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One of the best destinations in Colombia is the Tatacoa desert, where you can enjoy hiking, nature and photography. In this travel guide I tell you everything you need to know to plan your next visit to the Tatacoa desert, including how to get there, where to sleep, to what to do in the desert.
An interesting fact about the Tatacoa desert is that it is technically not a desert, rather a tropical dry forest that is located in a highly eroded area, being the second largest arid zone in Colombia. If you love astrology, this is the perfect destination for all those who seek astrotourism and ecotourism, since the Tatacoa Desert has various trails and beautiful night skies, thanks to its weather conditions and the absence of air pollution.
↠ Fun fact: The desert is named Tatacoa in honor of a rattlesnake that is said to survive in all types of terrain.
What is the weather like in the Tatacoa Desert?
The climate in the desert is hot with average temperatures of 73°F – 102°F. In the desert there is very little rainfall. At night the temperature can drop to 55°F and during sunny days it can be very hot.
Where is the Tatacoa Desert located?
The Tatacoa desert is the northern section of the Huila department in Colombia. It is less than 15 minutes from Villavieja and just 2 hours from the city of Neiva.
The Tatacoa Desert is located between two mountain ranges, where the peaks of the Nevado de Huila meet, which absorb all the humidity of the region and give rise to an area so dry and without vegetation. It is also located near the Magdalena River.
How to get to the Tatacoa Desert?
You can get to the desert by bus or plane to the city of Neiva, from there you can take a bus or taxi to Villavieja, and then take a tuktuk to the entrance to the desert. If you want to travel by bus from Bogotá to Neiva, the journey takes approximately 6 hours and costs $60,000 COP. While from Medellín it takes approximately 12 hours and costs $110,000 COP. From Cali the approximate time is 10 hours and it costs $95,000 COP.
How many days are recommended to stay in the Tatacoa desert?
While you can spend just one day exploring the Tatacoa desert, it is ideal is to stay at least one night and two days in the Tatacoa desert, to be able to observe the stars.
How to get to the Tatacoa desert from Neiva?
From Neiva you have several options to get to the Tatacoa desert:
- Travel by bus to the municipality of Villavieja: From there you can get several tour guides who can give you a tour of the desert.
- A private tour that takes you from Neiva.
- Rent a car and drive yourself.
How to get to the Tatacoa desert from Bogotá?
If you travel by car from Bogotá, you must leave the city via the South Highway, continue along the Girardot – Neiva road and continue to the municipality of Villavieja.
Keep in mind that this is quite a long drive from Bogotá to the Tatacoa Desert, with a driving time of approximately 7 hours. You would want to spend at least one night in the region to warrant the long drive.
What is the best time to go to the Tatacoa Desert?
The best months to visit the Tatacoa Desert are June, July and August which are the driest months and where the sky is clearest for stargazing, as well as the months of October, November and December.
What to pack for the Tatacoa desert?
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Long-sleeved shirt
- Long pants
- Hat or cap
- Lots of water and snacks
Where to sleep in the desert of La Tatacoa?
- Los Caminantes
- Hotel Sueño Real
- Hotel Colonial Villavieja
- Payandé, Diomatal Ecoresort
- Finca San José
- Mana Star Lougue Hotel
- Hotel Infinito La Casona
- Hotel Villa Paraíso.
- La Casa del Ángel
- Hotel Colonial Villavieja
Tatacoa Desert Itinerary:
The Tatacoa desert has several trails to explore, but it is important that you do it with a guide, since this area is large and you can get easily get lost. The truth is that none of the trails are that long, but you will probably get tired from the heat in the desert. It is important that you carry enough water. I recommend buying a one-liter bottle on each of the trails, it is more expensive (4,000 pesos) than buying water in town but having chilled ice water makes it worth it. Here are all the trails and things to do in the Tatacoa desert:
The Tatacoa desert is divided into two large zones, the Cuzco zone, which is reddish in color, full of cacti, and the Los Hoyos zone, which is gray. The surface of Cuzco is only 7 hectares while Los Hoyos is the largest part of the Tatacoa desert with 5,000 hectares. One of the best things to do in the Tatacoa desert is to visit both places, as the contrast between the two deserts is what makes the Tatacoa desert special.
I recommend doing the tour with Joe, he provides lots of information, charges a fair price and provides a first class service. He took me to all the places and he gave me a preferential price ($150,000 pesos for an 8-hour tour plus time at the observatory). I highly recommend him as he takes incredible photos of you and puts together an itinerary that includes everything. The price does not include the entrance to the pool, the observatory and the valleys of the Xilopalos. His number is +57 310 4030102.
- Cuzco Labyrinth: The Cuzco area has labyrinths and due to its reddish color it is considered one of the best places to take the photographs of Tatacoa. This hike takes about an hour and a half (2 kilometers). The reddish earthy color of the desert is due to the iron that is present in the clay soil, which changes its hue from red to less red due to the rains.
