Located in the Huila department, halfway between the cities of Bogota and San Agustin, the Tatacoa semi-arid desert impresses with its surreal giant termite mounds look-a-like landscapes dugged in red and gray clay. The rain of the winter months deeply erodes the rock until forming labyrinthine canyons, up to 66 feet deep. Temperatures can reach 122° F during exceptional heat waves. Although, it is often hot, not to say very hot, the dryness of the air makes the heat quite bearable. Nevertheless, do not forget to hydrate yourself frequently.

In the mazes of these labyrinths, red here or gray over there, reigns a tranquility that even the wind does not disturb. This peaceful haven is one of the most surprising settings in the country and getting lost in it is litteraly a pleasure.

But this incredible place is relatively far away from the classic circuit followed by most tourists. But if you manage to get there, as it demand some patience, you’ll definitively get this incredible feeling of being alone in the world.

HOW TO GET THERE ?

You’ll have to reach the city of Neiva; which is 38 km South from the desert.

There are several options to get there:

From Bogota.
Buses leave the terminal everyday (mostly early in the morning, around noon and then late in the afternoon) for Neiva.
It takes approximately five hours and costs 38,000 COPs.
When arrived at Neiva, a Cootranshuila minibus will take you (when full), according to your preference, to Villavieja (1h drive, 7,000 COP), the last city at the entrance of the desert or directly to the desert of Tatacoa (1h15 drive, 15,000 COP).

From Cali
Various companies serve Neiva from Cali.

  • Boliviarano leaves the terminal every evening at 20:30. Journey costs at least 50 000 COP for a 10 hours long ride.
  • From Neiva, a Cootranshuila minibus will take you (when full), according to your preference, to Villavieja (1h drive, 7,000 COP), the last city at the entrance of the desert or directly to the desert of Tatacoa (1h15 drive, 15,000 COP).

From Popayán
If you arrive from Ecuador, you should stop at Popayán, the beautiful “White City ». From the bus terminal, take one of the minibuses to San-Agustín which is also worth a stop. It’s a 5 hours drive, 30,000 COP.

From San Agustín
You can either take a minibus directly to Neiva (5 hours drive, 30,000 COP) or first take a shared taxi called “collectivo” (frequent departures) to Pitalito (1 hour drive, 5000 COP), and from there take a minibus to Neiva (4h drive, 20,000 COP).

From Neiva, a Cootranshuila minibus will take you (when full), according to your preference, to Villavieja (1h drive, 7,000 COP), the last city at the entrance of the desert or directly to the desert of Tatacoa (1h15 drive, 15,000 COP).

Where to stay?

VILLAVIEJA

This small village stretches along the edge of the desert, where one can already escape from time. It offers several housing possibilities. Particularly peaceful during the week, the villaviejos invade the bars and their terraces as soon as the weekend starts, piling up the beer bottles to the rhythm of the unshackled broadcasted South American music.

Dunas Tatacoa
This flamboyant place is located a little ahead of the city. It provides accomodation in tents that comes with futons (simple 9 €, double 18 €) or camp beds (single 12 €, double 24 €), which come with fan, towels and beach towels. The latter will be welcomed to enjoy the the small swimming pool during the day’s hottest hours.
A charming room with two kind size beds can also be booked.
In addition, Guillermo and Yadira will probably offer to pick you up at Neiva.

Hotel Villa Paraiso
With its large patio and the enjoyable turquoise pool, this spacious colonial-style house is an excellent stopover or a nice backyard just on the edge of the desert.
The price for a one person room with fan is 60,000 COP, 70,000 COP with AC. You can also raise your tent in the courtyard for 30,000 COP.

TATACOA DESERT

Noche of Saturno
Located in front of the « red » desert, this family hostel — probably the best of the hamlet, offers different accommodation options. You can pitch your tent or rent one of theirs. There is only one truly individual room (20,000 COP/6 €) but the double rooms can be occupied as solo for 40,000 COP (11,5 €), when 60,000 COP (17 €) will be asked to a couple.

The hostel has a restaurant where you can have breakfast (6,000 COP), lunch (10,000 COP), dinner (10,000 COP) — vegetarian options are available — and a very small shop where you will find snacks and beers (3000 COP). The only drawback would be the screen cage surrounding the swimming pool, which is kind of ruining the view.

Guided tours of the red and gray deserts are organized from the property.

All buses and « Tuk Tuk” coming or going to Villavieja stop at the hostel. And the managers can even organise your return to Villavieja or Neiva.

WHAT TO DO?

RED DESERT « CUSCO »


Difficulty: easy
Distance: 1.33 mile
Duration: ~ 1h30

With its cliffs and ocher clay formations dugged by the rare showers, the red desert is the not to miss attraction.
A 1,25 mile well-marked path runs through a large part of the site, passing through the area’s main points of interest. The start of the loop trail is right on the left of the grocery store that faces the Estradero Donã Lilia hostel or you can start it from the « tienda » right across the astronomical observatory. However, I advise you to start with the first option and finish with the spectacular view of the area from the Mirador del Cusco.

Expect around 1h30 to go around. Do not hesitate to go off the beaten tack, by following , for example,the grazing goats tracks.

Important:
It is strictly forbidden to climb on the limestone formations. For violation of this rule, you shall be subject to very important fines. These formations are very fragile and would fall apart under your weight.
You are warned.

GRAY DESERT « ESTADERO LOS OYOS »

Difficulty: moderate
Distance: 1.85 mile
Duration: ~ 2h00

Perhaps a little less impressive because of its less vivid colors, the ash gray color desert is no less surprising. Covering a larger area than its red neighbor, it houses a pool (3000 COP) whose turquoise water gushes in the desert.

To get there, in addition to pick-up truck tours or motorcycle taxi (COP 50,000 to 60,000 for 2-3 persons round trip) which are usually nothing more than a transport service where you will be dropped off at the gray desert entrance and then  pick you up a few hours later, several extra options are available to you.

The most economical is of course walking. Allow about two to three hours for each trip. However, it is usually possible to return with a motor vehicle.
The most popular is the bike. It will cost around 15,000 COP for a rental day.
The most original will probably be to go there by horse (40.000 COP for 4h ride).

Expect around 2h to visit the grey desert. It is slightly harder than the red one.

STARGAZING

Tatacoa is actually not a desert in the strictest sense. Surrounded by mountains, the 205-square-mile semi-arid area is inhabited by a tropical dry forest which mainly consists of cacti, umbrella pines and bushes. It only harvests an average of 1.078 mm of rainfall per year. But phenomena such as El Niño increase the rainfall of the region.

Due to its favorable weather conditions, the Tatacoa Desert is a very good place to observe the night sky. There are two astronomical observatories where, every evening at 7PM, visitors can enjoy (15,000 COP) a beautiful introduction to the main celestial objects. Then and through the telescopes eyepiece, you may have the chance to admire the beautiful rings of Saturn, our natural satellite stunning seas and craters or even the sumptuous stars cluster such as the Pléiades.

However, note that El Niño and its clouds can severely hinder the observation of the sky. On the other hand, do not expect either a sky free of light pollution, the desert is being surrounded by Bogota (north), Neiva (south) and Cali (west) whose lights are frankly visible even unpleasant.
That being said, the telescope observations are no less breathtaking.

TASTE THE LOCAL CUISINE


The region’s typical dish is goat meat as the goat milk, the latter will be served to you directly out of the goat’s udder. Several establishments will offer you various local culinary specialties based on these.
The restaurant El Rincon del Cabrito, located at the hamlet’s edge, towards the gray desert, is probably one of the best addresses.