranquilidad is one of such places. The owners are a wonderful and friendly couple that cook very tasty dinners and help you organise a guide to take you on a tour of the desert. It helps if you speak Spanish as the english speaking guides here are limited.  Most of the time you’ll just end up on the back of a mototaxi (3 seaters) which will take you to the main points of interest in the  desert and let you walk around. The information you’ll generally get will be quite basic.

But it’s the scenery that you’re here for, right?

Spectacular towering rock formations spread around the arid 330 square kilometre radius around the village of Villavieja, interspersed with giant cacti and small trees that actually manage to grow foliage. The soil here is rich in fossils too, and for the palaeontologists amongst us findings can be viewed in the Paleontological Museum of Villavieja. 

La Tranquilidad – simple with friendly service

Tatacoa desert, Colombia

The desert, said to be a former area of lakes and forests that has dried out over centuries, comes in 2 distinct colours – the grey part around Los Hoyos and the orange/red or ochre part around El Cusco. Make sure you get to see both parts. It’s worth trying to go either really early in the morning or late in the afternoon for two reasons: it’s hottest at midday and can be quite unbearable. The other is that the light will change the scenery into something otherworldly and quite spectacular.  Arguably the most spectacular part of the desert is the at Mirador El Cusco which is part of the ochre coloured desert, right near the main entrance when arriving from Villavieja, near the Observatory. It’s easy enough to walk in to the formations from there and spend time just walking around this unique and moonlike scenery.

If you’re a stargazer, spend a night at the Observatory and listen to one of  stellar enthusiast Javier Fernando Rua’s nightly talks starting at 6.30pm. Being so close to the equator, the Tatacoa gives you a unique view of both the northern and southern hemisphere sky. As the location is so remote it also very nearly has 0% light pollution meaning the stars sparkle very brightly.

Tatacoa desert, Colombia

Best for:

Unique arid landscapes. Stargazing. A little adventure. Stunning photography. Practising your Spanish.

Best to get to:

This is a little tricky. Neiva, which is 38kms away from the Tatacoa desert, is the nearest place with an airport.  Internal flights with Avianca, LAN Colombia and EasyFly go to Bogota, from which there are International connections.

Buses also run from Bogota to Neiva in about 5 hours.

From Neiva, head to the Bus terminal. Ask for the colectivo (minibus) to Villavieja. They depart once the buses are filled which is fairly regularly. If you ask the drivers nicely they often take you all the way into the desert, otherwise you will be dropped at Villavieja. Both Vilavieja and the desert have accommodation options and often the colectivo drivers will suggest an option in either, depending on where you prefer to stay. It’s worthwhile asking for their numbers and arranging a return pick up date and time for your return. They are happy to oblige as the price is relatively steep, but there’s a little room to negotiate if you’re extra sweet.

Tatacoa desert, Colombia
Tatacoa desert, Colombia
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  • Thanks, Serena! I’m not sure how many UFO’s they see here (I should have asked!!), but it’s a top spot for stargazing. It’s not super touristy just yet, but then ten or so places that now exist actually inside the desert (locals live in Villanueva about 7 km away) are there to provide accommodation. That means mainly a hammock under a roof, so it’s by no means mass tourism. You’ll still feel pretty much like you’re by yourself when you wander into the desert. It’s also a bit challenging to get to, so definitely still off the beaten track!

  • Oooh we spent 3 months in Colombia and we never went here, it looks amazing!

    I imagine this would be a great spot for seeing UFO’s 😉 is there a touristy culture or is it very stark in that regard, I love those places where you feel that you are seeing something that very few see 🙂 Great photos Sandra!

  • Colombia is a wonderful country! You should definitely visit it one day! 🙂

  • This looks like an amazing place! Beautiful scenery. Thanks for all the tips. Hopefully one day I will be able to use them:)