- Los Hoyos: It is the gray part of the Tatacoa desert and where a large number of fossils were found in the 1930s. This part of the desert is located about 8 km from the Cuzco area. Here you will find the valley of ghosts and the desert pool. The pool has water from a natural spring where you can cool off from the desert heat. The area of Los Hoyos is where the largest number of fossils of animals have been found that are now in the Paleontological Museum of Villavieja. The Valley of Ghosts is a part of the trail where you can find various formations that are shaped like ghosts. Unlike Cuzco, this one has a grayish color due to the phosphorus present in the soil. The trail is 2 km long and takes about an hour and a half.
- Viewpoints: La Ventana (Los Hoyos) in this viewpoint you will find the shape of 4 animals: crocodile, turtle, seal and camel. El Cardón (Cuzco) you can see the red desert.
- The Valley of the Xilópalos: Located within the area of Los Hoyos, the Valley of the Xilópalos will give you another perspective of the gray desert part of La Tatacoa. I recommend you go through the La Señorita Strait or the Culebra Pass (shorter walk). It is called the valley of the Xilópalos, since you will find various tree fossils and different types of rocks. This hike is 2 km and has a cost of $2,000 pesos per person.
- Astronomical observatory: Everyone visiting the Tatacoa desert should spend the night to observe the stars, since the desert is one of the best places for astrology in Colombia. At the observatory, an astronomer will teach you more about the galaxy, shooting stars and constellations. With luck you will be able to see several planets, and other celestial bodies that you can observe through telescopes. The cost to enter the Observatory is $10,000 pesos per person, the talk begins at 6:30 pm and ends at approximately 9:00 pm.
- Villavieja Paleontological Museum: The paleontological museum is located in the town of Villavieja and is home to more than 600 pieces of fossils found in the Tatacoa desert, dating back at least 5 million years. It is open from Monday to Sunday from 8am to 12pm and 2pm to 5pm It has a cost of $5,700 pesos for nationals and $7,600 for foreigners.
- Totumo Craft Museum: The Casa del Totumo Craft Museum is located in the town of Villavieja and exhibits a hundred objects made from totumo, a tree that grows to over 4 meters high and is used to make homemade instruments, handicrafts and home furnishings. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9am to 5pm. The Totumo is a tree that produces enormous fruits. The shell has often been used by the natives to make bowls, plates or decorative objects. Admission costs $2,000 pesos.
- Magdalena River Tour: The tour lasts approximately one hour and costs $35,000 pesos per person with a minimum of 2 people per tour. Otherwise it costs $50,000. José gives those tours and his WhatsApp is: +57 313 4903684. On the tour you will see several birds, learn about the Magdalena River and its legends. If you are lucky you will see iguanas, otters and turtles.
- Mano del Gigante Viewpoint: I recommend you visit the Mano del Gigante viewpoint, which is located 90 kilometers from Neiva.
The entrance fee is $3,000 pesos for visitors on guided tours. Before going to the desert I recommend you buy snacks and water in town. Although the truth is that with the heat in the desert, I recommend you buy water right there, although it costs almost twice as much as in Neiva Villavieja ($4,000 pesos for a one-liter bottle). The cold water after walking in the hot desert is worth it in my opinion.
Recommendations to visit the Tatacoa desert
- The entrance to the Tatacoa desert is free, but it is highly recommended to hire a tour guide.
- We recommend you start your tour very early in the morning as the desert can reach 110F.
- Bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
- Do not climb on the mounds, as they are fragile and it will accelerate erosion.
- Don’t throw garbage.
- Don’t stray from the trails.
- Watch out for snakes, they can appear anywhere.
Complete itinerary to visit the Tatacoa desert:
Day 1 in the Tatacoa desert:
Day 2 in the Tatacoa desert:
- Head to the Tatacoa desert with your local guide. Start by visiting the viewpoints and then head to the Valley of the Xilópalos.
- Then visit the area of Cuzco and Los Hoyos.
- Take a boat ride on the Magdalena River.
Day 3 in the Tatacoa desert:
- Go through the Cardón forest
- Visit the Valley of Ghosts
- Visit the Valley of Desires
Where to camp in the Tatacoa Desert?
Being a place where you can see a large number of stars, camping is a great option for astronomy lovers.
There are two main sectors where you can get camping or accommodation:
El Cusco Sector
It is the most popular area and closest to the desert. In this sector, the prices of the camping areas are between 7,000 and 10,000 Colombian pesos (2.5 – 3.5 USD)
» Tatacoa Desert Camping: Juan Manuel Ángel. Number – 3102650558 – 3107912659
» Posada Elvira Clever: Elvira Clever Martínez. Number – 312 559 8576 – 314 318 2229
» Nights of Saturn: Moisés Castañeda. Number – 313 305 5898 – 312 427 0011.
Los Hoyos Sector
This sector is not very popular compared to Cusco, since it is further away from the desert. In this part, the desert leaves its reddish tone to show a combination of more grayish colors, which is still amazing.
You can find a camping with Juan Manuel Ángel, phone number 3115365027