Desierto de la Tatacoa should definitely be on your bucket list for Colombia. I was blown away by how striking the landscape here was. It is so unusual, like no where I’ve ever visited before and felt like a real adventure. It is now firmly ranked in my mind as one of my favourite destinations in Colombia.
But it’s technically not a desert. Whhaaattt? I hear you cry. *Begins Kyle’s Geography class*: picture in your mind a circle, or perhaps horseshoe shaped mountains covered in tropical forest. They are very lush green and have a lot of rainfall. Got it?
Then imagine that these mountains capture a vast majority of the clouds that pass over them, leaving the area in the middle incredibly thirsty. In the middle of the horseshoe sits Tatacoa Desert/Desierto de La Tatacoa. As you’re driving into the centre of the horseshoe, the lush green slowly transitions to dry terracotta-red sand formations with masses of cactus and the odd tree.
(the transition from forest to desert)
This “Desert” is split into two zones if you will, the Red Desert (think Mars) and the Grey Desert (think Moon). Whilst the Red “Desert” is closer to being some form of desert, neither technically are, and the Grey Desert is affirmatively defined as being a “Dry Tropical Forest”. Whatever that means. All I know is that being there really caught my attention and it’s worth the trek.
NOTE: take lots of cash, there are NO ATMs/Card Machines beyond Neiva.
There are three main legs to your journey:
1) Get Yourself to Neiva (BUS: approx. 50,000p for a 10 hour journey)
From whichever direction you’re coming you’ll need to first of all get to Neiva. I was travelling from Manizales and this was a 10 hour journey in total. Many long distant destinations will have night buses, but I personally hate them due to lack of legroom and also the views you’ll see from the bus during the day are stunning!
I’d suggest breaking the journey down yourself if there are no direct daytime buses. For example from Manizales I got a bus to Armenia, then changed to Neiva.
Going North to South it’s frustrating because you’ll drive an hour past Villavieja to get to Neiva and then go back on yourself, but there’s a big river in between the desert and the main road. If anybody figures out if it’s possible to go via anywhere else, please update me in the comments.
2) Neiva to Villavieja (COLLECTIVO: 7000p)
NOTE: Collectivos run from 6am to 7pm each day. Arrive in Neiva after 7pm and you’ll have to stay in a hotel for the night or pay for a private taxi (80,000p).
From Neiva bus terminal it’s about 1 hour to Villavieja by Jeep/Minibus collectivo; leaving from the far left corner of the terminal. They leave around every hour, though will tend to leave when full.
There are accommodation options here in Villavieja, so you could complete your journey here. But I don’t see why you would, this small town has little to offer and so you’re just inconveniencing yourself by being further out of the desert. So…. continue to point 3 por favor 😉
3) Villavieja to Desierto de La Tatacoa (the Desert) (COLLECTIVO/TUKTUK: 7000 – 15000p)
On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays the collectivos from Neiva will continue into the desert and drop you off at your hostel (if there is enough people wanting to go into the desert). This is an additional 7,000 p.
On other days you will be booted out at the main square. From there, run TukTuks into the desert. It’s 15000p for up to three people for one TukTuk and takes around 20 minutes.
(TukTuk your way around the desert)
WHERE TO STAY:
(Noche de Saturno is the way to go!)
I mentioned just before that you CAN stay in Villavieja. But really don’t bother! In the actual desert, around the mirador and observatory (and further in) there are plenty of options – mostly old Fincas that have now changed purpose to hostels.
From here it’s possible to walk (definitely to the Red Desert, possibly to the Grey Desert). And you get to sleep in a desert!
The options in the desert don’t show up on Booking.com or Hostelworld etc. You can find them on Facebook and message them for availability.
Or if you trust my word completely, then stay at Noche de Saturno Hostel:
Private Room: 40,000 p
Availability via Whatsapp (in Spanish): +57 313 305 5898
The owners are extremely friendly. The food is basic, but good, and they are well known within the desert, so TukTuks regularly drop by offering rides. The family themselves also offer tours and great honest advice. They also have a pool!!
WHAT TO DO:
It is possible to pay for a guided tour through your hostel or TukTuk driver (Contact Yeison: +57 314 2523573)
I’m not entirely sure the tours are worth it, because it’s also possible to explore alone quite easily due to good signage and availability of TukTuks, but each to their own. Here’s my top activities:
(check out my Instagram @life.by.kyle for more photos)
Walking along the main road, no further than 200 metres from the observatory/mirador, you only need to ask around a bit or keep your eyes peeled to find the point where you drop down into the Red Desert to start the circular tour (approx. 2 hours walking).
(look out for this sign for the starting point of Red Desert trail)
There are yellow painted posts to follow and it takes you through the various different terrains of this part of Tatacoa and finishes at the Mirador (opposite the observatory). Along the route are maps with “Usted esta aqui” (you are here). Easy to do without a guide.
(“The Ghosts” – look for the smiley face, more photos here @life.by.kyle)
As with the red desert, there is a map at the starting point, but this starting point is much further from the main area of hostels in Tatacoa. I did see people walking it, but most take a TukTuk; for 15,000p per person, the driver will wait for you to trek/swim and take you back.
If you do decide to walk, it’ll be clear when you arrive due to the map on a sign and loads of TukTuks.
In the grey desert, be sure to seek out the “Ghosts” and make sure wear your swimsuit, because there is a lovely& supposedly “natural” (but smells of chlorine) swimming pool in which you can take a dip for 8000p.
(8000p = £2, not a bad price to swim on the moon)
Unfortunately I was there on a full moon, meaning a trip to the observatory was unfruitful due to the brightness of the moon. But it’s worth a visit for only 10,000p. At 7pm every night starts a talk (in Spanish); it’s very educational.
Walk Behind the Observatory:
If you stand facing the observatory from the road, the general area behind and to the right is a nice zone to explore alone. Go around 4.30pm to see animals scurrying around. It’s an unusual area with elements of “Mr Red” and “Mr Grey” desert merged into one. Be sure to keep climbing up high to make sure you know where you are, or you could easily become lost due to the lack of signage in this area.
One of the days I was there, the desert was hit with a huge tropical monsoon style storm. So it was a complete write off in terms of going trekking. So we headed into Villavieja by TukTuk for the day (15,000p each way). There is a really shit Fossil “Museum”, 2500p entry, 2 rooms, with fossils glued back together with what looked like pritt-stick, and this here hungry crocodile:
(in all honesty, the museum does give a bit of explanation about how the desert was once a rainforest with dinosaurs and mammoths)
But the coolest part of the day was sitting with locals in a Cerveceria enjoying very cheap beers. Food is cheaper in the town than in the desert too.
So, that’s Tatacoa, not really in a nutshell per say, more of a blabby ramble in true Kyle-Style. But I am confident you have all the information you need to really enjoy this truly spectacular example of Colombia’s natural beauty.
***Remember: TAKE CASH (AND SUNSCREEN)***
(Bonus Pic: Cactus Kyle)