During our road trip to the Tatacoa Desert and San Agustín in the Colombian department of Huila, we had actually planned to just drive to the desert via the usual route via Neiva. But along the way we stumbled upon an alternative route to Tatacoa. We asked some locals about it and were told that the road can be tricky due to flooded tunnels. Curious and stubborn as we are, we decided to take a chance and turned left where everyone else goes straight ahead. Another totally unknown route through the bush that we’re not sure we’ll get through with our car: that will be exciting. And yes, once again we have a fantastic adventure off the beaten path in Colombia. Will we manage to arrive in Tatacoa without damage? And is this route worthwhile? Join us on an adventure and discover an impressive part of Huila!
Offroad to Tatacoa: full of amazement
With some tension in our bodies, we begin the trail on a sandy path full of potholes and bumps. Immediately as we drive up the road, amazingly beautiful scenery comes our way. The beautiful highway on which we drove for hours was suddenly exchanged for an environment where time has stood still. We pass some small villages where people live very basic lives and where we even see signs saying “hospedaje“: that is, you can spend the night at someone’s house. Outside the villages, high mountains, sandy plains and green meadows alternate. And yes: this is impressively beautiful. For the thousandth time in the past year, we are overjoyed with our car that drives with ease on the bad roads, allowing us to discover places like this. Until the first tunnel comes into view and the tension rises.
Dark flooded tunnels and rickety bridges
‘The dark tunnels are full of water and you may not get through,’ we were told. Funnily enough, in both tunnels a simple little wagon drives in front of us. Okay then we should be able to do it too. However, the locals had said nothing too much: the small cars only just make it through the tunnel, and with a little more rain beforehand, they certainly couldn’t have entered the tunnel. We also see two cars with breakdowns: not surprising. The tunnels are quite exciting as the road is unpaved and full of potholes, but because of the water in the tunnels you can’t see any of that so you have no idea where you are actually driving. Fortunately, the tunnels are not that long and carefully we drive through the water while bumping to the other side.
A few times there is no tunnel but we have to cross the river over the road that is almost leveled with the water. Fine to do now, but if it has rained a lot I can imagine that these sections are also difficult to walk on.
And then there is the bridge over the Río Magdalena. Consisting of metal plates creaking everywhere, only one direction and below us the churning waters of the largest river in the country. I already have a fear of heights and bridges like this give me the creeps anyway. So I held my breath for a moment until we were safely back on the mainland.
At the end of the tunnels, bridges and river crossings, another beautiful landscape awaits us: the gray area of Tatacoa comes into view!
The gray area of the Tatacoa Desert: driving through impressive landscapes
After a while, the landscape changes to something akin to Iceland. Grassland turns into a kind of moonscape with gray rocks and green cacti contrasting with high mountains in the distance. We have arrived in the gray area of the Tatacoa Desert. We pull the car over and enjoy a landscape we never saw before in Colombia. The sun is already quite low and if we still want to see the red area of Tatacoa we have to drive further. No punishment, as the rest of the ride we enjoy this special area that we would have missed if we had traveled via Neiva. Grateful for this gift after this spirited ride, we drive on to our final destination on a road we have almost all to ourselves. Off the beaten path in Colombia: what an insanely beautiful adventure!
How you too can drive this toad trip to Tatacoa + advice
This alternative route to the Tatacoa Desert can only be done by private car or car with private driver. By motorcycle or mountain bike is also possible, but only for the truly adventurous. Although we saw a few small, lower cars, this is not recommended. The chance of damage is bigger, it takes longer, and at least at times when there is more rain, the tunnels can become impassable. Even by motorcycle or mountain bike it is then an additional challenge. Be informed in advance and ask about the climate over the past few days so you can assess whether the road is passable. Especially in the low season, you are less likely to encounter people outside the mini-villages, so make sure you carry an emergency kit in case of a flat tire.
Is this route to Tatacoa worthwhile?
Yes! When we arrived in the desert, there were so many tourists that we immediately said to each other that we actually liked the route there much better. I found the red area of the Tatacoa Desert very impressive, but this route certainly isn’t less beautiful. Of course, you can also explore the gray area with a jeep tour from the center of Tatacoa or Villavieja, then of course you will miss the rest of the route but at least you will see the gray area. But are you traveling (partially) by car through Colombia and would like to go off the beaten path? Then this is a perfect route for you!
The adventurous route to the Tatacoa Desert on the map
Below on the map you can see the route. On Google Maps, not all roads are indicated: in the gray area, at some point you come to a point where you can turn left towards the red area of the Tatacoa desert (this is also the route to the pool) and straight ahead to the village of Villavieja. If you go via Villavieja to Tatacoa the route is 41 kilometers, directly to Tatacoa is slightly shorter. As Google Maps indicates, it also took us about 1 hour and 45 minutes. The yellow road on the map is the normal route over the toll road to Neiva.
Another alternative route to Tatacoa: by canoe via Aipe
In addition to this route, there is another route to Villavieja; hearty fun for the adventurous backpacker. Namely, through the village of Aipe. Aipe is about 40 kilometers before Neiva and thus closer to Bogotá. The village is close to Villavieja, only the wide river Río Magdalena is in between. There is no bridge, but there is a large canoe that takes you from one village to another. From Aipe, you must first walk 15 minutes on a muddy path to the river, or take a cab. Ask locals for exact directions. On the way back from Villavieja to Aipe you can do the same thing, arrange a cab in Aipe and get dropped off at the main road. There you can catch a bus toward Bogotá or Neiva for your next destination. Source and source.
On an adventure off the beaten path in Colombia: discover the most beautiful places! Read all about the Tatacoa Desert here.