Colombia is bursting with special places and especially with variety in nature and landscapes. It’s not without a reason one of the countries with the greatest biodiversity in the world. In Huila, south of Bogotá, you will find one of those distinct landscapes, namely the Desierto de la Tatacoa. Or in other words, the Tatacoa Desert. In this article, a complete overview for visiting this popular Colombia highlight. Includes our not-so-nice experience, best travel month and much more. Today is red: meet the Tatacoa Desert!
The Tatacoa Desert: a festival of colors
In the north of the department of Huila, 38 kilometers above Neiva, is located a red glow called Desierto de la Tatacoa. A desert that, because of annual rainfall averaging 1078 mm, is not actually a real desert. This tropical dry forest, what it actually is, is a beautiful phenomenon. When I stand in front of the red rocks, I also don’t know where to look for a moment. Tall cacti are interspersed with cute little round cacti with pink flowers and red mixes with gray and green. We arrive in the golden hour (before sunset), when the sun illuminates the colors even more beautifully, and together with the green mountains this produces beautiful images.
A flash visit to the Tatacoa Desert: enjoy for a moment
We visited Tatacoa on our way to San Agustín. We arrived in the afternoon and visited a few places on our own, especially in the red area of the desert. You can hike by yourself among the rocks, but mostly I enjoyed enjoying the unusual red rock formations and beautiful cacti. Tatacoa makes quite an impression. Look how beautiful…
What to see and do in the Tatacoa Desert?
Although you won’t need much time there and will probably want to hang out in your hammock or bathe in the pool mostly during the day due to the heat, there is still plenty to do and see.
To see in Tatacoa
There are several areas to visit, but these are the most well-known.
If you drive to Tatacoa from Villavieja you will pass El Cordón first. Here is a beautiful vantage point over the red rocks with the green plains in the background. You can also hike here.
The next stop is in the middle of the desert and the most interesting part, called El Cuzco. This red part of the desert is characterized by tall cacti, red rock formations and hiking trails. The green plains in the background make this a special place.
In addition to the impressive red area, there is also a gray area: Los Hoyos. The easiest way to explore this area is on a jeep tour or with your own car, as it is a bit further away from the red area and in the heat you may not want to walk or bike. We drove through here on an alternate route to Tatacoa.
Things to do in Tatacoa
Bikes Rent bikes and explore the Tatacoa Desert the Dutch way. It is advisable to do this in the early morning or from about 4 in the afternoon to avoid the worst of the heat.
Hiking There are several trails you can walk with a guide or go out on your own. It is quite unclear where you can and cannot go and what routes there are.
Jeep tour Visiting the gray area Los Hoyos can be done by bicycle, but more popular is to do so on a jeep tour.
Horseback riding Yes, you can also ride horses in Tatacoa. Whether that option is always there I don’t know, but in the high season there are horses you can rent to explore the area.
Swimming Swimming is a popular activity in the Tatacoa Desert, and with the heat, that’s not surprising. In the gray area of Los Hoyos you will find a pool among the gray rocks where you can cool off.
Stargazing Another popular activity in Tatacoa is stargazing. At El Cuzco there is an astronomy observation center where you can watch stars every night including explanations. This goes on only if it is not cloudy and starts at 7 PM to 8:45 PM in both high and low season. In high season, there are two more opportunities, at 9 PM and at 11 PM; with a minimum of 15 people. In high season you will pay 10,000 pesos per person for this activity, in low season this price may be lower. When we were there it was cloudy, and so the star party did not take place.
Museo Paleontológico (Paleontology Museum) in Villavieja In the village of Villavieja, which you will pass through or perhaps stay overnight, you will find a small museum where they have displayed nearly 700 original pieces, such as fossils, found in the Tatacoa Desert. Here you will learn about the interesting ecosystem of this unusual desert and its history.
A true paradise, or is it?
After the many stories and beautiful photos of total emptiness, I did not have an immediate wow feeling at Tatacoa. This place is absolutely beautiful and I enjoyed the impressive scenery, but when you’re standing there with hundreds of other tourists, almost unable to walk because there are only cars parked on the road and literally seeing people throwing trash into nature while the goats then eat it, it kind of ruins the experience. There are no set routes laid out so everyone just does whatever they want, sufficient parking is also not available and due to the large crowds there seemed to be no way to arrange a hike or anything. My number one tip if you are going to visit the Tatacoa Desert and want to have a fantastic experience: come off-season, including Semana Santa and puentes.
How do you get to the Tatacoa Desert?
The most common and easy route is via Neiva. So wherever you are in the country: first you go to Neiva. From Bogotá it is about 5 to 7 hours by bus (depending on traffic), but you can also get there from San Agustín and by plane. From Neiva, minibuses go to Villavieja and Tatacoa. You can often arrange transportation through your ho(s)tel as well.
But there is another route: off the beaten path and quite adventurous. We took this route with our own car and this was truly beautiful. Read all about this route to Tatacoa here.
From the Tatacoa Desert to Salento
It’s a long drive from Tatacoa to Salento and an extra one-day stopover wouldn’t hurt. The perfect stopover between Tatacoa and Salento is Piscilago between the towns of Melgar and Girardot. Here you will find the largest water park with a zoo in Colombia. An unusual combination, where you walk among the lions in bikini before going down the slide. If you like adrenaline, heat and swimming, this is the perfect place for you. Great for kids, too. Stay 2 nights in Melgar or Girardot or take the night bus to Armenia from Girardot after Piscilago.
How much time do you need?
If you want to see as much as possible, it is best to book at least 1 overnight stay so that you can go out in the afternoon and early morning to explore the desert. We ourselves were only there for a few hours and even that gives a good picture and even in that time you can already do a lot of things. So if you don’t have too much time, that’s enough.
Where to stay
There are several lodging options if you want to visit Tatacoa. We were in high season and both in Tatacoa and Villavieja there were no more hotels available and we had to divert to Neiva.
- You can stay overnight in Tatacoa itself, in a hammock or a tent, for example, but there are also dorm rooms or private rooms. In high season, it is wise to arrange this accommodation in advance.
- The village of Villavieja, the gateway to Tatacoa, has a somewhat wider range of hotels and hostels. Click herefor an overview.
- You can also stay in the larger city of Neiva. This is probably the least fun option, but can be useful if you are passing through and have little time. Click herefor hotels.
Tatacoa is hot: daytime temperatures can rise to nearly 50 degrees. But no worries, there are in fact less warm moments as well. Thus, during the night it can cool down to 18 degrees and it’s also very tolerable in the afternoon. It may be better not to go into the desert in the middle of the day. It can also rain quite a bit in Tatacoa and be cloudy. We, too, had rain during our visit, but fortunately it did not come pouring down.
The best travel time for the Tatacoa Desert
This is very simple: anywhere out of high season. During Colombian vacations and puentes, it is pure horror: hundreds of Colombian tourists all enter the desert by car. Be wise and come outside these times. For the dates of vacations, puentes and Semana Santa, see this article.
What do you bring?
So although Tatacoa is not a true desert, it is quite warm and the sun is bright. You can also expect mosquitoes and, if it rains, lots of mud. So be sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen and Deet, and a cap and hiking boots are also handy. And don’t forget your camera: Tatacoa is pretty photogenic.
The Tatacoa Desert in Colombia: a magical interplay of red rocks, gray moonscape, green plains, sun and stars. And then there is the alternate route to it, which was at least as beautiful. Curious? Follow me on Facebook or via email and don’t miss a thing!
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