Explore the Tatacoa desert in Colombia: El Desierto de la Tatacoa!

by Deborah Durrfeld
Tatcoa desert in Colombia

Did you know Colombia has a desert? It is officially a large tropical dry forest, because of the annual rainfall. However, it is called the Tatacoa desert in Colombia: El desierto de la Tatacoa. What to do in Tatacoa desert? The area consists of two parts: a beautiful red rocky area and a bizarre grey part. You can make lovely walks and enjoy beautiful starry skies. In this article I’m telling you everything you need to know about a visit to the desierto Tatacoa.

The Tatacoa desert in Colombia

The Tatacoa desert in Colombia, is located near Neiva, the capital of the province of Huila. Also the province where the most important river of Colombia starts, “the Rio Magdalena”. Because of the annual rainfall (1070 mm per year), it is officially a large tropical dry forest but it is still called a desert. It has at least one important element in common with a real desert: During the day, the temperature can reach up to 48 degrees Celscius. 

The Tatatoa desert covers an area of 300 km2 and is situated on fertile grounds, surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Central mountain range. Millions of years ago, the area was probably the bottom of a large inland sea.  Because of erosion, the supply of stones and clay by rivers, sun, wind and rain, over millions of years, a bizarre landscape started to develop.

What to do in Tatacoa desert in Colombia?

El Cuzco – the red desert | Desierto Tatacoa

El Cuzco, the red desert, is the most spectacular part. The red color appears because of the large amounts of iron and manganese in the ground.  Its colors, shapes, and cacti create a beautiful and surrealistic image. The best way to discover the area is by making a walk in the morning, together with a guide. During sunset it’s best to look for a spot at the edge of El Cuzco. You have a perfect view over the desert and the colors and glow are unforgettable.

Los Hoyos – the grey desert | Visit Tatacoa desert

“Los Hoyos” is completely grey because of the amounts of phosphate and sulfur in the ground. Rocks are made up of different layers and colors of gray. The fossils in the rocks, proof its million-years old history. Also in this area it’s worth to go for a walk. As this area is more humid, some parts of the land can be flooded after heavy rainfall. It’s important to put on some good hiking shoes.

Stargazing | Visit Tatacoa desert

The area is famous for its beautiful, starry sky. It’s therefore recommended to spend the night in one of the posadas in the desert. On clear nights, it gives you the possibility to go for a short walk or gaze at the sky from your terrace. You can also get a closer look in one of the observatories. Because you’re in a remote location close to the equator, and under a clear sky, you’ll often have a view of both the northern and southern hemispheres. Although the observatories only offer information in Spanish, it’s still quite easy to follow.

Hiking in the Tatacoa desert | Desierto Tatacoa

Because of the heat it is best to take an early morning walk through the Tatacoa desert here in Colombia. Booking a tour guide is required, but that’s a good thing, trust me. If you look out over the desert from above, it may look like an easy trail, but once you’re down there, you’ll have no idea where you are going. You don’t want to get lost here, plus it’s quite nice to learn more about your surroundings.

What to bring for a hike?

  • water
  • sun-screen
  • mosquito repellent
  • sun glasses and a hat (something to protect your head from the sun)
  • good walking shoes

How to get there?

Neiva is the capital of the department of Huila. Many Colombian cities offer flights to Neiva and a number of buses will drive you to this city. In Neiva you can switch onto a collectivo ( a small buss) to Villavieja, the last village before you head into the desert. In Villavieja you can hop on a minibus or tuk-tuk to reach your accommodation in the desert.

Where to spend the night? | Visit Tatacoa desert

You can spend the night in Villaviaja but spending the night in the desert is more adventurous. Keep in mind, however, that they are not used to many tourists visiting this location yet.  Expect basic accommodation, such as a small, family-run lodge with only a few rooms or hammocks available. It’s very affordable and for a small additional fee, a local meal will be prepared for you. Hot showers aren’t available, but given the high temperatures during the day, you’ll appreciate the refreshing water. Hostal Noches de Saturno and Estadero Sol de Verano Dona Lilia are centrally located on the outskirts of El Cuzco, so you can easily take a walk in the morning or late afternoon to watch the sunrise or sunset.

Guides | Desierto Tatacoa

In Villavieja, you can book a number of guided tours, but I would recommend booking a private tour with a local tour guide at your accommodation, which allows you to put together your ideal tour through the Tatacoa desert.

Intererested in reading more about Colombia? This is an article with the most beautiful places to visit in Colombia, including the best time to visit. Or check out the Colombia blog page with city guides and things to do in Bogotá, Medellín and Santa Marta. Tips for lovely towns such as Salento, Mompox and Villa de Leyva and Valle de Cocora, where you’ll find the highest palms in the world. Interested in archaeology? Read more about the mysterious San Agustín statues.


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